I was four and a half years old when my family moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Puerto Rico. One of my earliest memories is the frustration of not being able to play with the kids in the neighborhood because I couldn’t understand them. Within six months, I was fine. I was out there explaining the game and playing along with everyone else. By the time I was six, I was completely bilingual. I developed the ability to distinguish who was a Spanish speaker from an English speaker and even in a mixed language group, I would address people in their language. The second Christmas we were there my parents were showing off my language skills by asking me to sing Silent Night in Spanish (Noche de Paz). This linguistic ability has served me well in life, making it easy to acquire other languages
.At that time, there were only two English schools in the San Juan area, Robinson and St. John’s. They had long waiting lists, so my first three years of school were in Spanish at Catholic schools, which were the best private schools in town. During those early years, we also moved around a lot as my parents settled into the new place too. I continually needed to make new friends due to our frequent moves. As a result, I learned a valuable life lesson. If you want a friend, be a friend. I became socially adept at an early age.
By the fourth grade, I was in Robinson School. Here, the drill was the reverse of the Catholic schools. All the classes were in English except for one hour per day of Spanish class. At Robinson, I also learned another life lesson. One day at recess, I bought a candy bar at the kiosk in the playground. I peeled the wrapper off and threw it on the ground. A teacher behind me grabbed me by the ear and shook me, saying,” Go pick that up and put it in the trash where it belongs.” “Don’t ever let me catch you doing that again.” To this day, I think of that whenever I’m about to litter.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, I learned more than life lessons and Spanish. I also assimilated Puerto Rican culture. My mouth still waters at the thought of Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo, tostones, codfish fritters, and the ubiquitous rice and red beans with olives and capers. I absorbed the musical rhythms of the island. I can dance salsa, merengue, and cha cha cha. Menudo, Iris Chacon, and Walter Mercado are all familiar figures to me. Much more familiar than the characters from the US shows like “Little House on the Prairie.” The song “En mi Viejo San Juan” brings a tear to my eye. When asked where I’m from, my first reaction (even before Trump was President) is to say, Puerto Rico. That’s where I was formed. That’s where I feel most at home. Politically, I am an advocate for Puerto Rican independence. In 1995, while attending a conference of English teachers, I was asked to give a talk at the University of Havana, Cuba, on the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
Nevertheless, when I’m in the US, people assume I’m from there. Well, technically, I am. I was born in Louisiana. The problem is, I never feel at home in the USA like I do in Borinquen (the Taino name for Puerto Rico). On the other hand, with my blue-green eyes and general look, I am always a “gringo” in Puerto Rico. One incident brought that home to me in a forceful manner. My wife, Asteria Agueda Aponte (very Puerto Rican), and I were living in Old San Juan. She was pregnant with our son. We were driving to my parent’s house at the same time that there was an anti-American demonstration marching through the streets of the old city. Police were directing traffic away from the area, but the cop on one corner decided to have a cup of coffee and missed our car. Suddenly, we were in the midst of an angry mob. They took one look at me and started yelling and beating on the car. A group formed around our car and started to rock it as they yelled epithets at me.
I rolled the window down, and in my best Puerto Rican accent, said something. That was worse. They now thought I was a Cuban exile and US sympathizer. “Cubano, gusano (Cuban worm),” they screamed. Finally, the police took notice of what was happening and came to our rescue. Beating the mob away with nightsticks, they formed a cordon around our car and escorted us to a place where we could turn and leave the scene. That’s when I realized that no matter how I felt or how well I spoke the language, I would always be a gringo; an “almost” Puerto Rican.
That was also when we decided that our son, Eric, would be raised in the United States. He was about 4 when we moved to Colorado. Whereas I was born in the United States and moved to Puerto Rico, he was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Colorado. He is also bicultural. He married a Mexican, and I have a Mexican-American granddaughter. I guess we are a multicultural family. In my heart, I will always be Puerto Rican.