I was born in New York City, Spanish Harlem, el barrio – in the early hours of a December morning in 1978. There had been heavy snow fall the evening/day I was born – almost a snow storm. My mother from was from Guayama, my father from Vega Alta. Went to New York to live with their parents who brought them there for better opportunities, for a better life…
My first words were in Spanglish…my first steps were taken in a post-war walk-up railroad apartment in Harlem. I learned how to go potty in New York, but I really learned how to be myself in Puerto Rico, where my parents brought me and my siblings to escape the increasing violent life in New York.
My father came down to the island first, searching for a home for his family. It wasn’t long before I arrived with my mother and two siblings to Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. I was four years old. I remember it being a few days before my birthday. I didn’t know any Spanish. The house seemed so big, with its large marquesina that lead to an open laundry room in the spacious backyard. A huge kitchen, and each of us had a room of our own – unlike the Manhattan apartment on Schomburg Plaza where I had to share a room with my older sister, no. I had my own room, with my own closet, my own door.
Soon after I was in school, with kids I didn’t know, speaking a language I didn’t understand much. I hid behind my mother every time someone approached me and asked my name. She’d answer for me. I didn’t speak much, to anyone. Until I met a boy – he was kind, he was cute and soon I was writing our names inside a heart, mine + his por siempre but…I was the “American” the girl who wasn’t from the island. I figured that as time went by, they’d come to accept me as their own…
Then my mother took me back to New York, where I became quiet again, placed in English as Second Language (ESL) classes because my shyness was misunderstood for learning disabled. It was hell starting all over again. Still, there was something I was used to hearing; kids in school would tease me, I was too dark, too fat to be pretty, I was too Puerto Rican, with my braided pony tail, my bright colored clothes. Then some people in my family started taunting me, I was too dark for their love, I was too fat to be anything but disgusting…I was too dumb to be anybody in life. I was, as they would try to imbue; unlovable, disgusting, going to amount to nothing.
A few years later I came back. Again, I was the American – this time, because of a forced diet I was slimmer, but that didn’t last long. My Spanish was wrong, my skin was a bit more acceptable until the tropical sun began to give me the dark tanned complexion that so many white women desire. My hair was out of control. I was once again the outsider. I remember starting the second semester of the fifth grade nervous. We had to stand up and sing La Borinqueña followed by Mi Viejo San Juan those were our pledges of allegiance, our star spangled banner – It took me a month to learn the words. Once I did I was proud of myself, happy of being back in the warm weather, back to the place where I could go to the beach and swim in the ocean every day…but that day, as I was standing there, with my hand over my heart singing my little heart out – I see a boy turn around and tell me “you can sing this song, you weren’t born here, you’re an intruder” my heart broke, but I still sang. Tears running down my chubby cheeks, my frizzy hair surely smoking from the fire that was burning inside me…
That same semester, I tried out for the school choir. I was told I wasn’t ‘aesthetically pleasing” and couldn’t be a part of the choir, even though I was the strongest singer. They picked all fair skinned girls who had straight hair. One of them looked at me apologetically; she knew they were wrong to not pick me. I unregrettably felt happy when the choir didn’t do so well.
As years passed and I grew, I was teased for many things. I wasn’t La Shawn, no, I was the Americana. I was also the younger one of my siblings. The fat one. I was the one with the weird nose. I was always described as the dark-skinned, big nosed, frizzy haired, uglier and younger sister. I could hear people call me the weird one, the strange one, the girl who sneezed funny, who walked funny…the girl who talked funny. I was the one who people would sit behind so they could copy their English exams from. I was the girl who was just too fat to be seen with, but pretty enough to kiss by the water fountain that was at the volley ball court.
Deep inside, I was the Boricua, the one who wanted to make the island a better place.
Although, as time went by I made some really awesome friends, I was still mostly the outsider, the one who didn’t quite fit in. I wasn’t really Puerto Rican, because she wasn’t born in the island…didn’t matter if she grew up here. Strangers would tease me by saying “go back to New York” or tell me that my Spanish wasn’t good enough, even though I spent most of my life in the island…speaking Spanish…I had even forgotten how to speak English for a time.
Then, I graduated High School, and a year after I left to New York. Culture shock hit me like a ton of bricks. The warm sweet breeze that filled the nights of the melodies of coquies were gone. In its place were blaring sirens, stench of urine and trash, people screaming in the late night. I was home sick. For days. Months. Years even. But I had to make it, I had to be someone, I had to prove everyone wrong…right?
