The Boricua Diaspora in the 21st Century
By: Andre Lee Muñiz
Because dialogue is an encounter among women and men who name the world, it must not be a situation where some name on behalf of others. It is an act of creation; it must not serve as a crafty instrument for the domination of one person by another. – Paulo Freire
Through the individual and collective struggles of the indigenous people of Borikén, enslaved Africans, and poor Europeans and criollas, the foundation was laid for the creation of a unique Boricua/ Puerto Rican national identity and culture. This national consciousness, which runs counter to colonialism, was further developed by two declarations of an independent republic: during the 1868 Grito de Lares and the 1950 Nationalist Party-led revolt in Jayuya. But, here we are in 2014 and there are more Boricuas in the U.S. than on the island, making the contemporary development of our national consciousness and identity more complicated than ever. The most challenging issue has been that of language, with many members of the Diaspora becoming increasingly reliant on English as their main language of communication. This brings up questions of authenticity, which has been disputed widely on the island.
In a recent article in the island-based El Nuevo Día, blogger José “Fufi” Santori Coll stated he finds it “very difficult to identify as Puerto Rican any person that does not speak Spanish.” He also stated that such persons “are ‘Americans’ like the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Poles, Germans, Italians, etc. who came to Staten Island [sic] in the early 20th century.” How might the Boricua Diaspora respond?
I’m still in Puerto Rico
Only my body came
My strong spirit remains
Everything’s still de same”
-Pedro Pietri, El Spanglish National Anthem
Our experience with immigration to the U.S. came before their citizenship was imposed onto us in 1917, which the island’s elected House of Delegates unanimously denounced three years earlier when it was proposed. By this time there was already a significant history of political exiles in New York City, a history key to El Grito de Lares and the 1897 Intentona de Yauco where the Puerto Rican flag, created in New York, was first used on island soil. A political exile community would exist and grow from this time through the 1940s with Albizu Campos’ Nationalist Party. By the 1950s, Operation Bootstrap, the colonial government program encouraging thousands of Puerto Ricans to work in States like Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, influenced the movement of thousands of migrants. Today, the Diaspora is experiencing another large wave of Puerto Ricans leaving for economic reasons, many now choosing to settle in southern cities like Orlando, Florida. Despite being in the U.S., and in many ways because of the communities we built in the Diaspora, Puerto Ricans have been able to maintain a strong national consciousness enriched by the many new forms of self-expression gained through interaction with new peoples and environments.
This brings us back to the question of language. English is now an important tool for self and collective expression in the Boricua Diaspora. While Puerto Ricans on the island have been able to more or less resist U.S. attempts to impose English there, the struggle has been more complicated in the States. When the Puerto Rican community litigating against the New York City Board of Education for bilingual education won a consent decree in 1975, for example, community activists and bilingual advocates also criticized it as an assimilationist compromise due to its focus on English acquisition as opposed to bilingualism as they originally intended. By that time, English, and Spanglish became common forms of expression for the emerging generation, as seen in the Pa’lante newspaper published by the Young Lords Party, and much of the poetry and literature of the Nuyorican movement. In essence, because of Diaspora organizations and movements, English has become a Puerto Rican language, not a language of assimilation. This fact is demonstrated by its inclusion in comprehensive anthologies of 20th century Puerto Rican literature, such as one published by the University of Puerto Rico Press in 2004. This is not to say that Spanish should lose the primary importance it has on the island in favor of English, but that the Diaspora is embedded within a considerably different experience.
All of this will need to be taken into account if we are to engage in a dialogue that develops and recreates our national identity and consciousness in the 21st century. While there remain Puerto Ricans that argue for a more exclusive identity, denying the authenticity of much of the Boricua Diaspora for reasons of language, we can see there are undeniable grounds to support the development of a more inclusive identity. This identity would be grounded in a consciousness of the history that places the Boricua Diaspora as a distinct exile community inseparable from the broader Boricua Nation. In realizing this unique history and character, it would then be understood how the Diaspora has become a significant factor of, and now provides a considerable opportunity for, the contemporary development of an evolved Boricua/ Puerto Rican vision.
Furthermore, with the island still facing U.S. colonialism, it is worthwhile to consider the historical validity and necessity of developing this national vision. The Boricua Diaspora has long played a significant role in the independence struggle due to its inseparable historical ties to the island’s political status. Towards the end of the 1960s, this role was distinguished by an ability to gain the solidarity of white, Black, Asian, and Native American communities in North America, in which English as a tool of communication played a large part. Merging this with Puerto Rico’s historical relationship to, and increasing support from, Latin America, the viability of an independence movement would become refreshed by such a developed 21st century national vision. Such a unity, based on the diversity that defines our people’s experience, could play a major role in helping to end and prevent U.S. imperialist intervention in the oppressed communities of this hemisphere. Of course, if we fail to consider and develop this national project, such a role cannot be realized, independence for Puerto Rico will mean the liberation of only half of the Boricua Nation, and the exiled Boricua Diaspora will remain its bastard child.
Works Referenced (in order of use):
Paulo Freire. “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” New York: Continuum, 2010. Page 89.
José “Fufi” Santori Coll. ”La diáspora.” El Nuevo Día (11 Nov 2013): http://www.elnuevodia.com/blog-ladiaspora-1641005.html.
Pedro Pietri. ”El Spanglish National Anthem.” PR Dream (1993): http://www.prdream.com/pedro_pietri/spanglish.html.
Lizette Alvarez. “Economy and Crime Spur New Puerto Rican Exodus.” The New York Times (8 Feb 2014): http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/us/economy-and-crime-spur-new-puerto-rican-exodus.html.
Luis O. Reyes. ”The Aspira Consent Decree: A Thirtieth-Anniversary Retrospective of Bilingual Education in New York City.” Harvard Educational Review, 76.3 (Fall 2006): p. 373.
Mercedes López-Baralt, Editor. ”Literatura Puertorriqueña Del Siglo XX: Antología.” Puerto Rico: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 2004.