What is a Puerto Rican?
By Manuel Hernandez-Carmona copyright 2007
I was born in Tarrytown, New York of Puerto Rican parents,
forty-four years ago. Inexplicably, as a child, I was nostalgic
for Puerto Rico. I grew up with the colors, stories and sounds
from La Isla (island of Puerto Rico). My mother did a lot
of singing in Spanish while she sewed socks and made dresses
for my sisters. Among her favorites were En Mi Viejo San Juan
by Noel Estrada and Lamento Borincano by Rafael Hernández
(Puerto Rican classical songs). Every time she sang these
songs, tears would roll down her rosy cheek. I'd often ask
her why she was crying, but I never got an answer. My parents
spoke about going back to their homeland. My mother showed
me pictures of my young uncles, Diego and Eli. She called
her mother at least once a month, and I sometimes spoke with
her too. My grandmother always spoke about her garden. The
flowers were bright yellow and roses came in red, purple and
wine. Every time my mother spoke about the garden, I imagined
a beautiful rainbow of colors. There was also a lot of talk
about the "coquí", a small Puerto Rican frog which
could not be found anywhere in the world. I could sometimes
hear the coquí, coquí sound on the telephone receiver. The
coquí is named after the sound it makes. Whenever I thought
of my parent's homeland, I heard that repetitious, happy and
musical sound, 'coquí', 'coquí', 'coquí'. I had never been
to Puerto Rico, but it lived in me.
I spoke English at school, but Spanish was the primary language
in my house and at church. I lived in a household where two
cultures and languages became one. There was no fuss or discussion
about when to use English or Spanish. It was natural for me
to speak English with my friends and Spanish with my family.
I was just another Puerto Rican American boy who spoke in
two languages. Our apartment came alive with family visits
from Puerto Rico and New York City. My cousins, aunts and
uncles coming home for the holidays were truly wonderful moments.
We sang songs and ate food from the Island. Puerto Rico was
I began a puppy love relationship with a girl from school.
Karen was as tall as I was and had dark hair right up to her
shoulders and dark brown eyes. She wore a brown coat with
a white furry collar in winter. Her lips were round and lively.
She had the cutest smile which accentuated her beautiful face.
I walked her home and carried her books from school. Karen's
family lived in a big house on the other side town. We played
outside, but I was never invited inside the house. Her father,
Mr. Robert Levy, was one of the richest men in Tarrytown.
He also was an honorable member of the Tarrytown City Council.
Karen liked sports; so we played football together. We sat
down at the lunchroom together. I felt good around her. Our
friendship grew stronger through the fifth grade. It was during
the summer of 1974 that Karen and I reached puberty.
At the beginning of the sixth grade, something happened that
has influenced my way of thinking forever. I was excited when
I saw Karen, but I immediately noticed her indifference. I
approached her, but she seemed cold and nervous. The sparkling
eyes were gone. Her eternal smile had faded into the sunset.
I tried talking to her, but she was not listening to me.
'Karen, can I talk to you? She stayed quiet, and moments later
The problem is that you and I can't be friends anymore, she
said looking the other way.
What are you talking about?, I asked.
Well, Jews and Puerto Rico are people of different races.
Hey, what do you mean?
I'm a Jew and you're a Puerto Rican.
So what? We're Americans.
You and I can never marry!
Marry? What do you mean?
Leave me alone, okay!
No further explanations were made. I did not understand her.
I knew that my parents were Puerto Rican, but I never thought
that was important. I couldn't sleep for days. For the first
time in my life, I realized there were differences between
people that went beyond my boyhood imagination. Karen never
spoke to me again. It took me years to understand her. My
parents had brought me up aware of my heritage, but I never
thought it meant anything really important in terms of having
friends from different nationalities. I was wrong. She made
me aware that I was different. I was a Puerto Rican. How?
Why? The years and experiences would shed light on my confusion.
In 1974, the year of the Watergate scandal, my parents moved
back to their homeland, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico for me was
all in letters, pictures and postcards. I had been to Puerto
Rico several times on vacation, but this was a permanent move.
I knew mother wasn't happy, but father stressed a marriage
meant personal sacrifices from time to time. I confronted
her a few days before we took off to Puerto Rico.
Ma, do we have to move? my mother took a few seconds to answer
Well, tu papa thinks it's the best thing for us.
I don't wanna go to Puerto Rico.
Who are you going to stay with?
I can stay with Titi.
Titi lives in the city.
Come on, mami, I wanna stay.
Nonsense. Your father will not allow it!
Having just finished her statement, she stood up and locked
herself up in the bedroom. My mother had had a fourth child,
Cindy, and she had constant mood swings. Father and Elbita
went first to the so-called Island of Enchantment. We waited
for about a month until he found a job and an apartment.
Home. I was going home. Home to the sugar cane and banana
fruit. Home to the tall skyscraper trees and the mirror blue
green sea. These were the images that I had from the pictures
sent back with father and Elba eating a long piece of wood
called sugar cane. There were other pictures of father and
sister on the beach. They looked happy.
Mother registered me in the local public school. It was a
five room building in a rural barrio called Juan Martin. There
was no gym. Students had to wear uniforms, and teachers were
allowed to use corporal punishment. Even the name of the school
sounded weird to me, Carolina G. De Veve. On the first day
of school, my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Tapia, asked me, Cual
es tu segundo apellido? I was dumbfounded. You see, in the
United States, my mother's last name was never needed, mentioned
or asked for in school. In Puerto Rico, a second last name
was a must. But Mrs. Tapia asked who my mother was and immediately
knew that it was Carmona. I hated it. I have nothing against
my mother's last name, but it was new for me, and I didn't
like the sound of it. For me, Carmona was half a car and half
" mona" (female monkey).
To add to insult and from that moment on, she always called
me Carmona and so did the rest of the teachers in that school.
It just so happened that all my eight aunts and four uncles
had studied in Carolina G. De Veve elementary school, and
I as the oldest grandson was the new Carmona in town. My compañeros
de clase (classmates) called me Gringo and Nuyorican. I didn't
have a clue what those words meant, but they laughed and giggled
when they called me like that. Someone told me that Gringo
was because I had moved from the United States, and Nuyorican
was supposed to mean that I was half Puerto Rican and half
New York Rican or something like that. I hated those names
too, but there were too many Boricuas to fight.
Who was I? What was I? Where was I? My confusion grew worst
with the further development of puberty. I was five feet eight
inches tall and twelve years old, and my body was developing
fast. My father was too busy working, so I learned about the
facts of life through my new found boricua friends. They helped
me open my eyes to the world.
My years in high school were relatively quiet. I didn't get
involved in school clubs, and I wasn't distracted too much
by girls and sports. I graduated with honors and was accepted
at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. The
University of Puerto Rico is the oldest and most prestigious
academic institution on the Island. Only five percent of the
high school students that applied were accepted, so it was
an opportunity that I looked forward to ever since I had entered
I completed my BA in 1986, and every summer during my undergraduate
studies, I escaped to New York. There was and there is no
doubt that I am a Puerto Rican, but the call of the City of
New York is ingrained in my blood. I live a happy life, and
I will continue to live here unless.I married a puertorriqueña,
and my newborn baby was born in Humacao. What is a Puerto
Rican? I don't know. You tell me.