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My Name is Juanita Santiago
Puerto Ricans are immutably tied to the Island of Puerto Rico. Unlike other immigrant groups before them, Puerto Ricans have not shed their ties to their homeland: "la isla del encanto" that so defines who they are as a people is their Mecca. Generation after generation of Puerto Ricans born in mainland United States at some point and for one reason or another make contact with the island. And this experience becomes a lasting affirmation of who they are and an acknowledgement that regardless of where they live, they will always belong to the island paradise.
My name is Juanita Santiago. I was born here in Chicago and about 8 months after that I was sent to live with my grandmother on my father's side in Puerto Rico. My parents were divorced shortly after I was born. I remember in Puerto Rico living without my parents. I remember the last vision of my father that I had - I remember that he came in and he brought me to my grandmother's home and I just remember looking up at this tall man and just knowing that he was my dad. Shortly after that we went out to eat with the family. I think I was about 4 years old. I remember coming back home and hugging [my father] and he telling me how much he loved me. I thought that he was going to stay with me - I didn't understand then that he was leaving, until he got into the car. I started to run after him. I remember being in the middle of street and running after him. [My father] was looking back at me from the back of the station wagon. A gray station wagon. He just waved at me. That was the last time I saw him until I was about nine years old.
Puerto Ricans are helpless romantics and this romanticism
is reflected in their recollection of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rican folklore is
rich with references
to sandy beaches, clear blue waters and friendly neighbors. However, living
mainland has created a dualism with many of the evils of city living creeping
into an otherwise idealistic view of the island. What was once pure is now
impure at the same time.
Puerto Ricans are very religious and superstitious. It is part of the Spanish heritage of accommodation. The Spanish were very intolerant, but very accommodating of the African slaves they brought to the island. They untolerated insubordination, but they accommodated the religions of the slaves they exploited because this was the only thing they knew they could not control. Slaves were considered humans under the Justinian Roman code and freely practiced their different religions albeit masked under the statutes and idles of the Roman Catholic Church. After the Spanish American War, Protestant religions of every kind began to sprout throughout the island finding eager recruits at every corner. Today, Santeria, a form of African worship, is still practiced in old former slave communities on the coast and Christianity reigns unabated. There is a prayer or religious practice for virtually every kind of sin.
I remember when I was 7, my grandparents were very religious, though we didn't go to church, we prayed a lot, my grandmother slept with me in the same bed, she did not sleep with my grandfather, she slept with me all the years that I lived there. And I remember one time getting up early in the morning. There is tradition in Puerto Rico on the weekends where you would find the person who made the coconut ice. You would buy a cup of it for 10 cents. Kids in the neighborhood were always excited. There was one lady in the neighborhood that [I knew] who made it. So, I thought I would sneak a quarter [from] my grandmother's pocket and leave before she got up. And I did. The house was no more than three blocks away. Her daughter was a schoolmate of mine. Her name was Claudia. She was handicapped. She still could talk, she understands everything, she wasn't slow, but she was [physically] handicapped. Time went on and I was having fun. I lost track of time. I had no idea about time - I just knew about fun. There was an old man that used to walk around with a pony. The pony was disabled because he had [something attached to his leg for him to keep his balance]. [The man] would charge a dollar to ride [the pony]. [Claudia's mother] offered to pay for my ride and so I rode. Before you know it, time had passed; it must have been around six o'clock. I hadn' t called or [notified my grandmother of where I was]. I remember people running up to me and saying that my grandmother was crying and looking for [me]. That she was going to kill me. They said to go home. So I ran home. And as soon as I came in she whacked me in the head. [She then] gave me a panic hug and she made me kneel in front of a picture of Jesus. And in [the picture of] Jesus, was Jesus on this rock - kneeling. [My grandmother] made me pray over and over again out loud. She made me say the Santa Maria. She made me repeat everything she said - for me to forgive myself and all kinds of things that she thought I needed to repeat. I stayed [for what seemed like] two hours on my knees. That was my punishment. I understand now that that was her way of disciplining me. I am thankful I didn't give her a heart attack.
In Puerto Rico as in most other places, class status is as much a function of appearance as it is of economic wealth. Sometimes Puerto Ricans show their pedigree by attempting to look different than the people from "el campo" or "jibaros," the country folk. Almost every where you go in Puerto Rican communities in the mainland, a "jibaro" are considered a country bumpkin or hillbilly. Among the younger Ricans, being a jibaro is the epitome of low class living. However, among the older Ricans, it is ironically cool to be a jibaro during the Christmas season, when Puerto Rican country music is highly celebrated, but uncool when attempting to display their economic and social gains compared to their island counterparts. Even the poorest Americanized Puerto Ricans think they somehow hover above the lowly jibaro socially.
