Saturday, July 28, 2007

Aunque partiré muy lejos, algún día volveré

Deja de llorar chiquilla
Deja de llorar mi amor
Aunque partiré muy lejos
Algún día volveré por ti mi amor

Te tengo que dejar
Mi barco zarpará
Me duele el corazón
Más tengo que partir

La vida fue muy cruel
Borrando nuestro ayer
Contigo fui feliz
Jamás te olvidare.

--Deja de llorar

I've been hooked on watching The Sopranos on DVD for a few weeks now. Up till then, I'd only seen random episodes of the show, and now I'm committed to powering through the entire series.

Today I was watching a couple of episodes from Season Three - "Amour Fou" and "An Army of One". I found myself strangely mirroring some of the characters. For example, in Amour Fou, Carmela Soprano finds herself crying at the drop of a hat. The first time they show her crying, she's with her daughter Meadow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She comes across a Renaissance-era painting that she finds so beautiful, it makes her cry. I was an art history major in college, and although I've not done much in the field since I graduated, I've kept my interest in art alive; the Italian Renaissance is one of my favorite eras. How nice, I thought, she found a painting that moved her to tears. I've been there. Later, however, she's watching a maudlin commercial where the narrator is waxing poetic about man's best friend. Cute dogs are panned-and-scanned in slow motion, and Carmela starts to tear up. In the same serious baritone, the narrator identifies it as a Pedigree dog food commercial, and suddenly the spell is broken. "What's wrong with me?", Carmela says to herself as she shakes her head and gets up from the couch. I laughed, because recently I found myself moved to tears by an ASPCA commercial with lots of slo-mo scenes of doggies and kitties. Carmela, I feel ya.

I watched the rest of the episode and moved on to "An Army of One". In this one, a young man who is close to the Sopranos is killed. Grief, guilt, and tension are very high. After the funeral, friends and family congregate at their usual Italian restaurant. Uncle Junior is shown at a remote table, singing along while someone else plays guitar. He's got a great voice, and soon the guests are asking him to sing for them. He complies, and begins to sing, in Italian, a heartfelt song about ungrateful hearts.

Everything settles down to a quiet stillness as Uncle Junior sings his heart out. In PR we would call this kind of song corta-venas - vein-slashing. Macabre, yes, but it captures the feeling of lovelorn despair that apparently is not limited to old-timey ballads in Spanish. All the guests are Italian - some having been born there, others were at least second-generation - and in their eyes, glazed over and staring into the general distance, you can see their thoughts are now elsewhere. Some were even tearing up. In a moment of sadness and personal loss, it seems amazing to me that people instinctively turn to things that remind them of home. Whether it be their actual home or ancestral, it's almost like the sounds and tastes of our culture are imprinted in our DNA. They come to our rescue when we need them by helping us bond with others, and comforting us with good memories. The spell was not even broken when Meadow, all giggly-drunk, starts to throw pieces of bread in Uncle Junior's direction. Her father chased her down, but everyone else remained in tune to their nostalgic reverie.

Even I teared up (this time for a reason!), because although I'm not Italian, I recognized what was happening. And as I thought about how universal that scene was, so recognized by people whose home is elsewhere, the sound of Junior singing faded away and other songs started playing. A French ballad, Parlez-moi d'amour, and then a bolero called La enramada - both songs also about ungrateful hearts. The themes echoed each other, but the digression into other languages came together with how the scene was affecting me. Either I had read the show's mind or it had read mine.

*Aunque partiré muy lejos, algún día volveré - Although I've gone far away, one day I will return

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Florida Experience

The following is a list of what I miss about Florida. I lived there for about 18 months, and while I find that in general I'm more of a Portland kinda gal than a Floridian, there are things about it that I miss. These...are those things. (insert Law & Order "bum bum" sound).

Hanging out at my dad's place - One of the best things about having spent time in Florida was getting to see more of my dad, my stepmom Ellen, and siblings Billy and Lindsay. Well, my brother Billy was out living his own life in Orlando - how dare he - but I still saw him more times than if, say, I had not been in Florida. But I particularly enjoyed heading over to my dad's place, sitting by the pool with him, Ellen, Dave, occasionally Lindsay, and several appetizers and bottles of wine. The best appetizer was velveeta and Rotel melted in a small crockpot and eaten with scooped Fritos. Scooped Fritos, not regular Fritos. I also enjoyed how, the more wine was consumed, the louder we got. There was one topic of conversation which, I dare say, made an appearance at each and every gathering in one form or another - Puerto Rico's status. That one got especially loud.

La Granja - I actually expected to find better Cuban food down there than I actually got, but I think we were too far from Miami-Dade. But La Granja, man, that was a good place to get rotisserie chicken. Now, I don't know what Cubans call rotisserie chicken, but Puerto Ricans call it BBQ. It's not BBQ, I know. But we call it that anyway. So, a tub of black beans, a tub of yellow rice, and a mess o' BBQ chicken. Damn.

Cuban food delivered to your office - There was a Cuban restaurant that delivered to the office park where I worked. Not just lunch, but breakfast too. Cubanos, scrambled eggs with toasted Cuban bread, tostones, oh my! Did you know that the sweetener in café con leche is actually crack?

