When You Stop Trying To Define Your Cultural Identity: 4 Things I've Learned Along The Way
July 19, 2018|Zoralis Pérez
Trying to define your cultural identity when it includes aspects of more than one culture can lead to several existential crises.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, I grew up between two cultures. On one side, there was Spanish, rice and beans, reggaeton, and a pretty traditional Catholic upbringing courtesy of my parents. On the other side, though, there were the American cartoons I’d watch when I’d get home from school, the (American) fast food chains I’d visit with my family on the weekends, and of course, the (American) passport that said I was an American citizen whose place of birth was San Juan, Puerto Rico, USA.
The way this works is that, while I was living there, the fact that my identity straddled two different cultures wasn’t really a problem. In fact, I didn’t even think about it that much, it was just the way my life was. However, everything changed when I moved to Mexico. Here, pretty soon after arriving, I realized that, although I was Latin American too, I wasn’t as Latin American as Mexicans were. For instance, I used too many English words that I didn’t know in Spanish (it took me forever to stop saying “el jacket”), and my idea of comfort food encompassed everything from cheeseburgers and pancakes to fried plantains. And everyone I met here thought the same thing: something was up with Puerto Ricans. Were we Latin American? Or were we some strange island breed of reggaeton-dancing Americans?
For a while, I struggled with the question, not because I didn’t know how I identified culturally, but rather because I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t define my identity as just one thing. I wanted it to be easy, simple enough to be understood quickly by everyone I met, whether they were Mexican, American, or something else. But over the course of the 3+ years I’ve been living in Mexico, I’ve realized that I’m never going to achieve that, and that that’s okay. Due to historical reasons, being Puerto Rican will always mean being more than one thing, and the only way I can be at peace with that and be sure of who I am is if I accept that.
So, in the hopes that I can help anyone who feels torn between two cultures, here are 4 things I’ve learned in my journey to accept my Puerto Rican-ness.
1. Accept your contradictions
My Mexican friends find it really weird that we celebrate Thanksgiving back home, and that most of us look forward to the day when we can roast that turkey and eat ‘til we pass out. Is it weird from a Latin American perspective? Of course. Should we feel bad about it? No. Whether we like it or not, identifying with more than one culture sometimes means dealing with contradictions, and they’re not going anywhere, so the sooner we embrace them, the better.
2. Don’t feel guilty about liking things from the “other” culture
Second and third generation kids will know what I’m talking about. Our families can make us feel extremely guilty about embracing the culture of the country we live in. They do it because they worry we’ll forget our roots and leave them behind. However, as we grow up, we realize that we can be, like, and have more than one thing, and that one culture doesn’t necessarily cancel the other one.
3. The way you feel now might change in the future
Your identity, much like your sense of style or cultural tastes, will probably change over the years, and that is okay. My current love of salsa is a great example of this (growing up in the island, it was more of a love-hate relationship), as is my more recent abhorrence of anything that has to do with American suburbia (right now, I can’t even watch movies set in the suburbs).
4. Feel free to explore your identity fully
The way you live your two (or more) cultures is your own, and you should feel free to experience them in any way you feel like. Don’t be afraid to “stray” beyond what other people do or think. In the end, if you’re sure of who you are and where your heart is, who cares what anyone else thinks?
I’m not going to lie. Some days, it can get really hard to just “accept” everything that it means to be Puerto Rican. There are feelings of confusion, frustration, and even shame. But at those moments, I like to remember the things I love about my culture, the things I’m proud of, and the things I miss when I’m not there. Those things wouldn’t exist if we weren’t “two cultures in one.” So, instead of trying to make everything fit, I find it better to just let things be.
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Cover picture: @bluespit