Who Am I? It Depends…
I’ve been a constant member of “Dialogues on Racism” in Taos, NM, facilitated by Daniel Escalante. At the first meeting, he asked how we self-identified vis-à-vis nationality. I had thought about that question for years, and answered that “it depends on who’s asking and why.” My identity often carries a message particular to time, place, intention, and what I’m feeling. And connection.
My primary answer to the question is I’m Puerto Rican. Yet here in Taos, being Puerto Rican means being “other,” unlike in New York, where I grew up, with almost a million Puerto Ricans.
A close second would be Boricua, which emphasizes Puerto Rico’s indigenous roots. Borinquen, or Borikan, was the original name of the island, and our national anthem is called “La Borinqueña.” There’s a strong Taino movement in PR proclaiming and reclaiming its geneses. So if the person asking about my nationality is from Taos Pueblo, or another American Indian nation, I’ll make sure I say Boricua, to make that connection.
On other occasions, I sometimes identify as Nuyorican, the first generation of Puerto Ricans born and raised in New York City, the generation that was part of the rise of Salsa music and the seeding of Hip Hop; the generation that helped birth the spoken word movement, and what grew to be slam poetry.
At other times I name myself Latino (but not so much Latinx, at least not yet). I’ve never cared for Hispanic because it centers on Spain, the first colonizer of Puerto Rico. But, if the person asking is a fellow Latino, I might answer in Spanish—“Soy puertorriqueño.” So language becomes yet another type of identity and connection.
I am also a person of color. Of course, we Puerto Ricans are every color, including white, which, wouldn’t you know, is now not a color, which is muy bueno when you think about it, even though some of us are as pale as a blanquito. But a person of color is also a connection, especially here in the U.S.
Which leads me to: If I really wanted to convey a message regarding nationality, I would say that I’m an Internationalist. With the endless U.S. wars and occupations, proclaiming I’m an Internationalist is important; it says that the lives of people all over the world are just as precious as mine; that I identify with them. And besides, being Puerto Rican is a mix of Taino, Spanish and African. So we’re tied to indigenous people, to the Moors and Europe, to Africa, which is where humans originated, at least in part. We’re Internationalist by default.
Above all, it’s about Human Connection.
After that first meeting, it struck me: I never call myself American. I live in the United States of America, sure. But my homeland of Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, and it was U.S. policies on the island that triggered the mass exodus that forced my parents to move fifty years ago, along with tens of thousands of other Puerto Ricans. A long story.
But then, doesn’t America include Latin American? And isn’t Latin America also the Spanish-speaking Caribbean?
In the 60’s, we called ourselves People of the Third World, which had a similar connection as People of Color does today. It was used then to differentiate the industrialized capitalist world (the First World), the socialist camp (the Second World), and the so-called developing world (the Third World). Third World has come to mean a” backward” country. But who defines what’s backward? Who defines underdeveloped? Today, many of us acknowledge the so-called Third World is really the First World. And it is well recorded that there existed high levels of knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and physics among the ancients. But that’s another long story.
Critics decry what they term, “identity politics.” This is similar to the backlash and belittling of the term, “politically correct.” All this is a sign that we’re overly sensitive, that we’ve “gotten out of hand,” as if calling whole peoples by the names they choose, is somehow limiting, or rebellious. But naming yourself has weight—weight that counters the historical weight of being named by another—a colonizer, occupier. How many of those early immigrants had their names changed by an almost sleight of hand? It’s as if insisting on thoughtful consideration on what we call each other is making us think too hard.
I admit the ever-changing of names adds complexity and contradiction and that often it’s difficult to know how and when to say what to whom. And, as life is always ahead of theory, there are the millions of people who are of mixed race and heritage, all over the world. Yes, complex. But connective.
The terms Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist, for that matter, are terms of identity. Or Democrat, Republican, Green. It’s all identity politics, isn’t it?
And place can be our main identity, whether country or town. I’ve considered myself a South Bronx homie, a native New Yorker, and now a Taoseño. If you relocate overseas, you might blend with that nation’s identity too.
Sometimes it’s what we do that self-defines us. On my bio, I state that I’m a writer, author, journalist, playwright, editor, storyteller, marketing and publishing coach, teacher, lecturer, workshop leader, and radio show host. I’ve identified as a worker. I’ve identified as a father. I’ve identified as a husband. I’ve identified as a man.
Who am I? It depends. The truth is that human beings are many things. We carry many identities and it’s to be celebrated. It’s the thread of Connection.