Below is the personal identity essay that I wrote for my Race and Ethnicity class. It was originally written on September 13, 2009. Any critiques are welcome.
Living in Spanglish
Every once in a while, I end up getting asked the question, “Where are you from,” or “Where were you born?”
My response is always the same, “America” – if I’m feeling punchy that day – or more common answer of the name of the state and/or town I was born in. I can almost always anticipate the next question. It is usually comes in the form of, “No, where is your family from.”
At this point, things get interesting since I can answer the same for my family as well.
I usually get a frustrated look and then the question, “Where were your grandparents born?” Now, I actually answer the real question the individual was trying to ask: “What is your ethnicity?”
Ethnically, I am Puerto Rican. This has always been a little confusing since being Puerto Rican automatically makes me American, so even when answering the question of ethnicity, I am still an American. When this comes up in conversation, I sometimes have to explain that Puerto Rico has been occupied by the United States since 1898 and that since 1917 – with the Jones Act – Puerto Ricans have been granted U.S. citizenship. Sometimes, this fact is something that has been brought back to my attention through discrimination. At various points in my life, I have been told, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” While I understand that this statement is discriminatory, it is always something that has struck me as being somewhat ironic since the person making the statement has made the assumption that I am not an American citizen. Yet, if I were to go to Puerto Rico I would still be American citizen.
I have been speaking both English and Spanish probably as soon as I started talking. When I speak in English, I usually think in English. When I speak in Spanish, I usually think in Spanish. I’ve noticed that when I am thinking to myself aloud I speak in a mixture of both English and Spanish. In my mind, certain events happen in English and certain events happen in Spanish. Problems have always arisen when I try to relate an experience I had in English while speaking in Spanish, or vice versa. For example, a lot when I try to communicate to my English-speaking friends about why I enjoy a particular Spanish song so much. Sometimes, the nuances in the verses are lost as I try to grasp for the equivalent phrases in English. The same thing happens if I try to speak to my relatives in Spanish about something I experienced in English, such as what happened at school. In these moments it feels like my mind is a car with a flat tire. It wants to go forward, but can never pick up any speed. I know from remembering my dreams that I dream in a combination of Spanish and English, just like when I think to myself. In other words, I am always caught in a liminal state of sorts where I am constantly code-switching at a mental level. I live and think in Spanglish everyday.
As a heritage speaker of Spanish, I have been able to both participate in American culture and have also had the opportunity of looking at American life from multiple perspectives. On one hand, I can look at events and culture from the American mainstream. On the other hand, I can view events and culture from the perspective of someone able to stand outside and look in at the world of America. My nights at home consisted of being able to walk into my living room to sit with my family and view the evening news in Spanish. When the news was done we would flick between watching “Wheel of Fortune” in English and raptly watching the drama unfold on the latest telenovela. All the while, we would speak in a mixture of Spanish and English.
I feel that I have never had a true crisis of identity when trying to determine what I am. I am American and I am Puerto Rican. Just like the culture of the island itself, I fuse English and Spanish culture into a new whole. My dilemma is one that is related to culture. In a way, I could never be fully Puerto Rican in regards to its Spanish-speaking culture. I have become too Americanized in some ways. Just like when I try to speak with my relatives, I would slow down and it would be too difficult for me to function easily. Yet, I do not fit into the English-speaking American culture either. I would never be able to pretend that my body doesn’t pang to be on a dance floor every time I hear a salsa song. I can not deny that when I go home I will cook half of any meal using the mix of Spanish spices in my kitchen cabinet regardless of the cultural origin of the dish I am cooking. I can never deny the fusion of influences from both English-speaking American culture and Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican culture. Mentally, I will always flow between Spanish and English. So while, I do not have a crisis of identity regarding my ethnicity, I will always live and think in Spanglish.