We are in the middle of Forest Park’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, and that brought back memories of how much I learned by teaching for two years, 1972-1974, in Puerto Rico.
For one thing, I learned that getting to know the Puerto Rican culture, people and politics is a lot more complicated than going to see a performance of West Side Story and thinking you understand the culture.
For another, I began to understand how Her Honor Teresa Molina could say in an interview with the Review that she is 100 percent Puerto Rican and 100 percent American.
A long series of surprises began on my very first day of teaching at Colegio San Antonio Abad — St. Anthony the Abbot High School — in a town of maybe 30,000 souls named Humacao. When I walked into the faculty lounge, I was greeted by an interesting mix of folks — Benedictine brothers and priests from Minnesota who were all white, several Cubans who had fled their island home when it became apparent that Fidel Castro would win, native Puerto Ricans and five “continentals,” as U.S. citizens from the mainland were called.
We weren’t called Americans because Puerto Ricans are American citizens. Almost two decades after the U.S. acquired Puerto Rico at the end of the Spanish American War in 1898, the passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act by Congress made residents of the island U.S. citizens which, among other benefits, allowed Puerto Ricans to travel to, for example, Humboldt Park without a passport or even a visa.
When my first class of 30 students entered the room half an hour later, I saw every shade of black, brown and white I could imagine. Pedro Alvarez had black skin and kinky hair, revealing that he was the offspring of slaves brought to the island generations before he was born. Les Sonnenberg was white and blonde, the son of parents who worked at the huge Roosevelt Roads U.S. Navy base a few miles from the school.
The presence of the Navy base exposed me to a tension inherent in Puerto Rico’s political status called Estado Libre Asociado (Associated Free State) or Commonwealth.
Let me explain. Since 1898 Puerto Ricans have been divided regarding what kind of political status they’re aiming for. A small percentage of the population (maybe 5 percent when I was there) wanted to become an independent country. About 45 percent wanted to become the 51st state in the union, and another 45 percent wanted to remain a commonwealth.
The advantages of the Estado Libre Asociado status are that the island is eligible for federal benefits like food stamps, grants, hurricane relief and so forth while at the same time not being required to pay individual federal income taxes. There are few trade barriers, residents can travel back and forth to and from cities like Chicago, and, as in our state of Illinois, they have the right to elect their own governor and legislature.
The disadvantages include being subject to the draft in wartime, and, more importantly, having less control over their own affairs than do the 50 states. The main issue is lack of representation in Congress where they have representatives with voice but no vote, and that may explain why after Hurricane Maria. the island did not receive the help they needed. Thus, both the independenistas and advocates of statehood contend that commonwealth is a colonial status.
So, here I was teaching civics to Puerto Ricans. Everything went fine when we talked about the difference between monarchy and democracy, but all hell broke loose when we got into the island’s politics. Sound familiar?
And when I included an essay question at the end of the unit test about the advantages of each political view, what those kids did was to repeat verbatim what they had been hearing their partisan parents saying.
Later on that first day of teaching, I went to the dining hall for lunch. I must have been expecting tacos or burritos or enchiladas with rice and beans. No tacos. No burritos. In fact in two years of eating comida Puertoricana, I never encountered Tex Mex food once.
You may not be familiar with foods like lechon asado, platanos maduros, tembleque or tostones, but I fell in love with Puerto Rican cooking, which was quite different from anything I had tasted in Mexican eateries. I would find out many years later that regional cooking in Mexico in the Yucatan Peninsula is quite different from that around Mexico City.
So much for simple, neat mental boxes.
Not only was the food different than in my native Midwest, but the music! The first time I went to a dance in the gym at San Antonio Abad and heard a live eight-piece salsa band, saw moms and dads dancing side by side with their almost adult children and everyone dressed up in their finest, I began to lose my German-American up-tightness.
That’s one of the arguments that both the independenistas and those who want to remain a commonwealth share. They argue that in the process of becoming the 51st state, Puerto Ricans would lose much of their rich culture because they would be assimilated.
It defies mathematical logic to claim that you can be 100 percent Puerto Rican and at the same time 100 percent American, but then again love is not about logic, is it?
Mark Twain captured my two years in Puerto Rico when he said, “Travel (or better yet living in another country) is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”