I have never been to Puerto Rico. Although I am Puerto Rican–half, on my father’s side–I am not from there. To say I am of Puerto Rico would be much more accurate. The island–its people, their history, their hopes and fears–has had a lot to do with who I was, who I am, and who I am becoming. I am quite certain, in fact, that had I not been born a Puerto Rican, I would be someone very different today. I wouldn’t be writing this piece on Puerto Rico, for one, and I might never have written anything at all to begin with. Being Puerto Rican, as with being Honduran (on my mother’s side), was my introduction to global affairs, specifically Latin American politics and history, and how they relate to those of the United States.
For some years now I have been writing about Puerto Rico, it being the site of the main struggle against colonialism in the Americas. As an inveterate history nerd, I have been studying Puerto Rico for much longer, since high school and through college where my research intensified. But as a Puerto Rican living in the Diaspora, and as a native son of the heavily Puerto Rican neighborhood of Humboldt Park in Chicago, I have been thinking of Chicago steadily, in some way, my entire life.
I feel Puerto Rico somewhere inside me at all times. Even though I have never felt its sun on my brown skin or smelled its scent in my nostrils, there is something about Puerto Rico that means something to me on a profound and intimate level. I suspect not even those closest to me fully understand how deep my affection runs for that floating patch of soil which is, physically speaking at least, utterly unknown to me. Its landscapes are part of my DNA, its history a part of my biography, its culture blending with my sense of self. Plátano is my cousin, rum an old wingman. Puerto Rico is the place I go to in my daydreams.
But no more. Tonight I will board a plane, try to get some sleep, and in the morning, my eyes will gaze up at the Caribbean sky for the first time. Because the fact is I have never even been on any one of the Caribbean islands? How could I fly to the Bahamas or the D.R. without first visiting home? That would be like passing through your grandmother’s neighborhood and not stopping by to say hello; I was raised better than that. I saw Cuba from the window of a plane once as I flew from Miami to Tegucigalpa, and even that gave me a tingle, and I’m not Cuban. Still, as a Puerto Rican, I am Antillean, and seeing Cuba from way high up was like catching a glimpse of my grandmother’s big brother whom I have never met but have heard so much about.
Of course, I am going to Puerto Rico in perhaps its gravest moment of crisis. Colonialism has long since destroyed the paradise that was Borikén, capitalism sold off whatever it could stick a price tag to, and María, bolstered by climate change, blew away almost everything else. I come to Puerto Rico when she is already on her deathbed, starving, thirsty, half blind and going deaf. I never wanted to meet her like this. I wanted to see her when she was still strong and full of spirit; I wanted her to tell me stories, show me how she dances, and sing to me.
Nevertheless, I am coming home, Puerto Rico, for the first time. How will I find you? Will you recognize me as one of your own? Am I too late?
Featured image: Breezy Baldwin/Flickr