Friday, September 28, 2007

A list of things I brought back with me from PR

A stack of books in Spanish

A six pack of Old Colony Uva

Two six-packs of Medalla Light (thanks, Abuelo! It looks like he reads this blog!)

Two bottles of Don Q Cristal

Eight quesitos

Note for next time: bring extra duffel bag so I can re-distribute weight in my suitcase and not go over the weight limit.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Style points

While I was writing my last post, I found myself using the terms Hispanic and Latino, which I don't really feel comfortable using in most cases. I use it, however, for lack of a better term for this group of people. Other terms seem awkward, or just as inaccurate. So until I come across something better, I will continue to use Hispanic and Latino, and will use them interchangeably.

Hispanic Heritage Month opens up a can of worms

A few weeks ago I wrote about the ever-pressing issue of what we of Latin American descent are supposed to be calling ourselves (and what we're supposed to be asking others to call us). Are we Hispanics? Are we Latinos? Do we really need a catch-all term?

With September 15 - October 15 being Hispanic Heritage Month, there has been more of a dialogue regarding, uh, Latino-ness. How nice to see a month devoted to all of us Latinos, where for those four precious weeks we are held up to the nation much like a show-and-tell session and discussed. So often, discussions about how integral a particular heritage is to this country's success are somewhat superficial. I walk into my local grocery store and see a big picture of Antonia Coello Novello, right there nest to the apples, reminding me that Latinos Are Important.

So I was surprised to see an article on about how being of Latin American descent in the US is a trickier, more complicated proposition than perhaps many Latinos might think. I was surprised to see certain points being made that I had tossed around in my own head but did not believe were also entertained by many others. Moreover, it made me ask some questions of myself, and how I view this whole issue of being a Hispanic in the USA and my relationship to the rest of the people lumped into that term.

Case in point: Suzanne Oboler, a professor of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at John Jay College in New York, states that she does not believe that there is such a thing as a Latino identity. Nevermind what people outside of that group think about that -- what do Latinos themselves think about this? My first thought was that I do agree with this statement, but I also would have thought that people, say, who are Latino activists, would balk at this idea. What about Latino unity? What about la raza?

I don't believe in la raza. I believe that there are millions of us who share a similar colonizer. From her we obtained our language and some cultural idiosyncracies. But take one look at a map and you'll see that Latin America is really, really big. Top to bottom, side to side, the geographical landscape is vast and heterogeneous. Beaches. Mountains. Deserts. Rainforests. Life adapts to these different landscape and geographical traits. Indigenous populations in the Caribbean were not the same as in Central America, who were not the same as the ones in South America. Sure, there is cross-pollination: Taíno indians in the Caribbean are said to be descendants of indigenous peoples in the area now known as Venezuela. But those Venezuelan tribes became the Arawaks in the Caribbean, who then became the Caribs, and then came the Taínos. There's a lot of time and a lot of change in between that initial migration and the finished product. And that's just one small example.

Nowadays we just need to look at our cultures in their current incarnations to see that one label does not fit all. There are, say, some similarities in some of our foods, but I believe that is more often seen because of regional proximity than any kind of homogeneity across the Spanish-speaking Americas. People asking me if I had a lot of Mexican food in Puerto Rico, or even looking to me to be an arbiter of which local Mexican is the most authentic, will be greeted with the same answer: "Huh?" I may enjoy a hearty chimichanga at my local Mexican joint, and may recognize some of the flavor profiles, but not being from Mexico I could not tell you what's authentic; I can just tell you whether or not I like it.

A marketing executive cited in the article feels that there is indeed a Hispanic profile: "Those areas include interpersonal relationships (Latinos tend to emphasize family; individuality is not as important), perception of the future (the group is less driven toward goals), and spirituality (the group tends to be more fatalistic, more likely to say they have no control over their lives)." I find this argument simplistic and, frankly, more indicative of an attempt to find any similarities, any at all, in order to support a hypothesis (in this case "this will sell to Hispanics").

