There’s a small place in the city of Cleveland where the wind blows a different direction and the grass is a different shade of green. Puerto Rican flags wave at you as you walk past the houses – each built with their own set of character – and occasionally la bandera dominicana salutes you as you carry on. You smile. “Mi gente linda” you whisper to yourself. You pass a viejita pushing her coche full of food she most likely just bought from the award winning bodega La Borincana and she reminds you to behave though she doesn’t even know your name. The cars that pass by play a mix of Hector Lavoe, Farruko and trending pop and hip hop songs. You speak a mix of Spanish and English or just Spanish because that’s what you hear. This small place where you smell the sancocho sizzling and feel the pride ingrained deep into your blood involuntarily rising out from inside of you every time you see the flag wave is what some of us unofficially refer to as “Little Puerto Rico” or even more recently as “La Villa Hispana.”
Located in Cleveland, Ohio’s Near West Side and Tremont neighborhoods, Little Puerto Rico is a thriving community of primarily Boricuas from all over the island, Puerto Rican-owned businesses, non-profit organizations and cultural centers. One of these institutions serving the community is the 25-year-old Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center.
Migration from the island of enchantment to Cleveland began as early as the 1940s. Puerto Ricans were driven by economic prosperity and hope during the early years of migration. Mainly in the ‘50s owners of steel mills, farms and factories traveled from Ohio to Puerto Rico, primarily to the pueblos of Yauco and San Lorenzo, to recruit workers.
Decades after the first Boricuas came to Cleveland, they continue to migrate, attracted by the opportunities found in Cleveland. Throughout the past few years, La Villa Hispana continues to implement programs to develop the community, exude pride, and connect complete strangers together over one common regalito: a 100 mile long island.
Before I became involved in the community, to me, Little Puerto Rico meant the area where I didn’t have to search five different stores for a Malta, where I could get my favorite limbers de coco y guayaba for 50 cents and a hug, and where people didn’t refer to me by my name – they called me Prieta.
“Ay que piel mas linda” some would say. I’d roll my eyes and if my piel hadn’t been so negra they would have called me rojizo instead because I’m sure I could have turned 50 shades of red. I was more accustomed to ‘negra’, but even that sometimes made my eyes roll. That was Little Puerto Rico and it wasn’t until my later years that I would realize that Little Puerto Rico was a gift for all of its lessons.
The day that I asked to not be called Prieta was the same day that I fell in love with the term. A Dominican lady who only knew me by face but always made sure I was doing the right thing did her routine checkup. “Como estas Prieta linda?” she asked me. Definitely, I answered her in English and told her not to call me Prieta because it wasn’t on my birth certificate. She chuckled and put her arm next to mine. I hadn’t realized that she was my same skin tone or that my words would cut her just like I thought Prieta cut me. “Nena, your name is on your birth certificate which is a piece of paper but what we call you is in your blood. If you really knew who you were you’d love the name Prieta.”
I shrugged my typical que-tu-sabes adolescent shrug and she began to tell me the story about how in her hometown of Cibao, Dominican Republic everybody called her Prieta and how she hated it until she realized that hating ‘prieta’ meant hating her ancestors. Melanin in the Americas is a historical artifact of strength that has lasted for decades.
When I hear someone call me ‘Prieta’ or ‘Prietín’ I think of the lady from Cibao. I remember why they call me that name and I know that I’m amongst worthy people. Being called prieta is like a verbal salute to our ancestors. The way that it warms my heart when it rolls off of the tongues of the people of La Villa Hispana is a special kind of love, even when it comes from the harsh domino playing, bustelo drinking viejitas who scold any wayward behavior they even suspect inside of me because that’s love too you know.
This past summer I worked as an intern for Esperanza Inc’s “Summer of Hope” program. The experience reminded me that there was purpose in my existence. I wasn’t just Prieta, I was also committed to adding to the betterment of the community. On the first day of the program the students learned about the work necessary to keep a neighborhood clean. After the brief presentation I worked alongside the students outside by picking up the litter. The security guard to the building immediately came outside to tell me that we could no longer work in a certain area because of the possibility of used drug needles being mixed in with the litter. It saddened me to know that the main concern of that day wasn’t the 90 degree weather that had us all drinking gallons of water rather it was the possibility of being affected by the silent negativity that haunted the vibrant community.
As the summer carried on and we worked in the community gardens throughout La Villa Hispana and helped with the renovation of Luis Muñoz Marin Elementary School I knew that there was hope. When I looked in the faces of leaders who took me on their adventures through the neighborhood to work or told me about their upcoming events I knew there was love. Little Puerto Rico was like a rose and I had always loved the rose, but walking through the neighborhood and asking people what they needed for a better community and listening to community leaders passionately describe their visions for the community was what made me fall in love with the roots of la rosa.
I continue to fall in love with the riqueza of Little Puerto Rico every single day – kind of like I fall in love with the name Prieta every time it vibrates in the air. There is a quote that says “I come from a place where to be called black is to be called love” and because of Little Puerto Rico’s existence, this I know to be true.