What it Meant to Travel to Cuba as a Pseudo-Puerto Rican
I am not Puerto Rican. I want to make that very clear. I cannot claim to have suffered through the BS abusive relationship between the US and Puerto Rico, but I have lived in Puerto Rico for two years. When I arrived, I had a strong Argentine accent (after spending 2 years in Buenos Aires) but after awhile, my accent became more and more Boricua. I admit, the first time someone told me I had a Puerto Rican accent, I felt like crying. Living in Puerto Rico has not been easy for me, and losing the Argentine accent I loved felt like a punch in the gut. However, traveling to Cuba with a Puerto Rican accent made me appreciate the accent I have gained over the past two years.
Puerto Rican? We’ve been waiting for you
Cubans are still excited to see more United States citizens walking around, but I didn’t anticipate the outpour of love I would receive due to my connection to Puerto Rico. As soon as I responded to locals in Puerto Rican Spanish and told them I was based just outside San Juan, they welcomed me with open arms. One man literally did a little hop, skip, and a clap and said “I’ve never met anyone from Puerto Rico before. You know we’ve been waiting for you.” He explained that while the laws that prevented Americans from entering Cuba were difficult to deal with, what really hurt was that Puerto Ricans were caught up in the mess due to their US passports.
Many Cubans lamented that Puerto Rico has yet to have their revolution. More than one person told me that Americans are mistaken when they think that Cuba needs help; Puerto Rico is the country in dire need of aid. It was both incredible and humbling to hear Cubans say that they believe Puerto Rico is in much worse shape than Cuba. They explained that sure, Cuba has its problems, but that Puerto Rico was the one that needed a big change.
You’re not a tourist, you’re our neighbor
Cubans and Puerto Ricans often refer to each other as “vecinos” (neighbors). I definitely got a warm welcome in the Dominican Republic as well, but Cubans and Puerto Ricans have been through so much together throughout history that the bond seems to be especially strong. My first day in Havana, a guy assumed I was Cuban and jokingly asked if I wanted to take a picture with him. I called out his half-ass pickup line in Spanish and as soon as he heard my accent he yelled “vecino!” and insisted I let him show me around. I ended up spending the day traipsing through Havana and sipping on every Cuban drink imaginable with him and other people we met along the way (more on that in a later post). I couldn’t help but feel my heart swell with pride in a way it never had before. For the first time, sounding Puerto Rican made me feel at home. When someone in Costa Rica told me I had a strong Puerto Rican accent, I felt deflated and even a bit uncomfortable. In Cuba, I felt like a puzzle piece being put into place.
Two wings of the same bird
Cubans and Puerto Ricans have a beautiful saying, “Somos dos alas del mismo pájaro” which translates to “we are two wings of the same bird.” I heard this phrase over and over again as locals clasped my hands in theirs and told me how happy they were to meet me.
While exploring the incredible book selection in Plaza de las Armas, I haggled and chatted with locals, all of which were eager to discuss Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Martí, and other famous Caribbean authors. One bookseller smiled and nodded as we parted ways, simply saying “dos alas del mismo pájaro” as his goodbye.
Just Puerto Rican enough
I think part of my issues with having a Puerto Rican accent is that in Puerto Rico, I’m not Puerto Rican enough. There’s always something that gives me away, like a phrase that’s more Argentine than Puerto Rican, or a slip up in the rhythm of my speech. My accent is not American, Argentine, or Puerto Rican, it’s simply foreign no matter where I go. In Cuba, however, I was plenty Puerto Rican. My Spanish had the Caribbean rhythm, just the right amount of casual comfort that allowed me to joke around, and the knowledge of local customs and food. My lack of Puerto Rican blood didn’t matter to my new Cuban friends. They welcomed me like I was coming home.
While Cubans seem to be incredibly welcoming to everyone, I couldn’t help but feel that I got to see and experience Cuba is a special way thanks to my Puerto Rican accent. I was grateful for my time living in Puerto Rico and happy that the change in my Spanish granted me access to a piece of Cuba I may not have seen otherwise. When the boat pulled away from the port and locals waved from the shore, I couldn’t help but tear up as I waved back to my neighbors, the other wing, my Cuban friends.