What does it mean to be “Puerto Rican?”

This ComicsVerse culture podcast with CEO Justin Alba, writer Maite Molina-Muniz, and assistant editor Samantha Herrera gets both introspective and analytical in its discussion of varying Puerto Rican perspectives and experiences. If you’re someone, whether you’re Puerto Rican or not, looking for an honest podcast from three similar yet different perspectives, you’ve found the right one.

In a time where native Puerto Ricans still struggle from natural disasters with little to no aid from the US, as well as a time where racial prejudice against Hispanics in the US is widespread, there needs to be unity between every type of Puerto Rican (whitewashed, mixed, etc) through discussions like this. Join one Puerto Rican and two Puerto Rican/Caucasians in their in-depth discussion that involves: personal stories, rants about prejudices and stereotypes, analyses about the current state of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in general, and a surprisingly optimistic conclusion you won’t wanna miss!

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Justin Alba: So, we were at Wizard World Philadelphia in 2016, and we interviewed a Puerto Rican artist and I forgot his name and he was so awesome. He saw me in my ComicsVerse shirt, smoking a cigarette outside, and came up to me, and we had a whole conversation about being Puerto Rican. He didn’t know I was, but he didn’t judge me once I told him. And he’s like, “Oh, I probably sound,” his accent was so thick, he was like, “I probably sound like all your cousins and aunts and uncles.” I’m like, “Totally.”

Justin Alba: And I said, you know, I struggle a lot, because I’m always trying to find how I can be more connected to my culture, how I can be more connected to the island, how I can be more connected to feeling Puerto Rican, because that is a safe place for me to feel, and a place where I’ve gotten nourishment from delving into, I guess. And he said something to me that was so profound, that stayed with me forever. I used to feel a lot like how you feel, Sam, and I still do, a lot. But what he said to me really changed me. He said, “You are the culture.” He’s like, “This is it now. Everything you do is the culture now. This is what we’ve become.”

Justin Alba: At ComicsVerse, we always get into discussions about who we are and where we come from, and three of us happen to be Puerto Rican. I always, always, always, always, always, wanted to have a ComicsVerse culture cast. And I thought the perfect first episode of the ComicsVerse culture cast should be a discussion about what it means for the three people who are sitting here now; what it means to be Puerto Rican in 2018 and how Puerto Rican culture has evolved and changed over time. You can find more podcasts like this one, videos, interviews, articles, all over at ComicsVerse.com. And anime and manga, too, since Sam from the managing editor, from the Ani-Manga section, is here.

Samantha Herrera: Not the managing editor.

Justin Alba: You’re not?

Samantha Herrera: I’m the assistant editor.

Justin Alba: Oh, you’re the assistant! Here, you’re the assistant section head.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah.

Justin Alba: So, Sam the assistant section head of the Ani-Manga section is here. Welcome, Sam.

Samantha Herrera: Thank you for having me.

Justin Alba: And it’s your very first podcast. Sam, how do you feel about the discussion that we’re going to have today?

Samantha Herrera: Honestly, a little nervous, because I’m no pro Puerto Rico over here. I don’t know much about it, sadly enough.

Justin Alba: But you were saying that your parents aren’t from the island, but your grandparents are.

Samantha Herrera: Yes, my grandparents. My dad’s parents.

Justin Alba: Do you know where on the island that they’re from?

Samantha Herrera: I don’t know.

Justin Alba: And have you been there yet?

Samantha Herrera: Never.

Justin Alba: See, that’s kind of exciting. Because it doesn’t make you any less Puerto Rican, but I think it’s…

Samantha Herrera: Are you sure? Are you sure?

Justin Alba: Hell yeah. Hell yeah.

Samantha Herrera: Uhhh…

Justin Alba: What about, there’s so many. I mean, there are Jewish people, Irish people, I mean, people of every ethnicity who never get a chance to maybe go to…

Sam Herrera: Yeah, that’s true.

Justin Alba: …their country, their, you know, motherland, fatherland, or whatever. So, hopefully, by the end of this podcast, you’ll feel more Puerto Rican than you ever have and more authentically Puerto Rican.

Samantha Herrera: I’m enthrilled

Justin Alba: I’m very, also, enthrilled. Is that a word?

Samantha Herrera: Enthralled? Enthralled.

Justin Alba: We’re enthralled, yes.

Samantha Herrera: We’re both enthralled.

Justin Alba: We’re also very smart.

Samantha Herrera: And enthrilled.

Justin Alba: On this podcast, yes. But, also, Maite, welcome.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Hi, thank you for having me. It’s actually fun to be here in New York City.

Justin Alba: Yeah, you’re physically here.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah, it’s my first time in New York City.

Justin Alba: So, it’s interesting coming to New York City, and where we’re living right now. So, my dad grew up nine blocks away from here, and this was a major Puerto Rican area at the time, and this is your first time in New York?

Maite Molina-Muniz: No, it is. And my dad actually grew up, was born and raised for a bit, in New York City. So it’s nice to see where he came from, too.

Justin Alba: On the Lower East Side, right?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah, the Lower East Side.

Justin Alba: So, your parents are from Puerto Rico?

Maite Molina-Muniz: My mom was born and raised in Puerto Rico. She went to college in Mayaguez, she was born in Añasco, which is on the west side. I was going to say, by the coast, but the whole place is by the coast, it’s an island. My dad was born and raised in New York for some time, and then he lived in Puerto Rico, and that’s where he met my mom. My older sister was born there, so I’ve got some deep ancestry on that island.

Maite's Puerto Rican Mom and Aunt
Maite’s Mom and Aunt in Puerto Rico.

Justin Alba: Awesome, and when was the last time you were back there?

Maite Molina-Muniz: I was there for New Year’s my freshman year of college. So that was, about, 2014. Yeah. So it’s been four years, yeah.

Justin Alba: Wait, Sam just got an interesting text!

Samantha Herrera: So, my grandmother was born in… Ponce?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Ponce!