Another surprising statement came from a woman named Anna Rivas, who is from Colorado and the child of Mexican parents. She says that when asked where she is from, she replies, "'My parents are from Mexico.' And I don't say, 'I'm Hispanic or Latino, or I'm from Mexico,' because I'm not."

That one was a shocker to me. Not so much saying that she isn't from Mexico -- because, in fact, she is not -- but not identifying herself with her parents' ethnic background at all. But see, given what I wrote above, about not being so sure that there is a "Latino identity", why should I be surprised? This made me realize that I might subscribing to a double-standard: if I don't believe there is a single Latino identity, then why would it startle me to see that someone doesn't identify with any of it?

I think that it's not a double-standard, in the end, but another example of how none of this business is black-or-white. Here's what I still find surprising: Ms. Rivas is not the grandchild or great-grandchild of immigrants. Her own parents came from Mexico, and in one single generation any ties to the homeland seem to have been chopped off. I think of other groups in the US who countless generations after the first member of the family emigrated still feel the pull of their ancestral country's culture. Ms. Rivas doesn't expound on how this happened; perhaps her own parents decided she needed to assimilate to their new home, maybe it was her own choice, or maybe it wasn't a choice at all and it just turned out this way. Whether or not she sees herself as belonging to the larger group is not what strikes me so much, it's more the idea that a cultural link can be lost in the space of one generation.

So where does this leave Latinos in the US? I suspect we're all over the map on this: from the Latino Studies student, who may have visions of revolutionaries and la raza in his head, to the Puerto Rican who was born in New York and finds himself at a crossroads between hamburgers and arroz con pollo, to someone like Ms. Rivas who simply can't identify with her parents' home country -- nevermind identifying with the idea of being Hispanic, we're apparently all over the map. How do we start to understand each other's vastly different experiences? Just because we're not all in the same boat, does that mean that there can't be a certain level of unity? A certain level of camarederie, even if it's just predicated on the luck of conquistador's draw, that we ended up with a common backstory? I think the key here is to understand that we have not all had the same experience, that just because one person may still speak Spanish and eat rice and beans every day doesn't mean the person next to you is the same way. I think when we start to accept our differences (and to accept that we are, in fact different from each other -- this is something that is hard for many people to even acknowledge, especially those of us born and raised in Latin America, and I'd like to write about that later) hopefully it will be easier to see in which areas we do stand together.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mmm, food

A good example of why I live in Portland, thousands of miles away from home as it may be.

I like food. A lot. I love it for how it tastes, how it makes you feel when you eat it, how it represents a place. PR is in some ways defined for me by the foods I had easy access to there. Mangoes are silky but sticky, and eating them fresh and whole (not cubed up into some kind of salsa or mixed into a smoothie) is an entirely decadent affair: you'll feel like a mess, but you'll be happy you got down and dirty. Quenepas, with the gooey, sweet pulp covering a pit small enough to fit in your mouth but large enough to choke you if you're not careful, make you feel like you're playing a dangerous game: one false move, and that stone will be going places you don't want it to go. Because you can often find them being sold by the side of the road, they are often eaten in the car. Watch out for those road bumps.

Guava, passionfruit, breadfruit, yucca, yam, sweet potato, recao, cilantro, my beloved plantain. I can find many of these over in these parts, although sometimes worse for wear after a long journey. When you know what they taste like in their own environment, fresh and ready for plucking, you have a completely different idea of what these foods can really be. In PR, they may sometimes be taken for granted because of their easy availability, but that changes once you actually take a bite. No matter how many times you may have tasted these foods, the minute you taste them you close your eyes and think "That's the stuff". And then you're reminded of how good you have it.

