Boricua and Beyond

You always want the words to spill out effortlessly, as a wave of thoughts and philosophizations hit so do the words to describe it. And so much of my life has been able to effortlessly explain my thoughts, my epiphanies, deep contemplations. Yet I more lately find myself confounded by the amount of things that I cannot put into words, it’s a new frustration that castrates the supporting elements of my creative phallus. 

I have never been a stranger to pain. As broody as that may sound, it is an honest assessment. Pain as I’ve known it has reared itself in many different forms; there is physical pain, there is pain derived from having loved (and lost), pain that comes from sympathy, pain that is remembered through empathy, pain as a result of family, pain at the hands of friends, pain which you cause yourself…. the list is not conclusive until the final conclusion.

As I’ve said, I’ve known my fair share of pain, which, for better or worse I am thankful for. Not necessarily because of that cliché mentality: the pain allows you rejoice in the ‘good’. More so because pain can make you feel so terrifyingly alive.

I remember being asked once, many years ago, which literary character I most identified with. At first, I was excited by the question, I anticipated it would be easy to answer…. let me just think. The second hand swirled around the clock and I scanned through the different heroines of my literary arsenal. As I flipped through the catalogue, I couldn’t say that I ‘identified’ – truly felt understood and inversely explained by and through any of the characters. I was no Elizabeth Bennet, though perhaps I had her wit. I was no Hester Prynne, though perhaps I had her resolve. I was no Edna Pontellier, Jo Bhaer…. admittedly I could have been reading the wrong books. Now whenever I read a novel, I find myself hungrily searching for that character to answer the lingering question.

But Junot Díaz, I owe you a kiss. The answer isn’t finite, question is not closed. Yet what was such an obvious puzzle piece that was once missing is now found.

“It didn’t happen overnight. Yes, the wilderness  was in me, yes it kept my heart beating fast all day long, yes it danced around me while I walked down the street, yes it let me look boys straight in the face when they stared at me, yes it turned my laugh from a cough into a long wild fever, but I was still scared. How could I not be?” – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 

I’ve called it so many different things over the years respective to the moment and to its intensity: the itch, the feeling, the pressing, the anxiety, the call…. pero esa Lola… she called it ‘the wildnerness’. It’s this gnawing sensation that intrusively shows up, fighting its way against yourself and your attempts to submerge it. It’s this true-self of yours that you always suspected existed, but are both at once fearful and anxious about. It submerged for different reasons. For me, those reason have a lot to do with the confusion of being bi-racial and going to schools that were predominantly white. It’s hard enough figuring out what it means to be Puerto Rican despite being surrounded by those family members… tack on being Haitian – the darkest of the family (my grandma still thinks calling me her ‘negrita’ is a term of endearment) with no true link and consequently, understanding to that side of identity. Then, within protruding through those spheres is this more complicated beam of ‘self’, and I mean that in the most philosophical way possible. We can extract and unravel the Kantisms of the self in relation to the mind in relation to a priori knowledge in relation to the soul. Or I can simplify and say, that beyond delineating what it means to be Puerto Rican, to be Hatian, to be a Puerto-Hatian – what did does it mean to be me?

As I read Díaz’s piece and chew on the Lord of the Rings, Marvel Universe, and Star Trek metaphors (among the many others that fly even above my radar — never been a D&D kind of girl) I laugh at the reference but then wince at the remembrance of the pain that Díaz uses Oscar to hint at. The disqualification from your ethnic heritage because your self in some which way contradicts the paradigm set forth by your culture…. I’m familiar with it all too well. I wasn’t a smart bookish boy of color in a contemporary U.S. ghetto, but I was a smart bookish girl of color in a stagnant U.S. suburb. One that, to be frank, bussed in other kids of color from the surrounding ‘disadvantaged’ Connecticut cities to help with the whole diversity problem. Therein lied what I now know was my first paradox: on one end there was this want to fit in with the white kids (after all I sure did love the Series of Unfortunate Events) and on the other was the want to feel the sense of belonging to my fellow Latinas. Those Latinas, which became the suburban ambassadors of Puerto Rican culture thereby defined it – and because such it would remain defined through pocketless-denim jeans, giant bamboo earrings, gold-encrusted name jewelry, a propensity and readiness to ‘throw down’, and of course a sexual allure of being experienced for your age (even if it was sixth grade). Was this my culture? To all my other classmates it was, and it became painfully clear to me that to them I in no way fit such a culture. Best believe I asked for Timberlands that Christmas.

Eventually, you can’t keep running to keep up with an image that isn’t you. And so I did. In doing so, I was disqualified from being Puerto Rican. For the rest of my academic career, in nearly every school I went to. The Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Colombians didn’t want me at their table. And rest assured neither did the Morenas. I was rejected. So in turn, I would reject them for the rest of my high school career – expect a change in my college career, not see it, then continue the policy until more recently.

My rejection of them wasn’t something that I even realized I was doing. Recent events have made me realize the greater depths of cultural belonging, particularly when it comes to the knowledge that for better or worse I am part of the them. Although some disqualified me, it doesn’t mean that the white kids employers, professors, colleagues, friends did, and not necessarily in the most noble of ways.

I’m reminded of all of this with Junot Díaz and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because I’m reminded of wanting to run away from this internal boiling ‘wilderness’, these ideas of what people say you are, what you have to be. All the while also being familiar with the realization that sometimes there is no running from it, and what it means when you can’t.

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