Justin Alba: Ponce!

Samantha Herrera: Ponce, yeah! And my grandfather was born in…Vieques?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Oh, Vieques.

Samantha Herrera: Vieques.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Vieques, okay.

Samantha Herrera: There you go, that answers that.

Justin Alba: Muy bien.

Justin Alba: So, for me, I should say, that my mother is Italian, like second or third generation Italian from the Bronx. My dad grew up nine blocks away from where we are now, we’re on 135th Street and Broadway. My dad grew up on the hundred end, 144th and Broadway. He is from the island of Puerto Rico. He moved here when he was really young, and there’s a picture of him and his family from Puerto Rico right now, that we’re, kind of, all looking at, which is kind of cool. But I think already, like, so many good points have come up in just the discussion we’re having right now. So, I wish you could see us raise our hands, but we can’t raise our hands, so we’ll say it. Who speaks Spanish? I don’t speak Spanish fluently.

Maite Molina-Muiz: I’m not fluent, but I speak a little bit of Spanish, yes.

Justin Alba: Could you get by?

Maite Molina-Muniz: I think so but I’m very self-conscious about my accent. Whenever I go to Puerto Rico, my family always makes fun of me. They’re like, “You sound so American,” I’m like, I’m sorry.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I grew up in America, but yeah, I try.

Samantha Herrera: Every time I try to speak Spanish, everybody that is Spanish looks at me and says, “Your Spanish is so cute!” Like I’m a child or something.

El Morro is something uniquely Puerto Rican on the island of Puerto Rico.
El Morro. Image by Justin Gilbert Alba.

Justin Alba: For me, they go, “You speak Spanish funny.” I’m like, how did I do that? I didn’t even mean to do that.

Justin Alba: So, for me, my mom is Italian, second or third generation Italian, she’s from the Bronx. My dad grew up, like I was telling Maite, in this area: 144th and Broadway. We’re on 135th and Broadway right now, so it’s nine blocks away. It’s kind of crazy for me to move here after being raised in Westchester County, which is, like, a suburb that he moved to after being raised here. And he lived on the island of Puerto Rico until he was about six, and the last time I went there was 2004, and it was really the only time I went there. I had an amazing, I don’t want to say it was life-changing, but I really had an amazing time there, and I got to see Utuado, where my grandmother was from. We saw Santurce, where my father was born, Barceloneta, Il Moro?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah, Il Moro in San Juan?

Justin Alba: Yeah!

Maite Molina-Muniz: Old San Juan? Yeah.

Justin Alba: My grandfather, that guy, is buried there.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Oh, that is really cool.

Justin Alba: Yeah, maybe we’ll include some pictures on this podcast for you guys listening, you can look at the pictures below. But, how important is it that we do or don’t speak Spanish? Does that make us any less or more Puerto Rican?

Samantha Herrera: From every Puerto Rican I’ve spoken to, it means you’re Puerto Rican to speak Spanish. The fact that I don’t, everybody is surprised and like, “what’s wrong with you?” That’s what they ask, why, how come, or why not learn now. But, obviously, it’s easier when you’re younger.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I don’t think it makes me less Puerto Rican because I grew up with the culture, the food, and my parents still spoke to me in Spanish. Even though I’m not fluent, I still am familiar with it. But again, I think, my family who does live there and the people who do live there, they think it’s strange that I grew up without that foundation of Spanish because there is a distinction between, you know, I think the Puerto Ricans in America and the Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico. And I kind of grew up with that, sort of, tension there. But, in my opinion, I don’t think it does. I think there are other aspects to the culture than just the language, even though I know there is a pride in the Spanish language. So, I think it’s kind of relative.

A typical Puerto Rican street in Old San Juan.
A typical Puerto Rican street in Old San Juan. Image by Justin Gilbert Alba.

Justin Alba: Yeah, I don’t think it makes us less Puerto Rican, but I’ve had a lot of experiences like Sam. And I wonder if, like, Sam, if you look, traditionally, like, people that are considered more Puerto Rican, if you get that more than I might. Because people have not believed me when I’ve told them I’m Puerto Rican, which I thought was kind of offensive because it’s always like, well, what does a Puerto Rican person look like?

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, I mean, I was saying earlier, my cousin, she is very fair-skinned, has reddish hair, she burns in the sun, you know. My dad and my older sister, they tan beautifully and they have very, very dark hair, dark eyes. So, I don’t think there’s one definition to being Puerto Rican, whether it’s looks or language.

Justin Alba: And I think if there are people listening to this who want myths dispelled, that’s the first, that’s the first myth we can dispel. I was just showing a picture of my grandfather, he has blonde hair and blue eyes, and he’s 100% Puerto Rican. He never left the island, he died there, so, we come in all shapes and sizes. I think that’s kind of important to remember. I do get that a lot, Sam, personally, because the first question I’m asked by my extended family is, “Oh, do you speak Spanish?” if I haven’t met them before, and then I say, no, and they don’t say anything bad, but there’s a disappointment in their eyes

Samantha Herrera: Mmhmm. Yeah, exactly.

Justin Alba: And then, I feel bad, too. But I think it’s important to fight back on that because… does every Asian person speak Mandarin if their family’s from China? Do all the Italian people in New York, do they all speak Italian? I mean, most people I know do not. So, I think that that’s interesting and I wonder, yeah. I feel, I don’t know, I feel bad that you have that experience.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, I mean, my parents purposely didn’t teach us Spanish because they thought, well, if they were to grow up speaking Spanglish then they would sound, you know, like, ghetto or rachet or something.

Justin Alba: My grandmother used to teach Spanish to me, and my dad would say, “No, no, no, answer in English.”

Maite Molina-Muniz: Mmhmm. Yeah, my parents at least raised me to have English as my first language but my mom would take me aside and teach me Spanish. It was never really a priority, I think they just really wanted me to, I guess, like Sam said, just… what exactly did you say? It was perfect.

