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Try To Understand: On The Island 'Borinquen,' Puerto Ricans Are Different
By Ray Quintanilla, Sentinel Columnist
May 9, 2004
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- There's an old man wearing a straw hat sitting in a Viejo San Juan street cafe.
"Soy Boricua," he tells me.
Not Puerto Rican?
No, he insists. He says it again: "!Soy Boricua!" I am Boricua!
All right. All right. Let's just order some cafe con leche.
But he raises an important distinction. Do you want to know the answers to some of the hot-button questions on the island these days?
Why were people here so eager to kick the U.S. Navy out of Vieques, even though the military provided thousands of jobs and pumped billions of dollars into the local economy?
Why is there a chasm between those who can trace their roots to the island and those who live here?
And, why is a radical political movement that's blamed for several deaths, bombings and acts of terrorism widely regarded as the conscience of the island?
If you want to know those answers, then you need to understand the difference the old man talked about.
The island's indigenous people once called their home Borinquen, which means "the land of the brave lord." By all accounts, this was a vibrant and peaceful civilization.
Shortly after the conquistadors arrived here in 1493, and gave the island its present name, they set about enslaving the native inhabitants. They called them Taino Indians because that's what Christopher Columbus named them.
That's where the differences between Boricua and Puerto Rican begin.
But there's more.
The term Boricua is about remembering. Making this fact a part of their everyday lives: Their native ancestors didn't just disappear -- they were conquered and slain by Europeans.
The term Puerto Rican means something different. As much as anything, it's about making the best of the here and now.
Such as in the 1950s, when in the name of improving the island -- the same place where their ancestors once had enough to support themselves -- Puerto Ricans were told they had to leave for the United States or face starvation.
So thousands left the island for minimum-wage jobs in the United States,
Here's how it shakes out (keeping in mind there are always exceptions):
You're Boricua if you know light blue is the original color of the triangle on the island's flag.
You're Boricua if you look cautiously upon those who come to the island every so often and seem in shock upon seeing chickens run loose in the yard.
You're Boricua if you don't wear your patriotism on your sleeve.
You're Boricua if you walk past Starbucks in favor of drinking island-grown coffee that's served in tiny Styrofoam cups.
You're Boricua if your parents told you to run out back and get a mango or a lime off the tree.
You're Boricua if you eat rice and beans every night for dinner.
You're Boricua if you roll your eyes every time someone comes to the island and says, "I'm with the government and I'm here to help."
You're Boricua if you eat at restaurants displaying large patriotic photos of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, one of the island's staunchest supporters of independence -- even though this movement has led to numerous deaths. (Locals are helping to shelter one of his followers in the mountains, despite federal warrants for his arrest on murder charges.)
You're Boricua if you even partially blame the U.S. government for using the island as a "laboratory" to test new ideas and inventions before taking them to the mainland, such as the birth-control pill, the ZIP code and the metric system.
You're Boricua if you call an orange a "china" rather than naranja, the Spanish word for orange.
You're Boricua if you either know someone who once worked in the sugar-cane fields, or did so yourself.
You're Boricua if you consider the island's agricultural underclass or "jibaros" as working-class heroes.
You're Boricua if you call your daughter Mami and your son Papi.
So, the old man asks me: Do you understand now?
Yes, is my response. It's actually quite interesting. Lots of questions about the island can be answered in those examples.