“Spanish people are from Spain,
let’s keep it plain.
They’re only one part of the equation
of the Puerto Rican nation.
We also have African fathers
and Native mothers
whose brothers were killed
because of the revolutionary leadership they instilled.
Fool me once, can’t fool me twice;
‘in order to destroy our nation,
they will have to take our lives.’”
After a friendly conversation on my neighborhood basketball court, as soon as I got home, I felt compelled to write the above lines. It wasn’t the first time I felt moved to write something—in fact, and I only somewhat mind admitting this, I once wrote a 20-page historical piece for the same reason that compelled me to write the lines above. Mind you, not everyone would react the way I did, whether they be other Puerto Ricans or other Spanish-speaking people. What I owe my reaction to is my pride in being Puerto Rican and my growing understanding of Puerto Rican history and culture. Because of those two things, when I am called “Spanish” in conversation I get uncomfortable and have to either make a joke about being Puerto Rican to get the point across, or politely state a quick fact or two. It’s just one of those things.
It’s not that I refuse to identify with the Spanish influence in the Puerto Rican nation. It’s just that by doing so I am acknowledging only part of my national identity. By accepting Spanish as a word to describe me, a person who is English-dominant mind you, like many others born and raised in the Diaspora, I am overlooking the many other influences of the Puerto Rican nation that I consider a part of me. And the influences are many: the indigenous people of Borikén (Puerto Rico), nearby islands, and the rest of Latin America; people from the many African empires, kingdoms, and tribes, who arrived as both slaves and free men; as well as people from other European countries besides Spain. To be Puerto Rican is to be much more than simply Native American, European, or African—it is all of that and then some.
In the 19 century, as much of Latin America was liberating itself from Spanish colonialism, the man who became known as the Father of the Puerto Rican nation, Dr. Ramon Emeterio Betances, did not call us Spanish—he called us “Puerto Riqueños.” His contemporary, the activist and poet Lola Rodríguez de Tió, did not ask Spaniards to ‘wake up’ in her famous poem that became the lyrics to our first national anthem, known as La Borinqueña—she called on “Borinqueños” to wake up. Knowing this history, the history of the many cultures that contributed to Puerto Rican society, and the history of our struggle against Spanish colonialism, a system that continues today under U.S. rule, it is hard for me to feel comfortable when called Spanish in conversation. At best, it is only a part-truth as far as my national identity goes; at worst, it is an uncritical identification with the very element that not only enslaved and exploited the other elements of my identity, but that also continued that form of domination on a distinctively Puerto Rican nation which emerged within that colonial context.
From a broader Latin American perspective, to be labeled according to the Spanish language also overlooks the fact that not only do we speak Spanish differently than those who live in Spain, but we also speak it differently among ourselves. Throughout Latin America, besides the reality of a number of indigenous languages that are still in use, you will find many variations of Spanish being spoken according to the particular historical and cultural influences of each region.
When I approached friends and co-workers with the title of this article, the reaction I received almost every time was that of a happily surprised person saying ‘thank you,’ as if I were addressing an issue they themselves were getting tired of confronting so often. As for myself, I too look forward to the day articles such as this simply serve the purpose of documenting a ‘bad habit’ that is ancient history. While this problem of being called Spanish is mainly an issue here in New York City and the Northeast region in general, what makes it warrant our attention even more is the fact that it is particularly an issue among young people. Hopefully this article supports dialogue, especially with young people, about our Puerto Rican history and culture. Until such takes place in a meaningful way, we will continue to perpetuate ‘part-truths’ and overlook the events of our history as a Puerto Rican people.