I have traveled to a few countries here and there, and I've found that many other places share the same relationship with food that Puerto Ricans have: respect for local ingredients, and very particular ideas on how best to treat and serve them. The US has been a bit of a different experience: it's not that nowhere in this country can you find people who love and respect food, as evidenced by the rabid discussion of what makes good barbeque, or the devotion some people show to making the best pie. I find this kind of attitude to be more regional, and not necessarily shared by the country at large. I have always argued that homogeneity of thought throughout a country as large as the US is near-impossible, and I think attitudes toward food certainly fall into that category. In many places, what is thought to be more convenient and fast trumps any other consideration -- and in the land of fast food chains, there is a particular of idea of what constitutes convenient and fast. I feel that this has led to people shying away from real food, and actually getting down to the business of dealing with it hands-on, and this has come at the expense of a more personal and fulfilling relationship with what we consume.

Portland has felt, especially in the last five years or so, as a little enclave that has not only avoided that point of view, but actively tried to eradicate it. The city is surrounded by working farms, and from it come meat, produce, dairy, wines, etc. It's a veritable bounty. And people here have certainly noticed this, judging by the many farmer's markets that can be found around town. It's easier here than in other places to become attuned to what is actually in season; it's so easy to forget, since many foods can be found year-round in the supermarkets regardless of whether they are in season locally (or anywhere else, for that matter). Some local chefs have noticed this, and what started as a town that had a few restaurants that recognized the idea of eating seasonally and locally has become a town that is developing a closer, hands-on relationship to food. Also, with a growing number of people moving here from other places, Portland has started to feel a bit more worldly. That combination has yielded some of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure to try. In fact, Le Pigeon, the one pictured in the articled I linked to above is among of my top 3 favorites anywhere, and Pok Pok, another restaurant mentioned, has items on the menu such as a curry soup and fish-sauce chicken wings that sometimes drift in front of my eyes at random moments. On my first visit to Le Pigeon, we sat at a counter that faces the kitchen. I ordered a pig's tail soup, and was tempted to pick up the tail and eat it right there; however, I felt a bit embarassed to do so in public (at home it would have been another story). The chef noticed, and urged me to go ahead and pick it up, because "that's the kind of joint this is". That's my kind of joint, too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Washington Times editorial on statehood for PR

The piece can be found here.

I'm very interested in hearing opinions on this from all sides of the status spectrum. Personally, I feel that regardles of your position, this piece comes across as shockingly misinformed. Even for the Washington Times. (Insert cheeky wink here.)

One of the statements that jumped out at me the most was this line: The only complaint is that Puerto Rico has only a "resident commissioner" in Washington, who, like the representatives of the District of Columbia, Guam or American Samoa, cannot vote in Congress.

Is that truly the only complaint?

Really?! Really.

A conversation I had with someone at work this morning.

Her: So, how was your vacation?
Me: Good, I went back home to Puerto Rico.
Her: Oh, good! Did you get to eat a lot of Mexican food?
Me: Mexican food?!
Her: Yeah, Mexican food!
Me: Why Mexican food?
Her: Oh, Mexican, or whatever you guys eat down there!
Me: You mean, Puerto Rican food, since I was in Puerto Rico?
Her: Yeah!

I kept asking her why she said Mexican food, but I knew the answer. A few years ago this same person saw me bring a burrito to my desk at lunchtime and said "Oh, of course you'd be eating a burrito!" So I was well acquainted with her Hispanic=Mexican confusion.

The conversation did not end there, though.

Her: So did you see family?
Me: Yeah, I did. Unfortunately my grandmother was in the hospital, though.
Her: Oh, that's too bad. Did you know she was there beforehand?

At this point I explain that my grandmother has been ill for a while, and that a couple of days before I arrived she had to go to the hospital for a condition that is separate from her illness, but that has still kept her in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Because we work with health insurance, she asked if she has good coverage.

Me: Aside from my grandfather's insurance, she has Medicare.
Her: Medicare?!
Me: Yes, Medicare.
Her: Really? Medicare?
Me: Yes, Medicare.
Me: ....
Her: ...
Me: Puerto Ricans are US citizens.
Her: Really?!
Me: (busting out the history lesson) Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico have been granted US citizenship since 1917, through the Jones Act.
Her: Really?!
Me: Yes, really!

I finished by giving her a quick rundown of the relationship between our two esteemed countries, then walked away before I got trapped into another game of Really.

