When I was Puerto Rican by E. Santiago

Published 03 May 2017

In the novel When I was Puerto Rican, E. Santiago describes casualties of life and hardship faced by a young Puerto-Rican girl in New York. This novel unveils racial inequalities and discrimination which force the protagonist to look for personal identity and the self. From the philosophical point of view, identity is defined as “thinking, … that makes every one to be, what he calls self; and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal Identity” (personal identity 2007). Thesis Through the theme of personal identity, Santiago describes hardship and life troubles faced by the young girl in New York.

In the novel, ideologies of Otherness regarding race and gender are found within different communities. For instance, coming in New York the protagonist understands that every nationality has its unique identity embodied in values and norms. They form the links between popular-class and elite notions of Self and national identity that are otherwise discursively negated by differences of class and historical experience (Santiago 45). However similar they may have been in valorizing whiteness over blackness or justifying the oppression of women, the ideological principles responsible for the legitimating of social hierarchies through discourse were differentially operational zed among the popular classes in the promotion of their own communal, class interests. “There were many Puerto Rican in New York, and when someone asks a question they say: “It’s such a sad song” (Santiago 73). This passage shows that Santiago understands that standards of Otherness within popular-class communities are rationalized through creative expression.

For seven years spent in New York, Santiago has tried to find her personal identity and value. The author portrays that the complex racial dimensions of her society are intensified among Puerto Ricans by the unexpected infusion of an array of social attitudes both alien and fundamentally contrary to their own (Santiago 77). With their policies of racial segregation, racially discriminatory voting practices, white supremacist clubs, and longtime use of terrorist tactics like lynching against blacks, the white North Americans who conquered and governed Puerto Rico brought with them the beliefs and dispositions they had developed in a world where the propagation of racial injustice and the kindling of racial hatred were not simply tolerated. Santiago writes: “Puerto Rican “Why” Because he says he’s coming back to be happy. Doesn’t that sound like he wasn’t happy in New York” (Santiago 78).

Santiago depicts that Puerto Ricans of all classes are becoming less willing to identify with an African heritage or claim personal affiliation to concepts of blackness (Santiago 75). Santiago suggests that the ways in which boundaries of identity are stretched may have served to reinforce rather than to subvert the importance of “whitening” in the development of popular-class senses of identity (Santiago 87).

For Santiago, nationality becomes the social standards by which an individual’s racial identity come to be judged, both by society as well as by her- or himself, have less to do with ethnicity than with the dominance or subtlety in which stereotyped characteristics of that ethnicity are physically expressed. “The songs and poems chronicled the struggle and hardship” (Santiago 12). The way a person looks, by virtue of skin color, hair texture, and morphological features generally defines not only how that person will perceive his or her “race,” but also how that person could be classified and treated by members of society who lack or share similar qualities.

Santiago’s unique style and life perception helps her to prove her unique talent and courage. She writes: When I returned to Puerto Rico after living in New York for seven years, I was told I was no longer Puerto Rican … In writing the book I wanted to get back to that feeling of Puertoricanness I had before I came here. Its title reflects who I was then, and asks, who am I today?” (299). The most important is that the theme of identity is expressed through concepts of race and class. In Puerto Rico, the issue of race and its place in the evolution of elite and popular perceptions of identity is an extremely complex one for outsiders to understand, a situation made all the more difficult by the sharp contrasts between Latin American and North American modes of defining race. Although “race” and “racial differences” are socially constructed concepts that bear no genuine relationship to biology, the identification of groups or individuals by themselves or others with a “race” has produced powerful dimensions of personal and community identity. “At night I played out the fantasies and seeing myself race across a flower-strewn field, hair blowing wind” (Santiago 194). Santiago portrays that in all cases, racial dimensions of identity are historically derived and reproduced through contemporary experience and the passing on of memory.

I like this story very much because it provides a careful analysis of hardship and life experiences through the theme of personal identity and search for personal self. It affects readers through vivid images and narration speaking about topical problems and philosophical questions many people try to answer. In order to prove her identity, Santiago has to accept new value and traditions but keep unique cultural traditions and the ‘Puerto-Rican’ self-identity. Ultimately, whether a society’s population consists mostly of indigenous, African, European, or individuals of mixed lineage determines the historical and cultural facets ascribed to specific definitions of race.

Works Cited

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