March 30, 2008

History of the San Juan Forts

I just caught this article about the history of the forts in San Juan and felt like sharing.

Real post later...

March 29, 2008

More about Aníbal

So, not suprisingly, the Aníbal scandal I mentioned yesterday has blown up unnecessarily. I mean, it is exciting to have all this going on, I suppose. But El Nuevo Día has of course taken it too far. They have not only a "special" (and kind of ridiculous) page all about Aníbal, with probably more than anyone wants to know. And then nearly all of the front page is devoted to him (with about 20 articles), including an article about how he drank a double capuccino with cream.

Really? Do we need all this before they even get anywhere in the trials? Ehh...

March 28, 2008

Too many things going on in Puerto Rico!

Well, the first thing that I have to talk about is the latest news about Aníbal Acevedo Vilá. Boy is he in trouble! He has finally been charged with using illegal donations (from people all over the island as well as the United States) to fund his campaign, along with several other charges. Should he be found guilty, he could serve up to 20 years in jail. We'll see how this works how for him in the future. Meanwhile, here is a great article (in Spanish) with more details, along with pictures, video, etc.

Also dealing with politics, I found this article (in English) about Hillary's first campaigning in Puerto Rico. I think it's a very good analysis about the two Democratic campaigns, with a lot of specifics about Hillary's concrete plans. Nice.

If you REALLY feel like doing some reading, I stumbled upon an amazing paper on the entire history of Americanization in Puerto Rico. It's part two of the paper. While it doesn't try to hide the author's political leanings, it does offer plenty of history in return. A sample:

Puerto Rico's 400 years of history as a people was being systematically erased. "American heroes" would replace their own national heroes, American holidays were to replace Spanish holidays, and Protestant missionaries would convert the people to Anglo-Saxon values. The children were taught in school to sing the "Star Spangled Banner", "America", "Hail Columbia", and other patriotic songs of its conquerors. They had to salute the flag each day. In some schools they had to dress in red, white and blue. The Puerto Rican flag was no more. The print media, later radio, and then television continually served a diet of propaganda news and patriotic symbols.
I think it offers a complete look at the early process of Americanization that I touched briefly before. So if anyone is interested in knowing more, I would highly recommend it (for a rainy day perhaps?).

Also dealing with history is a sample of a history textbook from 1899, one year after the Spanish-American War (it's much shorter than the essay). It's a lot less biased than I would have expected, especially considering some of the drivel coming out of the American government shortly after. Good resource.

And one last history source, although this time linking it today, is an description of the Taíno games and their current revival. Interesting but I do have to question the purpose of reviving them. Anyways, it's a good description of the game and some history.

Finally moving away from history and politics, here is an invitation to a party in Ponce. Well, kind of. Since they are temporarily closing el Museo de Arte de Ponce (the Ponce Art Museum), they're having a "closing party" with lots of activities this Sunday. Plus it's free. And the art? It's going to be in Plaza Las Américas, San Juan's giant mall, until the museum reopens in 2010.

Also, here is a VERY helpful page for figuring out when to visit Puerto Rico's bioluminescent bays. Not only does it include good advice but there also is a calendar for the rest of the year for when to go. By the way, if you don't know what a bioluminescent bay is, it is a bay that, with any movement, the dinoflagellates (algae) glow, so it looks as if the water is lighting up around you. There are only eight in the world and Puerto Rico has three of them, including the best two. So it is absolutely something to check out.

Finally, for those of us on and off the island, PBS will be airing a documentary on the life of Roberto Clemente, Puerto Rico's most famous baseball player. I'm not a big sports fan but the way that the writer here explains him I really do want to see it. It's airing April 21.

I think I've taken care of everything that I wanted! Boy has it been a busy week.

March 27, 2008

Use of English in Puerto Rico, or, How to Deal with the Inevitable "Gringo" Label

So I was asked recently if Americans speak English or Spanish while living in Puerto Rico. The answer is a bit complicated so I want to start with some history first.

When America first invaded Puerto Rico, there was an intense effort to "Americanize" Puerto Rico. A large part of this was due to racism on part of the American government (Congress members didn't believe Puerto Ricans were capable of self-rule not only because of the African and indigenous roots but also the Spanish as well). So instead of the democracy that was promised by General Miles in 1898, the Puerto Ricans got American governors chosen in Washington. None of these governors spoke Spanish and most were just serving so they could climb the political ladder; basically, they were padding their resumes. So the American governors were generally out of touch with their subjects, and, if I may be so frank, didn't really care. There are a few exceptions to this, of course, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (yes, son of president Roosevelt), who, among many things, learned some Spanish, tried to help Puerto Rico out with the devastating hurricane San Felipe, and offered a quarter of his own personal funds to support the Puerto Rican banks when economic crisis hit.