Then again, I was the outsider. The Puerto Rican girl. I’d speak and people were surprised, why did I sound like a white girl? Maybe it was gone because I watched too much Full House, period films, and had amazing English teachers…still I didn’t say anything, I just bowed my head and worked. I had to learn how to change my language depending on where I was living. One way during the day, another by night, I desperately wanted to fit in…until I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care if I was too fat, too dark, too white sounding, too frizzy haired, too Island-y, too anything. I just wanted to be me.
For years I lived in the shadow of what people labeled me as. Too fat, too ugly, too dark, too dumb, another statistic. It was breaking me. I didn’t feel I was worthy of love, of my dreams, of life. It took me 25 years to figure out that I didn’t have to conform to anything that anyone dictated for me to be. 25 years…a hung over morning and a silent cry for help on an unusual quiet morning in New York. That’s when I became free. When I became the Boricua I am today; the Puerto Rican who celebrates her soul with each passing day. I celebrate the soul that yearns for the ocean, but the rapid pace of the city. I celebrate the soul that loves the warmth of the sun, but also the coldness of the winter. Because that is who I am.
Although I am more than comfortable with who I am, in fact, I love who I am – what I look like and the color of my skin. Many people still aren’t sure what to make of me. I’m still deemed as the foreign one and urged to return to the states because I won’t be able to find work opportunities here. No matter how many things I do to show my fellow islanders that I am invested in life here, I can’t seem to be Puerto Rican enough for many people – still, I don’t care.
I was having a conversation the other day with someone and they told me not to worry, that I’d become a “Boricua” to others once I make a huge accomplishment, like win an Emmy, Golden Globe or Oscar…that I’ll be an “orgullo Boricua” when I find success outside the island, like Lin Manuel Miranda, Rita Moreno, Gina Rodriguez, and now Monica Puig and Laurie Hernandez..but to do that, to become “Boricua” to others I’d have to leave here…because here I’d continue being the outsider that’s over qualified, that’s probably too fat to put behind the camera, much less in front of one. Even if I’ve done amazing work as a writer, director, editor. Here, I’d still have to deal with people telling me to improve my Spanish, even if it’s fluent – because it sometimes sounds funny – regardless if those few times I do sound funny, it’s because I’m thinking in two languages….
I’m urged to leave, to go somewhere else, to find success, and probably never come back because there’s no future here for people like me. Who are ambitious, smart, determined, proud (but in a quiet way) and now, finally, pretty, with amazing hair…but still a bit overweight.
For those who are still here, who are still reading, I want you to meet me, the Boricua. Because I am, a BORICUA – I grew up falling asleep to the sound of the coqui, woke up to the smell of tropical grass. I’ve spent my a-day during my childhood eating quenepas from the trees, picking mangoes, caña, fishing for sweet water shrimp and blue crabs. I’ve walked barefoot on the roads, and roller skated down the flooded streets of Vega Alta. I survived hurricane Hugo and a few others during my younger years. I kissed my first boy here in Puerto Rico. Meet the Boricua who never gives up, even when people tell her to – because she will never be good enough. Meet the Boricua who loves her island, even if the people in it don’t love her, and often show disdain for her foreign side. Meet me, the Boricua who’s made documentaries about the people who work so hard here. Has showcased my beautiful beaches. Meet me, the Boricua who hopes to start an art school, a free clinic, and other wonderful projects here in the island. Meet me, the Boricua, who is currently struggling to make ends meet, but still has the heart to keep going – because one day, I’ll make sure that people know that I am from here, from Puerto Rico, from Vega Alta, and that I’ve loved this island – even if I often times feel like it doesn’t love me back. Just meet me, the Boricua en la luna, en las estrellas, en el mar, en el sol…Boricua en mi alma y corazón. Conóceme, La Shawn la puertorriqueña, la negra gorda que habla raro.
In my heart, I will always be Boricua…even when I don’t scream “wepa”. Meet me, the one who knows that everything she has done, does and will do began in the house, en el sector de bajura – más abajo de Machuchal en Vega Alta, Puerto Rico. The house that Hector (Paito) got and Isabel (Cuky) made a home. Meet the Boricua, who dreams about learning languages, and visiting the world. Meet the me, the Boricua, who isn’t supposed to sing La Borinqueña, but still does – the Americana who doesn’t know the words to the Star Spangled Banner and isn’t ashamed to admit it. Who’d rather sing Mi Viejo San Juan than recite the pledge of allegiance.