One night, working as a bar back in Wrigleyville in Chicago—think: bros in polo shirts, cheap beer, the phrase “I’m so fucked up!” said as a positive—I was talking to one of the servers. She had dark skin that white people describe with food similes and jet black hair. I thought she was gorgeous, and not just because, at the time, my love life was a sea of ex-girlfriends and crying into my pillow at night. Eventually, we asked each other that question: “What are you?”
Ok, so maybe you don’t get that question very often. Like, if you’re pale skinned and have light blonde hair and blue eyes, no one gives a shit about whether you’re Swedish or German. But the tanner you are, the darker the features, the more people ask, “What are you?” or tell you that you look “exotic,” hoping you’ll be prompted into telling them why your face looks that way. People call my wife “exotic,” and she’s from the far-off land of the north side.
Think about it. Maybe you’ve done it to someone. As if they owed you a family history.
“I’m Puerto Rican,” I said, not proudly, but something like it. Then I braced for the inevitable follow up.
“Have you been there?” most people ask. Or: “Do you speak Spanish?” you know, to test how Latino I really am. This happens all the time.
But the server didn’t say that. She said “Ohhh! Boricua!”
I forced a smile as she started telling me about her Dominican family. I nodded along, thinking about the word “Boricua.” It’s the Taino, or indigenous, word for Puerto Rican people. This is something I had never considered myself. Puerto Rican, sure, but Boricano? It felt too… you know. I didn’t think I could pull it off. I’ve always felt too … white. See, I’m a halfie: my dad’s Latino and my mom is white. Enough Latin blood to have dark hair, not-as-bad sunburns, and an extra box to check on forms, but I grew up eating meatloaf and mac and cheese in the suburbs where my dad drives a Subaru and people tell me the lightness of my skin helps me pass for “just white,” like that’s a compliment. My grandma, though, was born in Puerto Rico, and even though she’s lived here for sixty-five years, she still speaks Spanglish with a thick accent. So the heritage is close, but not “Boricua” close.
That night at work, as I cleaned up after drunk white folks dancing (occasionally to salsa music with that one salsa-ish move white people know—you know, sort of like how you’d pantomime a train, but with stiffer hips), I had a little identity crisis. There I was, one of the few Latinos I even know, speaking pretty much no Spanish, living and working in one of the whitest neighborhoods in Chicago. Where was my culture? My heritage? My Boricua-ness? I didn’t feel any sort of connection. Especially as I cleaned up Bud Light bottles to Bruno Mars.
Later, walking home through the frozen razor blade wind that only exists in a Chicago November, a little buzzed from my shift drinks (OK, so a lot of buzzed from my shift drinks), I figured out what I had to do. I’d made a lot of cash that night, all my bills were paid, and my Caribbean blood craved warmth, sun, and sand. I sat at my laptop looking up prices for last minute vacation packages to, where else, Puerto Rico. I’d gone years before with my family, moody and teenage and caring more about missing my girlfriend and emo music than connecting with my roots. And now, at the end of the rainy season, a week’s stay was more than affordable. But it’d be even cheaper to split the costs with someone, so I called up my white friend Gibson—it’s okay; she doesn’t mind when I call her that—and asked if she wanted to go.
“To where?” she asked.
“Puerto Rico” I said, rolling Rs that didn’t need to be rolled.
I thought about my ex-girlfriends, my unskilled job, the depression on the edge of my psyche that threatened to crush me this time. Then, I thought about hiking the rainforest, surrounded by banyan trees and waterfalls. I would get so tan, I’d actually LOOK Puerto Rican. We’d eat mofongo, tostones, arroz con gandules, pasteles, SO MANY PASTELES (like, you don’t even know). I’d suddenly, as if by magic, be able to speak Spanish, the three years of it I took in high school magically coming back and making me fluent, and who knows, maybe I’d seduce some Puerto Rican girl, suddenly able to actually salsa dance. Oh, and the RUM! We would drink Hunter S. Thompson levels of rum while I wrote poetry to my new Puerto Rican salsa dancer girlfriend all while my white friend Gibson watched and said “Wow! You are like, REALLY Puerto Rican!” I would be king Boricua of the little island that, the National Park Service’s tourist videos tell me, defeated the British and the Dutch and kicked the Spanish out because they wanted American freedom! (Which is definitely, totally, 100% the way it happened, and not at all a flimsy excuse for US imperialism.) It would be warm and sunny and I would finally feel connected to my heritage. Going to Puerto Rico would make me feel that connection I had been missing while in Chicago.
