Esmeralda Santiago has been published in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and Vista magazine. The following is an excerpt from her memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican (1993). It illustrates through the eyes and ears of a child the complex relationship between Puerto Ricans and the United States.
Excerpt from When I Was Puerto Rican
"Today," Miss Jiménez said, "you will
be vaccinated by the school nurse."
There had never been a school nurse at Macún Elementary School, but lately a woman dressed in white, with a tall, stiff cap atop her short cropped hair, had set up an infirmary in a corner of the lunchroom. Forms had been sent home, and Mami had told me and Delsa that we would be receiving polio vaccines.
"What's polio?" I asked, imagining another parasite in my belly.
"It's a very bad disease that makes you crippled," she said.
"Is it like meningitis?" Delsa asked. A brother of one of her friends had that disease; his arms and hands were twisted into his body, his legs splayed out at the knees, so that he walked as if he were about to kneel.
"No," Mami said, "it's worse. If you get polio, you die, or you spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair or inside an iron lung."
"An iron lung!?!?" It was impossible. There could not be such a thing.
"It's not like a real lung, silly," Mami laughed. "It's a machine that breathes for you."
"¡Ay Dios mío!" Polio was worse than solitaria.
"But how can it do that?" Delsa's eyes opened and shut as if she were testing to see whether she was asleep or awake.
"I don't know how it works," Mami said. "Ask your father."
Delsa and I puzzled over how you could have an iron lung, and that night, when Papi came home from work; we made him draw one for us and show us how a machine could do what people couldn't. He drew a long tube and at one end made a stick figure face.
"It looks like a can," Delsa said, and Papi laughed.
"Yes," he said, "it does. Just like a can."
Miss Jiménez sent us out to see the nurse two at a time; in alphabetical order. By the time she got to the S's, I was shaky, because every one of the children who had gone before me had come back crying, pressing a wad of cotton against their arm. Ignacio Sepúlveda walked next to me, and even though he was as scared as I was, he pretended he wasn't.
"What crybabies!" he said. "I've had shots before and they don't hurt that much."
"Last year. They gave us shots for tuberculosis." We were nearing the lunchroom, and Ignacio slowed down, tagged on my arm, and whispered, "It's all because of politics."
"What are you talking about? Politics isn't a disease like polio. It's something men talk about at the bus stop." I'd heard Papi tell Mami when he was late that he'd missed the bus because he'd been discussing politics.
Ignacio kept his voice to a whisper, as if he were telling me something no one else knew. "My Papa says the government's doing all this stuff for us because it's an election year."
"What does that have to do with it?"
"They give kids shots and free breakfast, stuff like that, so that our dads will vote for them."
"Don't you know anything?"
"I know a lot of things."
"You don't know anything about politics."
" Do so."
"Who's the governor of Puerto Rico, then?"
"Oh, you could have asked something really hard! . . . Everyone knows it's Don Luis Muñoz Marín."
"Yeah, well, who's el presidente of the Jun-ited Estates?"
"I bet you don't know his first name."
I knew then I had him. I scanned Papi's newspaper daily, and I had seen pictures of el presidente on the golf course, and of his wife's funny hairdo.
"His first name is Eekeh," I said, puffed with knowledge. "And his wife's name is Mami."
"Well, he's an imperialist, just like all the other gringos!" Ignacio said, and I was speechless because Mami and Papi never let us say things like that about grown ups, even if they were true.
When we came into the lunchroom, Ignacio presented his arm to the nurse as if instead of a shot he were getting a medal. He winced as the nurse stuck the needle into him and blinked a few times to push back tears. But he didn't cry, and I didn't either, though I wanted to. There was no way I'd have Ignacio Sepúlveda calling me a crybaby.
"Papi, what's an imperialist?"
He stopped the hammer in midstrike and looked at me. "Where did you hear that word?"
"Ignacio Sepúlveda said Eekeh Aysenhouerr is an imperialist. He said all gringos are."
Papi looked around as if someone were hiding behind a bush and listening in. "I don't want you repeating those words to anybody. . ."
"I know that, Papi . . . . I just want to know what it means. Are gringos the same as americanos?"
"You should never call an americano a gringo. It's a very bad insult."
"It just is." It wasn't like Papi not to give a real answer to my questions. "Besides, el presidente's name is pronounced Ayk, not Eekeh." He went back to his hammering.
I handed him a nail from the can at his feet. "How come it's a bad insult?"
He stopped banging the wall arid looked at me. I stared back, and he put his hammer down, took off his hat, brushed his hand across his forehead, wiped it on his pants, sat on the stoop, and leaned his elbows back, stretching his legs out in front of him. This was the response I expected. Now I would hear all about gringos and imperialists.
"Puerto Rico was a colony of Spain after Columbus landed here," he began, like a schoolteacher.
"I know that."
"In 1898, los Estados Unidos invaded Puerto Rico, and we became their colony. A lot of Puerto Ricans don't think that's right. They call americanos imperialists, which means they want to change our country and our culture to be like theirs."
"Is that why they teach us English in school, so we can speak like them?"
"Well, I'm not going to learn English so I don't become American." .
He chuckled. "Being American is not just a language, negrita, it's a lot of other things."
He scratched his head. "Like the food you eat . . . the music you listen to . . . the things you believe in."
"Do they believe in God?"
"Some of them do."
"Do they believe in phantasms and witches?"
"Yes, some Americans believe in that."
"Mami doesn't believe any of that stuff."
"I know. I don't either."
"Why not?" .
"I just . . . I believe in things I can see."
"Why do people call americanos gringos?"
"We call them gringos, they call us spiks."
"What does that mean?"
"Well," he sat up, leaned his elbows on his knees and looked at the ground, as if he were embarrassed. "There are many Puerto Ricans in New York, and when someone asks them a question they say, `I don spik inglish' instead of `I don't speak English.' They make fun of our accent."
"Americanos talk funny when they speak Spanish."
"Yes, they do. The ones who don't take the trouble to learn it well." He pushed his hat back, and the sun burned into his already brown face, making him squint. "That's part of being an imperialist. They expect us to do things their way, even in our country"
"That's not fair."
"No, it isn't." He stood up and picked up his hammer. "Well, I'd better get back to work, negrita. Do you want to help?"
"Okay." I followed him, holding the can of nails up so he wouldn't have to bend over to pick them up. "Papi?"
"If we eat all that American food they give us at the centro comunal, will we become americanos?"
He banged a nail hard into the wall, then turned to me and, with a broad smile on his face, said, "Only if you like it better than our Puerto Rican food."
Women's Voices From the Borderlands, ed. Lillian Castillo-Speed (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 257-263.