A Latin American Struggling in a US Latino Diaspora

Dec 21, 2015
10:45 AM
Shaded relief map of Puerto Rico (U.S. Geological Survey)

Shaded relief map of Puerto Rico (U.S. Geological Survey)

Growing up, while I spent most of my time in the States, I visited the island pretty much every year. Sometimes for a few days, sometimes a couple weeks, and twice for entire summers, and the attitude in my household was not that we were a part of any sort of “diaspora,” we were just Puerto Ricans who didn’t live full time on the island. Instead, we were “islanders.” When asked where I am from, I say Fajardo, since that is where I spent most of my time when visiting the island. That I did not technically “grow up there” (or anywhere, for that matter, we moved and travelled so often I didn’t feel connected to the places I went to school in) did not matter. My family held a not so subtle disdain for Nuyoricans, who were seen as abandoning island culture in exchange for American and black ghetto culture (now that I know Nuyoricans personally I no longer hold this view). This disdain extended to other “ghetto-ized” Latinos, who we saw as perpetuating the worst of our people. My father and his siblings were the first in their families to go to college, and were very prideful about that education. They also linked puertorriqueñidad to a love of literature, the arts, education, to being refined in one’s behavior and for my brother and I, we were expected to be caballeros in everything we did.

We were not rich, as you might assume we were. We lived in lower and middle class suburbs back in the 80s and 90s, and my dad had a good job as an engineer, and then as my parent’s marriage fell apart we quickly descended into poverty, and I’ve spent almost my entire adult life either far below or at the poverty line. I’m writing this while being on government assistance while also holding down adjunct teaching jobs. Yet the attitude of my family, and my wife’s family, who did come from the barrios of San Juan and Río Piedras and are straight up jíbaro, was that no matter how poor you are, you carry yourself with dignity, class, and perseverance. That is a key aspect of our puertorriqueñidad.

One thing I always lacked that I have found makes me peculiar amongst American Latinos is that I have never questioned my Latino-ness. I have never looked down on it or saw it as a burden, but rather as a source of pride. Part of that pride is in seeing just how fucked up our history is. Not just the stuff that happened in the Americas, but also the stuff that happened in Europe. When I was an undergrad studying both Latin American and Spanish history, I found it refreshing how non-mythologized our history is. It made us more human, rather than Americans who were completely delusional about who they are up until recent times, and solely because Internet culture is so hell-bent on pointed out how awful our ancestors were, which to me misses the point entirely. Of course the past is full of terrible people, but what is glorious is that whatever good we have wrought out of our lives is an end product of past injustice. Through our good example, we can correct the wrongdoing of our forbearers.

Another thing that set me apart from American Latinos is my uninhibited love of Spanish. How American Latinos can bastardize and demonize our mother tongue is beyond me. If you are more indigenous than European, I could see you having some animosity, but for caribeños, please, we are mostly European and African. Whatever indigenous blood might run through us is in sprinkles, at most. But even if you are indigenous, your countries are predominantly Spanish-speaking. Like many countries the world over, there are in some places dozens of languages used in daily life, and it is important to respect and preserve them. They are all a part of who you are as a people, and that includes Spanish.

What boggles my mind is how American Latinos seemingly have zero issue with English. I have asked this elsewhere and gotten no answer: If you hate Spanish for being a “colonial” language, why use English? Why defend English?

Are you ignorant of what the British and Americans have done to Native peoples? Are ignorant of the injustices and racism English-speaking people brought to Australia, large portions of Africa, South Asia, and North America?

I think I know the answer, in fact, it is that a large part of one American Latino narrative (let me repeat, it is not the only narrative), has based its identity entirely around the promotion and devotion to the American Dream. The fact that the American Dream was conceived solely for white males (and really only if they were Protestant. Catholics weren’t welcomed into the American fold completely until John F. Kennedy came along) is completely ignored. Or set aside, or justified, in a way that our Spanish heritage never is. American Latinos suffer from the inferiority complex that Vasconcelos railed against in La raza cósmica (and yes, I am aware that Vasconcelos is controversial in no small part because he was a Nazi sympathizer and surprisingly racist for a person whose central philosophy revolved around fostering a mixed race society, but in this instance he was absolutely correct), which is that Latin Americans has a long history of being losers, either economically or politically or technologically. We have been the losers and the Americans have been the winners. Immigration to the U.S. is about being a part of the winning team. That is why some immigrants will shed their cultural practices and abandon Spanish. That is why many Anglicize their names. To be anti-American would entirely contradict the Latino pursuit of American assimilation, it would make null their parent’s reason for leaving Latin America behind. In order to be on the winning team, American Latinos have to do this without any question as to how that contradicts the rest of their ideology, one that is anti-colonial, anti-patriarchal and pro-indigenous.

