The Tao of San Juan Uber Drivers (OPINION)

Mar 22, 2023
1:33 PM

The famous blue brick streets of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (vxla/CC BY 2.0)

For my money, the most beautiful scene in Puerto Rico is the moon and skyline reflecting off Condado Lagoon on your way to Old San Juan—a hot take, for sure, when there are thousands of other places on the island ready to claim that title.

But when you’re an Uber passenger, sometimes you need these kinds of hot takes to engage your driver and maintain your high rating. And sometimes, these hot takes lead to conversations that neither passenger nor driver expects to have.

Miguel had a 4.94 driver rating, quite impressive for someone with over 2,000 trips. He wore a New York Yankees cap, which made it easy to break the ice and commiserate about another year without a title and the need to sign players who worried less about home runs and more about not striking out 200 times.

We talked about where to find the best fried cheeseballs on the island. He wanted to talk about his ex-wife. I pretended I couldn’t hear him. Then he asked if it was my first time visiting the island.

Maybe I had too much on my mind that day. Maybe it was the guilty feeling of having three servings of rice and beans for dinner. The simple answer to that question was “No, I grew up here, actually.”

Poor Miguel didn’t know he’d just caught a person right smack in the middle of an existential crisis, as I wondered if a person really could come home again after living in New York and Los Angeles for over 15 years. Miguel did not get a simple answer. “I feel like a stranger who doesn’t belong here anymore,” I told him.

I explained how virtually all the friends I grew up with had moved to the states. I told him some of the things I didn’t even think about as a child, like the summer heat or the potholes in the street, were now daily annoyances. I selfishly whined about how all my favorite restaurants no longer existed. I told him how the front page headlines in the local newspapers made me cringe.

To this day, I’m blaming the air-conditioning in Miguel’s car, but he swore my eyes looked as if I was about to cry. Moments later he gave a powerful speech about all the wonderful things the island has to offer. He spoke with such eloquence and conviction, I was convinced whatever marital issues Miguel may have had, lack of communication was surely not one of them.

The beaches. The food. The music. The weather. The people. Miguel wouldn’t stop talking about the people of the island. They’re passionate about everything. They love to live life to the fullest. They make the most out of a bad situation. And when the time calls for unity, there’s nowhere in the world you’ll find people who’ll come together as one as much as Puerto Ricans do. He told me how the first neighbors who had their electricity restored after Hurricane María cooked for everyone on the street.

“We live where people vacation, for Christ’s sake!” he yelled at me.

Miguel proceeded to talk about how beautiful Puerto Rican women are, with the exception of his ex-wife. He listed four or five things he didn’t like about her, but my mind was elsewhere by then. I was thinking of how much all my friends from California enjoyed their visits to the island, asking why I wouldn’t want to move back here. And it dawned on me, right then and there: This was not a Puerto Rico problem, this was a me problem.

For the second time that night, I completely ignored Miguel’s obvious need to vent about his love life, but thanked him for opening my eyes to how blessed we all are to call Puerto Rico our home.

“Don’t take my word for it, brother, ask anyone else,” he said, just as we reached Plaza Colón and the end of my ride. He wasn’t kidding either. He made me promise I’d take the time to talk to other locals, so I’d see how right he was. I told him I would. He asked me to give him a five-star rating, and said he’d give me five stars as well. I wanted those stars, so I made sure to keep my promise.

A few days later, I went to a local restaurant and ordered the world’s best bread and an above-average medianoche sandwich. The long tables meant I had to share my meal with others, providing me with my first real opportunity for a conversation with a local. I said hello to a man sitting about three feet away and figured I’d make his day by giving him a chance to tell me what was on his mind.

“Another day in paradise!” I said, trying to sound as nice as possible.

The man, named Josué, chuckled. “Paradise, huh?”

I should’ve known by that chuckle that I was in for an eventful lunch.

Josué loved Puerto Rico, without a doubt. At one point he shared an anecdote about going fishing with his father as a child, and knowing then that he’d never have to set foot outside the island in his life. And he hadn’t.

He did, however, have reservations about some of the things happening in Puerto Rico, specifically about the Ley 60 tax incentives and how the people it attracted to the island were “ruining things for everyone.” He told me two men who sat at our table earlier in the day were among those people. He asked them to leave.

I’ve been advised by medical professionals not to eat cheddar cheese popcorn and avoid discussing politics, so I calmly heard Josué’s arguments and smiled politely. I told him that during a trip to Hawaii I’d heard locals make similar arguments about how the influx of haoles was pricing out local families.

“Do you know how much a one-bedroom apartment in San Juan costs now?” he asked. I did know, actually, because I spent weeks struggling to find one when I first moved back to the island.

I’m not going to pretend I had the answers to Josué’s issues with Ley 60, but by the end of the afternoon I learned some important lessons in my quest to love Puerto Rico as much as I did as a child.

First of all, when discussing politics with passionate locals, don’t be alarmed when you’re referred to by animal names. I was called “tigre,” “gallo,” “caballo” and “escorpión” numerous times.

Don’t try to play devil’s advocate by suggesting people relocating to Puerto Rico from the continental U.S. may add things to our culture. “They brought us the Kardashians,” Josué pointed out. Touché.

But most importantly I learned everyone’s life experiences give them a unique take on what Puerto Rico is and what it means to them, and it’s up to each of us to make the island what we want it to be.

Thank you, Miguel the Uber driver. I heard every word you said. And I’m sure you’ll find love after your divorce.


Rafael Riera is a screenwriter and producer, born and raised in Puerto Rico and currently living in Los Angeles. He is working on his first novel and is not allowed to talk politics with friends and family.