It’s that time of year again. Today, thousands and thousands of Boricuas line up alongside Manhattan’s 5th Avenue for the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, a bombastic celebration of the tiny island and its culture. A seemingly endless stream of floats trickles down the avenue, with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony in tow. The sounds of salsa, merengue and reggaeton fill the air; people dance in the streets. Puerto Rican flags wave wildly as far as the eye can see and adorn nearly every article of clothing.
[Image Credit: Adam Pantozzi via Flickr]
Puerto Rican pride is unparalleled. Observing other parades or even nationalist marches, I have rarely seen such fierce pride demonstrated. And for Puerto Ricans it really doesn’t end with the parade. After today, the flags don’t disappear, but merely redistribute themselves throughout the city, to be hung on walls, clipped onto bicycle handlebars, draped onto car hoods, stood on desks, or occasionally worn as capes.
I have long wondered about what drives the ferocity of this pride. For example, Why do I, a Puerto Rican born and raised on the mainland, and countless others possess such glowing nationalism for an island many of us have never lived in?
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Puerto Rico is not a nation, but a Commonwealth territory of the United States, a special relationship that is almost entirely unique in the world. Puerto Ricans receive federal benefits, such as welfare, but have no elected representatives in the U.S. Congress, and thus pay no federal income tax. Procedural government is almost entirely autonomous on the island – the Governor has all the institutional authority of a president – yet the U.S. government retains military jurisdiction and can enlist Puerto Ricans to fight American wars, as was done in both World Wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and countless other conflicts.
Any person from any developing nation that has visited Puerto Rico will comment on what they see as the undeniable benefits the island has received as a result of its special relationship with the United States. They will marvel at the relatively higher standard of living and invariably make a remark along these lines: “Puerto Rico reminds me so much of my home country…except the roads are better.”
Of course, Puerto Ricans themselves don’t see it this way. Ask us about the Ponce Massacre of 1937, when 20 people were killed and hundreds wounded when police opened fire on Puerto Rican nationalist demonstrators. Ask us about the mass sterilization campaign,whereby the U.S. initiated a program that sterilized 1/3 of all Puerto Rican females by 1965. Ask us about the 60-year U.S. Naval occupation of the island of Vieques, where explosives testing occasionally took lives and where toxic materials left behind were argued to be causing serious health problems. Today, ask any Puerto Rican about their island and they will lament the brain drain that has resulted as educated Puerto Ricans freely moved to the mainland, leaving behind an island prone to economic stagnation and crime. Today, there are more Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States than on the island.
Which makes the whole Puerto Rican pride question all the more interesting. Formally, the Puerto Rican flag is never flown independently of the American flag. The Teodoro Moscoso Bridge in San Juan is almost a celebration of the special relationship, with hundreds of American and Puerto Rican flags flanking its edges. It is this constant juxtaposition, this understanding of Puerto Rico only within the shadow of its American benefactor/exploiter, that fuels the burning pride that blazes up and down 5th Avenue each year, and throughout wholly acculturated Puerto Rican households across the U.S., and on the island daily.
I recently came up with a parallel involving the relationship between Manhattan and its outer boroughs. Borough residents are all proud New Yorkers, but the undeniable attention lavished upon the borough of Manhattan leads to a sense of discomfort. The borough communities and cultures are wholly different, and to lump them in with Carrie Bradshaw and Gossip Girl would rightly send shivers down any borough resident’s spine. As a result, borough pride is through the roof, no matter how much time is spent in Manhattan. To represent your borough is to celebrate your distinction from the Manhattan ideology, to show that you have your own style, your own food, your own music, your own culture. Yet borough residents love as much as anyone to bask in the collective glory of New York, while strategically disowning some of the more criticized aspects of Manhattan life.
Puerto Ricans have settled into a nice 2-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn where they can both preserve their culture and embrace that of the United States. They can go to the MoMa or stay at the Brooklyn Museum. They can unce-unce in the meat-packing district or hit up a dancehall party in Flatbush. They can shop chic in SoHo or thrift it up at Beacon’s Closet. And lest anyone get confused, they’ll never hesitate to let you know where they come from.
Which is all to say that I believe the Puerto Rico Democracy Act of 2010, which paves the way for Puerto Ricans to decide between statehood, independence and the status quo, will end as similar initiatives have in the past, with a resolution to continue as a commonwealth.
Boricuas have carved out a space where we can embrace the best of the United States while preserving our culture, waving a Puerto Rican flag and lamenting el tirano. It may seem funny, but I think we’ll continue to do it proudly.