As a writer for Latino Rebels, I have spent 2015 getting to know this community well, to comment on it, to be scorned by it, to be embraced by it, to be enraged by it. The thing that enrages me the most is what I see from my fellow Boricuas, which is an assimilation into this faux-Latino culture, one that is just white culture with a tan, while completely disregarding the terrible history of what the U.S. has done to us and continues to do to us.

Thousands of Nationalists have fought, died, been tortured and imprisoned for defending Puerto Rican’s right to have a culture, to speak Spanish, to fly our flag, to sing our national anthem. Preserving Spanish has been a struggle for our people for 117 years, and you want to abandon it because the language is “patriarchal?” Why don’t you spit on Albizu Campos’s grave, though you probably scorn Spanish while at the same time post tributes to the man on Facebook and retweet memes that commemorate the Ponce Massacre.

English is the language of the enemy, of our overlord who currently is emptying our island out in order to make it home to white millionaires. I am using English in this article because most of this site’s readership is English speaking, but also because for many stateside Boricuas, it would be difficult for them to get past one complex sentence in Spanish. Maybe you have latched on to the whole anti-Spanish movement amongst indigenous Latinos, and they certainly deserve support, their cultures have been exploited and marginalized far too long. It is beautiful whenever I hear about things like Evo Morales opening a college taught entirely in Quechua, or a play being performed in Mexico City in Nahuatl. Those are triumphs, and they are also completely different cultures than ours. Puerto Rican Spanish is a blend of castellano, West African dialects, with a splash of Taíno thrown in. Our culture is derived from those cultures, not the United States. For 117 years, we have fought against American intrusions to our education, our economy and our government trying to Anglicize us. The oppression occurring today is real.

The hypocrisy is too thick for me to swallow. I am Puerto Rican. I am not American. I live here because I have not been able to leave for personal and financial reasons that are none of your business, but are unavoidable for the time being. Me siento orgullo en mi idioma, que es una parte esencial para mi cultura y para mi identidad. All my life I have gotten along much more with Latin Americans than with Americans, especially those who recognize the invasion of Yankee culture on our people, and who see the need to defend our own cultures with pride and an honest assessment of who we are that does not diminish our distinct identity but rather fortifies it. To be Puerto Rican is to stand with pride against the hegemony of the United States. This diaspora business is a distraction, it is yet another division, another dash to our names to make us feel like we are lacking something about ourselves. This is an American concept, and as with all other Yankee-isms must be denied. We are not lacking, we are not deficient, we are puertorriqueños, cubanos, dominicanos, haitianos, mexicanos, hondureños, salvadoreños, guatemaltecos, nicaragüenses, costarricenses, panameños, colombianos, venezolanos, francoguayanéses, ecuatorianos, peruanos, bolivianos, chilenos, argentinos, paraguayos, uruguayos y brasileños, and we should be damn proud of it.

I’ve written before of a Latin American Dream, and perhaps even that should be revised. We aren’t an umbrella, but rather individual nations with equal dignity. It is wonderful that these nations are working closer and closer with one another, whether it be through CELAC or MERCOSUR, and it is equally wonderful that, in South America at least, the powers that be openly discuss their sovereignty from the United States. We are beginning to see societies build upon and improve the self-respect of Castro’s Cuba and move toward self-reliance, yet those who fled to the U.S. before this moment are still bright-eyed and hypnotized by the American Way.

It leads to the Diaspora being a place with little home for someone who is anti-American. The Diaspora is now just café con leche, with the leche increasing with every passing year as the American Latino community further aggravates to be accepted as “real Americans,” which means further distance between our real selves as we play-act in order to be another bit of seasoning in the American “melting pot” of Anglo-stew.

It deeply saddens me to see the state of these people I once felt a bond with, at least I still have Puerto Rico, and Latin America, and those who find themselves like me, unable to get out of this evil empire for the time being, and who hold dear the love for our motherlands.


Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books, Kings of 7th Avenue and The Feast of San Sebastian, deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in creative writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs. You can follow him @Marcantoni1984.