Puertoriqueña y Presente! Puerto Rican and Present!

            I was born and raised in Plainfield, a mid-sized town in central-northern New Jersey.  It was once a getaway destination for rich New Yorkers to enjoy time away from large city life, but around the time I was born, it had become a poor town consisting mostly of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and a fair amount of newly arrived Hispanics from the rest of Latin America.  The building in which my family and I lived in had mostly Puerto Rican tenants who were all somehow connected to one another.  As a child, I grew up loving my culture.  I didn’t really know much about it, but as far as I knew, being Puerto Rican was a wonderful thing.  I always told people I was Puerto Rican for some reason.  I never thought twice about it.  I was obsessed with identities around pre-school and kindergarten age.  I was the kid who would ask another child where they were from and would throw a fit if their answer was “Plainfield.”  I took great pleasure in being Puerto Rican especially after I visited the island for the first time at the age of six.  As far as I knew, it was a hazy land with castles, pirate lore, and delicious candies. 

            When we came back from our vacation in Puerto Rico, it was nearly time for me to head into the first grade.  I wasn’t worried at all because I’d always loved school and learning.  I would be attending Stillman Elementary School a ninety percent black school, the other ten percent being Hispanics from all over Latin America.  I remember reading too fast ahead of the class and being sent into the second grade class for their reading workshop.  It was during these sessions in Mrs. Gray’s second gray class that I would experience my first taste of racism. Ja’neé Smith was the tallest second grader and the worst behaved.  Her permanent seat was the “bad” chair in the front of the class.  Every day after lunch, I would sit in Mrs. Gray’s class for the reading workshops until school was dismissed and every time I entered the class J’aneé would call me a “honky.” 

            It’s funny that I didn’t even know what that word meant, although the class would roar in laughter mostly out of fear of Ja’neé.  I soon learned what this and other racial slurs directed towards me would mean especially in the following year where I was officially assigned to Mrs. Gray’s class with children even meaner than Ja’neé Smith.  Second grade was incredibly rough for me; both literally and emotionally.  My cousin Jr. who looked like he could have been my brother was held back and then switched into my second grade class along with his best friend.  We were the only Hispanics in this class and therefore endured endless amounts of bullying.  The bullying wasn’t just limited to occasional slurs. The three of us enjoyed early morning beat downs where teachers would turn blind eyes, being followed and beaten to a pulp everyday by the same girl because she said she “hated white people.”  The same girl even went as far as cutting my hair while we watched a film and ripping my father’s day card on the last day of the second grade all while teachers dismissed all of it with the casual laughter of “kids will be kids.” 

            Looking back on these experiences, I don’t know how I made it to the fifth grade without losing my passion for school and learning.  These behaviors carried on into the fifth grade, where I realized I had a breaking point.  Mr. Assante was the cool fifth grade teacher who loved to make fun of students in a “tolerable” fashion; but once he got that ball rolling, he hardly ever stopped the other students from snowballing it into something cruel.  I remember dreading the “crackin’ session” Mr. Assante had.  He would go in random order picking on students to make “light” jokes of, with the promise that they could crack a few jokes on him, but it was something out of my element.  My mother always taught me to respect adults, but she never specified if that respect should withstand an adult disrespecting me.  So I withstood jokes about my pastiness, how I lie about being Puerto Rican and how everyone saw me getting beat up during recess; choking back tears every time.  He unknowingly created a platform for students to feel as if they too earned the right to take a jab at me too.  The fifth grade was where I realized that being myself would only cause me pain as it had all of elementary school. It was here where I first began to resent being a white skinned Puerto Rican because unlike the typical looking Hispanics and African Americans, I fit in nowhere.

            Throughout middle school much of the same treatment persisted and I was used to it.  In turn I openly expressed extreme dislike against being Puerto Rican and I forcibly made “friends” so I wouldn’t seem like so much of a pariah.  It wasn’t until the second half of the eighth grade where I was accepted into the honors high school did I begin to feel more confident again, however at this same time my grandmother in Puerto Rico passed away.  This meant an impromptu trip to Puerto Rico with money we did not have.  Along with the sadness of my grandmother’s passing, I had a pitted feeling in my stomach. Over the years, I had forgotten to speak Spanish as a form of ridding myself of the troublesome identity it stemmed from.  The pitted feeling was the memory of my last conversation with “mi Abuelinda” where I was too embarrassed of my terrible Spanish to say more than “sì” and “no” and getting by the rest of the conversation as a chore with mostly English because I knew she understood.  It is a terrible memory I try hard to forget, but it was a realization of sorts. 

