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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Rethinking Puerto Rico, From The Jets To Mars

By Ralph De La Cruz

July 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Fight night in Hialeah.

Promoters, those masterful manipulators of conflict, have paired a Cuban against a Puerto Rican in the main event.

I'm at ringside with my best friend. He's Puerto Rican. I am Cuban. To us, the evening's histrionics are a hoot.

At least until the sixth round, when the two corners get into a brawl. People begin climbing into the ring. Cubans on one side, Puerto Ricans on the other. Hialeah police move in. Drinks are launched from the cheap seats by weak-armed drunks. I get a rum-and-coke squarely in the back.

My buddy and I look at each other and start laughing at the absurdity: Two identity-challenged cultures provoked to blows by boxing opportunists.

Much has changed for me and my friend, Angelo, since that night 14 years ago. Career changes, marriage, children.

Two things haven't: friendship, and amused appreciation for our cultural confusion.

Angelo likes to call me a CuTex, a reference to my Cuban-Texan cultural jumble. I answer that I don't even know what to call a Puerto Rican from Detroit.

I phoned him the other night to talk about the island's 50th anniversary as a commonwealth, which is today, and all that implies.

"I've gone through the whole spectrum of political schizophrenia that is Puerto Rico," he said from his Manhattan office overlooking Radio City Music Hall.

Before moving to Detroit to work in the automobile factories, Angelo's father cut sugar cane for $12 a week. The cane-cutter's son is now editor of the magazine People en Español.

I say that with pride, not just because he's my friend, but because I like to remind people that Puerto Ricans have gone considerably beyond Natalie Woods as "Maria," and gang membership in the Jets and Sharks.

Amazing how one piece of pop culture can define a group for decades. Eh, Lucy?

Puerto Ricans run magazines and companies, set public policy. Antonia Novello was U.S. surgeon general. Orlando Figueroa runs the Mars project for NASA.

And, I'm almost hesitant to mention, two of the hottest entertainers on the planet -- Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony -- are Puerto Rican. Almost hesitant because speaking about Puerto Rican entertainers is like mentioning great Puerto Rican baseball players.

Everybody expects Puerto Ricans to sing and dance and play baseball.

But are they aware Puerto Rico sent one of the first canine search-and-rescue teams to the collapsed World Trade Center? A 25-person team was in New York by Sept. 12.

There's so much that fellow Americans think they know about Puerto Ricans, and so much more that they don't even begin to understand.

"I went to get my passport renewed a couple of years ago in San Francisco," Angelo said, "and the woman asked me for my green card. I told her I was Puerto Rican. And she said, `OK. But where's your green card?'

"A magazine the other day used the term, `Puerto Rican-American.'" He continued. "What's that?"

A redundancy, of course. As I trust most of you know, Puerto Ricans are Americans.

Angelo, however, understands that some of the cultural confusion is self-inflicted.

The island's residents have consistently voted to maintain its status as a U.S. commonwealth. Neither a state nor a country. Perpetuating what Angelo earlier referred to as "political schizophrenia." The proud desire to be independent. The pragmatic desire to be part of the richest, most powerful country in the world.

"In many ways, Puerto Rico is as Americanized as Miami," Angelo said. "On one of my trips back, I went for a drive in the country and found a Southern-style restaurant that sold biscuits and gravy, and grits."

He stopped.

"I love that kind of food."

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