There are some differences in growing up in Puerto Rico as a young child and seeing my brothers and sisters growing up in the States. One of them was that my grandmother was very conservative. I had long flowing black Indian hair. My grandmother, having money, had a different stature in the neighborhood. She was considered well off. She did not like for me to wear my hair down. I had to wear it in buns all the time. It was a symbol of dirtiness [to wear it down]. All the time, everyday, each time I went to school, I had to wear a dress. I think that is partly due to the fact that she has never worn a pair of pants her entire life. She believes women should wear dresses or skirts. Pants are just too masculine. I used to argue with her because I just wanted to wear my gym shoes and shorts and run around. I did not care. I was a tomboy. She would get so angry with me. I remember one time I went to school and everyone would tell me how pretty my hair was. How could they tell? My hair was always in buns - like Princess Leah. So right before I got to school, the lady across the street used to walk me to school [since] her daughter was a classmate. Her name was Delphina. Right before the bell rang to go to class, I went to the bathroom. And I let my hair down. I was so excited. Everyone was excited. And I walked into the classroom - the classrooms were outside, the classrooms were not housed inside a building, these were individual houses - So I walked into my [class] house. My teacher had to take a second glance. My teacher asked [puzzled], 'Dona Esperanza allowed you to have your hair down' - I replied [jubilantly], 'yes, yes she let me'. Shortly after that we had recess. When we got back, about ten minutes later, my grandmother was coming up the stairs. My teacher had gone and called her during lunch to inform her that my hair was down. My grandmother pulled me into the bathroom. She pulled my hair so tight that my head hurt. I had to keep it like that all night. She would not let me put it down. From that day, she walked me to school. I lost all my privileges to go to school by myself. She didn't trust me. That is much different than it is here.
Puerto Ricans have an undying love affair with being prissy. They are consumed with spoiling their young daughters or "hijas," indulging their every need and fancy. God forbid that a Puerto Rican girl should wear pants! To 'mami' and 'papi', she is the princes and should look and behave like one all the time. It probably hails back to the Spanish aristocracy, where the women's place was at the home and making her husband look good at social functions which was a function of how well she dressed and played the role of "la Dona", the lady of the house.
I remember, there were a lot of boys. More boys than girls. [I was compelled] to act like a boy. I did not understand what it was to be a little girl. I did not know about being prissy, pretty, and clean. I only knew [that I liked getting] dirty. Beating up on other kids. One year, in our class, I was in second grade, each class had a reina. They would have a parade down in my pueblo. From each class they would pick a reina and rey. There were only two girls -myself and the little girl across the street, Delphina. Difference being that Delphina had green eyes and blond hair and I had long black hair and [I was] chunky. There wasn't much competition. In order to [improve] my chances, I decided to invite Delphina to my house and [told her to] bring her Barbie dolls. I asked her to come to my room where we would dress up our Barbie dolls - I don't think they were even called Barbie dolls - but they were like that. [I suggested that we fix our hair] like the Barbie's. I'll do your hair and then you can do my hair. So we played for a while. And then I suggested that we pretend to cut each other's hair. So I got my school scissors. I offered to go first. So, I think_she wasn't cutting my hair she was pretending to cut my hair, so what I did was I handed her a piece of hair and told her to cut it. She cut a little bit and it wasn't noticeable. So because she did that, I used that as an excuse to cut her hair. Mind you her hair had to have been to her mid-back. Because I wanted to win this so bad - I went and cut three inches of her hair. I cut it on the side in the middle of her neck and left it. I got scared and moved further down and cut the bottom. She started crying because part of it was hanging and some of it fell off. It just didn't look right. She ran home and her mom came over. I was in so much trouble. I couldn't play with her any more. I did not see her again until I was leaving Puerto Rico. My grandmother sat me down and asked me if the devil was inside me. She thought I was possessed. She asked me so many questions. She made me kneel in front of her and she kneeled facing me. She put my hands together and placed her hands over mine. And she made me recite prayers to her. It was her way of washing me of the "evilness".
Puerto Rico today is caught between two diverse cultures and is constantly under scrutiny and judgement from visitors with an inadequate understanding of the island and its people. Hopefully this personal story about Puerto Rico has served to facilitate a greater knowledge and understanding about the background of the Puerto Rican culture.