Growing Old/Growing Up Gringa: Negotiating Puertorriqueñidad and Americanism in the Midwest

Maried Rivera Nieves

The purpose of this narrative-autobiographical study is to explore the ways a Latinx mother and daughter navigate and negotiate Puerto Rican and American culture and identity. It should be said that I neither conflate Puerto Rico with the continental United States nor “American” with “Puerto Rican”; the two remain distinct entities, tethered but in tireless tension, as they are in my mind. This study focuses on my mothers and my national, ethnic, and linguistic identities as Puerto Rican Latinx Spanish-English bilinguals living most of our lives in the United States.

Upon moving from Puerto Rico to the Midwest, I took my Puerto Rican ethnicity and Spanish fluency for granted, and, feeling pressured to assimilate into American culture, I subconsciously began to shed that part of myself. My schooling played a significant role in how I perceived my puertorriqueñidad. My mother, on the other hand, experienced a more conscientious assimilation, taking Adult English as a Second Language classes, urging her children to remember who we were and where we came from, and progressively taking on more American cultural practices. She and I share many personality traits, but we differ in how we integrated into U.S. society, and our relationship has shifted as a result. I have always been interested in this dynamic and about my mother’s life story, as well as what connections or contrasts can be drawn with mine.

Gómez (2010) asserts that understanding Latinxs’ relationships with their mothers, their stories, and consejos is crucial to understanding how Latinx women negotiate their identities. From an educational perspective, insight into students’ relationships and critical reflection on their own life experiences is important for educators wishing to cultivate transformative classroom experiences that respect and validate students’ identities.

I do not expect to answer any questions regarding the self and those I love; answering questions with questions is a more fulfilling reality. Scatfolding this work, however, are some curiosities: How do mother—daughter Puerto Rican migrants to the United States experience and negotiate identity? How have they experienced integration into U.S. culture? How do they negotiate their American and Puerto Rican selves?

As I collected data, analyzed, and wrote, I considered nuances that would impact how I understood and wrote about my mother. I considered generational differences between my mother, myself, and those of im/migrants in the United States more broadly. I wrestled with whether I am considered a first- or second-generation migrant, or neither, and did not come to a satisfactory conclusion. Am I any more a migrant than someone who moves across United States state lines? Puerto Ricans call la Isla un pais—is it? Am I an American? Do I want to be? What is “American”? This is another way in which Puerto Rico s neocolonial status limits my ability to know myself, even if it is through technocratic terms my people did not generate for themselves.

A Complicated Affair: The Puerto Rico–United States Relationship

Puerto Rico, only 100 miles wide, boasts a strong national identity that transcends borders and language. Mired by legal, political, and economic uncertainty, we are a diasporic nation caught between two geographic entities—the mainland United States and the island. Puerto Ricans are tethered between full-scale and second-class citizenship, beneficiaries of legal status often made invisible and thwarted by oppressive policies that fail to understand the intricacies of the Puerto Rican experience.

After the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was recolonized by the United States. The island represented a new model of neoliberalism and capitalist development (Grosfoguel, Negrón-Muntaner, & Georas, 1997). Today, Puerto Rico’s importance to the United States on these fronts is arguable, but the two maintain an active political and “institutionalized migratory” relationship (Martinez-San Miguel, 2014, p. 79).This relationship “has produced a long-standing debate on the limits of the decolonization process from metropolitan societies,” with Puerto Rico embodying a struggle between assimilation and autonomy (p. 80). The same can be said of the Puerto Rican diaspora on the mainland. Puerto Ricans have suffered the tyranny of the continent and quarreled with the Stockholm Syndrome from perpetual colonization. After Hurricane Maria, the chasm is even more pronounced: more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have since left the island (Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2018).

While Puerto Rican migration was originally concentrated in the U.S. northeast, migration to the Midwest began in the mid-twentieth century (Velez, 2017). Migrants were recruited by regional private and public agencies, a “solution” to the “problematic” concentration of Puerto Ricans in New York City (De Genova & Ramos-Zayas, 2003). Many became steel, factory, and domestic workers (Velez, 2017, p. 128).Today, Puerto Rican migration feeds foundational hubs like Chicago and new destinations like Florida and Arizona (Duany, 2002; Velez, 2017). Migrants in the rural Midwest in particular receive less attention; I explore this omission later.

This narrative runs parallel to my self-education about the political, economic, and sociocultural conditions in Puerto Rico—a frustrating and revealingjourney. Namely, it has unveiled a reality I never knew existed: that of a resistant Puerto Rican people. While different from that of Puerto Ricans elsewhere, this story remains universal: my family’s migration was facilitated by an imposed legal status and motivated by economic and educational privileges. It was bold, but safe; voluntary, yet necessary. The palm trees and the mountains, a motley of concrete and pasture, were replaced by neat sidewalks, flat fields, and white faces.

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