I write this on my iPod Touch from about 37,000 feet in the air as I fly away to have a nice vacation. From up here, looking down on the Florida landscape pass by, on this fourth of July, I’ll take a moment to talk about a discovery of Self I experienced not long ago and which is still revealing its implications and wonders to me.
I am an American.
For many this is a given; they just are. For me, however, this is only a very recent fact which I have accepted and made a part of me. I am an American.
I was born and grew up in Puerto Rico. Though by birthright I have always been an American citizen, I was first and foremost Puerto Rican. I had my own flag, national anthem, history, country. I had my own traditions, food, dances, legacy. I was Boricua, like the coqui. Beyond my citizenship, my only claim to anything American was the “Yankee” commercialism that had become part and parcel of my own culture. That part wasn’t bad at all; I certainly liked having access to all the American consumer products, from food to clothing, toys to movies and more. But when it came to identity, personal and national? Back off, gringos, I’m Puertorriqueño.
I grew up in a household where my mom openly displayed her Independentista beliefs, where songs of protest played on the radio, where toasts were made to a free Puerto Rico. What can I say, my mom had been a hippie, or at least the Puerto Rico equivalent, and was very much ensconced in the student culture of the University of Puerto Rico, which has always been notoriously pro-independence. My point is, I grew up with this influence on top of the natural national pride in PR as its own country under American rule. That shaped my sense of identity completely.
I’ve never been anti-American, though. I’ve spoken English since kindergarten, read English language comics and magazines, loved American TV and movies. In fact, from from my mid-teens on, I pretty much knew I’d end up moving to the States one day, because as much as I loved my island, it was a place that was stifling me little by little. But I remained Puerto Rican.
I had, however, developed a certain apathy towards the US. I had no issue living in here, but it remained a separate thing from me. I didn’t care about its history even though I do love history as a subject, looked down upon travel within the states even though I love traveling. It was bullshit elitism, I know, and I was called on it by my girlfriend (now wife). Though of Cuban parents, she was born and raised in Miami; she was an American girl, just one that had a good culinary legacy and spoke Spanish. She was blunt: if I was going to hate on America, I’d be hating on her as well.
Little by little I began to accept parts of America in me. Bits of history were added to my knowledge base as they intersected other histories I was exploring. In traveling to Europe, I learned to appreciate what I had back home with a bit more fervor. In opening my eyes to the vastness of this country, I began to find places to add to my travel list. But I remained separate, an entity apart, a visitor – one that kept embracing this adopted home more and more, but a visitor nonetheless.
Earlier this year I got a new roleplaying games called Colonial Gothic, a game set in the colonial/revolutionary era of American history. I’m a sucker for historical RPGs, and I had already visited this era via another game I had called Witch Hunter, which was more an alternate history than speculative historical fiction. With Witch Hunter, I had all the details I needed in the game book, and the rest I could make up without a problem; with Colonial Gothic, which featured more of a hidden-history-behind-the-real-history approach, the more I learned of the actual history of the era, the better I could play the game. I won’t say that this game was the reason why I finally went and read a comprehensive book on American colonial history, but it was a catalyst for sure.
The more I read, the more I learned the history of this nation, the more I began to identify with it, the less it became the “them” and more the “us.” It really was very simple: I was born in a Puerto Rico that had been under American control for two or three generations; my American legacy was as strong and valid as was my Spaniard one. My world was as much the Spanish castles in San Juan, the Taino blood in my veins, as was the American influence in our government, media, way of life. I was as much a child of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson as I was of Ponce de Leon, Guarionex, Hostos. I was Puerto Rican, but I was – am – also American.
So on this fourth of July, as the plane begins its descent on North Carolina, I officially lay claim to my American legacy and heritage. Whereas other fourths of July I’ve not cared about what is being celebrated, this year and henceforth I will celebrate the declaration of our independence from England in 1776. Our independence. Our history.
I am Boricua, I will always be Boricua, but I am also American. And proudly so.