Where Do You Feel a Cultural Belonging?
Over winter break, my husband and I took our two daughters to Puerto Rico to visit my extended family. We went with my parents and my brother. We all tucked into an Airbnb on a street with colorful houses, some newly remodeled, others in disrepair. On the humid night we arrived, we tumbled out of two taxis, dizzy with the exhaustion of traveling with young children and all their gear.
I wanted a lot out of this trip, a trip eight years in the making. When I counted the years since my last time on the island, I was relieved that they were fewer than a decade but embarrassed by how long I’d been telling my family that I’d visit soon. “¡Ojalá este año!”
My mother is the youngest of 12, so we have a lot of relatives. I wanted my children to meet them all. I wanted to see them all, hug them all. I was delighted to surround my daughters with Spanish after their school year of friendships developed in English. And to catch up with my brother. And to maybe read a book and do some journaling.
As with most vacations, of course, I managed only some of what I wanted to squeeze in. I saw most, not all, of my family. The only reading I did was bedtime stories for my children. I did not do any journaling.
But I left overflowing with gratitude for witnessing my daughters’ first experience with la isla del encanto. My children, born and raised in Brooklyn, identify closely with New York, so I was surprised to see both of them — especially my eldest — open-heartedly embrace the island without any of the tsuris I bring to questions of my own identity.
At five years old, my eldest is a child who is sincere in all she does. Her heart is close to the surface. So much so that I wonder about her future and the bruises she may suffer as she encounters the edges of the world. The first time a child hit her during a playdate, she cried not out of pain but from the shock that someone could hurt her.
It is with this generous and trusting spirit that she arrived in Puerto Rico, ready to clap along with everyone on the airplane when it landed safely. Ready to befriend children on beaches and playgrounds. Running off with cousins she’d just met as if they had grown up together. Hiding with one under the dining table when it was time to go, in the same house where I used to play with her mother, my own cousin.
I arrived on the island as I always have, craving its embrace but bracing for the moment when I’d realize yet again that I do not belong to it. The childhood year that I lived on the island was enough to make a lasting impression, but not enough to leave its mark on my accent or in my hips, as I discovered while stumbling through a salsa class in college. Meanwhile, my daughter adopted new words (guineo, mantecado, china) in Puerto Rico. She danced to music wherever we went, and even though the rhythm was new to her she found her way in it. I braced myself for the moment when she would realize that this island does not belong to her either. For the pain that would bring.
The moment never came.
Instead, we visited my mother’s alma mater, the University of Puerto Rico, the school that sent her on her way to Middlebury, the Sorbonne, my father, and our family, and we found a bit of our story there. We walked through Old San Juan, ran into and took part in a protest and found that it was not so different from home, just more musical. We celebrated Dia de Reyes with four generations together on a hill across from the cerro my mother and so many of her siblings, nieces and nephews grew up on.
We visited my mom’s childhood house, too. The home my parents and I landed in when we arrived on the island the year we lived there. The home that has held us all and that even my children recognize as ours. The home they’ll take with them in the juice of the guava picked and eaten in the yard. My uncle and cousins played and sang a tribute to my grandmother, her children and theirs. Grown men crying together, holding each other and holding the story together for the rest of us. Older cousins hugged me, saying, “Let me tell you something about your grandmother.” “Do you know your mother is an incredible woman?” “Have you heard this story?” Younger cousins reminded me of when I used to come over to play, with baby carrots in my backpack. How my shampoo smelled of gummy bears.
In New York, I try to help my daughter hold onto her Spanish. Each passing day, I feel the threat of it slipping away. She responds to me in English. She plays in English. She speaks to her sister in English and her sister replies. In Puerto Rico, however, her Spanish flowed as it used to when she was younger. Maybe her experience is different from mine. Maybe she doesn’t experience herself as two (or more? how many more?) selves. Maybe she won’t have to. Maybe I don’t have to.
The day we celebrated the Reyes, we stayed a bit too long. The kids ran around wildly, taking risks inspired by giddiness and exhaustion. The sun was setting. It was time to wrap things up. Mike, my husband, saw this. I did, too, yet couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. It wasn’t until my little one slipped and scraped her knees on the asphalt that I gathered her into the car and tore myself away. Of my memories of living in Puerto Rico, the burn of a knee skinned on the cerro is one of the most visceral. I can’t deny that my reaction included a certain satisfaction. The island had left its mark.
Melina Gac Levin is a mother, educator, and writer. She is the founder of Pueblo, which offers inclusive and culturally sustaining parenting classes for multicultural families; and co-founder of Nido Forest, New York City’s first forest school en español. You can follow her on Instagram, if you’d like.
P.S. A seven-year-old’s guide to family travel and how different cultures show physical affection.
(Photo by Jimena Roquero/Stocksy.)