Samantha Herrera: Don’t speak Spanglish because that sounds ghetto.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah!

Samantha Herrera: Or just like, I think they just wanted me to, I don’t know, become accustomed to the life that I was going to be living. You know, they may have wanted me to learn Spanish and become fluent in Spanish but I think they knew, you know, I’m going to be in North Carolina, I think you have to know English. We can worry about Spanish later but, despite that, I mean, like I said, I still grew up with a Puerto Rican culture. I don’t think it took away from my identity.

Justin Alba: I wonder, and tell me if you agree with this, the people who leave the island at first, they seem to be really interested in making sure their children are connected to their heritage. And then it seems like the second or third generation, like my parents and maybe Sam’s parents (I don’t want to say yours because we haven’t discussed it enough) were concerned with themselves fitting in.

Justin Alba: My dad told me a story about when he was 10 years old. That my grandmother, when they first moved here, they were trying to get an apartment. And there were six of them living in a studio apartment not much bigger than this right now which, you can imagine, is so insane. They would hang up on her, the landlords, when she would call and ask because her accent was so thick and she couldn’t speak English. So, I think that that scared him into not wanting me to learn it, and I think that it reminds me of, kind of, what you said. And I wonder if the generations before us were very conscious of us assimilating into, quote, unquote, American culture, which, by the way, is also Puerto Rican culture, but we’ll get into that later.

Maite Molina-Muniz: No, I agree with that. I know when my sister was born, nine, almost 10 years before I was, I didn’t get to witness a lot of things my parents experienced when they first moved to The States. But I know that my mom… When my parents and my family first moved to North Carolina, they experienced a lot of prejudice, you know.

Maite Molina-Muniz: My mom had a thicker accent at the time because, obviously, Spanish was her first language. She had her tires slashed, you know, people… it was awful, people made fun of her accent; they would tell her they couldn’t understand her, which was, you know, just obnoxious. So, I’m not sure how much of that influenced their decision to make sure that I spoke English, and I’d assimilate with American culture. But I definitely think that had an impact on the way they wanted to raise their kids in The States.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, for me, my dad, I’m sure he really wanted to assimilate, but mostly, he wanted to give his kids a better life. I think the way he grew up, he grew up jumping from the hood to different parts of the projects. And I think the way he grew up, that lifestyle, Puerto Rican culture and all that, goes hand-in-hand with poverty or low-income. And also, you know, he married my mom and she’s white, so there’s that too; blending into that side, and just trying to, I guess, raise, not a white family but, a family that has better chances.

Justin Alba: A more American family.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, mmhmm.

Justin Alba: Has anyone here ever experienced anything negative based on the fact that they are Puerto Rican? Any sort of, like, racism, or prejudice?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah. I mean, I know both my parents experienced prejudice back in the 90s when they first moved to North Carolina and my sister, for sure. For me, I didn’t get to, I didn’t experience things of that severity, but I definitely was an outsider growing up. I went to a predominantly white school. At the time, I didn’t really feel different but looking back, you can tell the way people perceive you is they don’t perceive you as one of them. But I think my parents always made an effort when I was growing up to make sure I celebrated my differences from other people rather than seeing them as something that isolated me from my friends and people I surrounded myself with.

Justin Alba: Did you feel isolation growing up based on being Puerto Rican?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Not necessarily. I felt more isolation from my comic book interests, actually. But, you know, you would always get those questions, like, where are you from, and I remember one girl told me I had a Puerto Rican accent. It was so dumb, she was like, “Oh, you have an accent,” like, no, I don’t. I grew up in North Carolina. So people just automatically put you under a category. So, did I feel like an outsider? Not necessarily, I never really saw that as a reason to feel different even though I notice them more now, just like the way people, like I said, the way people see you, but again, I never really wanted that to make me different, I guess.

Justin Alba: What about you, Sam?

Samantha Herrera: Well, I mean, there are times when I’ve been the outsider but like she said, it’s for a whole bunch of reasons. Growing up, in elementary school, it was mixed so I didn’t really have much of a problem. Middle school, too. But then, once I got to high school, it was predominantly Hispanic, so, yeah. The fact that it was predominantly Hispanic meant that people always questioned what I was and why couldn’t I speak Spanish like the rest of them. I was always, always called a fake Puerto Rican. Always. They would, sometimes they’d be like, “Oh, white girl, white girl, white girl,” but then, I got to college.

Samantha Herrera: I went to Adelphi University in Long Island, and, obviously, almost everybody there is white. Then I got to deal with, “What are you? What are you? What are you? You’re so, like, exotic, like, oh my god. You’re so beautiful,” But it’s this weird, kind of, sexualization of it, too. I’ve dealt with that almost all my life but it was more so when I’m around, you know, white people more of the time.

Justin Alba: Because it’s the whole exotic, sex is attractive thing.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, yeah, and when we went to the convention, too. I bought something at a booth and the guy that I bought from, he was like, “What are you? You’re so exotic.” His exact words. And I’m like…

Justin Alba: While you’re at an anime convention, of all places.

Puerto Rican entrance to El Murro
Entrance to El Morro.

Samantha Herrera: Yes! I can’t escape it! I can’t.

Maite Molina-Muniz: It’s always funny when they ask that and they’re like, “Where are you from?” I’m always like, Raleigh, North Carolina. They’re like, no, where are you actually from?

Samantha Herrera: I hate that so much. It’s like, where are you from? New York. Where? Queens. Where? South Ozone Park!

Maite Molina-Muniz: It’s just as if they’ve never met somebody who doesn’t come from a different background.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, and, for me, a lot of times it’s… I don’t know. There are some times where people ask that question in a way that doesn’t feel so annoying, but sometimes it just feels like they’re prying and just trying to be like, this creature that comes from a different place, like, what?

Justin Alba: I feel like I would have so much more respect for people, and I do this myself, when they’re just like, what’s your background? Because they’re curious, and they want to know.

Samantha Herrera: Exactly.

