The ambiguous population
Nestled in the middle of the Caribbean, lies a 3,500 square foot island that is tiny in it’s size, but big in it’s scope. Boasting a population of around 4 million people, Puerto Rico was originally a Spanish colony and its inhabitants learned and grew up in Hispanic culture, language and attitudes. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the United States acquired Puerto Rico and made it one of its territories.
Now 124 years later, Puerto Ricans still speak Spanish, follow Hispanic customs and are very different from their American counterparts. Yet, they are American citizens. There is no thing as Puerto Rican citizenship, but you ask them what they are and most would say “Puerto Rican.” So many things make Puerto Rico its own country, but so many other things make it a territory – dependent on a bigger country.
These two facets of Puerto Rico could be said to be opposites, yet it’s what Puerto Ricans are, a strange mix between American and Latin American. This sort of ambiguous identity doesn’t pose as much speculation and problems while on the island, yet many students from private schools that enroll in American universities after high school ask themselves where they belong in this new population. Are they American students? International students? Or are they something else entirely?
At big universities, there is more of a possibility that the Puerto Rican student population, that is the students that actually come from the island, is significant. At Lehigh University, which has around 5,000 undergraduate students, there are seven Puerto Rican students that are currently enrolled. This is the highest number of Puerto Rican students enrolled during an academic year for the past 10 years. This contrast with the Hispanic American student population (students who live in the United States but have Hispanic heritage), which boasts 416 students in the 2014-2015 academic year. The lowest number of Puerto Rican students enrolled for an academic year was in 2004, which only had two Puerto Rican students.
The seven students that currently study at Lehigh, struggle with defining what they would categorize themselves as, Americans or international students.
“I just really don’t like categorization,” said Isabel Buenaga, a Puerto Rican sophomore at Lehigh.
Even though Lehigh has around 416 students who come from the United States but have Hispanic roots, Buenaga and other Puerto Rican students agree that even if they have a Puerto Rican background it is not the same.
“I’m 100 percent sure that it’s very different,” said Andrea Sofía Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican senior at Lehigh. “Just because it’s true that if you’re raised in the United States by Puerto Rican parents you’ll have some aspects of the Puerto Rican culture – perhaps your parents will make the same food, or listen to the same music, or you’ll learn Spanish, but if you’re born in raised in Puerto Rico you’re always immersed in the culture.”
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Andrea Pacheco, a freshman from Puerto Rico, agreed that American Puerto Ricans and native Puerto Ricans do not have the same experiences.
“Puerto Ricans who grow up in the U.S. eventually learn the culture from family members, but we who are raised there actually get to live it and experience it first-hand,” Pacheco said. “I’ve met Puerto Ricans who live in the U.S. and I get a strong feeling that it’s just not the same. They don’t have the same experience we do.”
Adam Weiner, a Puerto Rican junior at Lehigh, said that he thinks Puerto Ricans in the U.S. have more pride for the country.
“I think that by living away from Puerto Rico you grow this strong feeling to always represent it, where people who live in Puerto Rico they know they’re from there and they’re not second guessing where they come from so they don’t always try to toss the Puerto Rico card out there,” Buenaga said. “People who are in the United States feel the need to always prove that they are in fact Puerto Rican, so they try to embrace the culture, the food, the language as much as possible.
“They’re a lot more in your face about it, when Puerto Ricans are like ‘we live here we don’t have to prove anything.'”
They also expressed that even with international students from Latin American countries, it’s not the same, although there are many cultural similarities. Some of the differences they mentioned had to do with benefits, like being able to come to the United States to study without a visa, and the Americanization of Puerto Rican culture.
“I think we’ve been very Americanized and (international students) are more unaware of what American culture is,” Pacheco said.
Rodriguez also talked about how Puerto Rico has become Americanized by saying that she watched a lot of American television and movies while she was growing up.
Many of them said they had both American friends and international student friends at Lehigh. Weiner said he never really sought out the latin american students, so he mostly just had American friends.
Buenaga said she came to Lehigh for something different, so she doesn’t mind that there’s a small community of Puerto Ricans. She said she enjoys spending time with her friends but turns to her latin american and Puerto Rican friends especially when she’s homesick or wants a “little piece of home.”
One thing the seven Puerto Ricans had in common was that when asked if they considered themselves more american or international students they all thought about it first, and later gave a hesitant answer that was not definitive. They all to some degree felt partly american, yet partly like international students.
Both Pacheco and Juan Carlos Cancio, another Puerto Rican freshman, said that they felt more American when with international students, but more like an international student when with Americans.
So in the end, what are they?
[Published May 8, 2015 as part of Journalism 230 Multimedia Storytelling Spring 2015 class final project]