Sshhhh…Don’t Tell a Soul – I Am Puerto Rican
Once upon a time there was a Puerto Rican immigrant who found her way to San Francisco. It was there that she met a pretty famous Puerto Rican boxer, married him, discovered he was not the ideal husband, and went into hiding. She eventually met the man of her dreams, a very successful Italian businessman. They got married and a few years later my father was born.
My father grew up in an Italian family. His paternal grandparents lived right next door and his paternal uncles lived very nearby. My father was deeply entrenched in Italian food, customs, the beautiful language, and the rich history my great-grandparents brought with them when they immigrated to the United States. He had no idea that he was Puerto Rican. Why? Because my grandfather forbid my grandmother from ever revealing her true heritage. Apparently, being Puerto Rican in San Francisco in the 1940’s was dirty, dirty, dirty. An Italian would NEVER be seen with the likes of a Puerto Rican. And so, my grandmother passed herself off as a southern Italian. Why southern? Because they typically have a darker skin tone.
It wasn’t until my father was in his 30’s and starting his own business that he accidentally discovered the big family secret. He was elated. This was positive news for his business venture as he could take advantage of minority small business loans. My grandmother was ashamed and did everything under the sun to continue avoiding who she really was. My father respected that and when I was born, I was raised thinking that I was mostly Italian.
I was well into my teens when I also discovered the family secret. However, I wasn’t content to let it ride. Oh no! I was thrilled to learn that I was Puerto Rican. It explained my physical features quite a bit. I pestered the heck out of my grandmother, eager to learn more. She shared bits and pieces with me and I learned that her father was a witch doctor on the island. Pretty cool! I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to know more, to learn more, and to better understand why she would allow my grandfather to keep her from her heritage, her culture, her identity. But my grandmother was very guarded and still reluctant to share much.
To this day, I find it so difficult not to know more about the Puerto Rican side of my family. It eats at me. My grandmother passed away this June and with her death, I lost a lot of my history. It isn’t written down anywhere. There are no stories to be passed on to my daughter. It is hurts. Deeply. Because part of me is an unknown. I don’t have anyone left on my Puerto Rican side. There is no one to learn from. No one to work side by side with in the kitchen, making traditional Puerto Rican dishes. No one to celebrate the rich history of the country with. No one to hear childhood stories from.
I have had to invent my own Puerto Rican identity. I have had to read, research, ask questions, and delve into my Puerto Rican heritage all alone. My father could care less about that side of him. He grew up Italian and is content with those memories. I am not. I want my daughter, who looks soooooo Puerto Rican, to know where she came from. I want her to know what blood runs through her veins. I want her to be proud of the Puerto Rican culture, even if it is a small piece of her. It is still part of her identity.
I am determined to bring the Puerto Rican traditions into our home. I am trying to make it a natural extension of our life. The folklore alone is magical. It is a mix of African, Spanish, Caribbean, and Christian motifs which make for such rich, imaginative stories that are perfect to share with my daughter. I am working on mastering dishes like asopao (a hearty gumbo), mojo isleno (a very tasty sauce served over fish), chayote and breadfruit (two really interesting veggies), plantain (a favorite of mine), and just about every dessert involving coconut (and there are many). I am also experimenting with traditional chicken, fish, and beef dishes. I really want Puerto Rican cuisine to be something my daughter grows up knowing and enjoying.
I am also bringing traditional Puerto Rican music into our home. My grandmother always had an affinity for classical Spanish guitar, something that my grandfather could not keep her from. I would like to keep that love alive. I personally am very fond of the Bomba Y Plena style of music. Deep bass and raspy percussion really bring this music alive! Salsa is also another lively style of music that my daughter and I currently enjoy dancing the afternoon away too! Of course my love of reggae spills over to the Puerto Rican version, Reggaeton. Oh yes – I do so enjoy some solid reggaeton!
My daughter will grow up knowing exactly who she is and where her ancestors came from. Nothing will be a secret. Nothing will be hidden. Nothing about who she is is shameful, embarrassing, or dirty. As a mother it is my duty to make sure that she has a life filled with all of the beauty of all of the cultures that make her the person she is and will become.
I am proud to be Puerto Rican and am celebrating it fully during the 2011 Hispanic Heritage month! Once day I hope to be able to visit the great country where I a piece of my lies. I have names, birth certificates, and a strong will. I am, after all, Puerto Rican.
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