When I was growing up, my parents taught me that I was Puerto Rican. But I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York with no personal knowledge of the island. The Spanish that was spoken by the elders and the food we ate were my closest connection to a Puerto Rican identity. The stories they told about white sand beaches and coconut palms were far removed from my reality of brownstones and concrete. I couldn’t relate. Nevertheless, my family told me I was Puerto Rican so I took that as gospel even though I wasn’t really sure what that meant.
As long as I stayed within the cocoon of my tight circle of family and friends, I was fine. It was when I went outside that protective cocoon that I began to experience identity issues. You see, there was nothing in the culture of 1960’s New York that acknowledged Puerto Rican history or culture, at least not in a positive way. In school, I wasn’t white enough for the white kids, I wasn’t black enough for the black kids and the few Puerto Ricans I came across didn’t really see me as one of them. After all, I wasn’t born on the island, didn’t speak Spanish and didn’t even have an accent so how could I call myself one of them? I was teased, bullied, mocked and, every so often I’d get beaten up. No matter where I turned, I didn’t really fit in. This state of affairs followed me all the way through high school.
I spent many frustrating years trying to figure out who I was. As an adult, I developed coping mechanisms that helped me manage on a day to day basis. On the outside, I appeared to have it together but on the inside that was not the case. I felt trapped in behaviors that didn’t really address the truth of who I was because the fact was I didn’t know who I was. This dynamic continued well into my 40’s. For most of my life I felt like a fraud.
One day I attended an Afro-Latino symposium being held at Brooklyn College where I worked. The day-long event was capped by a performance of bomba. Bomba, I learned, was an Afro-Boricua drum-dance art form that had its origins in the slave history of Puerto Rico and whose rhythms still resonated in the modern music of the island. I was fascinated by the way the dancers and drummers interacted, with the drummers following the dancer’s movements with accented beats. Essentially the dancer was leading the rhythm that the lead drummer followed. This was contrary to my experience as a professional belly dancer where I had to follow the drummer’s lead.
There was a segment of the performance where audience members were brought up to the stage to try their hand at “dancing the drum” and I was among those chosen. I was given a skirt and led to the drum where I was released and told to go with my gut. That’s all I needed to hear. I took over the stage and danced what I felt and the lead drummer followed my every move. By the time I returned to my place I was hooked and I knew that bomba was going to become a part of my life. Little did I know then that less than a year later I would be contacted by the director of that group and asked to join a bomba workshop to learn the dance and the drum.
Shortly after this performance event, I readmitted to the undergraduate program at Brooklyn College, working by day and studying by night, majoring in Puerto Rican studies and digital art. Combining my Puerto Rican dance studies with my Puerto Rican history and cultural studies was a no brainer. And you know what happened? I learned. I learned I had a history. I learned I had a people. I learned there were many, many others who, like me, felt disenfranchised. Most importantly, I learned I was not alone. And as I learned, I slowly emerged from a confused and painful cocoon and stepped into the fullness of who I truly am.
This line in a poem by the contemporary poet Mariposa (The Butterfly) pretty much sums it up for me and for all those others like me:
No nací en Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico nacío en mi.
I wasn’t born in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was born in me.
My parents taught me that I was Puerto Rican. They were right.
by Gitana the Creative Diva (a participant in The Moth Storytelling Showcase at Mill Basin)