The subtitle might as well be the “Latinization of Eileen” because this is pretty much the story of my life. I was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, parents who had to put up with a lot of discrimination when they first arrived on the mainland. Is that why Spanish wasn’t the law at home? I grew up with Cousin Brucie on the radio as opposed to Radio WADO and the network news instead of novelas or lucha libre.
By the time I was nine the only Spanish I knew was church Spanish. I knew all the coritos, could read the Bible and sing from the hymnal, as well as memorize verses but I could not ask for a bathroom if my panties depended on it (pun intended). Naturally my father’s solution was to buy me a bilingual New Testament, a Bible I have to this day. So that helped me translate the verses but it didn’t do much to help with my language difficulties.
Foreign languages started in sixth grade at Haverstraw Middle School. I announced at the dinner table that I would be taking French because I already knew Spanish. After mopping up the water that spewed from his mouth, my father finally stopped laughing and said that I would be taking Spanish. Ugh.
Of course, my adventures in speaking Spanish had provided my elders with many hours of humor. Take one Christmas dinner as an example. My grandmother sends me upstairs to get some pernil from her sister. Upon returning from the errand, I tell my grandmother, “Titi Flora dice que si quieres mojon, ella tiene”. Once the laughter died down, my grandfather says, “Aqui hay suficiente”. I walked out of the kitchen without knowing what the hell everyone found so funny.
Yup, my years at Haverstraw Middle School were quite interesting. It was where I was first called “Americuchi”. My sister, with her blue eyes and golden brown curls, had it rougher than me. After all, I was darker than the girls who were calling me a white girl. And don’t even get me started on high school. Entering the college-track, instead of the vocational-track, and being surrounded by non-latinos all day just put my olive-tone ass further behind the eight ball with the people I lived with. And then I had the nerve to date some white guys. What the hell did you expect?
So I graduated high school and moved to Jersey. Not just Jersey, but Havana on the Hudson itself, North Hudson County. You couldn’t tell where one town ended and the other one started. One thing was constant, Cubans ran this place. Try being a Puerto Rican and going to a Cuban bodega and asking for a “bollo de pan”. You would’ve sworn that I just pulled out a gun. Oh, and by the way, gnats aren’t bichos! Bichos are dic…never mind.
It was actually Hudson County, New Jersey, with its almost 40% Latino population, that taught me the differences between the nationalities that fall under the Latino umbrella. As a child in the Bronx, I believed that everyone was the same. It didn’t matter what color you were, they were all represented in my family and church. As a tween and teenager in Rockland County, life was divided along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. But now I was almost eighteen and starting college. To say it was eye-opening would be an understatement, although I must admit that I only saw the similarities rather than the differences. And then I was introduced to someone with, “Yes, she’s Puerto Rican, but she’s one of the good ones”. What did you just say?! Looks like I still had some educating to do.
Dating and marrying a guy from Barranquilla, Colombia just added to my education. He introduced me to Hector La Voe, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, and El Gran Combo and naturally the dancing that accompanied the music. What? You all thought my minister father taught me? Hmph. Saturday nights were spent dancing followed by my dragging my ass to church the next morning. But damn it was fun. My love of Latin rhythms has only grown stronger as I have aged, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still love classic rock.
A byproduct of the marriage was an increased use of Spanish, with gentle and not so gentle corrections (depending on the severity of my transgression). Just in case you ever wondered why my Spanish is as good as it is, this is why.
And then I met Dr. Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim. It was love at first sight. I had already decided on a Social Work major with a Puerto Rican Studies minor, and had in fact taken some classes already, but Dr. Wagenheim taught a two semester class on Puerto Rican history. Literally a two semester mind blowing experience for someone who was living the life but didn’t know her history. Now kiddies, don’t forget these were the days before computers, internet, google, and social media. Yea, there were cliff notes, but those didn’t touch the material we were covering in this class. Slavery, El Grito de Lares, Tainos, Arawaks, the impact of Latin America’s wars, Ramon Emeterio Betances, Ana Maria Bracetti Cuevas, the invasion by the United States, the Jones Act. Well, my head was just spinning with everything I was learning. I was supremely proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, but that was pretty much based on a love of family and the places I had visited on the island. Now I knew what ass kickers my people really were.
Classroom time answered as many questions as it raised, but for that I would be on my own, and in the pre-computer era that was not a simple feat. Books by Piri Thomas, Pedro Juan Soto, Esmeralda Santiago and Miguel Pinero found their way onto my bookshelves. Over the years they have been joined by books from Junot Diaz, Laura Esquivel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, and Isabel Allende. My Police, Billy Joel, and Springsteen cds share shelves with Marc Anthony, Romeo, Juan Luis Guerra, and La India, along with my beloved Ruben Blades.
When I am asked for my national heritage, I answer Puerto Rican. When I am asked what part of Puerto Rico I am from, I answer El Bronx. But I will always emphasize the similarities between the people of the Caribbean and Latin America over the differences. So, if that makes me Latina, then Latina I am. But you can’t call me Americuchi anymore.