For young Puerto Rican independentistas, this moment in time is crucial. Although the Puerto Rican independence movement has always been important, this period is especially imperative for “millennial” anti-US colonialism activists because there is an increase of our participation within the movement following headlines about the debt crisis and the raising of the IVU tax in Puerto Rico. Like most, I didn’t randomly become an independentista or anti-U.S. colonialism activist. It has taken work, lots of reading, dedication, but most importantly, has required me to spend quality time with my elders as they guide me and the rest of my generation forward.
Like most children, I was raised to respect my elders, but it doesn’t mean that I always did. I did the obvious – I used “usted” like I had some sense when conversing with elders. I made sure elders ate before I did at events and get-togethers. I offered to help the elderly ladies around the neighborhood with their groceries and spoke to the elders first when I entered any given room. I was fond of elders. I celebrated elders and they were who I turned to when I needed emotional or spiritual support, but I wasn’t always respectful of their involvement when it came to “the revolution.”
I was uneasy about letting elders affect my revolutionary persona mostly for two reasons. One, I viewed much of their philosophies about revolution and methods towards progression as outdated and, two, I was unfortunately enamored by the delusion that I was able to work towards my independentista-revolucionaria identity as an adolescent, on my own. I wasn’t. None of us are and to believe that you can is to be foolish and a danger to the movement. The irony was that I didn’t even become an independentista until after listening to the stories of elders who so desperately missed our isla. I listened to their stories about our once booming agricultural system. I let them share with me the philosophies of Don Pedro Albizu Campos, and I let them tell me their memories of having to leave Puerto Rico for the purpose of survival.
Like many people in my generation, (I was born in ’94), I somehow figured that I knew everything. A couple of years ago a neighborhood abuelita (who I playfully call the elderly ladies who took the time to make sure kids around the neighborhood were taken care of) sat me down to tell me a story about La Operacion in Puerto Rico. I had previously heard of La Operacion before she and I spoke but I didn’t know the details that this lady knew. She had been one of the victims of the sterilization process. She continued to tell me how Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans have been a playground for other dangerous experiments. I smiled at her, I listened to her story but I listened to her incorrectly. As she told me the details of her narrative, instead of responding with concern, I would repeatedly say “yeah, yeah I know, I know”. Well perhaps I did know some but I didn’t know the story like she knew the story and if it had not been for her stern red painted nail finger waving in my face I probably would have missed the entire story that really set the stage for my journey as an independentista.
She stopped telling her story after I said “yeah, yeah, I know, I know” for the third time and politely, but very sternly with her finger in my face, told me to keep my mouth shut until she finished. At first I thought she was too harsh. ‘Ay, old people think they know everything just because they’re old!’ I thought to myself, but I did as I was told – mostly with an attitude – and I listened, and this time correctly. Since then, the story about La Operacion has become my signature “go-to” when I need to defend my stance against United States colonialism in Puerto Rico. When anyone asked me why I was an independentista I found myself repeating the story of that specific elder who took the time to speak to me. I didn’t really notice the impact that this situation had over me and my growth until several years later. The most important lesson didn’t really have much to do with La Operacion at all.
On May 29th, while traveling to New York City to march in support of Oscar Lopez Rivera, I finally learned the lesson. The younger people of our group, myself included, sat ironically in front of the elders on our tour bus. The elders were well versed on Puerto Rican history, and dedicated to holding us, and the entire Puerto Rican community throughout northeast Ohio, accountable. Even though they had far more authority to speak on the subjects we were passionately discussing they quietly let us talk about what we thought we knew.
I began to talk about the history of Guayama, confusing facts and dates but successfully getting the main points across. I mentioned that I could just look-up what I was trying to get to, completely disregarding that our history isn’t just something to nonchalantly look-up. The elder sitting directly behind me cut-in and reminded me that he once lived in Guayama, it was where his entire lineage was from and he knew the history himself. He politely corrected every mistake that I had made. After correcting my inaccurate analysis he asked me how I felt. He was invested in me knowing the history properly but he also encouraged me to think. I didn’t feel ashamed like I had in the past when corrected by elders. I felt relieved by the fact that I didn’t need to look up information because I had someone who was a part of the history of Guayama sitting directly behind me. It was around two in the morning. He could have chosen sleep but instead he took the time to invest in my thought process and knowledge.
The lesson is that books are nice, studies are nice, of course we should read them but for the purpose of learning about ourselves and dedicating our lives as millennials to support Puerto Rico, our elders are probably the better resource for us and we should actively listen, always. Fortunately in the Puerto Rican community we have many elders who were “there when it happened” and are more than willing to spend a day talking about their experiences. It is our responsibility to ask, listen, and learn regardless of what we think we know or think we can find out with a basic google web search.
Taking responsibility for our development as an up-and-coming generation is crucial to the progress of our people. This is a lesson that the elder who I consult the most about a variety of different subjects has taught me. This specific elder graciously invests much of her time and energy into my growth as both an independentista and a better person. She and I often discuss the unique dynamic of our relationship and she many times describes to me the negative effect that the society of the United States has on my generation in some of the worst of ways, especially in regards to our elders. Usually this conversation comes up when she is rightfully scolding me for not respecting the sacredness of “eldership”, specifically in regards to our relationship, but it is always a relevant conversation that we, as a colonized people should have while working towards a better future for Borinken and her children.
Much of the dilemma between elders and youth lies within technological advancements and their potent effect on society. We live in a culture where the belief is that “new is better” and “old” is essentially trash. In many cases new is better. Newer cell phones are faster, newer computers are more efficient, but this isn’t the case for people or tradition – tradition must remain sacred. The tradition in the Puerto Rican community is to embrace and spend quality time with one another, especially with our elders. The United States generates more trash than any other nation per capita, which could leave anyone to believe that those of us living here have an obsession with throwing things out. Fortunately, however, elders are people. Not worn shoes or rotten fruit. As the younger generation we must remember to remain humble enough to realize that we are not “the advancement,” and we certainly don’t automatically make life easier. We are simply a new generation and it is important that we maintain that elders are never disposable and should not be treated as such. It is our responsibility to refuse the obsession with efficiency and instead take the time to patiently visit our elders with the purpose to at least expand our consciousness.
If our elders can have the patience to grow old in a world where their/our nation is on the verge of extinction, we can have the patience to sit down, listen to them, let them guide us, and allow for them to embrace us the best way that they can. Sometimes their way of embracing us is scolding. Sometimes their way of embracing us is through slowly showing us items that they have collected over the years. Sometimes their way of embracing us is teaching us to do something that we have no interest in doing. Sometimes their way of embracing is unintentionally repeating a story. Regardless of how the elders may embrace us the healing is there. It is our responsibility as serious agents of change to be open to the healing that they carry.
Our elders are the closest portals that we have to our ancestors. They’re tangible pieces of history, and evidence that our people are strong and beautiful. Elders carry a special energy that only wisdom that has been brewing for over half a century could ever contain and there’s nothing that exists better to guide us.
Times may have changed but the need for interaction between the young and the old to keep a community strong and fiery has not. The difference between looking up an arroz con habichuelas recipes online and asking your abuelita to teach you is integrity and esteem (and of course el sabor!). Our island and our people are struggling deeply right now which makes it all the more important that we embrace each other. In order for us as an up-and-coming generation to grow, we must build better and stronger relationships with our elders. The best way to do this is to confidently allow them to embrace us the best way that they know how. They don’t expect us to know everything so allowing them to teach us gives them the confidence that once they’re no longer physically available to us, our community will still be growing and their lives which they have chosen to live will still be relevant to “the struggle.”