May 26, 2011 12 Comments
Latin America encompasses parts of two continents, hundreds of islands, and peoples and cultures too numerous to list. Yet we use catch-all words like Latin American, Hispanic, and Latino to refer to anyone born anywhere in this vast territory. The theme of layered and overlapping identities courses through the literature of Latin America. You find it in the fiction of Borges, in the poetry of Neruda, and in the tirades of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who nevertheless dreamed of unifying these peoples with their varied origins and experiences of Spanish colonial rule and foreign imposition.
The people of Latin America are Colombian, Mexican, Argentinean, Chilean, Bolivian, Guatemalan, and Puerto Rican. They are Incan, Aztec, Mayan, Aymara, Quilmes, and Olmec. They hail from Europe, Africa, North America, South America, and Asia. Their cultures are at once young and old, their religions indigenous and imported.
The people of Latin America are complicated and multifarious. They express their multiplicity of identities through their art, their architecture, their language, and their religion. I have felt this complexity in Mexico, Perú, Chile, Argentina, and the United States. Now, I’ve felt it and seen it in Puerto Rico, where in a single day in Old San Juan one may set foot on Spanish forts that date back nearly five-hundred years, stroll along narrow blue cobble stone streets that would not be out of place in Europe, eat lunch at McDonald’s, speak Spanish and English in the same sentence, and mail a letter via the United States Postal Service.
Little evidence remains of the original inhabitants of this island. Their blood courses through its people now, but one sees little in the way of ruins left over from the days before Europeans sailed toward Puerto Rico’s shores, unleashed themselves on this fertile land, and enslaved the people who variously welcomed, resisted, and fled from them.
Spaniards have conquered this island, the British have bombarded it, pirates have marauded it, and Americans have occupied it. Disparate tribes have mixed, tourists have invaded, and what emerges from these vicissitudes and whims of history is what we call Puerto Rico. Ask me to describe Puerto Rico and though I may attempt to trace a rough outline of the country and its people, in the end I’ll throw up my hands and say, “Go there.”