Since I was recently in Puerto Rico dealing with a rather unenviable set of events, I’ve decided to dedicate the next few blog posts to the Isle of Enchantment. For this initial post, I want to address a few macro-level observations that might not be immediately apparent if you stay inside of the touristy areas of Old San Juan. For all it’s tropical charm and cruise line appeal, Puerto Rico is a country at a bizarre crossroads of culture, language, politics and even, against common sense, time period. I grew up spending my summers with my grandparents, who lived in the San Juan area, so my observations are purely based on gathered experience rather than extensive sociological research. Take them with a grain of salt.
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, a territory of the United States and a spoil of war from the often-overlooked Spanish American War in 1898. It is neither a state, nor it’s own independent country and that ambiguous classification stemming from a war over a century ago is the foundation for the island’s odd “will-they, won’t they” relationship with the United States and on a much larger level, I would propose, why so much surrounding the island seems like a contradiction. A lot of the politics on the island revolve around the question of statehood but at the same time the politicians truly seem to truly embrace the corruption that’s commonplace in neighboring Latin American countries. Politicians from all three major parties invoke nationalistic pride, all with the same fervor but to competing ends. Puerto Rico is caught in the middle of two dramatically different international goals – statehood and independence – and the fact of the matter is that the risk/benefit ratio of either is far less appealing to the general populace than retaining and maintaining the status quo. That’s why when you hear American politicians – particularly GOP candidates – talking about supporting Puerto Rican statehood, it’s best just to nod politely at their ignorance and acknowledge that they are merely pandering to get the Latino vote. The likelihood of it actually happening is about the same as one of them knowing what tostones are.
Culturally speaking, Puerto Ricans are some of the proudest people when it comes to their national heritage. If you have any question, just grab a seat and watch the Puerto Rican day parade in New York City. While I may personally be embarrassed by the trashy people that walk down the street blowing whistles and wearing the Puerto Rican flag as bandanas, shirts and thongs, it’s a fairly good indicator that we are not sheepish about our heritage. The aspect of it all that confuses me, however, is that it’s an incredibly mixed message. Puerto Ricans in their current incarnation are descendants of the island’s indigenous tribe the Taino people, the wealthy (or exiled) Spanish land owners and the African slaves they brought with them. As a result, modern day Puerto Ricans are incredibly varied in ethnic background and skin tone, despite being uniformly and vocally of one cultural background. So while there’s a veritable rainbow when it comes to skin color, everyone shares a familiarity based on that diversity and because of the shared language – Spanish. Yet despite this common denominator, there’s a disconnect. Spanish, while being the primary language of the island, has become a hybrid of English and Spanish that ends up diluting both languages until people aren’t speaking either. Purity of language no longer exists in Puerto Rico and it’s a testament to the Americanization of the culture. Pride in Puerto Rican culture as something distinct from American culture, it seems to me, is thus somewhat of an oxymoron because the overlap, particularly in the use of language, blurs the line between them to such a degree that they are quickly becoming one and the same.
Puerto Rico sits at the juncture between the old and the new. Cars are either rusty junkers, kept together by duct tape and prayer, or brand-new brand-name cars. Houses are either dilapidated, hurricane beaten cement block houses or well-kept, high-end dwellings with satellite TVs and and luxury pools. The old Spanish style buildings still make up the center of most of the towns throughout the island, but the incidence of McDonald’s, Burger Kings and other distinctly American locales in the surrounding areas are very much juxtaposed to the Spanish colonial style. And while we’re on the subject of eateries, it has always amazed me the sheer quantity of fast food restaurants throughout the island. Coupled with the criollo restaurants on the side of the road that serve every type of deep fried delicacy you can imagine from meat filled empanadas to cheese filled pastries called quesitos, the combination of local traditional food with the hyper-processed American fast food, there really is no mystery why there is such a high incidence of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. I guess that makes Puerto Rico a lot like Middle America in that respect – only our food tastes infinitely better. This is not a matter of opinion, it is scientific fact.
When I would visit my grandparents, I would spend a lot of time with people in their age group, friends and family that rarely were ever younger than 70 years old, and all of them would feed me copious amounts of delicious food. As a result, when I went to their homes I saw glimpses into the way things used to be. Like many other islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico made it’s mark on the world by being a large producer/exporter of sugar cane and it’s highly sought after end result – rum. Agriculture was an extremely large part of the culture, a way to distinguish the rich from the poor, and the origin of so many of the traditions on the island. As the decades went on, Agriculture diminished as Government work became the leading employment opportunity. Both my grandfathers worked in some way for the government. When I think back at the furniture – the desks in particular – and the assorted decorations that filled my grandparents houses, I can’t help but be reminded of the spartan modernist Mad Men feel of the 1960s, a perfectly preserved and still functional microcosm of the past. While there are a lot of places that fervently and desperately strive to be at the forefront of the “new” – especially in the touristy areas of San Juan – there are many parts of the island that retain that Cold War era feeling, which, coupled with the heavy Spanish influences from the colonial period and the almost third world qualities of the the more rural areas in the mountains, makes Puerto Rico is a very difficult cultural cultural ecosystem to describe. The travel websites may sell an image of an island tropical paradise, but there is far more than beautiful beaches and palm trees at play in Puerto Rico – but yeah, we have those too.