Photography provided by Peter Decherney
My biggest fear was to return to Puerto Rico. In fact I left never to return. This is something that baffles most visitors or tourists who instantly want to move to paradise. I left hurt, angry, and disappointed. I left convinced of our inferiority to the (western) world’s superiority. Only to learn later, after going from Penn to Oxford to Princeton that the birthplace of the colonized mind is believing we are inferior - denying who we really are, and acting in violence towards ourselves by wishing to be other. Everywhere around me, from the media to my immediate ecosystem, it seemed that being American or European, or white or powerful was desirable. Sometimes this message was overt, sometimes tacit.
I embarked on a journey to trace the root of this feeling of disdain inside of me; curly hair was unprofessional, our music was too “criolla,” our restaurants un-sophisticated, people never quite as civil as out there... and on and on. Eventually my journey of questioning made me realize that I left a Puerto Rico that I had entirely made up in my head, and a parallel reality existed on the other side of lifting this veil of disdain, toxic criticism and anger. I returned home exactly 9 months before September 20th, 2017 - the date that changed our lives. In those 9 months of gestation, before the island I knew was ravaged, I gave birth to a feeling I had never truly felt before. I saw a beautiful beach covered in trash, and for once in my entire life I didn’t feel hatred towards Puerto Ricans (towards myself) - for once I didn’t say “los Puertorriqueños son unos puercos y vagos” (Puerto Ricans are pigs and lazy) — which is what I grew up hearing everywhere. Instead I felt a profound truth: we treat our surroundings the way we treat ourselves. And I realized that these people, our people, me, they — we are not lazy or pigs.
No. The pain and suffering of our existence is so vast, so profound that it distracts us from being capable of loving our inherited land. The shadow wound is there always, keeping us from feelings of awe, of reverence, of gratitude for the gift of this wonderful archipelago. In that moment, everything shifted. I saw in my mind’s eye the source of toxicity that eats away at who we are as Puerto Ricans— like a virus it has spread, and convinced us that our biggest enemy is us, ourselves, our very existence. It has convinced us that denying ourselves we will survive. It has convinced us that we are not good enough, or worthy, or capable, or trustworthy. And this is the biggest lie. This is the reason we viciously tear each other down and sabotage or criticize any attempts to own our greatness, our ingenuity, our dignity.
The only thing that can set us free is that one thing we forgot hundreds of years ago. It is the only avenue we have yet to take after hundreds of years of silence.That we are love - love who was abused, oftentimes killed or enslaved and forced into oblivion. Love who was erased from history books and school curriculum. We are our African and our Indigenous ancestors who were forgotten under statues of Cristobal Colón and monuments to American Presidents. But our bodies remember. Our spirits know the unspoken past.
Therein lies our new beginning.
In tending to our roots. Where it hurts is where we emerge anew, is where we recover, remember, feel..