Tuesday, September 25, 2007

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.
Her: But....how?
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.


Don Luis said...

I loved this post, since I got these same questions (and many more) in the months before I moved here from Boston.

But Puerto Rico a part of the United States? I suppose, in the same way the US was once a part of England. Puerto Rican status is always a huge debate here. I posted a little about that here.

Judith said...

Hi, Jen. Found your blog a few days ago and have read your old posts.

I am Puerto Rican too. Lived almost 20 years in Eugene, OR and now live in NYC. I adore Oregon and even though I have not been there for 12 years my heart still aches for the Pacific Northwest. But then I read posts like today's and remember the reason I had to leave.

I don't mind people not knowing things, but the "really's" and the outright not believing we Puerto Ricans are "civilized" just wore down my soul (and that of my sons).

I have so many stories like yours today that I cannot even begin, but the part that most hurt me was being treated like I was mentally deficient because I have an accent. I am an attorney, graduated from UofO and when people found out they either did not believe me or said I must have gone to law school in PR (not that there is anything wrong with that!)

Anyway...basta de quejas. A pesar de todo, Oregon es precioso y hay mucha gente excelente y sin prejuicios.

PS Tell don Luis to update his blog. I am interested in looking at the other side of the coin.

Jen said...

Don Luis, I don't mean to imply that we are a part of the US as fully (either legally or culturally) as any of the 50 states, but that we are tied to them. We are citizens even if we are born on the island, we are bound by federal laws, we use their currency, etc. The US under England was a colony, and although I don't want to debate as to whether we are one as well (as that is a huge cluster&*^% of a debate), I think the general concept of "territory" is what I was getting at - not a full-fledged part of the US, but linked to it enough that people in the US should probably be aware that there is indeed a relationship between the US and PR. And per popular request, update your blog, man! ;)

Judith, welcome! I'm sorry to hear that you had so many experiences like the one I posted about over in these parts. I can't say I know much about how things are in Eugene, other than I was under the impression that people there were more open-minded than perhaps much of the rest of the state. I have found that in Portland people are much more sensitive to cultural issues, but they also still have a ways to go. I have found none of it to be malicious, just, well, clueless. With the rapidly-growing Hispanic population, though, that may soon change.

Don Luis said...

I hope you know I meant no offense in any way. It's just a frequent topic of conversation here, and I find it interesting.

Judith said...

You are right, most people in Eugene truly try to be sensitive and respectful of cultural differences. In fact, many are truly amazing people. That is why it hurt so much when, for example, I walked into a government office with a client and almost always it was assumed that the attorney was the "American" and not me. Or the client who, on learning I was Puerto Rican, said "I'm sorry." Or when UofO called to inquire about my twins intention to attend or not and I mentioned the schools they had chosen (two really fancy schools in the East Coast) I was asked "Are you sure?"

At the time I was able to laugh it off, but the accumulation of 20 years just wore me down.

Sorry to be so long-winded but this is a very sore point for me and I was never able to discuss it with anyone.