How My Trip Back Home To Puerto Rico Empowered Me To Embrace Being Latina

Photo: Courtesy of Author
Angelique
Self

Being a first generation Puerto Rican and Filipino girl from the Bronx, I am always at war with myself.

The struggle to be seen as an Asian-American Latina, alongside the struggle to see myself as an Asian-American Latina, has always existed. 

My upbringing was a mix of values from two beautiful cultures from two different islands, all while balancing my experience as a native Bronx resident.

The Bronx is primarily populated by Black and Latinx communities, with Puerto Ricans specifically making up 21.6% of the Bronx.

If you know anything about Puerto Ricans, you’ll know that they’re very proud of their culture and heritage.

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So naturally, I was surrounded by Puerto Rican communities proudly waving the Puerto Rican flag. Growing up, I saw the PR flags on homes, on cars, even on t-shirts and hats. You couldn’t even pass a bodega without seeing a PR flag on the window, or salsa music blasting through the windows, at the very least.

As a young mixed raced girl, straddling the line between my Puerto Rican and Filipino identities, it was hard to connect to the Puerto Rican community.

Spanish is essential for communication, especially with older generations. Unfortunately, it was a skill I was not taught due to the history of discrimination of native Spanish speakers. 

While Puerto Ricans experience much pride in their heritage, they also experience massive discrimination at times. Puerto Ricans and the Latinx community in general experience discrimination for speaking Spanish.

In 2019, a Puerto Rican woman in Abington, PA was told to “go back to her country” when she was speaking Spanish. Because of this, my parents did not want me to learn Spanish for fear that I’d be discriminated against. 

Not knowing Spanish caused a rift between me and the rest of the Latinx community, with some even saying I’m not “Latina enough” and that I “should feel ashamed.”

These words hurt more than anything, especially coming from my own community. 

For the majority of my life, I had felt too embarrassed to speak Spanish or even attempt to learn the language around people. I had also felt disconnected from my culture, since I hadn’t been to Puerto Rico since I was a toddler. This is an experience many second and third generation Latinx folks face.

Then one day, I received a friend request on Facebook by a woman who had the same last name as me. I immediately recognized the name: it was my long lost sister from Puerto Rico.

I hadn’t seen my sister since I was a toddler visiting Puerto Rico with our abuela, so I immediately accepted the friend request and messaged her.

Months went by as we engaged in constant chatter and got to know more about each other. I saw how my sister looked through her pictures on social media, but wanted to see what she was like in person.

This experience amped up my desire to visit Puerto Rico.

I had been longing to go back to Puerto Rico to learn more about my family’s history and learn more about the country. Even though I grew up in the U.S. and was a native English speaker, I always felt connected to Puerto Rico. 

In August of 2019, I finally saved up enough money to visit. So I packed my bags and headed out to Puerto Rico with my other older sister. 

When we arrived, I felt an immediate sense of belonging and pride. This was my home. 

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We spent our time eating at the Pinones, a neighborhood filled with authentic Puerto Rican food. We spent time hiking in El Yunque, the national rainforest. We traveled to Icacos Island and spent time at the beach. Puerto Rico was a dream.

Locals expressed how much they loved living on the island and how they wouldn’t trade it for the world. Some even left New York to come live on the Island.

The love Puerto Ricans had for the island was no longer just about waving flags, and it came into fruition right in front of my eyes. 

After all the adventure, it was time to finally visit my sister who I hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. We drove two hours from Carolina to Ponce, where she was born and raised. 

We finally pulled up to her house.

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Seconds later, I saw my sister run towards us and was met with tears of joy and excitement. We all hugged each other, cried and told each other how much we missed each other. It was a family reunion I’ll never forget.

We went inside and chatted for hours about our lives, laughing and joking with each other like time had never passed. Our conversations were filled with sorrow, with the three of us expressing that we couldn’t do this before. The conversations were also with joy, though, and we were so grateful that we finally were reunited after so many years apart. 

When it was time to finally leave, we said our goodbyes, but made a heartfelt promise to return soon. 

Driving away was the hardest thing ever, because I didn’t want to leave. 

The next day, as I was packing my bag to go back to New York, I felt a sudden wave of inspiration. A new sense of purpose. 

Walking into the airport, I looked back and made a vow: I would learn Spanish, and one day, I would own property on the island so I could visit every summer. 

Although I experienced a disconnected upbringing, I am so thankful that I was able to reconnect with my family in Puerto Rico and experience the rich history and culture of the island of my ancestors.

It restored a sense of identity for me and gave me a sense of belonging and purpose. Most importantly, I am no longer afraid of claiming my Latina identity.

And make no mistake: the Bronx will always be my home, but so will Puerto Rico.

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Angelique Beluso is a sex educator and writer who covers feminism, pop culture and relationship topics.