I Am More Than My Municipality

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Each municipality in Puerto Rico has its own distinct flavor and feel. Already a small island, many Puerto Ricans derive a sense of identity from the particular municipality they are from. There is the idea that people from a certain municipality look a certain way and are of a certain ilk. When I say I am from California, I often see people treating me differently, as if they are using where I am from as a personality indicator. People tend to make certain assumptions about me and tend to ascribe traits of mine as being a result of my California roots. The same goes for my roots in Puerto Rico. When speaking with other Puerto Ricans, I have been conditioned to say that my family is from Bayamon, because I know at some point that question is going to be asked. Where your roots are in Puerto Rico is not only a source of pride, but it is also a way in which others make certain assumptions about you. Visiting different municipalities as a #UBLawResponds student attorney in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic so far on this trip further confirms this notion.

Santurce, where I am currently staying, is a large and populated district. There is a lot available within walking distance. Quebradillas, where I went to offer assistance with FEMA appeals, is in between a larger district and a rural one. Businesses are more spread out, but they are at least a drivable distance. In rural Arroyo, where I assisted with a humanitarian distribution effort, businesses are very spread out and travel was not as easy as it is in Santurce. Loíza, where I went on a second legal assistance brigade, was similar to Arroyo in that respect. However, the difference in appearance between each district is far more noticeable in these different districts.

Puerto Ricans come in all different shades, since we are a mix of Taino, Spanish, and African heritage. Some people look like an even mix of all three, some people look like a mix of two of the three, and some people look largely like one of the three. Even though Puerto Ricans come in many different varieties, some Puerto Ricans swear that they can usually recognize a fellow Puerto Rican by their distinct facial features. Some Puerto Ricans also swear that they can rule out which municipalities you are from, based on what you look like. If you are darker skinned, then the assumption is often made that you are not from a large, more metropolitan district. If you are lighter skinned, then the assumption is often made that you are not from a rural area. Those assumptions are very telling and paint a picture about the seldom discussed race issue in Puerto Rico.

Race issues in Puerto Rico are like embarrassing family members that you try to distance yourself from, but everyone knows are related to you anyway. As one explores the island, it becomes apparent that wealth is spread largely among people who look a certain way and poverty is among people who look another way. This, however, will be a problem for a long time so long as Puerto Ricans refuse to acknowledge the differences in race on the island.