EL Morro, Puerto Rico

Diggin’ mis raices: Two countries, two languages, and one lost girl

Mi Vida Loca

I was born in upstate New York,  in the city of Rochester to be exact. My parents moved back to Puerto Rico soon after my first birthday, and I  spent my early, formative years there. The culture and language of my country was just as much a part of who I was and was becoming, as was my family. I was a little Puerto Rican girl who only spoke a handful of words in English, loved Plaza Sesamo and Villa Alegre, and knew all of the lyrics to La Pandilla’s songs, especially El Alacran. In regards to having the Puerto Rican culture as a natural part of my life, I had an advantage over Puerto Ricans born and raised in the states, or so you would think.

Little Libby in the driveway of her PR home

Little Libby in the driveway of her PR home

We moved to Chicago when I was eight, then to Utah a few years later that and somewhere along the way I lost much of what I started with: My knowledge of the language, the music, the culture and traditions.  I am not sure why it happened, perhaps because we didn’t have extended family around to share traditions with; perhaps because Mom wanted to learn English so she encouraged us to speak to her in English, or maybe it was the years in Utah and my need to fit in a world of American kids. It was most likely a mixture of all of those things.

Years later and well into adulthood I realized that I had let go of an important part of myself and it left a void. I had Latino friends—primarily Mexican—and spoke a little Spanish, but was still missing my Boricua roots. My mission became to find mis raices.

A few years ago, frustrated with a lot of things in my life and in need of a change, I took the opportunity to move to Puerto Rico for almost a year—not nearly enough time—where I was forced to speak the language and face up the fact that no matter how many years I’d spent there as a child, my 30+ years away had deemed me la Americana in the locals’ eyes. The first few months were extremely difficult. Nodding my head 10 minutes into a conversation I didn’t understand, simply because I couldn’t ask the person to repeat what they were saying yet again. Attempting to get a complete sentence out w/out using any words in English. These were difficult and frustrating tasks, but I persevered and left much more confident in my abilities. 

Knowing the importance of actually speaking the language regularly in retaining it, I now make it a point to speak it as often as I can. I try to educate myself by reading, and through conversations. Whether they be about music, traditions and culture via conversations.

In hopes of filling the void I once felt, I have returned to mis raices. Not only remembering what I learned as a child, but learning so much more each day.


When I was Americuchi [guest post]


The second in the Defining Moments: Search for Identity Series. This one comes to us from Being Latino‘s Editor, Eileen Rivera. Read more at her personal blog, Mariposa Social  and follow her on Twitter, @eileenrivera16


The subtitle might as well be the “Latinization of Eileen” because this is pretty much the story of my life. I was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, parents who had to put up with a lot of discrimination when they first arrived on the mainland. Is that why Spanish wasn’t the law at home? I grew up with Cousin Brucie on the radio as opposed to Radio WADO and the network news instead of novelas or lucha libre. that-was-then-015

By the time I was nine the only Spanish I knew was church Spanish. I knew all the coritos, could read the Bible and sing from the hymnal, as well as memorize verses but I could not ask for a bathroom if my panties depended on it (pun intended). Naturally my father’s solution was to buy me a bilingual New Testament, a Bible I have to this day. So that helped me translate the verses but it didn’t do much to help with my language difficulties.

that-was-then-161Foreign languages started in sixth grade at Haverstraw Middle School. I announced at the dinner table that I would be taking French because I already knew Spanish. After mopping up the water that spewed from his mouth, my father finally stopped laughing and said that I would be taking Spanish. Ugh.

Of course, my adventures in speaking Spanish had provided my elders with many hours of humor. Take one Christmas dinner as an example. My grandmother sends me upstairs to get some pernil from her sister. Upon returning from the errand, I tell my grandmother, “Titi Flora dice que si quieres mojon, ella tiene”. Once the laughter died down, my grandfather says, “Aqui hay suficiente”. I walked out of the kitchen without knowing what the hell everyone found so funny.

Yup, my years at Haverstraw Middle School were quite interesting. It was where I was first called “Americuchi”. My sister, with her blue eyes and golden brown curls had it rougher than me. After all, I was darker than the girls who were calling me a white girl. And don’t even get me started on high school. Entering the college-that-was-then-274track, instead of the vocational-track, and being surrounded by non-latinos all day just put my olive-tone ass further behind the eight ball with the people I lived with. And then I had the nerve to date some white guys. What the hell did you expect?