Meanwhile, there was an attempt to Americanize the culture. Teachers and students were all expected to speak only English in school, even though none of the students and very few of the teachers even knew the basics. The U.S. sent English teachers but most didn't speak any Spanish and some didn't even know any English at all. Needless to say, this was a very ineffective way of handling this, causing anger and confusion for both parties. A more lenient setup (and more rights) would follow much later.

Fastforwarding to today, nearly all Puerto Ricans speak and understand some level of English, and they are quite used to American tourists (depends on where you are though--places in the center of the island are a bit less receptive since less tourists come by). English is taught for all 12 years of school, after all, and people try to use it when they can. So generally, when Puerto Ricans see people who look American, they automatically resort to English.

For me personally, this is something I've gotten used to, because I'm a redhead and redheads are quite rare in Puerto Rico. I've seen a few and the only one I've really met was in the middle of nowhere at a parranda, when a lady walked up to me and told me I had to see her niece because we looked identical, and then she brings out a girl who was even fairer than I with a long ponytail of very red hair. So there are some; regardless I am stared at constantly while walking around (you get used to it, I suppose).

While I'm still trying to deal with being bombarded with English every time I try to buy something, I am figuring out a few techniques to avoid it. One is that I simply won't let people speak in English with me. For me I guess it's different than it would be for someone still a beginner or without a Puerto Rican accent, because it's kind of obvious that you aren't a native speaker so they will keep pressing for English. Regardless, continue talking in Spanish until they get the message that you refuse to speak in English. Something else important to remember is to never speak in English in a store if you can help it, because they will hear you and start speaking in English before you even open your mouth. Not that you should change your friends just because they speak English! But if you have the choice, go for Spanish.

However, the best way to ensure you will get the Spanish treatment is if you find a Puerto Rican friend and speak in Spanish with them as much as possible. It sounds kind of "duh", but there is no other way to figure out the expressions and get used to the sounds of their Spanish than with practice and explanations of why what is what. Finding someone sounds a lot harder than it is. Many Puerto Ricans are more than willing to share their culture with anyone who will listen. The more flags you see on their property, the more they'll want to talk about themselves (that's a joke, by the way).

I think the fact that their Spanish needs explanations also contributes to why Puerto Ricans are so hesitant to speak in Spanish to foreigners; they know that their Spanish is difficult to understand, what with the accent and the colorful vocabulary. Without someone explaining a lot of the conversation to you, it can be nearly impossible to follow. This causes mixed feelings. On one hand, a lot of Puerto Ricans (and other Spanish speakers, unfortunately) see their Spanish as impure, cheap, etc. On the other, it's a huge source of pride, because their unique language unites them and identifies them as members of the same community.

This, I feel, is an example of what is a huge part of the Puerto Rican sense of being: contradiction. There is a giant lack of self esteem combined with an almost exaggerated patriotism that determines the movements of Puerto Rican society. It is not unusual to see signs saying, "¿Qué nos pasa, Puerto Rico?" (What's happening to us, Puerto Rico?... it sounds more catchy in Spanish I suppose) alongside huge flags displayed with pride. Nowhere is this seen more in politics. In fact, I would dare to say that this contradiction has both decided politics in the island while also being the effect of politics on the island. Puerto Rico doesn't trust itself to be independent (an ideology cemented into society after history proved the difficulties of an independent Latin America as well as chasing away the voices of the independentistas). But at the same time, there is far too much pride to become a state, losing the language and the sense of a nation. Thus the island still has trouble committing to one side or another. However, even deeper, the frustration at seeing the corruption and inability to make change has also kept confidence down while each day more that Puerto Rico stays part of the United States the more patriotism rises since it has to counter growing American influence. This self doubt and pride, a great paradox fueled by an uncertain fate, is an important part of the Puerto Rican soul and will continue to be an obstacle for Puerto Rico in the future.

Anyways, even though I mentioned last time that I do write this blog to spread awareness about Puerto Rico, another reason is the uniqueness of the language. As I've mentioned before I feel that Puerto Rican Spanish is unappreciated. It is a very rich language that has three additional sources besides Spain to draw from, those being Taíno and African roots along with American English. Then there is just plain old creativity which continues changing the language without leaning on either the past or the future but rather serves to satisfy the present needs of Puerto Rican speech. I can't see Puerto Rican Spanish as "trashy", not only because I've been taught that there is something like a better or worse accent in languages, since better or worse is determined by social constructions and not by the sounds, but also because of the very depth of Boricua Spanish. It's too easy to write off informal language as "incorrect", and I implore everyone to forget this misconception. Informal language is what makes a community, especially for Puerto Rico, and it does have cultural and even literary significance.