Justin Alba: You want to celebrate their culture and they want to celebrate your culture, and I wish that people could do that more.

Maite Molina-Muniz: And they stop it at, and not be like, “Oh, that’s sexy.”

Samantha Herrera: I’m so sorry, that’s so gross.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I think also it’s annoying because sometimes, someone will say, “Oh, where are you from,” and then, eventually I’ll say my parents are from Puerto Rico. Then they’re like, “Oh, I know someone from Greece!” Or my mom, one time, she said that someone asked her that question. She’s like, “I’m from Puerto Rico,” and the person said, “Oh, I know someone from Nigeria.” And it’s like, people just group all these differences into one pile, and they’re like, oh, okay, you’re a part of that unknown, exotic background. It’s just annoying.

Justin Alba: Nigeria and Puerto Rico, also, for those who aren’t sure, are quite far apart in terms of distance.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah.

Justin Alba: And on two completely different continents, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, just throwing that out there. Wow, okay, cool. So, for me, my experience was very much in between both of yours. I went to an all-white school. One of the things that pops out in my head the most, I think I was in 7th or 8th grade.

Justin Alba: This guy, who was kicking my ass, like, every day, was like… He punched me in the face and then he said, (we were in the middle of class, by the way. We had three of our desks pushed together) and he goes, “If all the white people went on this side of the room, and all the black people went on that side of the room, you would have nowhere to go.” And I was like, okay. And then when I went home, I was like, I think that’s racism. You know? I was only in 8th grade but I was like, I don’t think that’s okay. But I guess it was just another form of bullying from that, or whatever.

Justin Alba: But also, you know, like Sam, we are both Neoricans, right? So there’s kind of, like, I remember, I googled Neorican on Wikipedia and a common trait of us is that we don’t speak Spanish. So, I think that that’s also important to consider. Another question I have is, when we get stuff from the Puerto Rican community, like what Sam got, like what I’ve gotten, I’m sure, like, what you’ve gotten before, that we’re not authentic, or that we’re not part of the community, is that a reverse kind of prejudice? And also, how does that make you feel? Why?

Samantha Herrera: I would say… like I said before, I don’t really believe in reverse racism. It is prejudice, it’s, no doubt about it, the fact that people would automatically put me aside because I’m not 100% of them. Like, it hurts.

Maite Molina-Muniz: It’s definitely sad and irritating, too, because I’ve been to the island a few times in my lifetime. I’ll go and I’ll see the connection my mom has with it and… I mean, I do feel a connection with it, that’s where my ancestors come from, but it’s very different for her than it is for me. And it’s hard because you try to find yourself and sometimes you don’t feel particularly welcomed by people in Puerto Rico. Then here, you’re often identified by your difference, so you don’t really know what category you fall into. And you’ll try to merge those together but people don’t really accept that, so it is hard. And it’s hard to feel that rejection, almost, from what is a part of you.

Maite Molina-Muniz: You can’t claim it just because, I know, for me, a lot of it was that my parents moved here to The States and that was a big problem, that they left the island. There’s so much pride in the island, and even my aunt… Recently, she moved after the hurricane and she still faced a lot of negative reception because of that, because there’s a sense of pride. But really, my parents moved here and my aunt moved here, to have a better life, and I don’t think that makes them less of a Puerto Rican. So it is sad that there’s a lot of rejection there.

Justin Alba: I wonder if you guys can both identify with this, but for me, I identify myself as Puerto Rican. And I always say this, that, you know, my mother is Italian, and I don’t want to say I’m not Italian, and I do feel, you know. We have Sunday Italian dinners and I’ve spent more time with that family but I’ve never felt comfortable with them like I did in a room full of Puerto Rican people, in a room full of my Puerto Rican family, who I was rarely with. And it’s no offense to them in particular. I did sort of feel like I was not included, like my mother had married someone of a different race and I was their child. But the Puerto Rican side, I always felt comfortable there. And for me, and that’s how I identified myself.

Justin Alba: So when I got a lot of that stuff, “oh, you’re not authentic Puerto Rican,” “you’re a fake Puerto Rican,” it was so hurtful to me in the sense that, hey, that’s how I define myself. Like, I’m not only accepted in this realm, I’m also not accepted in this realm. And I wonder how can we fight back against that? And is there a solution to that in the minds of the people who feel, quote, unquote, pure Puerto Rican, because what is Puerto Rican? It’s a mixture of, essentially, Spanish, Native American, quote, unquote, Sub-Saharan/African, there’s German and French and all that stuff in there too. But predominantly, those first three. So, I don’t know, it feels kind of hypocritical to me, I guess.

Wall mural about Puerto Rican history.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I mean, I think the solution lies in future generations. I’m thinking, my sister, she’s married to an Irish/German white dude so obviously, their children are going to be half white, half Puerto Rican. And I don’t think that’s going to make them less Puerto Rican, because I know my sister and I, we grew up very proud of our culture, with the food, you know, like I said, the traditions, and those things don’t just get lost as soon as you leave the island, you know. My parents took that with them.

Maite Molina-Muniz: So, again, I think now, I saw a news headline the other day talking about how there’s going to be thousands of Puerto Ricans coming to The States post-Maria. I think future generations are going to see new definitions of Puerto Rican and a Puerto Rican person that might challenge what we’ve dealt with in our own lives. Hopefully, that will be better for people who are in similar situations that feel this tension between the island and being an American and growing up here.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, I think there should be… People should embrace interracial marriage first of all, because I still, for some reason, know so many, even people that want to shout, “equality, equality,” but if somebody marries a white woman, then, automatically, they’re not part of that race anymore. You know, don’t people want to mix? Like, in a more intimate level, with another race, to where we have because America is all about being a big culture pot, we’re all mixed with different things, so why not mix more? Embrace more cultures.

Justin Alba: It should be about if you love someone, who gives a shit what they are?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Exactly.