Maybe some years ago, I might have become upset at how little she knows. I have never expected anyone in the States to know the ins and outs of the PR-USA relationship -- that's hard enough even for Puerto Ricans, sometimes. But I do expect everyone to know three things: 1) That Puerto Rico is an island (and no, you can't drive here from there), 2) That it's in the Caribbean (not by Hawaii somewhere, no), and 3) that we're part of the US and citizens. I feel I should add a number 4: We are not Mexicans. Fact: many, many people are not Mexicans.

I've stopped getting upset about how little people know about an island that is actually a part of their country. But, much like I get upset with people at work or in retail who simply cannot say "I don't know" when I ask them a question, and instead make something up, I get upset with people who actually challenge me when I tell them something about my home country even though they clearly and by their own admission don't know anything about it. Yes, we have Medicare, and yes, we are citizens. You didn't know that: fine. You can't just ask me to tell you more about how that works; instead you have to be incredulous and refuse to believe me: not fine. I don't mean to make anyone feel like they can't ask me questions -- I am happy when people ask, because it shows people are interested and want to learn. However, I kindly request that they check the incredulous "really?!'s" at the door.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The end of the season for the Timbers and Islanders

On Sunday September 23rd, both the Timbers and the Islanders played Atlanta and Seattle, respectively, in the league semifinals. Both teams put up a fierce fight, but ultimately they lost and are out of the running.

I was in PR on the day that the Islanders played against Montreal and won, therefore passing from the quarterfinals to the semifinals. I enjoyed seeing the team get press coverage, as PR is more enamored with beisbol than futbol. I was, unfortunately, not able to make the game. But I did attend the Timbers match against Atlanta and even though we lost, the game was intense and the fans were loud and plentiful. During most previous matches, the only section in the park where people stand and clap and cheer loudly is where the Timbers Army sits, but last night more than half the park stood and clapped along to the chants the Army was singing. It was great to finally feel that people were throwing aside inhibitions (or general laziness) and getting loud and raucous. Sometimes I feel that Portland is a little too laid back, and showing a lot of excitement and exuberance just isn't part of this town's personality. Seeing even soccer moms get up and yell at the referees was pretty cool to watch. And, according to today's Oregonian, "Atlanta coach Jason Smith said the 11,789 spectators that filled the stadium Sunday were so loud that he gave up trying to shout instructions to his players from the sidelines."

The game ended 0-0, and went into extra time. No one scored then, either, so the next step was to go to penalty kicks to force a decision. Our much-loved goalkeeper didn't keep out enough goals, so Atlanta won. Because my old camera (old=3 years old; I shake my fist at you, technology) crapped out on me I couldn't take pictures of my own, so I thought I'd post two pictures taken by a fellow Army member that captured both the euphoria during the game and the dissapointment of the ending. Her pictures were better than anything I could have taken, anyway.

The Timbers Army:

Our goalkeeper, Josh Wicks, after the match:

More of Allison's pictures at

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The long goodbye

The act of saying goodbye, or despedida, has been constantly present in my life. As the child of divorced parents who lived thousands of miles apart, I spent my childhood saying goodbye to one in order to be able to greet the other. I lived with my mother, and when the moment came to get on a plane to see my father, I knew I'd miss her. And I did indeed miss her, but I was also happy to see my dad. When it came time to go back home, leaving someone whom I managed to see only for a few days a year, I dealt with the conflicting emotions of being sad to leave one and happy to see the other.

Given this childhood game of Pong, it would have been natural to not want to experience despedidas again as long as I could help it. But even through this I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to travel -- and not just travel, but live in different places. Spending a week somewhere just didn't seem like enough to me; how would I know how life really was in other places if I didn't commit to the experience and see a city through the eyes of someone who lives through the good, the bad, and the ugly of a place? So when I went to college, I went off to New York.

By then I also had a younger sister who was young enough to have a hard time understanding these comings and goings. Goodbyes at this stage were no longer bittersweet, but heartwrenching affairs with tears and assurances that we would see each other again soon. Which we did -- it's not like New York is a world away -- but extended absences were nonetheless difficult.

