How My Kids and I Stay Connected to Our Puerto Rican Roots

With each generation of my family born and raised in the United States, it sometimes feel like we lose more and more of our Caribbean heritage

Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

Courtesy of Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

Raising kids is a huge responsibility that comes with a lot of pressures and for Latinas in particular, we often feel the weight of staying connected to our culture and familia. I recently saw a post on social media about how Millennial moms “don’t have it all, they just do it all,” and nothing else I’ve seen online recently has hit more close to home. Not only do Millennial moms work in higher numbers than previous generations of mothers, we also spend far more time with our children. We’re constantly thinking about our kids’ mental health, their academic performance, whether they’re really invested in their extracurriculars, what’s in the food their consuming, whether they’re getting enough sleep, etc. And if you’re a Latina mom, you’re also likely trying to help them succeed as people of color living in the U.S., while still embracing, loving, and staying connected to our cultural heritage. It’s a weighty task that runs through the back of my mind on a near constant basis.

My family moved to the New York/New Jersey area way back in the early ’50s. While both of my parents and everyone before them were all born in Puerto Rico, they already had family in the states at least several years before they moved here. My kids are essentially the fifth generation on my mom’s side and the third generation on my dad’s side to be established in the U.S.

With each generation, it sometimes feels like we’re losing more and more of our Caribbean heritage. In some ways, it seems like it can’t be helped. Yes, our culture is rich and enduring, but as we become more and more rooted stateside, as we continue to pursue the “American Dream,” and make our place in increasingly diverse and affluent neighborhoods, we seem to be inevitably mixing into the proverbial melting pot.

But as a mom who feels deeply rooted in and intensely proud of my Puerto Rican roots, it’s always been a priority for me to instill those feelings in my children. My husband is half African-American and half white, so my kids are 50 percent Puerto Rican. They are a stunning mix and I want them to be proud of all parts of their racial and ethnic identities. But, I do think it’s particularly important for them to feel connected to their Puerto Rican culture, especially since it’s the biggest part of their genetic ethnicity. Yes, it’s one more thing for me to prioritize as a busy, working mom of two, but I truly believe it’s worth the effort.

That said, with very little close family left in Puerto Rico, and a very Americanized family living here in the states, it’s challenging. Staying connected to Puerto Rico and our Caribbean identity is something that has to be intentional. There are things that I have to do on a regular and consistent basis to make sure that our culture is integrated into our very middle class American lifestyle. While this list isn’t exhaustive, here are some of the ways, I make sure that my kids and I remain connected to the island and its rich culture.

We Visit Puerto Rico Every Few Years

It’s important to us that our children are exposed to the island regularly, so while we love traveling to new places all over the world, we make sure that every few years we take a family trip to PR. We want our kids to be able to absorb the authentic culture of the island as well as the culture of Puerto Rican families like us who have lived in the states for generations. Both are deeply important and significant to their identities. By visiting the island, my kids are able to see first-hand how the lifestyle in Puerto Rico has impacted the way that we exist back home. Not only that, but it gives us the opportunity to dive deeper into the culture and history of our people by visiting museums, sites of significance, and actual non-touristy neighborhoods throughout the island.

Children’s Literature

With me being a writer, it’s probably not surprising that my kids have hundreds of books lining their bookshelves. While our collection is diverse, we have quite an assortment of children’s books that highlight Puerto Rican and Caribbean culture. Some of our favorites are Taíno Tales: the Secret of the Hummingbird, by Vicky Weber, The Coquís Still Sing, by Karina Nicole Gonzáles, and Beauty Woke, by NoNiequa Ramos. I believe books like these help my children feel seen and validated as people of Puerto Rican descent growing up stateside, and help them understand and feel connected to the island itself. They instill pride in our culture and awe for the endurance and beauty of our people.

Puerto Rican Food

This one is probably self-explanatory. Puerto Rican food is everything. Not only is it delicious, but it is deeply rooted in the Caribbean way of life and our island’s cultural ethnicity, with it’s influences from the Indigenous Taíno and Arawak people, the European colonizers, and the Africans brought to the island by those colonizers. But perhaps even more significantly, it makes us feel a certain way. I use food as a way to share my own childhood memories with my kids and hopefully help them create some sense memories of their own. Whether it’s the smell of pernil roasting early on Christmas morning, the comfort of a bowl of arroz con habichuelas, or the satisfying sound of biting into a perfectly crispy tostone, our foods remind us of how our people have nourished themselves and their families for generation after generation and that is something that is truly special.

Latin Music

More often than not, when there’s music on in our home, it’s Latin music. Whether it’s old school salsa, reggaeton, or our favorite new Latin pop songs, my kids are exposed to the sounds of the island new and old on a regular basis. When I was growing up, my parents spoke Spanish to each other almost exclusively, and although they didn’t actually teach their children the language, we internalized it and for the most part, learned to understand it. While we may not speak fluent Spanish, my kids are now exposed to it daily through the music we listen to. The tongue of the island — its cadence, its unique tones — don’t feel foreign to them despite the fact that it’s not the primary language that’s spoken in our home.

Our Future

After much consideration, my husband and I have decided that we are going to buy a second home in Puerto Rico. We are actively saving up for the purchase and researching how we can eventually return to my family’s ancestral home on a more permanent basis, whether it be on a part-time or full-time basis. It’s important to us to be a part of the movement of individuals keeping the land in the hands of people with ancestral roots on the island and to do so with reverence for the land and the native people. We hope to have a place where our children can go with us — and one day on their own — to discover and continually rediscover those roots and how they connect to them.

Bonus: Never Giving Up

While it seems to grow increasingly difficult with each year, I will continually try to improve my Spanish and teach my own kids. We learn and practice in fits and starts, but we never give up. We’ll keep trying different apps, books, and Spanish language learning services until we finds what clicks and what works with our lifestyle. I didn’t choose not to learn Spanish as a child and neither did my own kids. But we are choosing to keep trying because even though I don’t think not speaking the language takes anything away from my identity as a Puerto Rican, I do think fluency would help bring me — and my children — even closer to feeling like as people of the diaspora, we too are a part of the fabric of the island.

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Caribbean-American Heritage Month Latinx children Latinx mom latinx parenting Puerto Rican identity
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