Samantha Herrera: Exactly.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I think that’s beautiful because I know when Shia, my sister, she’s basically only dated white men and she ended up marrying a white man. And I know some family members were, like, oh, why hasn’t she dated a Puerto Rican man? And I’m like first of all, I don’t know any other Puerto Ricans. Second of all, why not? And it’s been great because he has his own background and we’ve been able to combine them. His mom’s from Germany so she makes us German food and teaches us different traditions, and it’s just great because we’ve merged our backgrounds and it’s created this beautiful family relationship. And I think people need to be more accepting of that. You would think that that would be more acceptable in 2018, but there’s still a ways to go. But hopefully, the future is brighter in that aspect.

Justin Alba: I wish people who were, quote, unquote, 100% Puerto Rican, saw it as us making the Puerto Rican culture larger and making the umbrella contain more people versus us leaving it, or our parents leaving it, or whatnot. And I think it is hurtful, I think it does suck.

Maite Molina-Muniz: No, it is. That’s a guilt that, especially my mom, has had to carry with her for her whole life just because she grew up there and, obviously, family is huge in Puerto Rico. So the fact that they left their entire family and it was literally just my mom, my dad, and my sister who came. They were alone, and obviously, that was not easy for them. But they did it and they ended up doing really well in The States. It has paid off, my sister and I got a great education; we’ve had great lives here. And, again, I don’t think leaving the island totally destroys your identity.

Justin Alba: You said something interesting before about defining what it means to be Puerto Rican. What is a Puerto Rican? What’s the definition of being Puerto Rican? Well, I should say, what’s the definition of being Puerto Rican?

Samantha Herrera: That’s a tough one.

Justin Alba: I want to say cultura, even though I don’t speak Spanish.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Pernil. I’m ordering that tonight, also.

Justin Alba: Oh, yeah?

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah.

Justin Alba: We’ll talk about that later. But yeah, they haven’t changed the menu to make it more Puerto Rican for us.

Samantha Herrera: Oh, really?

Justin Alba: Yeah. It’s about passion and people, so many people say this. My dad and I were at this restaurant, Sofritos, where we’re all going tonight, and they play the Puerto Rican music. And there I am, I start dancing after only one Sangria and I’m obviously sober, but my dad’s like, “Look, you’re Puerto Rican because the music is still speaking to you.” He’s like, “Look at your mother!” And she’s like… The music clearly is not affecting her. So I know that’s like, some comedic litmus test, of course, for me.

Justin Alba: Do I think the music’s great? I’m not going to come out, I’m not going to switch Bjork and put on a Puerto Rican band, of course. But do I love being around it? Yes. Do I love hearing it? Yeah. Do I like hearing Spanish? Absolutely. But to me, it’s also so much about the food, it’s about how passionate of a person you are, it’s about remembering where you’re from, and remembering that your family came here from this island and came to the mainland United States or wherever else to make a better life for themselves and their family. And that’s pretty much my definition, so. If you guys want to go.

Puerto Rican petroglyphs in Utuado, Puerto Rico.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, the whole family thing, I think that’s a big part of it because growing up, I always… just because I couldn’t speak Spanish so I couldn’t get close to my Puerto Rican side. I kind of resented it a little and didn’t want to get close, didn’t want to talk to anybody. But from my mom’s side, the white side, I was always close to them and they embraced me.

Samantha Herrera: But, as I’ve gotten older, I’m closer to my Puerto Rican side because I see the differences and how they are more welcoming. They’re more about family than the white side. Like, obviously, I love both sides equally but the fact that I don’t have to reach out and beg for something from the Puerto Rican side, unlike the other side where my mom is always fighting with them. And whenever I talk about that to my boyfriend’s mom, who’s 100% Puerto Rican, she’s always like, “Why? That’s not okay because sisters…” because my mom’s always arguing with her sisters and brothers. She’s like, “Siblings are supposed to be close even as they get older,” and it’s unheard of, what my mom does, constantly fighting with them. It’s really sad, but I still love them, obviously, I don’t hate them or anything, but…

Justin Alba: It’s different.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, it’s different.

Justin Alba: The emphasis on family feels different.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, mmhm.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah, I grew up in a huge family, you know, centric life. My sister and I are really close, even though we’re 10 years apart. We’re very, very close, and even though a lot of the family in Puerto Rico, I haven’t necessarily spent a lot of time with them, I still feel their love, which is very interesting. I feel like a lot of people don’t get that, and it’s weird because there’s not much of a relationship there but there’s still something that ties us together. And it’s that we’re all family.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I think, going off of what you were saying earlier, Justin, I think the one… I think the pride, the Puerto Rican pride, is kind of what ties all those aspects together; from the food, the music, everything. Sometimes the pride can get a little bit troubling at certain times. But I always grew up really proud of eating rice and beans every night and having traditions. My family was super into New Year’s, they still are. We’ll play Puerto Rican music all night until midnight, you know, everyone’s dancing, celebrating, eating food, and it’s a great time. And those are things I want to carry on to my future children, and my future family, so.

Justin Alba: Does everyone know the story of how their family emigrated from Puerto Rico to either New York or North Carolina?

Samantha Herrera: Sadly, nope.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah, my parents, they first moved to New Jersey with my little sister, and they didn’t really have much. Then they ended up moving to Florida, and then North Carolina. It was a tough journey, my dad had to work multiple jobs, my mom was going into nursing school, and she was pregnant with me. My sister was really young and they had to live in a very small apartment in Durham, North Carolina, but they didn’t give up. They ended up giving us a great life.

Maite Molina-Muniz: So, it’s a great… it’s an inspiring story for me. As a young kid, I knew, but now as I get older, I understand their sacrifice, because they had to sacrifice their family. Essentially, I can’t imagine what that meant to a Puerto Rican, having to leave your family, but they did it. By doing so, they gave us a great life.

Justin Alba: So, for both of you, even though you might not know the story, do you have a pride in the fact that you did have family who left to come here to try and make a better life for us and themselves?