So I graduated high school and moved to Jersey. Not just Jersey, but Havana on the Hudson itself, North Hudson county. You couldn’t tell where one town ended and the other one started. One thing was constant, Cubans ran this place. Try being a Puerto Rican and going to a Cuban bodega and asking for a “bollo de pan”. You would’ve sworn that I just pulled out a gun. Oh, and by the way, gnats aren’t bichos! Bichos are dic…never mind.

It was actually Hudson County, New Jersey, with its almost 40% Latino population, that taught me the differences between the nationalities that fall under the Latino umbrella. As a child in the Bronx, I believed that everyone was the same. It didn’t matter what color you were, they were all represented in my family and church. As a tween and teenager in Rockland County, life was divided along racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. But now I was almost eighteen and starting college. To say it was eye-opening would be an understatement, although I must admit that I only saw the similarities rather than the differences. And then I was introduced to someone with, “Yes, she’s Puerto Rican, but she’s one of the good ones” What did you just say?! Looks like I still had some educating to do.

224748_1663142424082_5292498_n (1)Dating and marrying a guy from Barranquilla, Colombia just added to my education. He introduced me to Hector La Voe, Ruben Blades, Willie Colon, and El Gran Combo and naturally the dancing that accompanied the music. What? You all though my minister father taught me? Hmph. Saturday nights were spent dancing followed by my dragging my ass to church the next morning. But damn it was fun. My love of Latin rhythms has only grown stronger as I have aged, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still love classic rock.

A byproduct of the marriage was an increased use of Spanish, with gentle and not so gentle corrections (depending on the severity of my transgression). Just in case you ever wondered why my Spanish is as good as it is, this is why.

And then I met Dr. Olga Jimenez de Wagenheim. It was love at first sight. I had already decided on a Social Work major with a Puerto Rican studies minor, and had in fact taken some classes already, but Dr. Wagenheim taught a two semester class on Puerto Rican history. Literally a two semester mind blowing experience for that-was-then-225someone who was living the life but didn’t know her history. Now kiddies, don’t forget these were the days before computers, internet, google, and social media. Yea, there were cliff notes, but those didn’t touch the material we were covering in this class. Slavery, El Grito de Lares, Tainos, Arawaks, the impact of Latin America’s wars, Ramon Emeterio Betances, Ana Maria Bracetti Cuevas, the invasion by the United States, the Jones Act. Well, my head was just spinning with everything I was learning. I was supremely proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, but that was pretty much based on a love of family and the places I had visited on the island. Now I knew what ass kickers my people really were. Classroom time answered as many questions as it raised, but for that I would be on my own, and in the pre-computer era that was not a simple feat. Books by Piri Thomas, Pedro Juan Soto, Esmeralda Santiago and Miguel Pinero found their way onto my bookshelves. Over the years they have been joined by books by Junot Diaz, Laura Esquivel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, and Isabel Allende. My Police, Billy Joel and Springsteen cds share shelves with Marc Anthony, Romeo, Juan Luis Guerra, and La India, along with my beloved Ruben Blades.

40843_1465730278169_6932344_nWhen I am asked for my national heritage, I answer Puerto Rican. When I am asked what part of Puerto Rico I am from, I answer El Bronx. But I will always emphasize the similarities between the people of the Caribbean and Latin America over the differences. So, if that makes me Latina, then Latina I am. But you can’t call me Americuchi anymore.


5 articles Latino publications should write when a non-Latino celebrity is arrested

Entertain Me

I vaguely remember the feeling that the magazine addict in me felt upon learning that my monthly collection of glossy mags would include a magazine just for Latinas. I never cared much about the face that graced my magazine’s covers, it was the content listed on said cover that  was the attraction. Latina-relevant stories, articles, recipes, and more? How could I possibly resist?

I just did a quick search, and that was in 1996 and 17 years later, I can say that in reality, a Latina magazine didn’t really add anything to my life that the other magazines didn’t. Add to that the fact that with very little in content that mattered to me, I began to take notice of the cover models and realized that it was basically the same approximately 10 Latina celebrities on rotation, so I let my subscription lapse.