For the person studying Puerto Rican Spanish, it's a victory each time a piece of the language is clarified. I think one of the most rewarding things is being able to understand the clever reggaetón of Calle 13: first passing through the accent, then understanding the slang words unique to Puerto Rico, then figuring out the (occasionally strange) expressions, then finally discovering the satire, cultural and political, below all of this, which can mock and still care for Puerto Rico--yet another example of the paradox above in popular culture. Even though I don't expect everyone to like Calle 13, these layers also apply to normal speech. A simple statement in Puerto Rican Spanish can easily have historical, cultural, political, and personal implications, all at once; yet all of this is lost on someone without the background knowledge.

My first experiences in Puerto Rico were exactly like that, which I included above as a warning not to sound condescending but rather because it's the truth. Although I had a decent level of Spanish when our plane touched the ground, I soon found it wasn't adequate. Honestly? I didn't understand a thing. So I sought out the answers to everything I didn't understand, which not only provided a new knowledge of the language but also the culture. For example, knowing the word jíbaro in all of its meanings requires knowing everything from the pre-Colombian people to the modern political parties and then seeing its purpose as a symbol during the past and today. Without help this and other more obscure terms would have been completely lost on me. Over time many similar things were explained to me. I owe my friends a lot for all that they've taught me. Even so, I still feel I have a lot to learn, but at least now I can enjoy what I have learned. It has made a drastic difference in how I see Puerto Rico and I don't think I would be where I am without it.

Overall, understanding Puerto Rican Spanish is a test of understanding culture. It's impossible to speak Boricua without acknowledging this. But learning culture is not too difficult to accomplish and it is definitely worth it in the end. And of course, I am here to help.

And a final note about the original question: for Americans working in Puerto Rico knowing at least some Spanish is vital, particularly in San Juan. Because of the job market mess, there are few professional jobs and a lot of Puerto Ricans who are qualified. Therefore, most companies, even American ones, have no reason to hire a monolingual experienced American over a bilingual experienced Puerto Rican. But a little Spanish goes a long way in this case and an experienced American with basic Spanish can sometimes get preference over the bilingual Puerto Rican. So it depends. There also are communities of expats, generally on the west coast and in specific in Rincón, and while there are plenty who do speak some Spanish, I've gotten the impression that many don't. I think the safest answer is to say that it depends on the situation. It is possible to survive on the island with just English, for sure. But living there is a different story.

I welcome any comments on this because I think there are a few themes I brought up that can be explored more if there is interest. So, please, let's discuss.

March 25, 2008

Semana Santa in Puerto Rico

So, my favorite Swede living in Puerto Rico (not that there are that many anyways!) asked me how Puerto Ricans celebrate Easter and semana santa in comparison to Spain and other parts of Latin America.

I have quite a disappointing answer for you. Really, Easter in Puerto Rico is a watered down version of the Spanish Easter. Some things are kept faithful (like bacalao, of course... it's basically eaten every day), but if there is a procession somewhere in the island it must be pretty small. Mostly Easter is celebrated with families and/or in church. Although this is just coming from personal accounts, I haven't actually been in the island for Easter. So perhaps it is worth investigating yourself!

I personally blame it on Christmas since it is such a huge deal in Puerto Rico and it must wear everyone out. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing!

If anyone has an anecdote to share about Easter in the island, please share!

March 24, 2008

A moment of anger thanks to Postsecret

I have a lot of stuff to catch up on, not just here, but I just happened to see this and it made me really angry. In the popular blog PostSecret there is a letter featuring a U.S. flag, with this written in between the stripes: "People who live in the United States and don't bother to learn English make me sick." Underneath that is a picture of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in NYC.

What the hell?!

First off, these are Puerto Ricans who are probably at least second or third generation and I'd bet money that nearly everyone in that picture speaks English quite well. In fact a lot of them most likely don't even speak Spanish.

But more than that I'm bothered by how there is this sense of Puerto Ricans are the invaders, while in reality they were the ones being invaded.

Now I don't want to make a political statement about people who don't speak English, not because I don't have an opinion (who doesn't?) but rather because it doesn't have anything to do with Puerto Ricans. They are in a completely different situation: Puerto Ricans by default are not immigrants, either legal or illegal. They are American citizens from early on in their experiences with American colonization.

