My longest kept memory regarding identity has been one fact: my maternal lineage is Puerto Rican. As a kid, the most I knew about Puerto Rico (PR) was that it made me latino. In short, darker skin and wavy/curly black hair.

My world at an early age was mostly white, with a spattering of black. People of color were relegated to certain areas of town, which we only drove through and looked out upon from the safety of our cars. The prevalence of Mexicans in our area wouldn’t really take hold until I was in my late teens.

It would take years for me to discover more about latino roots in general and Puerto Rican culture in particular. My parents told me what they knew. But the discovery of roots is self-imposed, I think.

I admit. I didn’t understand there was a difference between, say, Mexican and Puerto Rican cultures and foods. I also didn’t realize that our semi-monthly Sunday meals at a Mexican chain restaurant called Chi-Chi’s was not a peek into my heritage. Hell, I thought Taco Bell was Mexican.

I met my birth mother when I was 20 years old. Over the short span of about 4 or 5 days, I gleaned mainly that she and I looked alike, which was an amazing revelation. We also shared a fascinating obsession for popcorn.

I never met someone who I resembled so closely. Imagine, seeing a curly black hair in the sink at someone’s house and not being grossed out, but pleased as a peach. She brought me to her mom’s house, my grandmother’s, who prepared a feast of Puerto Rican dishes and gushed over me in a mix of Spanish and English through streaming tears over hear cheeks.

I remember the food being a lot of brown and not a lot of spice.

It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I started to understand PR culture at all.

At forty six years old, I took my first trip to Puerto Rico. One of the biggest lobbyists for the trip was our friend Edith, who is Puerto Rican married to a Cuban named Jaime (Hy-may), who loves PR, the island, the culture, the food, the everything.

The other big lobbyist was the voice in my head that kept repeating, “You gotta visit the island of your heritage.” A voice that I heard as a kid, through my teens, twenties, thirties and finally took the bull by the horns now.

Oddly enough, I’ve been to France almost 10 times and only recently found out the other half of my heritage is French. The French voice in my head called out louder and stronger than the Puerto Rican one. I wonder if it was because I knew that I had Puerto Rican roots, and I explored it enough without going there. But not knowing I was part French, the need to explore that identity held a different level of strength.

Even before going to PR, I knew of their pride. Chicago has a huge PR community. Wiki lists Chicago as the third highest population of Puerto Rican’s next to NYC and Philadelphia (surprisingly).

In Chicago, PR flags are pretty ubiquitous, especially during a PR pride week with a PR parade and other festivities. Tina and I lived on the north side of the city for 20 years before moving to a mostly PR area of Logan Square/Humboldt Park last year. In the middle Humboldt Park, there are huge metal sculptural PR flags that wrap over one of the main east/west streets.

PR food trucks dapple a park south of our place. Men play dominoes and loud music in the park.

Puerto Rico, I found, is that essence times a hundred.

The first thing you notice when you step foot on PR soil is that Puerto Ricans are in a perpetual state of celebration. They love their music, their drinks, their food, their streets, their diversity within their people. There is a sense of unity that drives them.

For example, their take on battling Covid appears to be a strong collective effort. No one cries about mask mandates. I’d say half the population wears masks outside without an outside mask mandate. And everyone does their part to wear them inside. Every restaurant in San Juan is stanchioned off. You must show proof of vaccination to enter.

They aren’t crying political indignations. The locals are doing their parts to avoid getting their families and friends sick. Which is what all people, regardless of cultures, should be focusing on. Instead, we have a wealth of “opposing” opinions about what freedoms are and what the golden rule is or is not.

Puerto Ricans are what I generally expected: warm, colorful, proud, thoughtful and giving. They are resourceful. The decor is sparse, but loud. Lots of homes and buildings are painted in bold colors. But the porch only holds one or two chairs on them. Nothing else. Instead of lots of commercial level fencing, you might see fences made of found branches. They do their best not to waste, or make use of waste in creative ways.

The food isn’t ever going to call my name. I cook every night. And going from home-cooked meals to predominantly fried foods is a shock to the GI. We did our best to cook once we got further from San Juan, but it still wasn’t every meal.

In a race between our culinary experiences in France and in PR, France wins every time.

Where there are locals, there is usually a festive buzz in the air. They love their culture and, I feel, they love to share it with others. If there is music playing, someone in the room is dancing. If not bumping their shoulders up and down and doing a mini samba.

The island reminded me of other tropical experiences I’ve had in Asia and Hawaii. It’s humid, breezy, and the salty air feels good against my face. It’s like a breath of welcome air. Like deep down, there’s an inherent feeling of belonging. 

I will go back. But I’m not in a hurry.

The biggest perk of the trip was going with insiders. Our friends have conquered where to and where not to go. We felt closer to locals than tourists, which is how one should explore any place.

One of my biggest thorns about the trip is that I hold almost absolutely not Spanish language knowledge. I can say, please and thank you. But I can’t order in Spanish. I can pick up words thanks to my French. But it translates into an occasional “Merci” or slip of other French responses.

Before I left for PR, I called my brother. I was swirling the ideas of identity discovery in my head, and I wanted to hear if he had any need to search out his Dutch roots. Admittedly, he doesn’t have a huge need to explore Holland, and I imagine that has to do partly with knowing his entire life where he came from, who he looks like, and that both his parents are Dutch by heritage. There’s a sense of security there. My insecurities drove many more decisions than I ever imagined.

The best part of the trip was the day before we left. It was one of our travel partner’s birthdays. He requested that we all go to a Jazzercise class in a nearby park. He stumbled on it while driving around the day before and had joined them. The class was comprised of mostly 50 to late 80 year olds. As we walked in, they all turned and saluted our friend with hellos and “You came back!”

It was an 8 a.m. class, and we all sweated our butts off. Part of it was latino dance moves. Hip thrusting fun. Sambas and Rumbas. You’d look around, and the 80 year olds weren’t even following the instructor. They opted for their own interpretation of the song at hand. It was fantastic. Along the periphery, there were roosters pecking at each other in combat. An iguana fell from 20 ft up in a tree to the ground, hitting every branch on the way down and crawled into a fenced yard that read “Beware of Dog” on it. The energy in the class was palpable. These people love music. Love each other. Love to dance and coordinate moves, but also be individualistic.

After the class I walked away from my friends who were talking to a local woman and headed toward the ocean. I peeled off my socks and t-shirt and slid into the cool water. There were only 2 or 3 people in view from where I was up to my neck in salty sea-water. I treaded water and listened to the sounds of surf, wind, birds in the distance. As I emerged from the water, pulling my wet suit from my skin, I felt a sense of belonging. A sense of home. An immersion into the land of my birth mother’s parents. My birth grandmother’s homeland. The place she learned to cook the meal she made me. A place where pride takes the form of unity, celebration, diversity and togetherness. Where it doesn’t appear there are petty differences of “opinions.”

I smiled in the warm sunlight and walked to meet back up with my travel partners. Happy. Secure. Satisfied.

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