Puerto Rican and American flags
Photo: Shayne Rodriguez Thompson
Culture

My Caribbean-American Heritage Feels Like Home

Growing up Puerto Rican in an urban area mostly populated by Latinos and Black people, my Boricua identity was deeply ingrained before I even knew where Puerto Rico was on the map. Before I could even talk, my parents taught me to tell anyone who asked that I was Puerto Rican. I wasn’t born on the island, both of my parents were, but me? I was born in New Jersey and have lived here most of my life, surrounded by people from all different ethnic backgrounds and a gorgeous spectrum of skin tones. Everybody in Jersey has some kind of ethnic identity, and it’s pretty normal to hear the questions “where you from?” or “what are you?” In fact, even white people in Jersey get the question on the regular—everyone here is from somewhere. So it wasn’t long before I was twirling the globe my mom bought for me and my brothers to find the tiny island that I had been taught to cherish since I could talk. Seeing that little speck in the north of the Caribbean Sea, gave me a practical answer to the questions and a strong sense of where “home” was.

I didn’t know for years to come that that thought would one day turn into an actual feeling. I went to school with lots of other Puerto Rican kids, some Dominican kids, kids whose parents were from Jamaica and the West Indies and Guyana, kids from Honduras and Panama, and more Caribbean countries I’m sure. From a very young age, I was exposed to various Caribbean cultures and observed the similarities and differences between my heritage and theirs. I loved trying my Panamanian best friend’s mom’s cooking and listening to dancehall with my Jamaican friends. It all felt familiar even though it was different.

The sounds of my parents speaking quick Spanish to each other, salsa music blaring on Saturday mornings, picking up lengths of sugar cane, bottles of cold mavi and fresh mangos at the bodega down the street, defined my childhood. Smashing platanos and roasting a whole pig over an open fire in our backyard during the summertime—that was normal too. I grew up with the doors wide open and brightly colored clothes hanging on the line. We ate arroz con gandules (rice and peas in other Caribbean countries) at Thanksgiving, banged pots and pans on New Year’s Eve and honored Semana Santa with true reverence.

Make no mistake, Caribbean people are diverse. Each and every country in the archipelago has its own customs and traditions, but we also have so much in common. From our African roots and the foods we eat and the drinks we love to our affinity for the sea and our penchant for music and dancing, there is more the same than is different. And those things that are indicative of the Caribbean, those are the things that today, I hold near and dear to my heart. Those are the things that make me feel at home. They are the things that put me at ease. They are the things I turn to when I need comfort and the things I teach my children about so they’ll never forget who they are.

The first time I visited Puerto Rico I was 13 years old. My parents didn’t have money to return to the island much in their adult lives, but my mom believed it was her responsibility to introduce us to her home country, so the summer before I started eighth grade, she took me and my brothers. A shy kid, I was nervous. I was anxious about being in a place I had claimed as my own, but didn’t yet know. I was anxious about not speaking Spanish and knowing that I would immediately be identified as Boricua based on my appearance. But, by the time we left, I knew it would always be home. My family had brought our Caribbean ways with them when they came to U.S., and they held tight to them.

Years later when I returned as an adult, the feeling only grew stronger. As a broke college student and young adult, I had often fell back on the meals and remedies my family had brought with them and made them my own. My connection to my Caribbean roots grew stronger. With each visit to Puerto Rico—and to be honest, to each of the Caribbean countries I’ve visited as an adult—my roots have grown deeper and sturdier. Every time I explore a bit more, it shapes and molds my experience as not just a Caribbean-American, but as an American in general. The way I see things where I live is altered just a bit—the lens of my Caribbean heritage informs how I perceive the world I live in, how I interact with others and how I view things in light of where my people started and how we have transformed, but not left the simple things from our islands that remain so vibrant in our hearts and minds.

The sights and sounds and smells of the Caribbean tug at my heart and when I see them and hear them and smell them, they fill me with a sense of comfort and belonging, and for that I am beyond grateful. To know those things deeply, not just because I’ve vacationed in the Caribbean islands, but because who I am at my core is a Caribbean girl, born of Caribbean people, who cherishes the things saved and passed on by those before has given me a strong sense of identity that makes me feel rooted and safe and capable.

I am one of many, many people of Caribbean descent in America, and together we will see that the beauty of our cultures endures no matter how many generations we are separated from our islands, and that is powerful.