Short flights to PR - There is nothing like being able to wake up at a decent hour, go to the airport, hop on a plane, and be walking into the wall o'humidity that greets you just outside the San Juan airport's doors three hours later. A weekend jaunt to see the fam? Easy. No interminable flights, no layovers, no wasting a whole day of your vacation just to get to your destination. And the best part - only having to put up with rowdy Puerto Rican passengers for three hours instead of 5 or 6. Such as those who get pissed and cry discrimination when the flight attendant tells them that Courvoisier is only available in first class, and not in coach. Listen, pana, if you want to get fancy with the liquor you're just going to chug down anyway, plunk down the cash and go harass the passengers in first class. They get their own bathrooms, too, it's really much better up there.

Hoochie mamas - Oh my God. I thought Puerto Rican women had a penchant towards dressing somewhat inappropriately. Let me describe some of the things I saw: women going to job interviews in miniskirts and fuck-me stiletto heels, women wandering the aisles of Marshall's in shorts where you could - seriously - see their buttcheeks hanging out, women running a quick errand in bikini tops. Extra points for spotting a hoochie mama who was also tanned to a matte leather finish. Some of these women were not physically equipped to be making these fashion choices; in fact, most of these hoochie mamas did not, in any way, have any business flashing anyone their cottage cheese asses. And if they thought that showing their cleavage and crossing their legs Basic Instinct-style was going to get them the job - well, some of them may actually have been right. They did get jobs. I wonder if that would work in Portland.

Publix Brand Fruit Sorbet - I bought it on a lark, because it's a store brand and therefore cheaper. But you'd never know it's generic - they actually tasted like the fruits they were supposed to be made out of. They had various flavors, but being the simple kinda gal that I am, my favorite was Orange.

Beaches you can swim in - In Oregon, you don't call it "the beach". You call it "the coast". You don't really go swimming up here, because the water is usually too choppy and cold. But even in the summer, you don't see people laying out in bikinis, working on their tans. People go to the coast to relax, fly kites, let their dogs run, and just stare out into the ocean. It's very nice and I can appreciate it, but I'm a run-into-the-water-swim-then-run-back-to-my-towel-and-drink-a-cold-beverage-under-a-blazing-sun type of beachgoer. Florida can provide that. Oregon, sadly, cannot. Sorry, Oregon.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bilingual, like a reptile

After a few years of not listening to his music, I've rediscovered Joan Manuel Serrat. For many years - and probably still - he was at the center of the tug-of-war between Spanish and Catalan in his native Spain. He entered the Eurovision song contest in 1968, wanting to sing a version of a Spanish-language song in Catalan, but the Generalísimo Francisco Franco, then dictator of Spain, forbade it. He criminalized the mere act of speaking Catalan, deeming it to be divisive and an act of hostility against the unity of Spain. Serrat became somewhat of a poster boy for the Catalan struggle. Eventually, it got to the point where he would be criticized for whichever language he chose to sing in - if he sang in Catalan, he was seen as supporting a section of the country that was secessionist, and if he sang in Spanish, his fellow Catalans deemed him a sell-out.

In 1974 he left Spain and moved to Mexico as an exile of the Franco regime, due to his refusal to abandon Catalan. He returned the next year, when Franco died. As tied as he has been to the language of Catalonia, and as much as he sacrificed for it, he did not abandon Spanish either; he never allowed anyone to tell him in which language he should sing.

Recently I read his explanation for his linguistic to-and-fro:

Soy bilingüe, como los reptiles.Aunque me reconozco catalán, soy
mestizo; y, por mi origen, escribir y cantar en castellano es también
una manera natural de expresarme a la que no estoy dispuesto a
renunciar, de la misma forma como jamás pensé en dejar de escribir y
cantar en catalán. Si alguna vez alguien me preguntó en cual de las dos
lenguas me expresaba mejor, mi respuesta fue que siempre me expreso más
a gusto en la que me prohíben hacerlo.

I am bilingual, like reptiles. Even though I see myself as Catalan, I am a mestizo; because of my origins, to write and sing in Spanish is also a natural way of expressing myself which I am not willing to renounce, in the same way that I never thought of to stop writing and singing in Catalan. If at any time someone asked me in which of the two languages I expressed myself best, my answer was that I express myself best in the language that is forbidden to me.


Friday, July 13, 2007

The ties that bind

I read this essay by novelist Diana Abu-Jaber, who is the daughter of a Jordanian immigrant and has lived between the US and Jordan. It discusses how cultural ties really do bind, and not always in the positive sense of the word. Whether it be people from outside your community who pigeonhole you based on your background, or members of your community who insist that they can only relate to you within the context of your shared culture, sometimes it's hard to get away from an identity that is one-dimensional and doesn't represent the entire person.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Fences in the sky

The Minutemen, a group of civilians who volunteer to patrol sections of the border between the US and Mexico and build fences to keep illegal immigrants out, claim that one of their aims is to reduce the amout of drugs smuggled into the US across the border. They state that their presence has slowed down drug smuggling "considerably".

