"I Am Puerto Rican and American"

Posted by Vanessa Colon
October 4, 2012
Vanessa Colon in Front of the Statue of Liberty

For a quick and surefire way to rankle a Puerto Rican, ask: "But Puerto Ricans aren't Americans, are they?" Heart rates quicken. Lips tighten to a thin line. Eyebrows rise above the hairline, and fingers are waved every which way as a Puerto Rican clarifies that we are very much American.

This question and its implications have followed me throughout my life, ever since I moved from Puerto Rico to Georgia at the age of 10. Learning to adjust to a school in which I was one of two Hispanics in my 5th grade class proved challenging.

"Do you have a green card?""Does Puerto Rico have McDonald's? Cars?"

Initially, I barely tolerated these exchanges. In my mind, the other person's ignorance demonstrated a disregard for Puerto Rican culture, and the ways it formed a legitimate part of American society. With a cold civility, I'd answer the questions curtly, and quickly change the subject. And, of course, I have experienced outright prejudice. A group of kids in 6th grade, for instance, were fond of mocking me by singing a song that came complete with a choreographed hat dance -- talent wasted on a bad cause.

As I grew older, however, I came to recognize my own mismanagement of these situations. For those who meant to hurt me, I learned to gauge who held some sort of influence in my life, and ignore all those who didn't. Fortunately, people often meant no ill will on most occasions. For many, I was the first Puerto Rican they had ever met. Through their questions, they wished to show an interest in this enigmatic, tiny "island of enchantment," an island that's been part of the United States since the Spanish-American War in 1898. Sure, we take pride in having our own Olympic team. But as citizens of the United States, Puerto Ricans (including my own father and brother) have made significant contributions -- including serving in every major U.S. military engagement since World War I.

Furthermore, as I traveled and lived abroad, I began to recognize the areas in which my own knowledge was limited. Before visiting Turkey in 2003, I knew nothing of Ataturk, the first president of Turkey and founding father of their republic. In offices, restaurants, and even malls, I could see him featured prominently. To the Turkish citizen, this ignorance would be unforgivable. Yet far from being rude, Turks were open and gracious, and took me under their wing. My adopting a humble and kindly manner allowed for cultural exchange and friendships I still cherish.

Throughout my journeys now, I try to empty my mind of any assumptions. What I learn and the diverse people I encounter continue to surprise me. Similarly, I have also come to recognize my own influence in shaping others' impressions and conceptions of what it means to be American. This consciousness, along with my commitment to service, drew me to apply to the State Department-funded Charles B. Rangel Graduate Fellowship Program, which promotes greater diversity in the State Department by attracting and preparing members of minority groups historically underrepresented in the Foreign Service and those with financial need.

As a Rangel Fellow and diplomat, I am one of the diverse threads that make up the tapestry of American society. When I tell people I'm American, eyes still regularly narrow suspiciously as the person counters, "But where are you actually from?" After telling people I grew up in Puerto Rico, people still sigh with knowing relief and say, "I could tell you weren't a real American."

Rather than dwelling on these rare moments, I meditate on the greater narrative of my life, which has been blessed with a loving and supportive family, great friends, and exciting adventures. I also consider the person's intentions, and approach the experience as a teaching moment and part of my mission. And I proudly proclaim that I am Puerto Rican and American.

Related Content: Video -- Department of State Employees Mark Hispanic Heritage Month



New York, USA
October 9, 2012

Ismael in New York writes:

Hi, Ms. Colon

Here is my outside of the box opinion. I say outside of the box, because Puerto Rican's always look at each as outsiders) even when I go to la isla where I was born; they say Ismael es de aya "fuerra" (He’s from out there). I was born in San Juan PR but grew-up in NYC, & could relate to your story.

Puerto Ricans' are losing their political power; & folks know this; these changes are inevitable. There might be a few folks preparing to hold onto what little political-might we may have earned state-side. But our problem goes beyond a few passionate Jibaros. Today’s Puerto Rican younger generations have a huge gap in ideological beliefs because they are in limbo about PR; should it be Independent, a State of the USA or remain a Commonwealth of the US. As budgets get tighter during these economically tough years ahead; metaphorically speaking the Island may get the machete treatment (by forced Federal budget cuts) and be on your its own economically.

