The Making of a Puerto Rican O’Malley

In my break from writing about nationalism and the construction of national identities in the Spanish Basque Country, I often compare my research from a decade ago to my current experience with education. I have a third grader and a Kindergarten-attending young boy.  I often am amused by what I am not putting down on the paper that I wish I could. But all in due time, upon finishing writing about how society and identity are shaped through schooling in the Basque Country I look forward to taking that work and comparing it to a new setting: Puerto Rico. And while I wait for that day to come, I blog so I don’t forget.

Every November, my husband and I prepare for the onslaught of overt exercises in national definition.  I am convinced by what I have read, seen, lived and heard that a clearly defined sense of identity provides individuals and communities with a foundation on which to stand while dreaming or reaching for that next best thing in the course of change and progress.   I care however for how that identity is built.

“How can it be good and sound if it is built by assuming there are biological races?” I asked a fellow academic who advanced the current treatment of the subject.  “It is good because it promotes a positive attitude toward mixing, it recognizes all 3 roots,” she defended. ” Fine, mixing is good” I concede, this is not advocating open segregation.  “Still,” I insist that “by promoting racism -using flattery, hoping to disguise it in political correctness- we enable racist undertones because in the process we  draw attention to a chasm of difference as being a combination of biological and cultural  traits. By presenting the concept of race as biological and placing it beside cultural traits we allow these differences to be assumed as part of some biological predetermination.   Unless we clearly decouple the issues,- heck! following the American Anthropological Association lead not me – we endorse racism while trying to deny it exists in this “mixed race island paradise.”  Wanting to deny that Puerto Rico was promoting racism, she argued, “would you not say that the primary problem we face is classism and not racism?” “I can agree to that, but that Classism is intertwined with issues of race and history in a way that classism can overshadow race but race is still undeniable, it is still there regardless of the classism. ” Knowing neither would convince the other, I let the discussion merge into the next topic.

Thus without much hope of changing the system-at least overnight-, I came to meet my daughter one November afternoon. She was in the second grade, and it was November.

“Mami, I don’t understand why the teacher did not pick me for the plena. She was asking for volunteers. I raised my hand and I was the only one raising it. She still needed one more girl and I was the only one.  I wanted her to know that I wanted to participate so I blurted it out.  I yelled across the room that I wanted to dance. But instead of picking me, she insisted on having this other girl dance. This other girl did not want to do it. The teacher begged her til she agreed. Mami,” she said sobbing “why did she not pick me?”

I quickly prayed to the Lord for mercy and inspiration “oh where and why and how will I enlighten and aid my daughter.”  My daughter’s disillusionment tempted my inner mother bear as instinctively I wanted to go swat down the assailing teacher that endangered my daughters happiness. But, I resisted that temptation and offering no repose for her discomfort I went on to explain that it was the nature of auditions.  “Gone are the days like in kindergarten and first grade when you are assured a place just because you want to  or because we all have to have a part.  Casting a show or a performance requires choice. The teacher had a clear picture in her head of what she wants to portray on stage and you my dear are not what she wants.  She envisions typical looking Puerto Ricans, those with dark hair, dark eyes, slightly tanned skin.  Maybe someday she will want to enact Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast and she will look in the books and then look among her students for somebody with honey hair, pale skin and that will be you. Maybe on that day a young girl that is overweight and has short curly hair will want the same part and will be turned down. “

“But Mami, that is not the way it is anymore. We saw Cinderella the other night and Cinderella was black. Anyone can be Cinderella…” my daughter replied. Knowing she was echoing other discussions we had on the topic of universal truths and universal stories.  I had recently explained that by virtue of changing the time or the place or the characters stories like Cinderella became universal and the messages in them was set free to be analyzed.

“Yes Olaia, that is true, and I trust that if you ever became a director you would embrace the challenges, challenge the story and open the stage into an exciting new place.  But in this, case, this Director is reproducing what she thinks and sees in books. To be traditional is her goal and we have to respect it. Though I for one think it is boring, wrong and pigheaded.” I concluded, succeeding in making Olaia chuckle.

“I still feel bad,” Olaia added. “Olaia, it just goes to show you are human. I would feel bad too. “

Assuming that Puerto Rico is not racist because we promote the concept of our identity being born out of the “mixing” of the races is an illogical assumption that furthermore unfounded and belied in everyday interactions.  But like any other children my children learn the mythic formula of Puerto Rican identity in school.  They are Puerto Rican because that is what they are told and learn and struggle with as they challenge teachers and books.

Puerto Rican O’Malleys, 4 of a kind, not represented in books for which I tell them the future is for them to write. They are part of a history of Puerto Rican migrations and American political economy that is white-washed, or shall I say criollo-washed.  I tell them what I know of this history.  They know why, and where, and how, they are what they are, and that that is just the begining.