Samantha Herrera: I guess I’m more grateful, because, obviously, I wouldn’t be here without it. But also because anybody that sacrifices and abandons one thing to embrace another, they’re automatically people that you should hold value to and respect.

Justin Alba: I get that. I think about how scary it must have been.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah.

Justin Alba: Even though it was close, and even though there was a lot of immigration at the time. So, for me, my grandmother, that woman over there, it’s an interesting story. So, actually, my grandma was from one of the wealthiest families in Utuado. She graduated from The University of Puerto Rico in 1938, I still have her ring, and it’s very important to me, her class ring.

Samantha Herrera: Aw.

Alba Santo Domingo Grave in Puerto Rican El Morro.
Alba Santo Domingo Grave in El Morro.

Justin Alba: There, she met my grandfather. The Alba family was in Puerto Rican government, and, as you know, getting buried in El Morro is really difficult, and it’s for, I guess, for higher-class people. Again, this is not my… I don’t want to sound like what’s-his-name. This is not my… this happened way before me. So, their family was in government, he worked for a bank; they had a lot of money. My dad says he remembers a really huge house, lots of servants, and all that kinds of crazy stuff. Such a weird word and it feels so uncomfortable to say it.

Justin Alba: Anyway, so my grandfather was sick. He died when he was 29. He had polycystic kidney disease. About three or four days before he died, my grandmother had a nervous breakdown. She took her two sons and she never talked to his family again, never talked to her family again, and they moved here. They moved in with some of her family who were already here, so she did talk to them. And she lived with five or six people, like I said, in a studio apartment about this big. And she was so distraught from everything. She gave up her life completely. She never remarried.

Justin Alba: So she was 28 when she divorced and she lived right here at 144th and Broadway. She thought it was dangerous, she felt like there were a lot of people who were doing drugs. And she was nervous about my father and his older brother kind of getting involved in that, so she got a job. She got a job as a secretary which, for someone who had a college degree at the time, is quite a step-down. She worked her butt off and she lived in a studio apartment, again, by herself, and she paid for them to go to Catholic school, boarding school, upstate. And my father is so resentful of that because, you know, these nuns kicked his ass and everyone was white. He just wasn’t having a great time.

Justin Alba: He eventually was class president and super popular and shit, so I’m like, chill, Dad. I’m like, want to talk about high school horror stories? I think I’ve got you beat. But, you know, he resents her a lot for that. So, for me, I always think of my grandmother, who just gave up everything and gave up this life as sort of a person who had money to start over as someone without money, to give my father a certain life, and his brother, who, in turn, gave me this life. That’s why I feel super grateful about it.

Maite Molina-Muniz: That’s a great story.

Justin Alba: Thank you.

Maite Molina-Muniz: It’s kind of sad, but it’s, she paved the way.

Samantha  Herrera: Yeah.

Justin Alba: She did.

Maite Molina-Muniz: You know, for her future.

Samantha Herrera: It all worked out in the end.

Justin Alba: Yeah, I hope so, I hope so, yeah.

Puerto Rican Alba Family in Puerto Rico.
Alba Family in Puerto Rico circa 1947.

Samantha Herrera: So, speaking of bad neighborhoods. When my dad was little, I think when he was seven, my grandfather, he had a problem with one of the neighbors and the neighbors tried to confront him. I assume my grandfather was not having it. He wasn’t dealing with their shit, whatever it was, I don’t know what happened. But one night, the neighbors were like, okay, come downstairs and let’s talk. Little did they know that those neighbors got a whole bunch of people to jump my grandfather.

Samantha Herrera: And my dad, who was just seven at the time, he’s a mess, and his older brother, he was outside with my grandfather, and my grandfather’s trying to push him back and defend him. I think he used a garbage can lid or something to get them away. My dad was just, obviously, he was terrified, and the oldest sibling, his older sister, she was trying to go downstairs, and… Okay, so back in the day, swords were a big thing in the hood, and I guess every Hispanic had a sword that they would threaten people with. She was going to bring my grandfather his sword to fight downstairs and my dad was standing in the way. He was like, “No, no, no, don’t do it,” like, standing in the doorway, all dramatic and stuff while she’s holding a sword to bring to this fight.

Samantha Herrera: So, eventually, they disperse or whatever. They disappear into the night. But my grandfather knew a Puerto Rican biker gang and they were legit, they were no joke. They come one night, they have, it’s like an S.W.A.T. They have loads and loads of bikers just storm the apartments, and they’re banging on every door, threatening people. And then they go to the neighbor’s door and they start breaking the windows, they start trying to open the door, they’re like, we’re going to fucking kill you, get the fuck out of here. They were really going to kill them and my grandfather, he just watched.

Samantha Herrera: But then, after they did that and they saw that the neighbors, obviously they’re not going to come outside. When they saw that, they asked my grandfather, “can you leave the apartment? We’re going to burn it down.” They planned to burn the apartment down and, I don’t know how they were going to cover it up but, they were going to spare, obviously, my grandfather. But, there were obviously civilians there that were going to die too. My grandfather, of course, he didn’t want to leave and that’s just an entirely different extreme that he didn’t want to go to. So he was like, “No, no, no, no, no.” Then they left, too, and the neighbors never appeared again. Who knows whatever happened to them.

Justin Alba: That’s that Puerto Rican passion I was talking about earlier.

Samantha Herrera: It’s a dangerous thing!

Justin Alba: They definitely took things to 10!

Maite Molina-Muniz: That is crazy. I was not expecting that.

Justin Alba: My favorite part of that was the swords, though. I’m not going to lie. We need bring that back.

Maite Molina-Muniz: We should get some swords.

Samantha Herrera: They always, my dad always went to Chinatown. They… My dad loves kung-fu movies. They love that, my Puerto Rican side. They love the whole…

Justin Alba: Tell Maite what your dad was going to name you if you were a boy.

Samantha Herrera: Oh, yeah. My dad, everybody thought I was going to be a boy. They were going to name me Charles Xavier

Maite Molina-Muniz: What?