I told Gibson like half of that.
We looked at prices for package deals, but all of them were in San Juan. San Juan is what you picture in your head when you hear Puerto Rico. White sand beaches, Spanish architecture, city squares, open air bars, old forts, palm trees.
“No!” I said, “I’ll plan a trip. It’ll be cheaper and we’ll see the REAL Puerto Rico. There’s this house on the side of a mountain in my grandma’s tiny hometown, Naguabo, that my family stayed at when I was a kid. We’ll be in the rainforest, so we can go hiking and relax and we can do a day or two in San Juan just to catch some history. It’ll be amazing.”
“OK. You’re the Puerto Rican.” Gibson said.
Now, smart people, those with an understanding of weather patterns in general and the Caribbean specifically, know that “the end of the rainy season” means still IN the rainy season. But I am not a clever man, and know apparently fuckall about Puerto Rico, so there we were, in our house on the side of a mountain, floors peeling, roaches in the drawers, Gibson and I sharing one bed because using the other would have cost twice as much, listening to the rain as it washed away any chance for me to wander the motherland. And believe me, I made the joke “I guess that’s why they call it the RAINforest,” many, many times. After staying inside the entire first day, we headed into Naguabo in the morning to stop at a restaurant to find a phone signal and check the weather map, searching for one place on the island where it wasn’t raining. And it had already been twenty-four hours, and we still hadn’t had any Puerto Rican food.
But when we got into Naguabo Central, the only restaurant we could find was a goddamn Burger King.
Yeah, a Burger King, like every Burger King you’ve been unfortunate enough to be in—because let’s be real, that shit’s terrible. Instead of eating alcapurrias, I ate a crossan’wich.
In Puerto Rico.
While it rained. And worse, when we ordered, all I could say was: “Quiero numero dos.” Those were literally all of the words I could say in that language I don’t speak. Even though I’m Puerto Rican. But! At least the cashier responded to me in Spanish! She talked to Gibson in broken English and gestured a lot. My white friend Gibson, she’s super white. She’s got skin like fresh merengue and though we both craved it, the Puerto Rican sun would’ve probably melted her. As we ate, we checked the map, planning to drive to the beach or hiking trails or anywhere on the island where it wasn’t fucking raining.
We spent the entire day in the car.
On the long drive back to the rain-soaked mountain house, we decided we might as well get drunk. There was a little grocery store in Naguabo, and in preparation, I pulled up Google Translate and typed in “I would like to buy a bottle of rum.”
“Me gustaria comprar una botella de ron,” said my phone.
“Me gustaria comprar una botella de ron,” I repeated back in a very American accent.
“Mee goost-ARiah compruh una bah-tay-yah de rahn,” Gibson tried.
See, at this grocery store in Puerto Rico, they keep their liquor in locked cabinets, and you have to ask the cashier for the booze. Or at least this is what we got from translating the sign on the liquor cabinet with Google. And as we walked up to the cashier, gustaria-ing to comprar some rum, running over this simple phrase over and over, I felt like I had had a stroke. It was a grocery store. It was rum. But I was mealy mouthed and feeling dumber than ever as I squeaked out “me gustaria comprar una botella de ron” at the cashier, who then asked questions in a language I couldn’t understand. She had someone bring us some rum, and I’m pretty sure I heard her call us gringos on the way out. Or maybe it was just the Borinquen voice inside my head.
That night I said to Gibson, “I am a total failure,” only with more slurring, ‘cause we were near the bottom of the bottle.
“Why?” Gibson asked.
“It’s just—I’m like any other white boy visiting a tropical island. It’s like the closer that I’ve gotten to my roots, the farther away they feel. I mean, like, my family. When they were here, when they lived here, they had real problems, not I-can’t-speak-Spanish, rum-is-hard-to-buy problems.”
“What do you mean?” Gibson asked, trying to balance an empty passionfruit juice container on her head.
Now, I don’t remember exactly what I said, since at the time I was seeing about four of my white friend Gibson, but this is what I tried to tell her:
My grandma left Naguabo in 1950. This was at the height of a US-backed program meant, ostensibly, to help the Puerto Rican economy—a eugenics-based sterilization program. Lowering the population, the program posited, would lower the poverty rate in Puerto Rico.
