As a mixed-race woman who comes from a Filipina mother and Puerto Rican father, I am always bouncing between two worlds.
My mother immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the ’90s. She came to New York City for better opportunities. She ended up working as a nurse in a hospital in the Bronx. My father, on the other hand, is a Nuyorican from Spanish Harlem. They met working at the same hospital. Although they came from different worlds, my mother learned so much about American culture from my father.
When I was born, according to my mother, both her and my father were excited. I was my mother’s first child, but my father’s fourth.
My parents divorced when I was 4. When my father moved out, I went from seeing him every day to maybe seeing him once a month to almost never seeing him. Once I turned 12, he completely left my life.
The pain of having a father walk out on you is a pain that never goes away, but eases with time. The pain of assimilation, however, is a pain that never eases with time. In fact, it only gets worse.
When my father left me, he also left me isolated from a beautiful cultural history and a language. Not having him there to teach me the amazing things about being Latina, specifically Puerto Rican, caused a rift between me, my community and my heritage.
I was born in the Bronx, where 26% of the population is Puerto Rican. In the Bronx, you can’t go too far without seeing a Puerto Rican flag, hearing salsa or Spanish-language music or the scent of empanadas being sold at a nearby bodega. Puerto Ricans are known to be very proud of their culture and language — don’t even get me started on the Puerto Rican Day parade every year in NYC.
Being in a borough with a densely populated Latinx community, my identity was constantly questioned when I couldn’t speak Spanish. Speaking Spanish is essential to communicate with the older Latinx generation or with folks who immigrated directly from Latin America. It was always, “How are you Latino but you don’t speak Spanish?” or “It’s a shame to the Latino community that you don’t speak Spanish.”
Everywhere I went, someone would approach me speaking Spanish, assuming I knew how to speak the language. Or if a non-Spanish-speaking person needed translation, they would come directly to me, then be disappointed when I couldn’t help.
I kept getting laughed at and shamed for not being able to speak Spanish to the point where I stopped claiming my Latinx heritage.
Then one day, in 2018, a woman with the same last name as me messaged me on Facebook. When I clicked on the message, I saw the words “I’m your sister” in Spanish. I knew I had a sister in Puerto Rico, and even had a picture of her when we were younger. Unfortunately, due to my father’s absence, we didn’t stay connected.
After many exchanged messages, I eventually saved up enough money to visit her. In 2019, I landed in the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Caribbean breeze felt so good and the sun had a gentle warmth to it. It felt like home.
In the next few days, I got to experience the Piñones, a town with authentic Puerto Rican food; El Yunque, the biggest rainforest in Puerto Rico; and finally, I got to see my long-lost sister. I drove from San Juan to Santa Isabel, which took two hours. It was a long drive, but once I finally made it, I saw my sister run out of the house and I received the biggest and strongest hug I’d ever had in my life. We cried with big smiles at our reunion. It was one of the best moments of my life.
We sat and talked for hours about our families and childhood memories. Of course, my sister only spoke Spanish, so I needed a family member to translate. But the conversation was valuable nonetheless. We learned so much about each other.
After hours of reminiscing, it was time to go. We said our goodbyes and I eventually found my way back to the hotel I was staying at in San Juan. Once I arrived, I immediately looked up Spanish language tutors in NYC. Not being able to communicate with my sister in our native tongue was troubling to me, but I was determined to fix that.
When I got home to New York, I started Spanish language lessons. It was hard. I had given up on Spanish for so many years that it had become harder to learn as an adult. But I pushed through. I still take Spanish lessons to this day, hoping to one day be as fluent as I am with English.
I also started reading more books on the history of Puerto Rico, attending the Puerto Rican Day parade in NYC, and found community with other Puerto Ricans. I learned so much about myself, my history and my ancestry in a short amount of time.
Most important, I made a vow to visit Puerto Rico as often as I can. Reading all the books in the world and receiving all the Spanish lessons on Zoom can never make up for actually being home.
I started to proudly reclaim my Latina identity. I even became the chair of the Latinx student association at NYU and brought together many Latinx students within the university during myriad events.
While I may not be the most fluent in Spanish yet, or have the most knowledge on the history of Puerto Rico, I’ve learned so much about myself in such a short span of time. There isn’t really a timeline to learning more about who you are.
Now that I have a son who is a young Asian Afro-Latino, I have a duty to pass down the beautiful history of our people, language and culture. I want him to be connected to Puerto Rico as if he’d been born there. The pain of assimilation will always haunt us, but constantly working to learn about our history and the language will help both of us feel connected to our homeland.
Those who are connected to their culture, language and heritage from the start are certainly blessed, but I am no less blessed than they are. I will always and forever be a proud Puerto Rican woman.