If you’ve ever seen West Side Story, the classic tale of the conflict between Puerto Rican and white cultures here in America, you know a little about what it was like for me growing up in the 1960s and 70s. No, I was never in a knife fight, thank goodness. But as the children of our Puerto Rican mother, Angelica Josefina Diaz, and our Illinois-born father, Harry Lovejoy, Jr., my two siblings and I were raised with an unusual and sometimes conflicting mix of cultural influences. And during that period in American history, the white culture usually came out on top.
Long before multiculturalism and Hispanic Heritage Month were celebrated, as they rightly are now, we were raised in northern Indiana as American kids. Our names, our traditions and our holidays were as white as any other kids in our neighborhood. Unlike today’s multicultural families, where parents speak both languages to their young children so they grow up bilingual, at that time the prevailing attitude in the U.S. was that English was the world’s predominant language, and the rest of the world should learn it. So we didn’t grow up speaking Spanish in the Lovejoy household. When I was asked to check a box describing my race or ethnic origin, I would invariably check “white,” because that’s what I identified most strongly with.
We did have reminders that we were half Hispanic. My mom made us Puerto Rican food as a special treat, which we love to this day. And every Christmas, we’d make the long flight to San Juan to visit our large family there. Yes, the beaches were great, but what we loved most was hearing everyone speak in Spanish, the music, and the food. It was a different world, and it kept us aware of what made us different from our friends. I have always been proud that my mother came from another culture, and loved hearing her speak in rapid, animated Spanish to her three sisters on their long phone conversations.
As I grew up, America did, too. We all realized that rather than suppressing our non-Anglo backgrounds, they should be celebrated as strengths that tie us together. And within our family, we now celebrate little things that make us proud of our Puerto Rican background. I’ve learned from Mom how to make many of those delicious Puerto Rican dishes, and have taught some of my friends, as well. To the astonishment of her neighbors, Mom grew a banana tree from Puerto Rico in the back yard of their Elkhart home, in northern Indiana’s snowbelt. (They called her “Banana Nana” for a time.) I keep in touch with my cousins, who now live in Puerto Rico, Spain and the U.S. And for years now, I proudly check “Hispanic” on the survey box. I may be late to the party, but no one throws better parties than Puerto Ricans!
Feliz Mes de la Herencia Hispana!
Happy Hispanic Heritage Month! Here’s a link to Cristina’s beautiful blog from October 2021: Keeping My Latina