Puertorriqueña in New York
In 2019, right after my senior prom, I moved from my home country of Puerto Rico to New York City. After saying goodbye to all of my friends through tears, I got on a plane in the early hours of the morning, not yet knowing that I wouldn't be coming back for a while.
I had visited New York a few times before, but visiting a place and living there are two completely different experiences. All of my ideas of what the United States was like came from movies and television.
My home country is a small group of islands and is warm all year round. We’re a Latin American country in the Caribbean. We speak Spanish, and we’re unashamedly proud of our culture and language. A city in Puerto Rico doesn’t compare to a city in the United States. The city I lived in in Puerto Rico wasn’t full of skyscrapers and concrete. Instead, it was an abundance of green countryside and small houses. I could see the beach from the fifth floor of the 12-story building I lived in with my grandmother. I could drive from one side of Puerto Rico’s main island to the other in less than four hours.
Because art isn’t a big thing in Puerto Rico, and there aren’t any great colleges to learn graphic design, I knew I’d have to study abroad. What I could've never prepared myself for was the actual experience of living in the United States. Expectations, sometimes, never come close to reality.
In Puerto Rico, we’re taught the “colonizer” is always the “savior.” We’re taught that if it weren’t for the United States, Puerto Rico would be nothing. We’re uncivilized in comparison to Americans, and our native taínos are savages. This perspective is thanks to our defective educational system, of course, but it ingrained an aspiration to leave Puerto Rico for the United States in many people. I remember viewing our independentistas as unorderly and idiotic. I thought we needed America, just like our corrupt politicians wanted us to believe. I didn’t know that I would come to join their idiotic beliefs one day.
Upon arriving in New York, my identity changed. Suddenly, I went from Angélica, with an accent on the e, to just Angelica. Angie went from a nickname lovingly said by friends and family to a name I’d tell people because they couldn’t pronounce my full one.
“It’s not like there’s any malice behind it,” my friends from both college and home would say. That’s what I convinced myself when I was told my full name was too long to be on school files. My full, legal name, with the last names given to me by my mother and father, was suddenly too much to write on a piece of paper.
During my time at Pratt, I toned down aspects of myself in order to fit in. I began to develop a long list of worries. Was I too loud? What if I pronounced words wrong? What if I slipped up and said something in Spanish? Questions were also raised regarding friendships and romantic relationships. If I told people I was Puerto Rican, would that make me less desirable than if I was American? I constantly wondered if I offended my American friends when I was surprised by things that were the norm in this country. This included heavier, political subjects. Being in the United States made me aware of the concept of race in a way that isn’t talked about back home. When I learned about systemic racism, I was shocked.
“That’s not how it works back home,” I said to my friends. “It’s not really a thing in Puerto Rico.” I felt they saw me as ignorant and naive. After thinking about it, though, I realized that these friends have lived all their lives in the United States and have an American perspective. I came to understand that I don’t have an upperhand in this country.
I’m bothered by how it’s an American ideal to view this country as a sort of savior, and how many people portray themselves as advocates for all sorts of social and political causes. It’s ironic to me, especially, when I think about how none of these people ever bring up Puerto Rico, a place that has been tied to the United States since the late 1800s. I’m indignant at the thought that no one in this country cares that the United States has tried to erase our history and take away our culture, traditions and language in an attempt to assimilate us. It has put its own constitution over ours. It gentrifies our country and makes it hard for Puerto Ricans to live in our homeland. It imposes laws that affect us.
At the same time, some Americans and corrupt Puerto Rican politicians in the United States’ pocket claim statehood is the solution to my country's problems. All we want is to finally be independent for the first time in history. As a result of this, it baffled me to learn of the audacity some Americans have had to put my identity into question. “You don’t sound Puerto Rican,” a guy said to me once. It was the same thing said to my dad and his cousin, by a random stranger, when they were out in the street and offered what the stranger called “drugs for white people.” These things made me furious as I ranted to my friends. What is a Puerto Rican supposed to sound and look like? Who is allowed to determine that?
Though my first two years of American college were spent upstate, I thought that because it was New York, people would be more understanding of Puerto Ricans. We can look like anything. We can have any skin tone imaginable, and many of us can speak English. A Puerto Rican doesn’t need a thick accent to be Puerto Rican, and we look as unique as our Hispanic and Latino brothers and sisters all across the Americas. It became clear to me that when Americans think of Puerto Ricans, they have a specific, stereotypical image of a heavily tanned person with an unintelligible thick accent when they speak English. They probably expect someone tied to crime in some way. One becomes desensitized to these things, but just because I’m used to Americans disrespecting and disregarding us doesn’t mean I’m any less angry.
It’s been almost four years since I moved here and I’m still not used to speaking in English all the time. Sometimes, I’m even still embarrassed to say things with an accent or to pronounce them in Spanish in front of other people. I’m still not used to living in a country that doesn't care about me or my people, a country that has and continues to harm my own. I feel frustrated every time I see the news or talk to my friends about how it seems no one knows or even cares that Puerto Rico is kept as a modern day colony of the United States.
If anything, being in the United States, while helping me deepen my connection with my identity, has also made me more enraged and resentful at the oppression my country has faced at their hands. While I’m grateful I was able to study outside of Puerto Rico to get a degree that’s not available back home, being in the United States helped me see that this country doesn’t fit the image of the great savior that’s been fed to us for decades.
Art by Angélica Y. Díaz Diversé