A recent study found Floridians of Puerto Rican descent experienced “secondary trauma” from the storm, but also a renewed sense of identity and purpose. In this article, “Super Gringa” writes about art as a way to reclaim lost identity.
I’m Puerto Rican. But I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico. My parents were. They migrated with their families to New York in the 1940s, along with hundreds of thousands other Puerto Ricans looking for better economic opportunities. They retired in Orlando, Florida in the 1980s.
“After 23 years in the NYPD,” says my dad, “I was able to retire, and I’d had enough of the cold.”
More than 30 years later, I have made a tradition of being here every winter, to escape the below zero temperatures of the Northeast. I know. How bougie of me. But I work remotely. So I can live wherever I want. And anyone who lives this digital nomad/virtual gypsy lifestyle uses Airbnb or Couchsurfing to find temporary homes, Uber and Wanderu for rides, Citibikes for sightseeing and Tinder for meeting people and conducting market research:
- “Oh. I didn’t realize you are Puerto Rican,” said Match #1, who I screened via phone before taking him on a bike ride through all my old neighborhoods. He had migrated to Orlando 15 years ago from Chicago and described certain neighborhoods as “bad,” one of which was Bithlo. Yeah, back in the day, I thought it was “bad,” too, but for different reasons. It was as red necky as it sounds. But I found it’s now pronounced “Beeethlo,” because it’s majority Puerto Rican…which I guess to him equals “bad.”
- “Eres Boricua? En Orlando hay tanto… pero son cafres (low class),” said Match #2, who called me through Whatsapp because he is a Colombian international student (yes, that’s me stereotyping his choice of communication platform). He has lived in Orlando for three years and was delightfully forcing me to speak my mocho Spanish, which led to the question I always get, “De donde eres?” At least he complimented me on my Spanish.
- “I think I’m the only Puerto Rican to win Jeopardy,” said Match #3. I was impressed by his Jeopardy smarts, so I called him a “Nerdirican,” which he then defined as, “Puerto Ricans who don’t beat their hoes.”
- “Oh hell…you’re Puerto Rican? I’m in trouble,” texted Match #4, who migrated to Orlando from Wisconsin two years ago.
When I string these comments together, they paint a tiny picture of Orlando’s place in the Ricanstruction story post Hurricane Maria, and the longer, historical story of Puerto Rican migration. Whether from the Midwest or South America, or local, each guy had some kind of idea about what it means to be Puerto Rican, and it seemed to be ALL negative. You may ask if I baited them with profile pics of me waving a Puerto Rican flag in my profile pictures, but no. I did not. Each one of them brought up identity first, and without shame, they expressed their negative reactions and stereotypes toward Puerto Ricans. Is it because so many Puerto Ricans moved to Orlando after Hurricane Maria? Hmmm. Maybe. But Orlando had already become the largest Puerto Rican diaspora on the mainland, more than any other region in the US, long before Maria hit the island in 2017.
Thirty years ago, long before Maria, is when my family first arrived to Orlando from New York. At that time, there were a handful of Puerto Ricans here. The Riveras lived down the street. The Rios’s lived in the neighboring subdivision. But for the most part, East Orlando, about 20 miles from Disney World and the tourist attractions, was mostly gringo, and my middle school reflected those demographics.
Once I got to Winter Park High School (WPHS), established in 1923, there was a clear hierarchy of privilege. The school had such an esteemed reputation, wealthy families yanked their kids from private schools to attend this highly ranked public school. According to the Wikis, in 2008, Winter Park High School was listed at 160 in Newsweek’s 1,200 Top U.S. Schools, with the criteria being which schools have the largest percentage of students taking Honors Advanced Placement classes or International Baccalaureate exams. In 2011, The Washington Post’s annual ranking of American high schools identified WPHS as #156 in the country.
Puerto Rican kids like me in the early 1990s were lucky to be there. We were bused in from the outskirts of Winter Park. You would think I would be all paisan with the other Puerto Rican kids, but no. I learned to avoid the “Puerto Rican” hallway so I wouldn’t get harassed with air kisses and “Ay, Mami, ven-ca.” I learned to blend into my all-white AP calculus class and water polo team. I know. How bougie of me to take advanced placement classes and play a sport with the word “polo” in it. Then I graduated. Most of my peer group left to attend Ivy Leagues, Stanford, or Duke. Me? I was lucky enough to get a full tuition scholarship at a tiny Liberal Arts college in South Florida. Cuz in my family, parents don’t have money for college, and we were expected to be creative, innovative, industrious, hard-working…and most of all, educated enough to navigate the complex world of reality, just like they did when they immigrated from Puerto Rico to New York in the 1940s…without education.
Over the next 10-20 years, my aunts and uncles and cousins and their kids moved here, from the Bronx, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and South Florida. My parents were trendsetters, apparently. In 2019, there are more Puerto Ricans in Orlando than New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut or Puerto Rico. In other words, homeboy who just moved here two years ago from Wisconsin, who stereotyped me as “trouble,” is the minority. And little Colombian international student at the University of Central Florida who calls Puerto Ricans “cafre,” ie, low class, kind of deserves a Tinder-slap in the face. But hey, that would only prove his point, AND I’m the one who avoided the “Puerto Rican” hallways when I was in high school, so who am I to talk?
This is where Ricanstruction comes in. It’s not just a process of rebuilding the island after Hurricane Maria. It’s a process of reconstructing our identity, whether we live on the island or the mainland. A recent study of Floridians of Puerto Rican descent found we experienced “secondary trauma” from the storm, but also a renewed sense of identity and purpose.
“Mainland Puerto Ricans felt strengthened by the support they provided and received and by the belief that Puerto Ricans are resilient and strong-minded,” the report states. “For them, the storm strengthened their cultural pride and made them more determined to help and serve the island.
From personal experience, this study resonates with me – it’s what made me go to Puerto Rico last year to do relief work for a week and interview local nonprofits that were distributing gravity lights to people who still didn’t have power. But you can see a more prominent, public expression of this sentiment in Lin Manuel Miranda’s effort to bring his smash Broadway hit, “Hamilton” to the island. Like me, Lin Manuel Miranda’s parents are from the island, and he felt the call to do something positive with his education and talent. He is also aware that his blood line back to Puerto Rico IS his identity. In addition to bringing joy to the people at $10 per ticket, he raised money for his Flamboyan Arts Fund by selling overpriced tickets for $5,000, $4,593 of which supports the arts community in Puerto Rico.
If only the Tinder guys knew how beautiful our island is, that it inspires us so much to the point our biggest cultural export is our art and music. Perhaps soon they will stop calling us “cafre” or “trouble.” And instead, they will call us “inspiring.”