By the time I graduated from college, I was fairly certain that I'd be making my life in the US. Then I got happy feet, and decided I wanted to leave New York. Rather than choosing another East Coast city, which would be as close to PR as I could get within the US, I headed off to the West Coast. In other words, a longer flight and much more expensive plane ticket away.

It's not that I was making these decisions on a whim. Well, to be honest, it's a lot easier to be nomadic when you're still relatively responsibilty-free, and the world has yet to put the fear of God in you. But I had at least some actual reasons other than wanderlust: having been accepted to a great school, the knowledge that my job prospects back home were not the same as in the mainland, a general feeling that being on my own was starting to become integral to who I was becoming. I say "general feeling" on that last one because I certainly wasn't thinking in those terms when I was 22 years old, but I had that idea knocking around inside my brain and driving my choices.

I moved to Florida in 2004 as a way to get back to that middle ground I had in NY, where I was still on my own but close to home. I said goodbye to a town I loved in order to try to recapture something I had in the past, and probably took for granted. When that didn't work out, saying goodbye to that hope was a blow, but I was also looking forward to coming back to Portland; there I had a settled life, with a job and good friends.

Nowadays I try -- and so far have succeeded -- to get back home once a year. In my NY and FL days it was more often than that, but I suppose it's much better than other people get. Very often I make these trips home by myself because it's cost-prohibitive for Dave and I to both go. Much like when I was a kid, traveling between my mom and dad, saying goodbye to Dave is bittersweet. And even more so is the despedida when I come back to Portland.

But something new has been happening in the last few years that has started to change the dynamic of my now-familiar hello-goodbye ritual. Through no fault of my own, and without my permission, the life I have come to expect to step into when I go back home has been changing with every visit. Children get older and get actual lives. The landscape changes with every new road and neighborhood that is built in areas that had nothing before. My once-vivacious and unstoppable grandmother aged and became ill. Other family members have real-life problems to contend with. That is not how it used to be, back when I came home every few months and everything was the same as when I lived there. So now the question is not just how will I deal with the despedida, but also what will I find upon my arrival?

A year has not gone by in which I have not seen the inside of an airport. Between the shuttle flights of my childhood and the bouncing around of my adulthood, I've seen my fair share. One of my favorite things to do while I sit at a gate, or wait at a security checkpoint, is watch people as they say goodbye to each other. How they stay chat casually but somewhat tensely, close together until the last possible minute, until only the traveler is allowed to move on. If others are allowed into the gate, how they furtively watch the clock as it moves towards boarding time. How they hug, sometimes cry, sometimes remain dry-eyed and making a visible effort to remain so. Some people will hold their loved one's face and wish them a safe flight, but it's clear that they probably want to say so much more than that. Hell, sometimes you can tell they actually want to say goodbye. But no matter what, it's never an every-day affair. And during the never-ending wait for my luggage when I arrive, watching people find each other and squeal with happiness, or watching those who are alone step out into the street and look around hesitantly, the different aspects of arrivals carry their own stories too.

It all reminds me that despedidas are not just the story of my life, but a plain old fact of life. You can't get away without saying goodbye to something or someone in your life at least once. That traveler, the one in the middle who knows what they're leaving and may or may not know what they're heading towards, will one day be you. But it's the greeting, whether it be of people on the other side, or a new city, or a new stage in your life, that puts those goodbyes in perspective. I have never been able to say goodbye without also eagerly expecting what's on the other side. If I didn't, I suspect I would have given up a long time ago.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

No autographs, please

In 2004 Dave and I spent a month in Europe, wandering about with too-small duffel bags and very large memory cards in our camera. Two of my pictures from that vacation were chosen for an online travel guide,, to accompany blurbs on Barceloneta (a coastal area in Barcelona, not the town in PR!) and the San Siro stadium in Milan. The pictures should appear on the right hand side of the page.

They're not paying me or anything - it's all for the love of travel, photography, and 15 minutes of lukewarm fame.