The diaspora story of Esmeralda Santiago is a familiar one to second and third generation folks of many ethnic groups. It is a story of a woman who was brought the US from Puerto Rico by her parents when she was in her teens. She had to adjust to a new way of life, to a new language and to the idea that she was not immediately accepted by the larger culture. It was tough.
Still, she persisted to become an award winning author of two important books, “When I Was Puerto Rican” and “América’s Dream,” that defined her experience as a migrant to the US. Not only had she known in every cell of her body that she was Puerto Rican, but she had articulated it in these books. That knowledge was re-enforced every time she felt a distance from the larger American culture. In her writing, Santiago had expressed the feelings of the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who had traveled the same path to the US in the decades before and after her.
Then Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September of 2017. Esmeralda Santiago had to go back. It was more than 50 years after she had left, but she had to go back to help.
When she returned, to her surprise she was no longer viewed as Puerto Rican by Puerto Ricans – her Spanish diction had changed, she sounded American. In America she was conscious of her Puerto Ricanness every day while in Puerto Rico she was conscious of her Americanness every day. Santiago had one foot in each culture and neither was firmly planted. Here’s the thing. If we could go back a century to the time when the Italians, the Irish and the Jews where leaving Europe by the millions to come to the US, you would have heard the same story of ever-lasting connection back to the homeland, a feeling of disconnection with the new land that places one in a middle ground, a place where one foot is back there and one is here. The offspring of these refuges still speak some of the old language, but their English is comfortably native. And the next generation, their kids, will be even further removed from the old country, it will be reduced to a talking point in their history, a point of curiosity. And marriage outside the ethnic group will happen without family turmoil. The point: assimilation is not fast, it is a process that takes a couple generations, but assimilation inevitably wins and America is changed just a little bit.