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Puerto Ricans in America
in English | en español

An excerpt from
On Becoming American: An Exploratory Essay
Sonia Nieto

...The question of becoming an American is one that has haunted me for many years, but until recently I have not focused on it in any deliberate or conscious way. My intense fascination with this question is motivated by my own background: Even though I was born in this country and have spent my entire life here, even though I was formed and educated and lead a productive professional life in the United States, when I am asked the inevitable question, "What are you?" I always answer "Puerto Rican." Why is it that for me being an American seems inherently to conflict with being a Puerto Rican? Ironically, I myself recognize that I am in some ways undeniably American; that is, my experiences, tastes, and even values immediately define me to most onlookers as "American," albeit with a deep connection to my Puerto Rican heritage. Several years ago, I was jarred when speaking with an island-born Puerto Rican who commented that he could tell at first glance that I was born and raised in the United States simply by looking at my body language! Here I was, convinced that I was as Puerto Rican as any Puerto Rican, that I had la mancha del platano (the stain of the plantain) firmly imprinted on my face and body, and yet he saw my American roots through it all.

I must also admit that the unprecedented opportunities have been given in the United States have made it possible for me to far transcend what my possibilities might have been had I not been raised and educated here. Although it is true that these opportunities are not held out to the majority of Puerto Ricans, among many others, and that our society has a long way to go before fulfilling its ideals of equal access and opportunity for all, it is nevertheless true that the fact that the ideals exist at all has made a dramatic difference in the lives of many people. My life as a fairly successful academic, teacher, and writer would probably have been impossible if I had been raised on the island in the working-class family with little formal education from which I came. Yet I resist being defined as American, and this is troubling for me because on some deep level I understand that I deserve the right to claim this identity if I mean to work to change what it means.

I am not alone in the quandary concerning my identity. I have met a great many people over the years who have similar feelings. Many of us who are what can be called "bicultural" (not necessarily because we have chosen to be so, but because of our circumstances) have faced the same dilemma (Darder, 1991). Is one an American by the mere fact of being born here? Can one be born elsewhere and still be an American? How many generations does it take? Do we belong here or there, in neither place, or in both? Does being an American have to erase or diminish automatically our accents, our values, our hues and textures? Where does our language, which sometimes is unacceptable both in our communities of origin and in the larger society, fit in? Do we have to "trade in" our identity, much as we would an old car, to acquire the shiny new image of American? How can we reconcile the sometimes dramatically differing value systems, languages, expectations of appropriate behavior, and the contradictory activities that take place in our everyday lives?

...Needless to say, questions of race, colonial status, and social class (in sum, issues of power or powerlessness) are at the very heart of the conflicts I have described. In particular, the weight of a history of white supremacy and racist ideology, unacknowledged but unmistakable in their impact, are a continuing legacy in our notions of who is most likely to be defined as American. Most Europeans, even relatively new immigrants' can be accommodated into the cultural mainstream almost immediately because of their white skin privilege, their status as more or less "voluntary immigrants," and also often because of their middle-class or professional backgrounds. Although they may face the pain and alienation of all new immigrants, they, and certainly their children and grandchildren, rarely have to contend with even making a choice; it is made for them. They almost immediately become "American," fitting into the mainstream of race and class that has been defined as such. Asians and Latinos, and ironically even American Indians, on the other hand, may have been on this soil for many generations but are still asked the inevitable `'Where are you from?" reserved for outsiders. Their faces or accents are constant and unmistakable reminders of their roots in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even Indigenous America, and this question once again belies our society's claim to accept all people on an equal basis...

... Creating a new culture also does not mean inserting ethnic tidbits into an already existing culture, thus replicating what James Banks has called the "contributions approach" (1991) to American culture and history that is the favorite of too many programs in multicultural education. All cultures exist in relation to one another, and that is what a process of renegotiation needs to consider. In terms of learning a new language, for instance, this might mean injecting it into the old and creating something new, and this complex process is described by Eva Hoffman in this way: "Each language modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. Each language makes the other relative. Like everybody, I am the sum of my languages -- the language of my family and childhood, and education and friendship, and love, and the larger, changing world -- though perhaps I tend to be more aware than most of the fractures between them, and of the building blocks" (1989, p. 273). More aggressively, Gloria Anzaldua speaks of the "borderlands" inhabited by Chicanos and the crucial role that language plays in this creation:

For a people who are neither Spanish nor live in a country in which Spanish is the first language; for a people who live in a country in which English is the reigning tongue but who are not Anglo; for a people who cannot entirely identify with either standard (formal, Castilian) Spanish nor standard English, what recourse is left to them but to create their own language? A language which they can connect their identity to, one capable of communicating the realities and values true to themselves -- a language with terms that are neither espanol ni ingles, but both. We speak a patois, a forked tongue, a variation of two languages. (1987, p. 55)

Language is an important symbol of cultural identity, and the stubborn resistance to accepting wholesale a language of imposition is evident in the research of Juan Flores, John Attinasi, and Pedro Pedraza on the language use and attitudes of residents of El Barrio, a Puerto Rican community in New York City:

