What Does Culture Even Mean?

We are still pretty fresh into this whole experiment, but I have had my fair share of discouraging moments about whether or not my children are “picking up” their culture, and even whether or not it actually matters.

In an attempt to avoid being completely lost as Puerto Rican newbies, we decided we would live in the heart of San Juan, hoping the tourist vibe would feel like a nice soft landing pad. We can see the airport from our apartment (it’s also much easier this way with all the back-and-forth from Uriah). We live right off the busy highway. We can walk to the beach. But a week into our move and it was clear I didn’t like city life. My imagination had once painted pastoral towns, horses roaming, postcard-type vacation life. But I live with the constant sound of loud cars (reggaeton and exhaust pipes blaring). It feels like there’s more graffiti and litter within a one mile radius than in my whole home town. Evidently I had been mistaken when I thought I would enter a calm old world of boleros and hammock-napping.

At school, our girls interact with their peers in English, singing American pop songs together at recess, discussing their mutual love for Harry Potter and seaweed chips at lunchtime. While in line during my weekly Costco trip, I notice all the carts filled with organic string cheese and madras lentils. I pass a neighbor every day who is carrying a bag of Burger King breakfast. I suppose I just expected it to be more…Puerto Rican?

And that’s when I got to thinking. Part of my easily agreeing to make this life change was the fact that I’d never felt like I had much culture of my own, and how nice it would be for my children to gain that. In my day to day activities here, the only things I’m seeing that appear to be inherent to Puerto Rico are potholes and indifference to traffic laws. I have traveled to a few less urban areas of the island and although they certainly contain more natural beauty and are generally better maintained (and seemingly respected) than San Juan, I still was confused about where all the Puerto Rican pride I’ve witnessed in my life was stemming from.

I was in the car listening to Latin trap (my favorite genre of music as of the last year or so lol) and I suddenly remembered my Puerto Rican friends from high school and how we would drive around listening to Marc Anthony and La India. We would crank up the volume, each singing along to their parents’ oldies, and it was clear my friends had a genuine love for the old school music. Even though we would go to the under-21 clubs on the weekend and get our innocent twerk on to Ja Rule, they still spent Sundays with their entire family crammed into a modest house, eating pollo guisado and dancing to Frankie Ruiz. Each day I spent with their families always seemed like the best day of their lives.

As far as I remember, my friends hadn’t even been to Puerto Rico, but they still carried this love for their island, their people, their roots. I always found it so beautiful, that loyalty they held for something that wasn’t even necessarily their experience. As I tried to imagine why they loved being Puerto Rican so much and compared it to myself–who couldn’t care less about my cultural background–it struck me that maybe it was simply their familial bond. This might sound obvious to someone reading this, but not to me, not with how I was raised.

I do not have a very affectionate family. We spent much more time cussing each other out than cuddling, we barely ate meals together, and my mom is notorious for cutting people out of her life (which unfortunately is a trait that got passed down to my siblings and I). We just never had any strong familial–and therefore, cultural–ties to anyone. When I first experienced the warmth of my Puerto Rican friends’ family, it was such a novel thing. All that hugging and kissing and laughing. Even their disagreements seemed so full of love, the way they still supported each other, even if the support came with a side of criticism and judgment by everyone within earshot.

I have seen that here on the island as well. People willing to help people. A real sense of togetherness. I witnessed a car accident from my balcony, and the two (I’m assuming) strangers got out of their vehicles and hugged before working out the issue. I see more people hand change (and meals) to the homeless here than I’ve ever seen back home–again, even some charity handed over with a hug and encouraging words.

I think my naïvety of (poor) city life, combined with my American privilege, combined with my lack of familial connection made me think culture was something that could be water-colored onto a vacation postcard. I still am trying to work out what it all means and it’s importance to me. I do want my children to have a sense of belonging to a people, and I need to be conscious that I don’t let my own underwhelming experiences dampen their chances for community. I suppose if I continue to listen to Puerto Rican music–while loving on my girls–and serve them Puerto Rican food–while loving on them–and teach them to play dominos–while loving on them–then those things become associated with family. They become the tangible parts of culture representing the core of it all: love.

Growing and learning can never stop, and taking this leap into a new world will help me to better understand other people as well as myself. Having now gone back to my home town and returned to the island, I have a bit more understanding of the essence of Puerto Rico. I understand that San Juan is a fine place to live, but that I just prefer small towns to big cities. (My first impression of Milan, Italy was the same as here: Eww, so much vandalism! Lol) The outpouring of love I witness on a daily basis from locals to the homeless has encouraged me to do more for people less fortunate than myself. I am more aware of my antisocial tendencies and I want to do better for myself, and for my girls. And I’m hoping the #islandvibes lifestyle can teach me to relax and take care of myself a little more. Vamos pa’ la playa, for the culture! 😉

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