Today's front page headline on is Drug flights surge in Caribbean en route to U.S. The byline is from the Dominican Republic, and apparently the Rep Dom and Haiti are becoming a "drug smuggler's haven", with drug-stuffed airplanes departing in greater numbers over the last four years.

The last sentence in the article: "With the surge in drug flights, it's hard for the Dominican Republic to stop the drugs from getting in, and it's also hard to stop the drugs from getting out to the next stop in the drug pipeline -- Puerto Rico." Yeah, we all knew that, but seeing it trumpeted nationally like that is kind of, um, ouch.

The next frontier in border security: air patrols between the East Coast and the Caribbean.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

California: Not listening to John Gibson

According to a study conducted by the State of California, by 2050 Latinos are poised to become the largest ethnic group in the state. The rise goes together with an expected increase in the general population of 75% over current numbers.

If I ever watch Fox news, it'll be to see if John Gibson issues another plea to "people of European ancestry" to breed more. Hey! I'm of European ancestry! No hay problema, Johnny, I can heed your call. Eventually.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Identify Yourself!

Sometimes people ask me if I prefer to be called Hispanic or Latina. It's becoming more well-known that people from Spanish-speaking countries (or their descendants) have preferences for one or the other. So they either worry that they will call me something I consider un-PC, or they're simply curious as to what's considered appropriate.

I am the first to admit that I am just as confused as your average American about this whole thing. In PR it wasn't an issue whether I was Hispanic or Latina - I was just Puerto Rican. No big whoop. In living in the States for a while, I've discovered that to some this is indeed a pretty big whoop, and it would behoove me to be aware of that.

The etymologies of both words, and which countries they include, can get a bit complicated. As a generalized definition, Hispanic refers to people of Spanish-speaking origin and originates from Hispania, the name for the Iberian peninsula; the term was coined by the US government for census purposes to classify people of Spanish-speaking origin or descent. Latino is a bit more complicated: It is a shortening of "Latin American", but it shares its name with people of latinate descent, which includes those who speak Romance languages. Therefore, the French and Italians, for example, are "latin". This etymology is what engendered the name "Latin America", but nowadays there is obviously a difference between latin and Latino.

There is a concern that both words can be exclusionary. Hispanic, by virtue of the word's relationship to Spain and its language, excludes Brazilians. Latino can include Brazilians because their language is latinate. But wait! Brazil was colonized by Portugal, which is part of the Iberian pensinsula - so, technically speaking, they could be called Hispanics as well. In common usage, however, Hispanic is synonymous with "Spanish-speaking", which ends up leaving Brazilians out. Also in common usage, Latino excludes Spaniards, even though their language is latinate. However! Latino's etymology points back to Europe as well because it references Romance languages. The link to Spain with the term Hispanic is okay with some, but offensive to others who want to get away from a legacy of colonialism - these people may choose to call themselves Latinos, even though that term is also bound with colonialism. But because Latino is a word that riginated at a grass-roots level, as opposed to a word like Hispanic which was coined by the government, it is seen by some as more politically correct. In the end, though, opponents of either word have similar reasons for being against either term. Confusing? ¡!

A lot of the reasons for prefering one term over the other are not going to be common knowledge for those who do not belong to that culture. How would Bob from Iowa know why the relationship to Spain may chafe some and not others? All he knows is that he heard somewhere that one term was preferable over the other, but he can't remember which one, or why. So if he is at all inclined towards being politically correct, he'll stammer a bit when talking to a Spanish-speaker, until he finally asks, sheepishly, "Which term do you prefer?"

I don't really make it any easier on the Bobs of the world, because I call myself a Puerto Rican and that's it. Having to think so hard about which label to assign to myself irritates me, and I'll be damned if I have to start worrying about what a fellow Hispanolatinowhatever thinks of my political sensibilities just because of what I choose to call myself. I understand that words are powerful, even though we are taught early on that they can never hurt you in the way, say, sticks and stones can. But when I try to weigh one word against the other, I come up with a draw. To me, they cancel each other out.

What confuses me the most is that Spanish speakers in Latin America routinely call themselves, as a group, hispanos. Some also say latino, but in general I never detected an animosity towards either word. Both were used interchangeably and with no emotional baggage.

I can't expect people to be able to pinpoint that I am Puerto Rican, just like I can't always be expected to identify the individual countries of origin of people who are, say, Asian. But, like Thomas Jefferson, who identified himself as a Virginian first and an American second, if I have to identify myself to someone, I start out with Puerto Rican. If I am asked which term I prefer, I say I don't care. Because, guess what? I really don't. Nitpicking two words to the point where both end up revealing that their similarities outnumber their differences makes me feel as though I am struggling to establish a cultural identity - and to be honest, I am not a part of that struggle. And to be even more honest, it makes me sad that people feel like they need to engage in that struggle. Culture is something you carry with you, and struggling to define it in such detail seems anathema to the whole idea of culture. Culture is home, it's what calls out to you on the most basic of levels - and it shouldn't have to involve this much work.