Skip to main content

I was waiting patiently for the plane to de-board and had turned my phone back on to check for messages. I had just landed in Wichita, KS, for work, and the clear blue sky and open plains were visible from almost every window. I was anxious to get out of the plane and find the van that would take me to connect with the people I had come to see.

My phone buzzed, reminding me to check my text messages. A dear friend had messaged me with a request. As a Latina, would I be interested in joining a particular national organization, centered on Hispanic work? I began to feel both fear and sadness creep into my throat. How do I begin to explain?

Most people are foggy on the details of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. It is confusing, to be sure. Having been colonized by the Spanish, who, along with smallpox and slavery, had almost completely wiped out the indigenous Taino people, Puerto Rico was ceded to the US under the Treaty of Paris in 1898. It took almost 20 years for U.S. citizenship to be granted to Puerto Rican citizens, making the men immediately eligible for the draft for WWI.

It was the late 1940s and early 1950s before Puerto Rico was able to elect its own governor and draft its own constitution, as an official U.S. commonwealth. This status means that, although Puerto Rico is officially part of the United States, it cannot vote for the President as part of the electoral college, and only has a non-voting representative of Congress. As U.S. companies flooded into the island, seeking tax incentives under Operation Bootstrap, many residents began to migrate off of the island as their opportunities disappeared. The States, and even the armed forces, provided the ability for a potentially different future for many young Puerto Ricans.

This was true for my family. My mother had family in Michigan, although her father was Puerto Rican as well. My dad was eager to attend college in the States, too. At four-years-old, my parents and my older sister came back to Michigan to begin school. In the late 70s and early 80s, the ethos for bilingual education in the Midwest was assimilation. Every Spanish speaker was placed in the “migrant program” in my area, with little regard to the understanding of what that actually meant. As a child, however, it kept me around people that felt like home – Panamanians, Nicaraguans, Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans, who were completely different, but we’re learning to navigate with same-ness.  

And every three years, we were hauled out of our English-speaking classrooms to be evaluated. Could we spell cat? Yes, but in ingles? Could we count change? In ingles? My sister was last hauled out in fifth grade, I believe. I began refusing to go regardless. It didn’t seem to matter much that we were both now in the 95th percentile for our English reading scores.  

My little kid brain began to figure it out. The only way to make it in the system was to prove that you could make it in an English speaking system. I now knew they were not going to look at my scores. I knew, however, that they couldn’t ignore me when I went down to the main office and said, in English, that I was more than competent. I learned to double-down, to read more, articulate better, find the right words. Just only in English.

The Spanish began to fade, but being Latin did not. As I got older, my words and public speaking gave me a pass, where my appearance and the spelling of my name did not. Many spaces were filled with conscious wrestling. I felt pressed by the expectations around me. I did not sound or behave Spanish enough for my Latin@ community. I did not look or behave “American” enough for everyone else. The shame that is put on many of us living in this space is immense. It is unbelievable arrogance.

Being Puerto Rican means living in the both/and. Whether Puerto Rico wanted that or not, it is the definition of its entire colonized existence. To be Puerto Rican means to be “Puerto Rican, and.”

Are you American? Yes. Are you Puerto Rican? Yes.  

Do I speak English first? Yes. It is how I read the Scriptures, the classics, Neruda, and Allende.

Do I speak Spanish? Sometimes. It is disrupted and hard. It is my longing to get to the fluidity I have in English.

But I feel caught every time I’m asked to join anything because I feel that I am both, but not enough for either.

I texted my dear friend and said, “Hermana. I would love to consider it, but I don’t speak Spanish.” What she texted back was, “Hermana, your ability to speak Spanish does not determine your latinidad.” I had walked out of the airport into the sunlight and put my sunglasses on. Partly because of the bright Kansas sun. Mostly to hide my tears. My heart was so seen and was so full.

Coming to the States initially meant conforming. Yet as I continue to grow and lead, I recognize that the both/and lives in every part of who I am. This is my story. In my multi-racial family. It lives when I cook mofongo and taste the cilantro for my beans. When I share stories and laugh loudest with my sisters. When I swipe on my signature red lip and put on my hoops. It lives when I get up to the podium or the pulpit, speaking with authority and passion. It lives when I live fully into who I am.

Welcome. Want to explore ways to welcome people with a migration background into your community, in ways that honor their cultural experiences? Contact Eliza and her team with RCA Local Mission to learn more.

Your story matters.

Have a story to share?

We'd love to share your story with the rest of the world!

Submit a story

You can make a difference

We believe there is a clear biblical mandate to care for people on the move, including those who are involuntarily or forcibly displaced from their homes and are seeking refuge. Will you join us?