By June Carolyn Erlick
I’m often asked what was the first country I ever visited in Latin America. I stumble and have to think before answering. That’s not because I have a bad memory.
I’m just not sure what counts as Latin America. Outside of my predominantly Dominican neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the first Latin American “country” I ever visited was Puerto Rico. I went to a Casals Festival there in February 1967, enjoying the tropical sun and melodious classical music.
But Puerto Rico’s not precisely a country. And it’s not a state either. The ambivalent nature of its status mingled with my perception at that time that Puerto Rico was entirely too gringo. While my Dominican neighbors were insisting on selling milk to me at the bodega in Spanish, my tourist experience and San Juan’s high-rise buildings gave me the impression that Puerto Rico was very American in the U.S. sense of the word. The people were wonderful and the music was great, and I fell in love with the taste of piononos, but all in all, I came away feeling that Puerto Rico was Latin Lite.
Flash forward many, many years to my second and third trips to Puerto Rico, both of them for international conferences in the 1990s. I’d lived and worked for more than 14 years in Latin America by then, and Spanish was very much second nature.
On one of these trips, I was looking for a novel by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta. I browsed the university area bookstores in Rio Piedras and finally checked out an excellent bookstore in Old San Juan. The book wasn’t in stock. but the manager advised me, “Go to Plaza Las Ámericas. Go to the bookstore in the mall.”
Now, going to a mall in what was sort of a Latin American country certainly did not figure on my agenda of things to do. The manager read my face, picked up the phone and called the bookstore. “They have it,” he said, so off I went to the mall, filled with the kind of chain stores I generally avoid in my daily life on the mainland. After buying the book, I stayed and people-watched.
That’s when I realized that Puerto Rico was actually very Latin American in culture and spirit. Yes, there was a food court, but grandparents, moms, dads, teens and tykes were promenading there as if it were an outdoor plaza that just happened to have airconditioning. Families were talking and walking and couples were courting; it was the same space as one finds in U.S. suburbs, but it was being lived completely differently.
After that experience, I began to realize that Puerto Ricans were experts at being transnational; they were experts at what anthropologists call code-switching, talking one way to one type of person and another way to another, according to the imagined cultural context.
So on my fourth and most recent trip to Puerto Rico this February, I became more conscious of my own codes. I lingered after sales transactions and tried to engage people as I do in Colombia or Guatemala. I found transnational people in a transnational society, pioneers perhaps in an emerging world.
I’m not sure it’s whether I was less concerned with identity on this trip, but I became aware that, beyond issues of status and identity, Puerto Ricans were concerning themselves with Latin American issues and challenges: sustainable tourism, violence, the environment, inequity and the urban-rural divide.
Again, the people were wonderful and the music was great. But I came away with many questions about a country that is not quite a country, that looks forwards and backwards at the same time and lives in a simultaneity of many different realities.
Many people on the Island and beyond helped me to understand and shape this issue. Dr. Carmen Oquendo-Villar, our Cape, was an inspiration and a constant resource, my spiritual co-editor. Yrsa Dávila tirelessly helped obtain photographs and art, and cover artist Antonio Martorell became an important interlocutor in my quest for understanding.
I thank them and I thank the Puerto Rican people—on the Island and beyond—who have brought this issue into being. Gracias!