Hello, darling comrades and curious strangers. Today I write to you about a few key aspects of Puerto Rican culture that I have come to recognize as commonplace, at least among the college youth of whom I have mostly been surrounded by for the past four months. I am currently on a mini-vacation on a nearby island in Puerto Rico’s archipelago called Culebra. To set the stage for the vibes of my surroundings on this sunny day that also happens to be 4/20 (don’t worry – I am only celebrating by being extra appreciative of nature and human kindness), I recommend listening to some songs by the Puerto Rican reggae band Cultura Profética.
Something I have learned about the people my age here in Puerto Rico is that many, or even most, of them are planning on moving to the States after they receive their undergraduate degrees.
As non-voting American citizens, they face a much more streamlined process than if a person wanted to move to the States from a different Caribbean island. The reason for this sudden exodus is mainly that there are simply not enough technical and professional job opportunities on the island to accommodate the tens of thousands of college graduates from University of Puerto Rico who are qualified with engineering, finance, biology, English and other degrees.
There are various theories for this economic imbalance, and I am reading about some of them in Naomi Klein’s short book, “The Battle for Paradise.” I strongly recommend this text to anyone who is interested in disadvantages of modern colonialism – specifically how the U.S. federal government’s sovereignty over its territories can build up or slowly break down their economic resilience.
I have mixed feelings about my peers here planning to leave the island indefinitely. Some say they are excited about a change of pace and cultural surroundings; some are disappointed that they have to leave their families behind and start fresh in a new, unfamiliar place. Interestingly, I have not sensed strong animosity toward irresponsible government decisions that have led to their lack of professional opportunities at home. The resounding attitude is more of a collective eye-roll and disillusioned shrug when I ask if they have any remaining faith in the island’s bureaucratic integrity.
Part of me judges the loss of hope and feels like the young adults of my generation should stand up and use their media power and educated minds to insist their governor stop toxic cronyism, destructive austerity measures and continue to support higher education, sustainable energy and public health. Yet, another part of me recognizes that I have not had to grow up in this place of uncertainty. I am not burnt out like many of my friends must be. Plus, many of them have tried to “do their part” by participating in demonstrations at the capitol in San Juan. At one huelga (strike) last year, thousands of students from my host university system asked the governor’s office to not dramatically cut funding again for the UPR system, but the marchers were met with tear gas and another tuition increase.
At un “asamblea” (assembly) earlier this semester, students voted whether to do another huelga because of threats that the UPR may lose accreditation in coming years due to incomplete financial statements. I abstained from voting because I did not fully understand the situation and, as a visitor, it would not be appropriate for me to take a position.
On a lighter note, I’ll tell you a little about social life for college students in Puerto Rico! I can most accurately speak for the west coast of the island, because the east coast has a more urban environment that is less “beachy” and more cosmopolitan or preppy. This geographic distinction is amusingly reminiscent of the American West and East coasts.
The first big difference between night life in Mayagüez versus California is that drinking alcohol is legal here for 18-year-olds, so each weekend dozens of bars right next to campus are absolutely packed with students of all grades. Thursday night is the most busy and is commonly referred to as jangueo. This is a Spanglish creation that morphed from the English term “hang out.” Puerto Ricans have even crafted an infinitive verb out of the term: janguear.
The most popular genre of music is reggaeton. Bad Bunny is the most popular reggaeton artist right now and has gone on to be incredibly successful outside of Puerto Rico, as well. He recently collaborated with Drake in the song, “Mia.” I have come to enjoy doses of reggaeton because I see how happy it makes everyone around me. I have never seen so many people in one room recite song lyrics as quickly and passionately as college students at jangueo.
Last night, in a large taxi-bus that took about 15 young adults home from Mamacita’s in Culebra, every person was singing along in perfect unison to each reggaeton song that came on. It was pretty amazing how music can generate such strong happiness between a bunch of strangers.
Buen Provecho / Friendliness
Last important note on culture is the tremendously sweet tradition of saying buen provecho to people before they eat a meal. Unsurprisingly, this applies to complete strangers – in a restaurant, at school, in a park – wherever you are and whatever you are eating, if there is someone nearby they will flash a kind smile and let you know they hope you enjoy your meal. I still am surprised when this happens and
usually forget to say gracias by the time they walk away, but I am finally remembering to say buen provecho to other people once in a while! It makes me smile and feel welcomed hearing this. I think I will bring this tradition home to California.
See you next time! Please let me know your thoughts and any questions you have about my observations.
Charlotte Roberts, who is studying sustainability and business, is studying in Puerto Rico for the spring semester.