As a native of Puerto Rico, I cherish and celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. But its importance to me doesn’t come from a solid and steady connection to my heritage – it actually comes from my fear that I’d lost that connection, and my determination to get it back.
I was born in the city of Ponce, on Puerto Rico’s southern coast. For nine years, my family lived there amongst beautiful ocean views and stunning, unique architecture. But then, in the middle of my fourth grade year, I said goodbye to my friends and extended family relatives as we moved to the “mainland” and settled in Sturgis, Michigan. I barely knew any English, just a few words here and there. My brother and I were the only Latinos in the entire school, which made it hard for us to communicate. But, we persisted, adapted and learned to blend in. I got really good at not standing out.
It wasn’t until high school that I made friends with others of Latin descent, but even then we conformed, never really letting our roots shine through. Moving on to college, I made little effort to seek out friends or join organizations that made me feel closer to home. Looking back now, I see the many ways I shed my heritage over the years – whether intentionally or not. I think of the recipes of my favorite foods that never made it into our kitchen in Michigan. I think of the 16 years that passed by in which I visited Puerto Rico only twice. I reflect on hearing my own Spanish weakening because I refused to speak anything other than English, and on watching communication with our family and friends on the island slowly fade. The final cost of it all was feeling completely disconnected from my people, my roots and my homeland. I still struggle today to make up for lost time and connections. But I try to be more intentional about finding the connections that bring me back and remind me of where I came from.
For one thing, I’m not waiting sixteen years to go back anymore. As an adult I made the decision to go to Puerto Rico every year. I go to see my family, to eat my favorite foods and to get reacquainted with my beautiful island. When I got married this year, I decided to keep Melendez in my last name. And to teach my new husband how to dance salsa and merengue. I’m incorporating old familiar recipes into our meals at home. I’m working on improving my Spanish. It’s going to be a big help as we raise our future kids to be bilingual, which is our plan.
I’ve spent a long time struggling with the thought that I might have shed too much of my Latina. I’ve spent a long time fearing I’d never get it back. But the reality I’ve come to understand is that you can never fully lose what’s within you.
I do live here in Indianapolis, Indiana, far from the streets and beaches of Ponce. But that does nothing to change the fact that I am and always will be Boricua.
Feliz Mes de la Herencia Hispana!
Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!