By virtual consensus, Puerto Ricans want to maintain Spanish. This is true even for young people who admit to not knowing much Spanish. The feeling is that Spanish should be audible and visible wherever Puerto Rican culture exists, an attitude that connects to both observed language use and the postulated life cycle of language competence.... Puerto Ricans also want to learn English; for most, a person who is more fluent in English than in Spanish is neither a paradox nor an anomaly, much less a case of deliberate or unwitting cultural betrayal. These findings reveal that both linguistic and cultural identity are changing in response to economic and social transformations, and that interpenetrating bilingualism is the idiom in which these cultural changes are expressed. (1993, p. 167)

The process of re-creation must concern and involve all of us, but young people who feel marginalized are particularly important in the creation of a new culture. In a new conception of American, native cultures do not simply disappear, as schools or society might expect or want them to. Rather, aspects of them are retained, modified, and reinserted into different contexts to become valid and workable. But the process of creating a new culture is generally neither conscious nor planned. It is instead the inevitable conclusion of cultures co-existing in uneasy, conflicted, but also rewarding ways. Neither assimilation nor cultural purity is the result. Hip hop, break dancing, and any number of new music forms are good examples of this process, as are the English/Spanish/"Spanglish" poetry of urban Latinos and the redefined murals of the inner city. By changing the complexion, attitudes, behaviors, and values of society, we can all experience the comfort of the known as well as the pain and dislocation of the unknown.

The process of becoming American is not merely an academic exercise, but must connect to schools in fundamental ways. Students and teachers need to learn how to construct curricula that affirm all students while also challenging the idea of fixed or idealized identities. They need to search for new sources of knowledge to create a shifting canon that includes all students and communities. And they also need to develop the "great community" to which Maxine Greene refers, not in a mechanical or unproblematic way, but through constant negotiation and renegotiation.

Living with Conflicted Definitions

I am left then with the question with which I began this essay: What does it mean to become American? In the case of Puerto Ricans, the example closest to my heart, it remains a riveting and defining question. I close with a reflection on the Puerto Rican experience, not just because of my own self-interest, but also because it may help enlighten others for whom the questions of belonging, identity, and fitting in are so central. Roberto Marquez discusses these concerns in an elegant essay on the experiences, dilemmas, and challenges of Puerto Ricans in the United States:

What emerges from all this is the biculturally and binationally problematic, inventive, intrinsically challenging nature of this 'new Puerto Rican who' in a very important sense, is in fact no longer an (im)migrant at all, but is also, unmistakably, the historical product and extension of the "old" Puerto Rican (im)migrant and clings as fiercely to his island roots. No less an inveterate commuter, this Puerto Rican's place is now both here and there and, invariably, neither here nor there. Between one and the other, it is no longer the termination points or patrolled borders but the syncretic results of constantly moving between and beyond them that becomes central; it is the oscillating intensity of being both fixed and in constant motion that nourishes a creatively defiant endurance and dynamic vitality. (1995, p. 114)

This reflection on what it means to become American, mired as it is in both contradictions and complexities, will not make it any simpler to answer the other inevitable question I am asked when meeting someone for the first time: "Where are you from?" they may ask (sometimes a substitute for "What are you?"). I usually pause for a long second before answering with my own series of questions, "Do you mean where was I born? Or what is my ethnic background? How do I identify? Or where do I live?" All these are possible answers, but it would be much easier to answer, without hesitation, "I am an American." But because "American" does not yet include me in any significant way, I am not able to do this. I cannot even yet say, "I am a Puerto Rican-American" because I cannot bring myself to live as a hyphenated person. And I particularly refuse to be included when those who, with an arrogance so complete that they are not even aware of their own ignorance, attempt to include me under taken for-granted definitions into the "club" on their terms (at the conclusion of an unresolved conversation about differences, they may say, winking broadly at me, "After all, we're all Americans, aren't we?").

I hope that, if not for my children, at least for my grandchildren the answer will be a less conflicted one. But I hope that it will not come too easily either. If being an American means that they must leave behind or forget their own multiple identities, they will have lost something precious in the answer. For my daughters, the answer is already even more difficult in some ways than it has been for me. My older daughter, half Puerto Rican and half Spanish, and with a deep sense of her Latino heritage, also has to think before answering. For my younger daughter, adopted, with a Puerto Rican, Canadian European' and American Indian heritage, it is even more problematic given current definitions. And for my little granddaughter, who is all that and also African American, I can only hope that being American develops to mean all of this and more.

As long as there are newcomers, as long as there are those who refuse to be included in a definition that denies them both their individual and group identities' the question of becoming American will be with us. The challenge for us as a society is to make room for all of them. Maxine Greene refers to these people when she says, "There are always strangers, people with their own cultural memories, with voices aching to be heard" (1988, p. 87). Perhaps by making room for these cultural memories, these achings to be heard, our society as a whole can begin constructing a new definition of becoming American.

Excerpted from A Light in Dark Times: Maxine Greene and the Unfinished Conversation, William C. Ayers and Janet L. Miller, editors. Published by Teachers College Press, New York, NY 10027.
Copyright 1998 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

Sonia Nieto | Virginia Sánchez Korrol | Félix Matos Rodríguez

Essays + Interviews:
Puerto Ricans in America | Puerto Rican Poetry | Esmeralda Santiago

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