Guest Column

Know Your Neighbor

The Valinoti family in Puerto Rico Credits: Angelique Valinoti

For Desi, Cam, and Lily 

I am Puerto Rican. 

But, I have light skin and two blonde boys. I grew up in Upstate New York and now live in New Jersey, and have a very fortunate life. I am not the Puerto Rican portrait you might imagine.

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During a college interview I was asked about my heritage and experiences with adversity.  I said then and can say to this day, I never truly felt that being Puerto Rican held me back from social, academic, or professional opportunities. Aside from my dad's pronunciation of "shocolate ship" which my brother and I mercilessly teased him about, being Puerto Rican was about cultural richness and family pride - I got all the good without the bad.

And that has only made the past two weeks of endless disaster more unbearable and confusing. I have been walking around, living my normal life, with a lump in my throat. Watching the news or going on Facebook only furthers my broken heart. I feel guilty for not being more vocal or more visibly Puerto Rican throughout my life. For accepting the good without the bad, and being Puerto Rican when it was trendy or convenient, but not consistently sharing where I come from. I think about my grandparents who have been a strong and constant presence in my life from miles and miles away; while I go to work every day and have the same conversations I did a month ago, they have not had fresh water to drink in two weeks. I am helpless no matter what I can send to them because I am not there, and there is a limit to what can be done from afar. So all I can think to do for now, in their honor, is to share with you what it means to be Puerto Rican.

I might brag about knowing the words to "Despacito" but, being Puerto Rican means more to me than being able to shake it on the dance floor. It’s more than the beautiful hotels and beaches of my island, even more than my sentimental and vibrant wedding there right beside the shore. To me it's about the memory of walking to the bodega with my grandfather for caramels, which to this day I cannot eat without thinking of him. It’s his cooking, arroz con pollo and avocado with every meal. Or listening to Menudo records in my grandmother's house and through the window on her lawn. It's my cousins' amazing house and garden with the "water slide" and the way the AC felt in their bedrooms in stark contrast to the heat of everywhere else. We wrote a song about being cousins and literally walked through the streets singing it. It means singing and dancing, and laughing until we pee our pants (still).

I’ve always felt less Puerto Rican than my cousins who live in Florida and PR, have tanned skin and are all as gorgeous as J. Lo. Yet I've always been a little different than my friends too, because at my house we sang Olga Tanon instead of Bruce Springsteen or Phil Collins, and because there was always a piece of me that belonged somewhere else. It has taken me almost my entire life to accept the full package of "me" as being complete and rich from diversity. Puerto Ricans are brown, white, rich, poor, gay and straight - they come from Europe, Africa, and everywhere in between. But you'll rarely hear them say any of those things. They are one thing - Boricua. Puerto Rican.

As I’ve tried to process my feelings these days, I’ve shared them with some very special friends and colleagues. What I’ve been overwhelmed with, is not only their love and compassion but how raw people become when you open up. They open up too, about related and unrelated pain, like they've been waiting for someone to welcome them in and ask. I am lucky to live in a pocket of the country with beautifully progressive people like you. But I challenge myself and each of you to push a little further. I promise it won’t be hard. Pick one friend, co-worker, or neighbor and spend more time getting to know them, really know them. Ask questions. Find out what moves them, pushes them forward: their children, love of art or nature, wanting a better tomorrow? What holds them back: the past, fear of rejection or failure, not knowing where to start?  I think you'll be surprised what you learn. We are all different, yet we are all the same.

Angelique Valinoti 

Maplewood, NJ

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer. Click here to submit a Guest Column.

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