The other day a friend wrote me an email with the following, "one note of caution that; while your enemies can hurt you, it is your own blood that can destroy you.” (9/27/12 H.C.) For this very reason, most Puerto Ricans stay away from issues of National Puerto Rican Identity or issues that affect the area that our folks come from or grew-up at … far too many times, I have been shut-down for speaking about issues as such, but shut down by our very own so-called Puerto Rican role models. It seems like many of them forgot where they started or their struggles to get to where they are today. Most Puerto Rican men and woman face identity issues; and most are afraid to identify themselves with being “Puerto Rican-Americans” instead they have been conditioned by college professors and “other community leaders” to quietly avoid identifying themselves as American … as if Puerto Rico would have been better off over the last 100 years without the US & like 500 years of Spanish rule was any better? So naturally Puerto Rican’s will never get the warm embrace that others receive, because they lack the “Puerto Rican-American Pride.”

While coming up the ranks; I could remember one of my so-called Puerto Rican role models; saying “if you want to run for office … you can’t speak about things like state-hood and you better wait your turn and get in line,” then they would either run their sons or daughters, folks with little interest in really taking care of the people they represent. Today many of them are still around; some are making so much money that they could care less about the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Others are being slowly moved out of elective office by either getting locked-up or out-voted by another Hispanic movement. Many of the Puerto Ricans in NY and across other States never put together a method of succession building; a training method for developing new role models with leadership abilities. In fact it’s funny that most of our Puerto Rican elected leaders would dare to hold elective office for so long; considering the fact that none of them would support Puerto Rican Statehood or dare to call themselves “Proud Puerto Rican Americans” and today continue to preach anti USA ideologies; which have kept a unification of USA-Puerto Rican political power and native Puerto Rican Island political power in limbo for so many years (Just imagine if PR’s had 2 US senators and 6 to 7 Congressional Reps from PR in DC). I have seen some Puerto Rican elected leaders that represent us in Congress and other State-houses; holding-up the clutched fist in opposition of the US. I have seen them at PR Independence party movement rallies and I have heard them firsthand speak-up against US involvement in Puerto Rico. No disrespect to these countries but isn’t PR doing better economically than Haiti / Cuba / and DR?

Yet these PR elects dare to collect a paycheck and lye to their constituencies about who they really are on the inside (not Proud USA citizens but red and green party players). These elects have blocked young people who grew up in NYC and Chicago from becoming possible Puerto Rican National Identifiable figure heads … These “old-school” folks don’t know how to invite “new school” Puerto Rican’s into a class room … they have been too busy fixing-up lines with their kids being skipped onto the front of the lines, self-serving folks that offer no benefit to others …

With the growing numbers of Hispanics across America, and the fact that there are more Puerto Ricans residing across the United States than there are in the Island of PR. Puerto Rican in the Island better get with the program and start catching up with the unstoppable Hispanic movement. The Islanders better claim their political seats in DC or else decisions will continue to be made without any of their own say in the matter of their economy or status quo.

Proud Puerto Rican-American

Florida, USA
November 7, 2012

Robert in Florida writes:

I am of Portugese decent. My grandparents immigrated in 1917 from the azore islands.

Growing up in new bedford Ma. was a challenge.

I was not allowed to speak my grandparents language because they wanted us to be american and to live and speak the language of their new country.

I served the military for 8 years, as did all male members of our family.

I am 74 years old and still can not speak a foreign language in conversation form.

I feel that any language or flags flown over the American flag is insulting. I have been in foreign countries including Turkey (1962) that really don't like Americans.

I feel it is fine to have a persons history carried to whatever country they live in but not to push it down their throats..


Delann F.
Puerto Rico
March 30, 2013

Delann F. in Puerto Rico writes:

Dear Vanessa Colon,

As a fellow Puerto Rican, I just wanted to know your process to becoming a diplomat. I also want to become one and I found it comforting that other Puerto Ricas are also diplomats. This year I'm going to be graduating highschool here in P.R. Was it harder to become a diplomat and where did you study? Also what do you usually do in a work day?

SIncerly interested in your answer,



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