New York Ricans Come of Age

Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court may do wonders to change the image of New York Ricans.

When I moved to Puerto Rico from New York as a teen in 1972, the term New York Rican was just catching on. It was spelled many different ways: Neorican, which I kind of like because it means New Puerto Rican; Nuyorican, from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe co-started by Miguel Algarin, under whom I learned Shakespeare at Rutgers University; or New York Rican.

Whichever way you spell it, I never wanted it applied to me. The term was dismissive, as in "You're not really Puerto Rican. You come from someplace else. You are not like us." That hurt.

Many stateside-born Puerto Ricans spoke little or no Spanish. If we did speak Spanish, more often than not it was broken Spanish. We had an urban sensibility versus a suburban one, which is prevalent in Puerto Rico. We were more aggressive, as people in the states tend to be. We wore torn up jeans when nobody else did. The girls wore shorts when it was considered indecent to wear shorts to sit on your own front porch. We were delinquents, or so they said. We stood out.

It was a confusing time. If I'm not Puerto Rican, then what am I? Gradually, over time, that feeling wore off as my Spanish improved. I graduated from high school in Puerto Rico, eventually married and gave birth to my daughter there. I acculturated and became more like an island Pueto Rican.

I thought this was behind me--until I reached Orlando, a city rare among places where Puerto Ricans have migrated. In Orlando, you find Puerto Ricans from the island who may or may not have lived in the states before, and Puerto Ricans from the states, who may or may not be familiar with the island, who may or may not speak Spanish.

There was a cultural divide, and so I did what any other good journalist would do: I wrote about it. 'Pa qué fue eso?

It unleashed a furor among some folks who didn't want our laundry aired in public. I was pilloried on Spanish-language radio, particularly on the Quédate con Miguel show when Don Miguel himself was still alive. He characterized Puerto Ricans from the island de pura cepa. So where did that leave the rest of us?

I boiled it down to this: Island Puerto Ricans look at stateside Puerto Ricans and see what they may become or what their children may become, and they don't like it. Stateside Puerto Ricans look at island Puerto Ricans and see the generation gap with their parents or grandparents.

None of this should matter in Orlando, or any other city, because we all want the same things: decent housing, good schools, a well-paying job. The outside world doesn't care about these petty differences. And neither should we.

Then along comes Sonia Sotomayor, a New York Rican from El Bronx, who never lived in Puerto Rico and never went to school there, who probably doesn't speak perfect Spanish, probably can't tell Aibonito from Aguada or Manatí from Maunabo. Still, Sotomayor is a person of which we can all be proud. She's going to recalibrate things.

She exemplifies the street smarts, the potential and the gritty determination New York Ricans always had--and few people saw. Sure, there have been many successful New York Ricans, but the U.S. Supreme Court is big. Really big.

And so I say; Thanks, Sonia Sotomayor, for helping to close the cultural divide.

Photo credit: A flag flies in Brooklyn. New York City Department of Public Planning.

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