Even with all of that, my faith and hope that the magazine could provide something different remained. I continued to call myself a fan, and kept up by buying an occasional issue at the newsstand and reading online.

Bu then there was yesterday…

There it was, on my Facebook news feed, a link to an ‘article’ titled Selena and Justin and 9 Other Adorable Celeb Couples on Instagram!, (and no, I did not add the exclamation mark, it was part of the linked title–see it here–though it doesn’t seem to be in the actual title). My initial thought upon seeing it was that one of my friends was sharing a link from Teen Beat, though to be honest, I don’t even know if that magazine still exists.

I followed the link, and went to Latina Magazine’s Facebook page. I decided to take a scroll, and there it was, the post that broke my heart: Reese Witherspoon’s Not Alone: 11 Latino Stars Who Have Been Arrested.

I blinked. There was no possible way that I read that correctly. I read it again. Can’t be! I clicked on it, and there it was, a slideshow. The first face…Charlie Sheen’s. Still in disbelief I shared the link with a few friends, one who upon seeing the title refused to click on it. It was true, I wasn’t seeing things. Latina Magazine, or someone therein, decided that the best way to discuss the arrest of a non-Laino celebrity—was it really necessary to discuss the arrest of a non-Latino celebrity?— was to shine the spotlight on 11 Latinos who had earned the honor of a mugshot. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it, or what to do, I just knew that I couldn’t leave it alone.

As a Latina, a sometimes fan, a writer, and perhaps even more importantly, as someone who served as chief content officer for an online Latino magazine, I feel that my experience could be of service in a situation such as this. With that being said, I offer a list of alternate topics to feature when a non-Latino celebrity is arrested and you’re desperate to make a Latino-relevant connection:

1. The orange jumpsuit: Who wore it best?
A bright color and an unforgiving cut won’t flatter every celebrity arrestee. Let’s do side by side comparisons and vote on who pulled off the orange jumpsuit look best. We’re already judging them for the arrest, why not also their physical appearance? In fact, let Joan Rivers and the rest of the fashion police weigh in. Get it? The Fashion Police!!

2. Mugshot posing tips from the experts
Blood shot eyes and smeared make up are bad enough when your readers are taking cell phone pictures at the club, but at least there they can call do overs. Not so much once they’ve been caught swerving down the road and running red lights. With a mugshot, they only get one chance to get it right. Give them the benefit of your experts advice. With only one each of a front view and profile view, expert tips will help them make the most of the “photo shoot” and she’ll love that all of her friends are saying, “She even looks amazing in her mugshot! I will cut her”

3. Easy-care hair for that overnight jail stay
Your readers won’t have access to their hair styling tools, and leaving their hair down and loose puts them in potentially hazardous situation—jail cell fights. Hair pins come in handy for many reasons, show your readers just how many.

4. Stars, they’re just like us
Every celebrity buff loves to know that their lives aren’t that different from their favorite celeb’s. Whether grocery shopping, pumping their own gas, or getting arrested and screaming, “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” at the police, stars are just like us. Well, except for that whole thing where their arrest record doesn’t keep them from finding work and living a normal life. But you know, just like us!

I am normally of the opinion that Latino-relevant stories include anything that happens in the world because we Latinos live in the world, but Reese Witherspoon’s arrest isn’t one of those things. Neither her, nor any other celebrity’s, arrest is  relevant to me as a human, let alone as a Latina. So how about we decide that rather than reaching so far to make “breaking news” connect, we just decide that some stories are best left untold.

*Latina Magazine, you have a responsibility to your readers and the culture that you claim to represent. You can and must do better than desperate attempts to connect irrelevant dots and never-ending stories outing celebrities as Latinos.


Finding your Latina roots in a caldero of arroz con gandules

Mi Vida Loca

Due to a few of my characteristics, people question my Latinaness and because of it, I’ve dubbed myself, “La anti-Latina.” One of those things is cooking. I’m no Martita Stewart, to be sure, but not finding absolute enjoyment in cooking is not the equivalent of lacking the ability to do it. I can cook, when I feel like it, which admittedly is not that often.

The problem, I believe, lies in what I cook. The only aceite you’ll find in my home is of the olive variety. Fish, couscous, and salads full of spinach, goat cheese, dried cranberries, and red onions are more my fare, while the traditional Puerto Rican dishes are things I enjoy as a treat: in a restaurant or at Mom’s house.