There were two ways that women would end up sterilized: either as a postpartum procedure immediately following childbirth, or at one of the many free clinics that were set up by US doctors. They’d refuse to admit women in labor if they didn’t consent to the sterilization after birth, and sometimes it was done without consent at all. And it wasn’t just pregnant mothers. Young girls were also sterilized. Girls as young as thirteen, my grandma’s age. In 1949, 21% of Puerto Rican women had been sterilized. By 1965, that number would grow to 34%. In 1982, it was 39% of Boricua women between fifteen and forty-nine.
I learned all of this in undergrad, deciding that a Latino history class might help me feel that connection to my heritage. Instead, I felt more estranged, like how does this white-looking dude in Chicago relate at all to the things my family fled to avoid?
I mean, when I was thirteen, my biggest Borinquen problem was my nickname. My best friend at the time called me “Spicky” because I was the only brown kid at school. He later switched to “Jose” when I demanded he stop calling me a racial slur. This was the same kid who would tell me I wasn’t really Latino because I was half white, so what did I know about being brown? And maybe he was right. Maybe I was just trying to grab onto an identity of a place that was as foreign to me as another planet, even when I was standing on its soil. Because no matter how much I feel like someone called Spicky, I’m still just as German as he was.
The next morning, we woke up and—look, if I’m being really honest here, I was still drunk. I mean, I was undressed with a bucket of vomit in the kitchen, but I sobered up quick when the guy we were renting the house from showed up.
“Mister William, just wanted you to know that there’s a storm coming in. The main road is flooded, but the back way is still good, but if you don’t get to the highway soon, that’ll be flooded too. We’d be happy to let you rent for another day, though.”
Mister William here couldn’t afford to rent another day, so down the mountain it was.
The back way was a series of winding, narrow roads with water and mud slicing across them, and, occasionally, no guard rails on the sides with the thousand-foot drop offs. We made it to the river, which had eaten the main access road completely, and the rain was still growing stronger.
Other drivers, Puerto Rican locals, came in the other direction, turning the narrow and what I thought were one-lane roads into two lanes, passing inches away from the rental, sure of themselves and their abilities and their knowledge of the terrain. I was white-knuckled, my brakes not mattering as we hit mud slicks, the wheels not moving but the car still lurching forward. I prayed that we’d make it off the island, thinking more than ever that this trip was a mistake, that the only thing I was going to find there was an early death, the headlines back home reading “White Boy Dies in Torrential Rainstorm, Pretending to be Something He’s Not.”
And then—and I’m not sure how else to say this—the rain just stopped. We made it to the highway, then on to rest of the trip, relaxed, soaking in the sun, touring San Juan with its English speakers and tourist traps. I forgot about trying to become Puerto Rican, and started just enjoying Puerto Rico. On the plane ride home, though, I felt like I had forgotten something back on the island. Like I left with less than I had come with.
A couple months later, I talked to my grandma. It was her seventy-eighth birthday party, the entire enormous family flying in from across the country to celebrate. I told her about my trip—well, about parts of the trip—and she clapped her hands together, excited. She talked about Puerto Rico only a little bit, mostly about buying fruits or dropping groceries, little anecdotes, a misty-eyed stare taking over. She said she had only gone back a couple times and not in years. There was something else in the way she looked off in the distance, but she went back to eating and playing games and talking to the family. I thought back to the grocery store in the town that she was remembering. I thought about gustaria-ing with my phone in my hand to comprar some rum, and I felt ashamed. Alienated. A total lack of family history and of my own identity as a human, a Latino, and a Villacres—a name my family doesn’t even pronounce the right way so that it’s easier for English speakers to understand. And if I do say it right—the V like a B, the double Ls making a Y sound, the S pronounced like a Z—I get told that I’m trying too hard.
When I got back to work, we had yet another new server. This one looked, well, she looked like me. Dark, but not black hair. Tanned, but not to the point of food-analogy tan. Cheekbones in the right place. We talked, then I mentioned my trip to Puerto Rico, that I was Puerto Rican. She looked at me, smiled, and said “Me too!” Then she thought for a second, and asked, “So, do you speak Spanish?” Because, look, when I say I am asked this questions all the time, I REALLY mean that I am asked this question all the damn time.
“No,” I said, embarrassed.
“Sorry,” she said. “I hate when people ask me that. I don’t speak it either.”
And we laughed, saying nothing else for a while, comfortable in our skin and language. We were Puerto Ricans who didn’t speak Spanish, in a bar in Wrigleyville. We were connected in an identity that might not be perfect, but, at the moment, was exactly right. At the end of the shift, the bartender offered us shots.
“Anything but rum,” I said.