Also, by adding Puerto Rico to the United States after the Spanish American War, the U.S. picked up a population of native Spanish speakers. If they didn't want Spanish speakers, they shouldn't have done that. If they don't want them now, then let them go. Forced Americanization didn't work (as intended, anyways) before and it won't work now. While most Puerto Ricans can at the very least understand English, with fewer considering themselves completely fluent, expecting an entire nation to change overnight for the whims of a country that largely hasn't cared about them is a joke.

I'm not one to advocate independence for PR (I'm not puertorriqueña so I don't think I have much of a place to say my views on the island's status) but if English is such a requirement for living in this country, you'll have to do something about their status. And if you don't have a good suggestion (because there are serious flaws in all of the choices), then don't complain about it. Please.

Basically, you chose to keep Puerto Rico, you'll have to put up with the people you've annexed as well as their language. Don't want them, don't keep them.

This brings me back to the scandal of a couple of years ago, when a giant group of artists collaborated on a Spanish version of the Star Spangled Banner. Quality notwithstanding, it caused such a big fuss because English should be the official language and it supported illegal immigration blah blah blah... when in reality, most of the artists involved were Puerto Rican. As if they didn't have a right to sing their national anthem in their language!

I don't really think it's that people are really against Puerto Ricans but it's just that they're ignorant. I get asked a lot of Puerto Ricans are American citizens, for example, or they need to apply to move to the U.S. or if they have their own currency. The island has been a U.S. territory for over 100 years and yet most people don't even realize that. And these are educated people who study and interact with other cultures daily. I can't even imagine what it's like for others.

I guess that's why I have this blog in the first place, really: to shed some light on an island that few people know about or even care about, but at the same time has a fascinating story to tell to anyone who wants to listen. It's unfortunate that so many people overlook or misunderstand the island without knowing that many of their decisions indirectly land in Puerto Rico's lap. A little education goes a long way in this case. Hell, even dropping by el Morro for a few minutes is better than nothing.

So wake up America! You have a colony of 4 million people that don't speak your language but are citizens of your country. It's time to learn about them along with the 13 colonies and the Civil War as part of U.S. history. It can only benefit you.

As for the card, I'm really hoping that they just used the wrong picture. And that all the people discussing it can look past the temptation of debating immigration (again) and realize that by doing so they are accusing a population of not speaking English and performing illegal acts which they are not responsible for--a gross misrepresentation of the current political status of Puerto Rico.

March 17, 2008

A potpourri of topics

I have a bunch of catch-up to do, and then I'll be taking a mental break for a couple of days and then I'll have more catch-up to do!

First off, a very important Puerto Rican artist, Rafael Tufiño, has died. Sad. Can anyone rise up to replace him?

As for blog posts, I wanted to share two from a friend, with photos of the interior of the island as well as some lechón, some photos of Culebra, and an invitation to el Día Internacional de la Salsa in a couple of weeks, which will have some of the biggest names in salsa performing. Oh, how I wish I were living on the island!

Anyways... stay safe and enjoy!

March 13, 2008

Word of the Week: Chiringa

The word of the week is chiringa, which means kite (the normal Spanish word for it is cometa, I believe). Why did I pick this? Because apparently there is a kite festival this weekend at El Morro. One of the nicest things about El Morro is the kite flying, and in this case there will be lots of it! I would really recommend you go.

March 12, 2008

Photos of Culebra

Our friends at the Culebra Blog have posted some really nice pictures of Culebra! I thought they were worth sharing.

March 10, 2008

First International Festival of Poetry in Puerto Rico

Heads up! From the 24th to the 28th Puerto Rico will be hosting a poetry festival featuring high-profile poets from all over Latin America. Check it out!

And the winner is...

Fortuño! We'll see how much luck he has in the real deal.

For a slightly satirical look at this I invite all of you to read this blog post... it's pretty funny.

March 9, 2008


So today is Primaries in Puerto Rico, and the big question is, who will take the nomination for the PNP, Rosselló or Fortuño? We'll see soon!

Changing your clocks?

Most of America and various other countries are changing their clocks tonight. But Puerto Rico won't. The island doesn't observe daylight's saving time, so actually now the East Coast of the U.S. will be catching up to Puerto Rico. Good to know!

March 3, 2008

Cavernas de Camuy Reopened

Sorry about the break guys... anyways just wanted to say that las Cavernas de Camuy have reopened since they closed it because of an accident. They've changed it as well to make it safe. Sounds good!