Puerto Rico’s status as a territory creates an odd cultural blend for tourists
“It’s not quite right here. That’s what I like about it.”
That was an Atlanta-based contractor talking to me about Puerto Rico as I sat at the outdoor bar of At the Wind Chimes Inn in San Juan this week.
The contractor, who is a long-term guest of the small boutique hotel while he works on a telecommunications project, was trying to explain Puerto Rican culture to me.
The contractor was talking about the island’s status as a U.S. territory how it exists somewhere between a state and a sovereign nation as part of a commonwealth.
It has produced an odd relationship. Puerto Rico is both independent of the U.S. in some ways, yet dependent on it at the same time.
Puerto Rican workers pay no federal income tax to the U.S., yet the nation receives substantial financial assistance from the U.S. Puerto Rican workers’ income taxes go to Puerto Rico. But Puerto Rican workers are part of the U.S. Social Security system and pay into it.
Every few years, Puerto Ricans vote on the island’s future, and the results are always the same. They are given the choice of becoming a state, gaining sovereign nation status or the status quo.
Daniel, a bartender I met at the hotel, said the people always vote to continue the century-old status quo because they are so uncertain how change would affect their lives.
“I think the states will eventually decide what is going to happen,” Daniel said.
Daniel described Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. as like being ” on an umbilical cord.” He acknowledged that most Puerto Ricans collective feel like they are a step-child of the U.S.
The relationship has produced an atmosphere that is sort of like a foreign country to visitors from the U.S., yet oddly American at the same time. It’s unique to anything I’ve experienced traveling outside the continental U.S.
U.S. residents do not need a passport or a visa to visit Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans enjoy the same travel privileges in the U.S.
People from all over the world have settled in Puerto Rico since the Spanish took it away from the island’s native Indians more than 500 years ago.
At first glance, it seems as if U.S. tourists from the mainland are only a small percentage of the visitors to the island, but looks can be deceiving. Many of the people I first assumed to be Puerto Rican residents are actually visitors from the U.S. mainland.
Everyone I talked to who lives in Puerto Rico has relatives in the U.S. Many were born on the mainland and have chosen to return to the homeland of their parents and grandparents.
The more I talked to Puerto Rican residents, the more I realized the island is battling the same problems that we see on the mainland:
Violent crime worries many people. Much of the violence apparently occurs in crime-ridden, low-income, tightly-packed residential areas that blight much of the island just like in the U.S.
There had been 271 homicides on the island of 4 million as of this week. Adriana, another hotel worker I met, said the twist is that much of the violent crime is related to jealously and arguments about women. Puerto Rican men tend to suffer from extraordinary jealously, she said.
And the results of a survey came out this week pointing to another conflict fueled by that straight macho male syndrome.
More than half of the gay Puerto Rican men surveyed reported having been the victims of anti-gay harassment and discrimination, including anti-gay violence, according to an article published in the San Juan Star newspaper.
According to Adriana, the anti-gay sentiment is not directed at gay and lesbian tourists. Puerto Ricans just have a problem accepting it in their own culture, she said.
Puerto Rican gay men often exacerbate the situation because like other natives of the island, they tend to “not care what people think.”
So the heritage they share in common with their straight counterparts tend to cause them more trouble, she said.
Another report in the San Juan Star revealed that HIV service groups and advocates are clamoring for more care particularly HIV medications while government officials contend that current funding is already adequate.
Does all of that sound familiar?
What it all boils down to is that the island which is a visual paradise of stunning waters, beaches and exotic plant life – is a far more complex society than it first seems.
But had I not turned over the rock, I would never have seen the underside of life in Puerto Rico.
The Puerto Rican people are warm, friendly and seemingly almost always cheerful. They appear to be genuinely flattered when a U.S. mainlander is interested in what they think about the island’s status.
It is safe to walk the streets at night in the tourist areas. The Dallas Police Department could take a lesson from the San Juan Policia in patrolling the streets of the entertainment districts. I saw at least one police officer on foot and one in a car or on a motorcycle in every block I walked at night.
Puerto Rico is an explosion of color, sounds and exotic foods. From the tropical rain forest to the 17th Century Spanish architecture in Old San Juan to the high-rise hotels along the beach, the scenery is breathtaking.
The beauty of it all is that, after a four and one-half hour plane ride over the Caribbean, you haven’t really left the U.S. when you travel to Puerto Rico. Yet you’ve still been transported to another world.
I agree that something isn’t quite right about Puerto Rico, but it only adds to the island’s charm and makes for a much more interesting vacation.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 18, 2007