Justin Alba: Her dad loves X-Men comics.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Oh, that’s amazing.

Samantha Herrera: He’s a huge nerd.

Justin Alba: No, I love that. Can we talk about the food for a second? Because there’s some food that’s so distinctly Puerto Rican and so delicious, and we’re going to eat some tonight at Sofrito’s, and I hope everyone listening to this goes there in New York!

Samantha Herrera: Is flan distinctly Puerto Rican? Probably not, right? But it’s my favorite.

Justin Alba: Flan, it still counts.

Samantha Herrera: I love flan, it’s so good

Justin Alba: Mofungo for me.

Samantha Herrera: Mofungo, um, mmm.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Oh my god, oh wait, Surullitos.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah, I love surullitos. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, he would always make it, and basically, it’s fried cornmeal. He would put Velveeta cheese inside, so you… just… it was sweet and salty and it was just amazing. But mofongo’s also amazing.

Justin Alba: And we should say mofongo, in the Puerto Rican version, is sweet plantains

Maite Molina-Muniz: Mmhmm.

Samantha Herrera: Mmhmm.

Justin Alba: Kind of, fried and mashed and there’s some kind of awesome sauce on it.

Maite Molina-Muniz: My mom makes it super garlicky.

Justin Alba: Oh, I love that.

Maite Molina-Muniz: So that it’s really good.

Justin Alba: And we should explain flan, for those who don’t know.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Oh, yeah.

Samantha Herrera: It’s like a pudding cake. Like, it’s hard to describe.

Puerto Rican Arecibo Conservatory
Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Gelatinous.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah, it’s very gelatinous, but it’s also, like, if you get it, like, a real flan, it’s liquidy. It’s got all the juices on it.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Also, the seafood’s great. My dad makes a really good red snapper.

Justin Alba: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Maite Molina-Muniz: He’ll actually make soup sometimes with the fish head in it, which is kind of creepy but he likes it.

Justin Alba: It happens.

Maite Molina-Muniz: It has eyes sticking out.

Justin Alba: Most Puerto Rican food ever, if you had to guess, what would you say it is? It’s so simple.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Are you going to say rice and beans?

Justin Alba: Of course.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I remember first going to college, and I went to my dining hall, and I’m just like, where are the rice and the beans, that’s the side dish, and I had to get used to that

Samantha Herrera: I’ve always been a picky eater but ever since I hit adulthood, now I can’t get enough of it. I can eat rice and beans and, funny enough, the fact that I’m split between white and Hispanic, that means our food dishes are split, too. So we usually have fried plantains but with spaghetti and meatballs. Like, it’s so good. And it goes together so good, surprisingly

Justin Alba: That actually sounds really delicious; I’m not going to lie.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I know! That’s the beauty of mixed households; you have new innovations, new food, new dishes.

Samantha Herrera: When you dip it in the sauce, it’s magic.

Justin Alba: I love it.

Justin Alba: People always ask me and make, sometimes very rude, comments, as Sam knows, about the state of Puerto Rico in terms of its statehood to the United States, in terms of it leaving and becoming independent, in terms of it remaining a commonwealth. I sometimes find that people can be very aggressive when discussing this with me. It’s very similar to how, when I went to Europe during the Bush administration, and I was like, “Hey, I agree with you guys. I’m here, I don’t work for the Secretary of State nor do I represent the government of the United States of America, like, my family just immigrated there”, and I’m here, so I don’t know what to tell you.

Justin Alba: But I find people make these sweeping generalizations, and I get really defensive because the reality is, a bunch of Puerto Rican people will feel really different. Just because we’re all Puerto Rican doesn’t mean we all think the same way. I think if there’s something I want people listening to this podcast to get, is that there are three Puerto Rican people right here and listen to how different our experiences are, how we define these things to ourselves, and our culture, so I don’t know. That upsets me, but do you guys ever have that feeling, too. Or, what do you say when people bring up statehood and all that stuff?

Samantha Herrera: What do you mean by statehood?

Justin Alba: Puerto Rico either becoming a state, remaining a commonwealth, or becoming independent.

Samantha Herrera: Well…

Maite Molina-Muniz: This is kind of going a bit off-topic, but I get annoyed in general when people act like they know more than they actually do, particularly after the hurricane happened. Suddenly, everyone was changing their profile pictures to “we’re with Puerto Rico,” and saying all these things about the island, and I’m just like, you’ve never once, you probably haven’t even gone there. You probably don’t even know where it was.

Justin Alba: You probably haven’t even thought about it.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Exactly.

Justin Alba: You didn’t even know it was in America.

Maite Molina-Muniz: So, it is annoying when people put their input into something, and their opinion and they act so aggressively about it when they really don’t know anything about it.

Samantha Herrera: I had a lot of people ask how my family was doing after the hurricane, and I would tell them, obviously they’re not doing well, you know. They’re like, oh, are they okay, I’m like, ‘they don’t have power, so, yeah.’ It is irritating when people make sweeping assumptions or act like they know more than what they do, and they’re kind of ignorant about the whole island and the culture, et cetera.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Unless you’ve lived in Puerto Rico and you’re educated, you have zero right to say anything.

Justin Alba: I couldn’t agree with you more, as you know personally. How are your families affected by the hurricane? I’m not sure about mine because most of mine passed away that’s in Puerto Rico. I’m not familiar with my family that’s there right now, but what about you two?

Samantha Herrera: My half-brother, Pito. My family reached out to him before the hurricane, and he said he was in an okay spot. When the hurricane did hit, he was okay. My uncle’s wife, her father, when the hurricane was about to hit, he wasn’t doing so good and he was trying to board up the house. All of a sudden his nose started bleeding and, right then and there, he died of a heart attack. That was just from the scare of the hurricane, you know. Afterwards, there was the whole thing of how are we going to handle funeral arrangements during a hurricane? Obviously, you can’t bury anybody, everything’s soaked, and there’re pools everywhere, and she couldn’t even go out to see her father until way later.

