Do you know the song by Sting called “Englishman in New York.” It’s a pop Jazz wannabe fusion melody. Admittedly, it is a little catchy but would be wholeheartedly out of place nowadays with its phrases such as “I’m a legal alien.” Nonetheless, despite all those things working against the song, I have found myself humming it. I substitute in, although not in a great melodic way, the word Puerto Rican and San Francisco. It doesn’t really fit into the beat and is rather clumsy. However, it does capture my sense of being these days.
In New York, there is such a thing as a Nuyorican which is a hybrid Puerto Rican that is a New Yorker. Such a term signals that Puerto Ricans are not a rarity in New York. They are quite the contrary. We are everywhere and have political power. As a Puerto Rican in New York, I feel quite comfortable and at home in New York. Now, go cross country to California and that is a whole different story.
I have been in California before. I was there for five years. My very first week, I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles and presented my birth certificate and that caused quite the tizzy there wherein a flock of managers came together to discuss the status of Puerto Rico. I sadly had to keep explaining to them that Puerto Ricans are automatic citizens just like anybody born in any of the 50 states. They eventually conceded what is known in the law to be true and issued my identification card. That was my welcome to California and will never forget it. They are so used to the Hispanic population consisting mainly of Mexicans that they don’t understand that Hispanics do come in non-Mexican form.
When people see me for the first time, I annoyingly often get asked “what are you?” To which I then have to play the obligatory annoying game of “what do you mean ‘what am I’?” I make people spell out what they mean by that question. Do they mean, career-wise? Do they mean, state-wise? What do they mean by asking me what I am?
In California, my looks throw them for a loop. I don’t look Mexican yet I have a Hispanic surname. Often, as a result, people guess that I am either Indian, Ethiopian or Cape Verdean. Yes, that is how far out and random their guesses are. This past week, when I used the word “habichuelas” instead of “frijoles” the lady behind the counter guessed I was Venezuelan. By the way “habichuelas” and “frijoles” are types of beans that are cooked differently by Hispanics signaling where they are from. Frijoles are clearly Mexican. I do not eat frijoles. I don’t even eat habichuelas, but that is a whole other story.
Food politics are strong here in California. Although, in all fairness, one sees that in New York as well. You know someone, for instance, is Dominican if they eat mangu for breakfast. I eat pizza at times for breakfast. What again does that make me? Sigh.
I took an uber car the other day from a random island in the East Bay. There was only one uber car available and I got it. The driver was Puerto Rican. We laughed a lot at that randomness as Puerto Ricans are extremely rare in these parts. On Friday, I went to visit a colleague at his office and therein lo and behold was a Puerto Rican. We hugged and I felt at home for a few seconds. Of course, I didn’t bother telling him about my love/hate relationship with Puerto Rico. No need to muddy the “identification” waters any further. In particular, when there are not that many other Puerto Ricans around, it is best that I hug it out with all the few ones that I find and keep my familial issues at bay. Pun intended.
There are a few Puerto Ricans in the East Bay area. We do feel like aliens at times. Or rather we are treated as such at times. We have a different life experience form the other Hispanics that are here. We grow up eating different foods from the other Hispanics here. Although, admittedly, I love Mexican food and the Mexican food that is available here in the Bay Area is way more authentic and delicious than that you find in New York. Then again, the Puerto Rican food you find in New York is way more authentic and delicious than the Puerto Rican food you occasionally find in the Bay Area.
I am thinking of getting a t-shirt made that says “I am Puerto Rican and yes it is part of the US” so that I can then flash people with it when they inevitably ask me the “what are you” question. If anything, the act of flashing will probably diffuse the situation and bring about some laughs. Also, they won’t forget about Puerto Rico thereafter, I hope. Maybe I can start a whole business around that identity issue and retire soon thereafter. Ah, the irony of dreaming the American dream off of an identity shirt.