            How could I have allowed my nationalistic Puerto Rican pride to become matted down to the point where I shuddered at the thought of speaking Spanish and identifying with other Latinos? Had the pressures and fears of racism pushed me into forging an identity that was not mine?  Regardless, on the first trip to Puerto Rico since I was six, I learned the hard way that these people I once denounced were the only people I had at the end of the day and only they could feel the way I felt during that time.  So I embraced Puerto Rican culture wholeheartedly since then by learning Spanish, reading countless books on our culture, and taking pride in everything Puerto Rican from then on.  It will always be sad to me how it took my grandmother’s passing to realize that I was doing a great damage and though I couldn’t fix things, I wouldn’t allow history to repeat itself once again.  Fittingly enough, the honors high school was a great environment of diverse kids who allowed me to grow as my own person without any added pressures.  I became my true self during my high school years, unabashedly partaking in everything and anything I liked.

            Going into college was a proud moment for me and my family, being the first to attend a four year school.  However, I was not prepared to come out of the bubble my high school kept us in.  I didn’t know that people could be insensitive to you in ways other than dealing with your race or ethnicity.  In college I learned that people carried the sentiments voiced by their parents concerning social class.  As a freshman last year in my English 201 class, I became aware that even college educated people are not fond of the “poor” and especially those who may have to resort to government aid.  I was, of course shocked.  I didn’t think that college educated people could be so close minded while they voiced their rehearsed “liberal” sentiments.  Though it is not something neither I nor my mother are proud of, we depended on government aid for housing after my parents separated.  My mother’s job just didn’t provide enough to be able to save money and raise me comfortably.  I soon learned economic terms that summarized our social class like the “working poor.”  This sad reality is what many Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and other ethnic groups are categorized as; a dead end in the economic ladder because while you have enough money to survive, there is no extra money to save and move up economically.  It was difficult to swallow comments from students in my English class who said things like “I don’t want to know about poor people.  I want to stay in my bubble” and “Ew; poor people need to stop sleeping in until noon and go look for jobs. It’s not fair our tax dollars support deadweight.”  During discussions like that, I rarely spoke up because I was and still am not proud of that time when my mother and I needed government aid.  It was necessary to survive, but even admitting it to being solely for survival purposes would have me and my family thrown in with the unfair stereotypes of lazy Puerto Ricans.  I look back on that English class as an introduction into the real world; people will never fully accept poor people, a sad yet true reality.

            The story of my experiences with several barriers is not intended as a sob story about my woes, so much as it is to give insight into how I became the person I am today.  In my case during elementary and middle school, I was one of the only people who did not fit either one of the generalized group types of Latinos or African Americans.  Since the unpleasant experiences took place for many years, I was made to feel that I was weird.  It was magnified when even an adult jumped in to point out how “strange” I was.  Ironically, these experiences initially lead me away from my culture, but in turn they actually lead me to explore my culture with a truer passion.

            Outside of past life molding events, I have experienced other eye opening situations.  I once went on a date with a really nice Jewish guy with whom I had a lot of things in common.  We met at a restaurant and aside from usual first date awkwardness, we were having a nice time until he offended me without knowing he did so.  He was talking about the neighborhood he just moved into and how his window faced the inside of a community garden run by Puerto Ricans.  Although I knew his comment was going to end badly, I allowed him to finish out of courtesy.  He finished his story with “…and all those Puerto Ricans do is sit around all day and blast their Reggaeton music in my window.  Seriously, don’t they work?  Do any Puerto Ricans work?!”  I interrupted his rant just then and said very politely, “…Well.  I‘m Puerto Rican.  What exactly are you trying to say?”  His face reddened and he apologized.  Needless to say we never went on another date. 

            Experiences like this one just go to show how I’m more self-assured than I have ever been in my life.  Years ago I would never have voiced my true feelings because I would fear being judged for siding against the generalization.  Today, I don’t allow people to put me in a position of belittlement.  I don’t need to fit anyone’s molding to be happy in life or successful socially.  I’m happier with myself when I voice my opinions against everyone else’s.  It is who I am by nature and the sooner I realized it, the easier my life has been since.

                                                                                                                        N. M.

                                                                                                                        Fall 2011