Moving Beyond “Un Poquito de Español”

04_25_40When I interviewed with Professor Connolly for a position in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic she asked me if I spoke any Spanish. I could tell it wasn’t a deal-breaker if I didn’t, but I couldn’t imagine UB Law helping people recover from the hurricane without it. I told her excitedly that I had been really working on getting fluent … for the last ten years.

I have always regretted letting my proficiency in the language slide after high school, but also never fully gave up. As a result, I’ve spent the last ten years telling people I speak “un poquito de español,” and encouraging them to use it with me – then missing the punchline to all the best jokes.
When I got to Puerto Rico this time I promised myself I would make the most concerted effort I could to learn, practice, and speak the language while here. Full immersion. And doing so has been the most enriching thing about the experience thus far, because it connects me to the people. It feels like the most meaningful thing I could do, to learn their language, and talk about their struggles with them in it. To drop s’s with them and wish one other good luck.

When we arrived at my first “humanitarian brigade,” (providing supplies like solar lamps to those still recovering from Hurricane Maria) I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been told we would travel on-foot through the mountains, giving out whatever supplies we could to these communities, who were both hit the hardest by the hurricane and had the least resources to recover. Although we gave out soap and towels, the most important item were the solar lamps – because, unbelievably, almost every one of the houses we visited was still without power.

Where we were in the mountains most people speak only Spanish, and I wanted to try and use the opportunity to practice with people. But it turns out explaining how a solar lamp works is more complicated than ordering bacalaitos! It was a situation that could have scared me off from communicating, but the #UBLawResponds team encouraged me to embrace the opportunity instead and face my fears. Their support propelled me into practicing enough that I could lead a group of students without knowledge of the language provide supplies to residents all on our own.

I’m certain my grammar was not always correct, and I nodded and smiled through some bits I couldn’t quite catch, but ultimately the connection was made. I can’t begin to describe the warmth and compassion I received from these incredibly resilient people. They applauded my attempt where they could have been frustrated, and together we all understood one another a little better. I came to Puerto Rico with #UBLawResponds to try and help people here feel appreciated, and instead I found myself being offered water from someone who hadn’t had running water since María. The breadth of this island’s resiliency and beauty is unbounded. I am forever grateful.

So, go for it! Puerto Rico needs meaningful help from all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise, and even though many of the citizens speak some English, at least trying to speak with them in their language sets a reverent tone unlike anything else.

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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.