The Elusive Essence of Puertorriqueñidad

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Photo: Brian Byrnes,

Photo: Brian Byrnes,

My grandmother comes from a family of indios. Among the humble farmers of the mountains of El Yunque, this was a decidedly uncontroversial term. I grew up hearing family legends tracing our origins to an Indian princess who lived hidden away in a cave in the hills of Bayamón, or nostalgic recollections of a great-aunt with cinnamon skin whose jet-black hair hung straight down to her ankles – ella sí que era india. There was a time when being indio wasn’t politicized, when it wasn’t so much an identity as an identification rooted in the collective memory of rural barrios populated by waves of poor settlers from Spain and the Canary Islands, cimarrones from coastal plantations and indigenous islanders maintaining a safe, quiet distance from the centers of ecclesiastic and colonial authority.

To this day my grandmother and her sisters – long ago scattered from the family’s bohío to coastal slums and gentrifying urban neighborhoods – habitually parse out lo indio from the contents of their daily rituals. Esto es una cosa bien india, tends to accompany the preparation of certain foods or traditional medicines in my household. Through a thick haze of nostalgia, my grandmother’s childhood reminiscences often fixate on small details: kitchen utensils fabricated from native flora, medicinal plants my great-grandmother would place strategically throughout their bohío for spiritual protection – todo eso era de los indios.

While for centuries official discourse denied the persistence of indigenous culture in the Antilles, genetic and anthropological studies have begun to confirm for an astonished scientific community what has been common knowledge among many Puerto Ricans for centuries: lo indio is a fundamental pillar of our cultural and genetic heritage. Yet, in the wake of this confirmation, another chapter has been opened in the tiresome push and pull of contemporary identity politics, reducing what for many of us is merely a matter of family history to a tug-of-war over the essence of puertorriqueñidad.

On one extreme, self-proclaimed Taino “caciques” abound, with their dubious tribal organizations vying for influence and legitimacy, inventing rituals out of sketchy chronicles of conquest and a hodgepodge of disparate Native American traditions. On the other, skeptics lash out as if they’re being stripped of their own identity, haughtily dismissing and explaining away contemporary invocations of indigeneity as though their own antiquated constructions of Puerto Rican identity held some essential, timeless truth.

I personally recognize myself as the product of three continents forged in the new world, and consider the ‘essence’ of my puertorriqueñidad to be the complex interplay between these parts, yet I also recognize the innumerable personal histories that influence differing perspectives on the matter. National identity formation is always a fraught, imperfect process, but it is a necessary myth around which an imagined nation of people can coalesce. And though this latest iteration of puertorriqueñidad has brought with it confusion and disagreement, I think it’s an important step in achieving a deeper understanding of who we are as a people.

Our imagined nation of Puerto Rico is fragile and tenuous, born forth out of the desperate necessity to assert our existence in a world that has conspired to wipe us out, and with every generation that passes it becomes harder to grasp something we could call an essence; it slips between our fingers like fine sand, and so we continue digging deeper and deeper in hopes of grasping something solid.

In the end, whether we identify as indios, afropuertorriqueños, blancos or simply Boricuas, perhaps what truly unites us as Puerto Ricans is not a race that we arbitrarily privilege over all others, but rather our status as colonial subjects severed abruptly from our traditional culture by violent historical processes, left to pick up its tattered remains and reassemble them into something we can feel proud to claim as our own.


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Andrew Stehney Vargas

is a writer, director, producer, actor and proud Nuyorican. A graduate of the International Film and Television School in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, his award-winning short films have been featured at film festivals across the U.S., Latin America and Europe. In his free time, he works in the promotion and distribution of Latin American cinema as Assistant Director of Cinema Tropical.