As I’ve been spending some time ranting about having depression and being Jewish, two of the driving identities in my life, it seems only fitting that it’s time for me to start ranting about what is technically my first identity, and the one that has been probably the simplest one for me to come to terms with. And today is the day to do it, as I spent some time fielding questions about my eligibility to vote yesterday. (No, we’re not going to talk about the elections themselves–I’m too upset about the IL governor results.)
Yup, I said it: I’m boricua, Puerto Rican, born and raised–just so you know. I’m not Mexican or Dominican or Spanish (although I have nothing against any of those places or their people), I’m Puerto Rican and there is a difference. The words you choose make a difference–words have power. And I will harp on that distinction just like I do when I label myself Latina and not Hispanic because I value the contributions to my heritage by groups other than white Europeans from Spain.
…yeah, okay, so being Puerto Rican maybe isn’t quite as simple as I made it seem at first. Let’s take a look at what that means (versus what people think it means).
Let’s start with the word boricua itself, because it seems to trip up a lot of people. Boricua is derived from Boriken, sometimes written Borinquen in a more Ibericized rendering. It means “brave and noble Lord,” and has become a point of pride for many Puerto Ricans on the island and abroad who have taken it as the colloquial demonym for the island over the more “correct” puertorriqueño.
Now that we’re clear on the terminology, let’s look at some of the misconceptions I have faced only in the last six months:
1. All Puerto Ricans are dark-skinned. Uh, no, have you met me? Several people in my family can “pass” for white and several absolutely cannot–and yes, I am talking only about the people that are genetically related to me. As a matter of fact, 75.8% of Puerto Ricans on the island described themselves as “white” in the 2010 census. That said, there is certainly diversity on the island, and very few of us are “purely” one thing. We traditionally say that we are of three ethnicities (regardless of our physical appearance): taíno, Spanish, and African–and this is one of the reasons why we celebrate el día de la raza instead of Columbus Day. (This misunderstanding is prevalent about other Latinos as well, as this awesome post chronicles.)
2. Puerto Ricans speak “ghetto Spanish.” First of all, do you know what a ghetto actually is? Please check yourself. That said, I kind of get where this one comes from–after all, I often joke that my first three languages were Spanish, English, and Puerto Rican. But there is nothing shameful about Puerto Rican being a “different” dialect of Spanish; as a matter of fact, any native Spanish speaker can attest to the fact that we all have to switch up our dialect when speaking to someone from a different region, let alone a different country. Puerto Rican Spanish is markedly different from many others simply because, as dialects do, it reflects many of the cultural and linguistic influences that make up Puerto Ricans as a people.
3. All Puerto Ricans are Catholic. Right after colonization, maybe. But while Christianity does remain the majority religion, Protestantism and its many denominations made up the vast majority of the people I knew–not least of all because I grew up in a very Presbyterian family. But I did attend Catholic high school, where I was one of the few Protestants, I had a Muslim classmate whose sisters also attended our tiny school, and I saw a great variety in religious observance among the people who identified as Roman Catholic. There are also approximately 5,000 Muslims on the island, as well as the largest community of Jews in the Caribbean. (I had the amazing opportunity to visit Temple Beth Shalom with my mom last fall, and I’m hoping to get to visit the other denominations as well.)
4. Mexicans and Puerto Ricans hate each other. I had never heard this until I moved to Chicago and I know plenty of people who are both Mexican and Puerto Rican, so I honestly don’t know where this comes from! A quick Google search shows that the question exists between these two Latino groups as well as several others, so I don’t think there’s really anything to it other than Latino groups tend to be insular and prefer to hang out with people from their same heritage, which might be interpreted as prejudice towards other groups. For what it’s worth, when I was growing up the group that I heard jokes about and warnings against were actually Dominicans, which is probably because I lived on the southwest side of the island, where undocumented Dominican immigrants would enter.
5. Puerto Ricans have their own citizenship. This one is a little complicated. Puerto Rican citizenship technically exists as something separate from American citizenship, and there have been citizenship certificates created for everyone born after 2007 either on the island or with at least one Puerto Rican parent–but the truth is that we’re also American citizens. Basically, having Puerto Rican citizenship/nationality (as indicated in our U.S. passports) gives us all the rights of American citizens–while having some specific rights unique to us in places like Spain–where we are labeled as having “Iberoamerican” citizenship that under certain circumstances can make us eligible to request Spanish citizenship. (The most credible source I found is in Spanish, and can be found here.) How did Puerto Ricans end up becoming American citizens, anyway? While the U.S. acquired the island in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, it wasn’t until 1917 that President Wilson signed the Jones-Safroth act to grant United States citizenship to Puerto Ricans–but everyone born on the island after March 2, 1917 has received citizenship and been assigned a Social Security number, ostensibly to help with the war effort by making us eligible for the draft. (Fun fact: the first three digits of your Social Security indicate the location from which the request was filed–Puerto Rican numbers begin with a 58 or a 59.)
6. Puerto Ricans can/can’t vote. I include both because I have heard both extremes (especially yesterday). Unfortunately, the answer to this is a little complicated. Technically, because we are born as United States citizens as I stated above, we are able to vote. However, there is a caveat: island-based Puerto Ricans only vote in the primaries, as the Electoral College does not allow for non-state to partake in the process. So yes, that does mean that the President has the most power over the island and we do not get to elect him or her directly. That said, U.S.-based Puerto Ricans are free to vote in all elections as soon as they have acquired residency in their state–which is as easy as a quick trip to the DMV for those of us living in a state with driver’s license reciprocity. So, since I moved here almost immediately after turning 18, I have never voted in a Puerto Rican election–but I have voted in every U.S. election since 2008.
7. You need a passport to get into Puerto Rico. With its designation as a commonwealth, and the fact that Puerto Ricans have United States citizenship, there is no passport requirement to get on the island. Our passports are U.S. passports just like any other American citizen’s, with USA as the nationality and “Puerto Rico, U.S.A.” as the place of birth. All you need is a valid ID that you can use to have your ticket validated at the airport, and you are off! (You also do not have to go through the regular customs–it’s not international travel. Only exceptions lie with the Department of Agriculture, who are not going to let you bring those fruits/veggies across the water.)
Puerto Ricans are just regular Americans born on a Caribbean island. As you might have noticed through my other answers, the fact is that this is not a simple answer. To be honest, this one is probably not an issue to a lot of other boricuas–but it always rubs me the wrong way. Having spent the first 18 years of my life “there” and now living “here,” I can attest to the fact that we have a very distinct culture despite all the borrowing we have done from “Americans.” (Note the quotations marks around “Americans,” as I am quite irked by this idea that the only Americans are the people in the US–never mind that “America” refers to two continents and several islands rather than only a country.)
TL;DR: Being Puerto Rican means that you are in limbo; it is not a country but also not a state, and thus it a complicated identity to have. We recognize that it’s complicated, and that misconceptions are bound to exist–but please do not use that as an excuse for ignorance. Puerto Ricans deserve better.
He dicho, caso cerrado.