Though my regular choices in food are healthy, I do worry that by not at least learning how to cook traditional Puerto Rican dishes, I will have missed out on the ability to pass my culture and traditions on to my future children, should I ever have any. For that reason, I had an arroz con gandules cooking lesson with Mami, and I learned some important things that I’ll share with other novice cooks…

Step 1- Find a good teacher.
Almost any Latina you ask will secretly glow with pride (while outwardly act non-chalant because of course you asked her, who else would you ask since her <insert Latino dish here> can’t be beat) at being asked to be taught her secrets. If at all possible make sure it’s Mami or Abuela, an instruction that requires no explanation if you know what’s good for you.

Step 2- Watch and learn
Any Latina cook worth her sazón o sofrito does not know the meaning of a recipe, or for that matter the measurements listed within one; she just cooks. A pinch of this, and a dash of that y ¡A comer se a dicho! You must observe what pinches and dashes actually look like, so your pinches and dashes are the right amount. Which leads me to shopping…

Step 3- Do not attempt to shop alone
I made the rookie mistake of having Mami write a list of ingredients and headed to the store. The carnicero looked at me as if I was speaking another language when I placed my order. I called mom and told her he didn’t understand me. “Pero eso es lo que yo siempre compro. Dejame hablar con el.” I handed him the phone and the light of comprehension shone from his eyes. I asked him what she said, and he basically repeated what I had asked for. Till this day I wonder if perhaps my tone, my inflection, or my overall look let him in on my lack of domestic skills, and he was weary of selling me a good cut of meat that would just go to waste in my attempts to learn.

Step 4- Accept that you will never cook as well as your teacher
I promise, it’s easier that way and it’s a concession that your Mami and Abuela had to make as they learned to cook from their Mamis and Abuelas. Very few people are born with that innate talent. A regular practice of burned pots, under/over seasoned rice, and honest (and sometimes hurtful) feedback from your family of food critics is the only way to learn enough to someday become the teacher yourself.


Speaking Spanish is just like riding a bike?


Originally published as “At a Loss for Words” at Being Latino Online Magazine

At the age of 7 ½  my parents decided to separate and Mami packed up my three siblings and me, and we left Puerto Rico; Chicago bound.  I had graduated first grade just a few months before and had confidently learned to say the words butter and water (both pronounced with a hard T like the British), but unfortunately that was where my knowledge of the English language ended.

My lack of knowledge didn’t bother me until I started second grade a few months later.  I was in a bilingual class but I had classmates that had been in bilingual classes since kindergarten and knew so much more than I did.  In my attempts to fit in I tried to show off the new words I was learning, but pronounced yellow as jello and birthday as birfday.  As kids are apt to do, they laughed.  I was already a shy kid and being made fun of was tragic to me.  Determined not to be made fun of anymore, I decided to make it my life mission to perfect the English language, so I buried myself in books and read, wrote, and practiced endlessly.

A few years later Mami decided that we would move to Utah.  If a bilingual class in Chicago was a culture shock, enrolling in a Utah sixth grade class full of mostly blonde, blue-eyed kids was a culture earthquake.   My world had once again been turned upside-down and I was once again forced to adjust my mindset.  This time I would not be made fun of.  I began to communicate solely in English, and although Mami always responded in Spanish, it wasn’t enough and I slowly lost my grasp on my first language.  By the time we moved back to Chicago when I was 15, English had become my first language.  Upon hearing me speak, my latino friends said, “You sound like a white girl.”  While my other friends said, “Wow, you don’t have an accent at all.”  Somehow this was ok with me.

Now as an adult who recently moved back to Puerto Rico, I struggle to communicate clearly.  More often than not my mind has to work overtime to translate my English thoughts into Spanish words. I become frustrated and regress to being that 7 ½ year old girl, embarrassed when I am corrected as I misuse and/or mispronounce words.  And I am just as determined to master the Spanish language now as I was to master the English language then. I am wishing that somewhere along the way someone had told me that not only did I NOT have to give up that part of me to fit in, but that it was even more important not to as I would eventually regret it.

Update: I spent almost a year in Puerto Rico and I left with a feeling that I regained by first language. I make a daily effort to speak Spanish so that I will never lose it again.