An island full of culture

In Features
Andie Ayala / Daily Titan

It’s hard to fathom stress while looking out at the beach from the “Morro,” the famous Puerto Rican icon, feet hanging above crashing waves on a warm summer evening, the sound of children laughing as they fly kites on the field next to it.

But underneath the facade of a paradise without problems, behind the image of a tropical safe-haven filled with good times and laughs, when the tourists have all gone, one begins to notice a different side to Puerto Rico. It’s a crazy situation.

Street names are in Spanish, but highways are named in English. The English system is used, but gasoline is measured in liters.

Schools are taught mostly in English, but the spoken language is Spanish so students frequently find themselves absorbing lesson plans for an entire day in English and then joking to each other in Spanish.

Passing through a highway one spots advertisements for Burger King (which are everywhere!) in Spanish, only to find an advertisement for a clothing company next to it in English.

“What is this?” was my first thought, arriving into the fashionable, modern and beautiful city of San Juan, the capital.

I’d venture to say that labelling Puerto Rico as a culturally diverse place is wholly accurate.

As the daughter of Mexican parents, who spent the better part of her youth switching back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., I thought I was substantially bicultural.

I found my ethnic background confusing as a child and struggled to find my identity as an adolescent, grateful to have yet another useless excuse to complain about being “misunderstood.”

I have since grown comfortable with my ethnic identity, relishing in the benefits of being part of two cultures, such as eating amazing street tacos in Mexico and homemade apple pie, to say the least.

However, I learned this past summer that bicultural takes on a whole new meaning in Puerto Rico.

You ask your average American a single question: “What is Puerto Rico?” And the inevitable answer is bound to be: “Oh, it’s a territory.”

However, most Americans can tell you little beyond that. This can most likely be blamed on the well-known lack of emphasis on geography lessons in the U.S.

Somehow, this island, whose politics are based heavily on the decision of becoming a state or not and relies so much culturally on the United States, gets forgotten by the average American.

Even I was surprised to find the island be surrounded by so many American aspects. I didn’t know for example, that Puerto Ricans use American passports.

They get American television channels in English (I was relieved, I hated watching dubbed versions of my favorite shows in Mexico), and they compete separately in the Olympics.

It seemed there was always something to learn about Puerto Rican culture, another rule to remember about which aspect of Latin American culture had been retained or absorbed, and which aspect of American culture had been adopted.

To my Puerto Rican friends, my questions about which stores were available, what services were available in Spanish and which system was used for measurement seemed so obvious.

Being a mix of Latin and American culture is an inescapable fact in Puerto Rico.

Unlike myself, who while growing up was able to focus on one of my cultures at a time depending on the country I was in, Puerto Rico is both cultures combined in one relatively small island.

It becomes a way of life, a pattern, and to the average Puerto Rican, the mix between cultures (“spanglish” is much more intense) is just common sense.

With Puerto Rico’s recent decision to move a step towards statehood it makes sense that Americans start to take a closer look at this seemingly quiet island.

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  • A few corrections:

    Some private and public charter schools are taught mostly in English. Most schools are taught mostly in Spanish. A few University programs at the private Interamerican University of PR are also taught entirely in English.

    Highways are named in Spanish (Expreso Luis A. Ferré, Expreso Las Américas, etc).

    Puerto Rico uses a mix of measurements… we’re officially metric, except when it’s more convenient or required by law (ie- cars must be US spec, so MPH makes sense; doctors are trained to US standards, so Fahrenheit, pounds, feet, and inches are used)… but distances are metric, fuel is sold in liters, and property can me sold in Meters/Meters2

  • Abner Feal

    I could not have said this better. Your article brings a new dimension that most of Puerto Ricans live yet don’t realize. I grew up between the Island and the States, and feel very strong of being Puerto Rican as much as I feel of being American; to me they are both one.

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