By Josiah Bonifant, Medill, Immigrant Connect
I’m sitting down for a typical Sunday afternoon with my parents. A football game is going on, so my dad is completely zoned out of the conversation. My mom has just called her mother, my abuela, and is full of thoughts.
She says her Mamá was wondering her thoughts on the election, so she told her that even though he’s not perfect, she would happily vote for Trump. According to my mom, Mamá sees him as such an evil man, but my mom was able to convince her that Hillary is much worse. My mom is exasperated with the propaganda on the news in Puerto Rico. That’s how she justifies her mother’s differing political opinion. No matter, Puerto Ricans can’t vote for president.
I side with my abuela on this issue though we’ve never talked. She only speaks Spanish; I, only English. I only have one more year before I can get away from the constant conservative discourse at home. The conversation she just reiterated is frustrating and reveals the perplexing dynamic of my mother’s political beliefs.
I know from past conversations she believes Trump’s proposed wall will curtail illegal immigration and that illegal immigrants are “lazy.” What has led to her animosity toward other Latinx communities? I don’t know anything about her life in the United States before meeting my dad.
So I ask.
She gives me a confused look before telling me she’s not an immigrant. Puerto Rico is part of the U.S.
I know that. I’m still curious about the when and why of leaving Puerto Rico and what learning English was like.
I discover she moved from San Juan, PR to Miami in October 1982 as a 22-year-old college graduate to live with her aunt, who had lived there for a few years. She describes to me that not having to earn money for rent or food, she took English night classes while working odd jobs during the day. I realize she lived in Miami almost a decade before meeting my dad in 1990.
She relates a story that has stuck with her about walking several blocks from her aunt’s apartment one hot, humid evening. The tutor asked how she was and she said, “I’m hot,” since it was hot out. He replied that she was, since she’s Puerto Rican. The girl in front of her whispered what he really was saying, which was a way of flirting.
My mom tells me she felt so embarrassed, but didn’t know enough English to say something, although she wanted to.
The story shifts to a memory of applying for an office job in Little Havana that would utilize her psychology degree. Her English skills had improved some by then. At the interview, the Cuban owner gave her all indications that he was going to hire her, even asking when she’d be available for work the first day.
While they were signing paperwork, the owner switched to Spanish and they had casual conversation. He asked which province in Cuba she was from, so she told him she’s Puerto Rican. He suddenly backtracked, telling her he had to interview more people before he could finalize the hiring.
I’ve never heard either story before and am more curious why she’s not more empathetic with the struggles of immigrants. She continues to describe her first job as a social worker.
All her coworkers were Cuban, except one. He was Colombian.
One random day at work, the Colombian man proposed to my mother. He had recently discovered that Puerto Ricans are Americans and he wanted to remain in the United States for a green card. One of her coworkers told her you can never trust Colombians. She was not going to agree to a sham marriage, so she told him no.
As my mom recalls these stories, I notice she has exposed me to very little Puerto Rican culture, despite being very proud of her own heritage. I realize her initial experiences in the United States were isolating and difficult, being away from her large family on the island and struggling to communicate clearly in a new language. Assimilation was necessary to succeed. While she longed for a sense of belonging within the Hispanic Miami communities, she was discriminated against and exploited for her naiveté there.
Instead, the popularity of Ronald Reagan, the conservative Republican President at the time shaped her political beliefs. My abuela never had these formative experiences her daughter had in the 1980s. Similarly, I rejected conservative beliefs, taking political cues from mainstream media, rather than from the Puerto Rican who raised me.