By Elias Rodriguez
February is National African American History Month and I’ve been reflecting on my distinctly mixed heritage as a Nuyorican. Before relocating to New York City, my immediate forbearers were both born on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico or Borinquen, as the natives originally referred to it. Although born in the Big Apple, it wasn’t until I lived in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico that I discovered the wide diversity of colors, shapes, shades and hair texture of my extended family and related cousins. From ebony to ivory from brown-eyed to green-eyed, the genetic mixture of my family was both wondrous and intriguing to behold. You see, Puerto Ricans benefit from un Sancocho (a stew) of African, Spanish and Taíno bloodlines. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived they encountered the island’s friendly Taínos who spoke Arawakan, the most commonly known native tongue of all South American and Caribbean natives at that time. As generations passed, the peoples mixed and a prodigious progeny was birthed.
My aunts, uncles and grandparents were light skinned, dark skinned and somewhere in between. They were equally beloved and I always asked for their Bendición (blessing). I proudly derive a crucial part of my identity from this generic diversity and rich tradition. My second language is Spanish and I thoroughly enjoy listening to Salsa music with its unmistakable African beat. The nexus between island natives and Africans is historically significant. Who could have looked at the great late Roberto Clemente and not assumed he was black? The famous fort San Felipe del Morro was built with slave labor. Juan Garrido, who made landfall in 1508, is believed to be the first person of African descent to voluntarily arrive on the island when he arrived with Juan Ponce de Leon. The Espiritismo practiced by my maternal grandmother was surely influenced by traditions from across the Atlantic. One look at my childhood photographs and I can surmise that my mother’s taste for dressing me in psychedelic clothes did not come from the Plymouth Rock pilgrims.
The threads of African culture within my own heritage are enriching and enhance my awareness of cultural differences in my work as a federal representative. I teach my children to appreciate this multiculturalism. After all, the U.S. Census Bureau instructs us that “People who identify their origin as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be of any race.” As a native New Yorker, I celebrate the melting pot that gives our nation its strength and resiliency.
About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.