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Free to celebrate all sides of me

I can remember being a child playing with a friend and telling her, I'm part Puerto Rican. She said, "no you're not." I said, "yes I am." We went back and forth. She didn't believe me so I called my mother, "mom, tell her that I'm part Puerto Rican", I said. My mother responded in a nonchalant tone, "yea she has a spit of it in her." I was mad at what felt like a dismissive response. I didn't want to diminish that part of me because I loved my grandfather. His role was Big in my life so any part of what he gave me couldn't be minimized.

One of the most fundamental aspects of who I am, the thing that makes me the proudest is my cultural heritage. It's been passed down to me from my elders. I'm a product of African American heritage and culture but I also pay homage to my Hispanic heritage through the lineage of my paternal grandfather.

My appreciation for Puerto Rican heritage and culture started with my grandfather. As early as I can remember my grandfather started exposing me to his culture. It was in the food he cooked, the salsa music he listened to and danced to. He was dapper in the guayabera he wore when stepping out for special occasions. He blessed our meals in Spanish before holiday and family dinners. My grandparents would host what they called "The Puerto Rican festival" This isn't to be confused with the "Grease Pole Festival" or what was then the official "Puerto Rican Festival". Ours was a family-friendly celebration of Puerto Rican music and dancing in the backyard complete with neighborhood friends, family, a roasted pig, plenty of good food and drinks. People still talk about my family's Puerto Rican festivals to this day. We partied.

Language is a huge part of culture. I'm not bilingual. I speak little Spanish and not as well as I'd like regretfully. When I was a little girl, my grandfather would give me minor directives in Spanish like, "Ve a buscar mis zapatos de casa", translation "Go get my house shoes." I'd be so excited that I understood some Spanish. In Preschool, I was enrolled in PS 33 which was a bilingual school with English and Spanish speaking students. Some of my classmates spoke no English. I wanted to be fluent in Spanish so bad.

My grandfather spoke Spanish with his friends and our family members from Puerto Rico when they came to visit. He didn't teach his children to speak Spanish. I believe this was due to the racism and discrimination he received trying to navigate white spaces being Afro Latino and English was his second language.

He was born in Puerto Rico. He came to the states in the '50s to work as seasonal help on various farms throughout western New York. His intention was to return to Puerto Rico with enough money to go to school to study engineering. My grandmother and her family had also migrated to Buffalo. They were from Alabama and like many black families at that time, they moved north seeking a better life. They met, started a family, and built a life in Buffalo. One might think Puerto Rico and Alabama would be worlds far apart but if you've ever traveled to the rural parts of Puerto Rico or the rural parts of Alabama you'll realize they aren't that different. It's country. I was an adult the first time I visited Puerto Rico. Traveling to my grandfather's homeland helped me understand him and my grandparent's connection. I also understood myself better. With each visit I learned more. It was like discovering pieces of me I didn't know existed and I have been better for it. I embrace the fact I'm free to celebrate all sides of me. Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month.


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