Justin Alba: That is incredibly heartbreaking.

Maite Molina-Muniz: That’s what makes me sad because those types of stories don’t get any recognition, and you look at the news and how quickly they moved on from the crisis. I was reading an article the other day about the mental health crisis and the suicide hotlines are escalating, you know. The calls to suicide outlines are escalating because people got hit and then it got coverage, and now it’s over. Now they’re left to fend for themselves.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I mean, my cousins, they just got power a few weeks ago. They were months without power. My family tried to send them things but it took forever to get there. Also, they weren’t even sure if they were going to get to them. People are desperate, someone may have stolen it, and you can’t blame them. They don’t have anything right now. So, it’s upsetting to see how quickly people forget. And the ironic part is Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of America. Whether or not you know much about the island, it’s still part of the country in some capacity.

Justin Alba: And for those who don’t know, Puerto Rico became part of America in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony before that. It was called Borinquen, which is how we got the name Boricua, by the tongue of the Native Americans who lived there. And I think that’s something that people also have to consider. But if we also, for the people listening to this, I want them to think about no power for a month.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Like months, multiple months.

Samantha Herrera: Yeah.

Justin Alba: Multiple months.

Maite Molina-Muniz: And that’s just my family. They got power back. There’s still plenty of people who don’t have it and people who’ve had their homes destroyed. One of my uncles, his house was completely wiped out and they found him floating in the water. Thankfully, he survived but, again, a lot of people didn’t, and we don’t know. There are a lot of stories, a lot of people, we don’t know how they’re doing. So, it’s really tragic.

Justin Alba: And your family is moving here now because of the hurricane, right?

Maite Molina-Muniz: I mean, my aunt, yeah. My aunt moved in November. Thankfully, my mom, our house has many empty rooms because my sister and I are gone out of the house. So, thankfully, she had a home to come home to but a lot of people are just winging it and they’re going to random hotels, motels, across the country, and they don’t know where they’re going. They don’t have family here, so it’s sad to see that.

Justin Alba: It is sad. What’s one thing that you want people listening to this to understand about what it means to be Puerto Rican? Or about Puerto Rico that they might not have understood when they started listening to this?

Samantha Herrera: Well, for starters, you don’t have to be 100% Puerto Rican to be Puerto Rican! That’s for sure!

Justin Alba: Accept us!

Puerto Rican Government Building in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Government building in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Image by Justin Gilbert Alba.

Maite Molina-Muniz: I don’t know, I think… I just want people to acknowledge this rich culture. I feel like it’s often overlooked despite the fact that it’s right below Florida, you know. It’s so close and it’s so rich, it has such a rich history.

Justin Alba: And it’s part of America!

Maite Molina-Muniz: Exactly, it’s part of America. You don’t need a passport to go there.

Justin Alba: They’re American citizens.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Exactly, exactly. I think I want people to just be aware of it. And also, be aware of the people and what’s going on and not ignore it, most importantly.

Justin Alba: So, we have to close up but I’ve got to, again, say all the website B.S., like find us on ComicsVerse.com and all that. But it feels kind of, like, awesomely solemn right now that we’re having this discussion. But I really wanted to leave it with this, and I think I’ve told you both this independently. So, we were at Wizard World Philadelphia in 2016, and we interviewed a Puerto Rican artist, and I forgot his name, and he was so awesome. He saw me in my ComicsVerse shirt smoking a cigarette outside and came up to me. We had a whole conversation about being Puerto Rican. He didn’t know I was but he didn’t judge me once I told him.

Justin Alba: He’s like, “Oh, I probably sound,” his accent was so thick, he was like, “I probably sound like all your cousins, aunts, and uncles,” I’m like, “Totally,” and I said, “You know, I struggle a lot, because I’m always trying to find how I can be more connected to my culture, how I can be more connected to the island, how I can be more connected to feeling Puerto Rican, because that is a safe place for me to feel, and a place where I’ve gotten nourishment from delving into, I guess,” and he said something to me that was so profound, that stayed with me forever, and, I used to feel a lot like how you feel, Sam, and I still do, a lot, but what he said to me really changed me. He said, “You are the culture.” He’s like, “This is it now.”

Samantha Herrera: Wow.

Justin Alba: This is what, everything you do, is the culture now, this is what we’ve become. And you should be proud of that and you should be proud of continuing that. And that was so powerful for me because, until then, I felt disconnected, until then, I felt not accepted anywhere, and it allowed me to say, “Hey, you’re Puerto Rican. You don’t think I am. Well $@#% you. I am Puerto Rican and I might be Neorican, and I’m also that, too. But it doesn’t make me any less Puerto Rican, so…

Samantha Herrera: I agree. That’s really… wow. I never really thought of it that way just because, when I think of my culture, I just think of this gluttonous, American culture and whatnot. But the older I get, the more I’m growing and learning, and I think that aspect of it, the knowledgeable and experienced aspect of it, that’s the culture that you want to pass down.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah, I think that sums up everything I’ve been trying to say, how our differences and, even amongst ourselves, our differences in growing up and the way we’ve perceived our culture, it doesn’t make us any less Puerto Rican. Just because we’ve had different experiences, it doesn’t make us any less cultured. So I think that was a beautiful way to put us at ease in a way.

Justin Alba: Thank you. And thank you guys so much for doing this. You know I’ve wanted to do it since last year.

Maite Molina-Muniz: Yeah.

Justin Alba: Since 2017. So we finally got to do it! And in person, too!

Samantha Herrera: That’s exciting.

Justin Alba: All right. Thank you guys so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time!

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One Comment

  1. Jorge Rodriguez

    Jorge Rodriguez

    February 27, 2018 at 9:25 pm

    As a Puerto Rican American my family been here in states for 70yrs and 5 generations I’m more American because I never experienced the boricua culture but thanks to my parents they kept it in me and my brother and sisters they raise us good

    Reply

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