The Illusion of the American Dream in Puerto Rican Culture

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Juan Flores is the author of the essay “The Structuring of Puerto Rican Identity” from his book Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. In the essay, Flores examines Puerto Rican immigrants/migrants and their experience of moving from mainland Puerto Rico to an urban city in the U. S, more specifically, New York City. Flores breaks down this experience into four moments which leads to “Nuyorican cultural consciousness” (Flores 186). The first moment is the “state of abandon”, which is, the realization of discrimination and deplorable living conditions within urban spaces. The second moment is the “state of enchantment”, which is, a psychological return to their homeland, Puerto Rico & the rediscovery of indigenous and African roots. The third moment is the “return and reentry”, which is, the insertion of Puerto Rican culture into urban spaces. The last moment is “branching out”. This last moment talks about the choice Puerto Ricans make to associate themselves with other migrants from the Caribbean and Latin America and Black Americans.

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Along with the examination of cultural consciousness that Puerto Ricans living in New York City gain, Flores touches on the validity of the melting pot theory. In theory, the melting pot concept in the United States is all about the acceptance of people from different ethnic groups, nationalities, and cultures. However, when people decide to immigrate to the United States, they are mocked and discriminated against, thus leading to cultural assimilation. Although many people who immigrate here to the U. S. do begin to shed the culture that they knew and swap it out for American culture, Flores does not think this is the case for Puerto Ricans. Rather than assimilating and letting go of culture that they know and love, Puerto Ricans find a healthy balance between mainland culture and North American culture. They do not completely abandon or accept one culture over the other. To be a Puerto Rica living in an urban city like New York City means embracing all aspects that come with being Puerto Rican, including bilingualism.

Pedro Pietri was a Nuyorican poet who migrated to Spanish Harlem from Ponce, Puerto when he was still very young. Much of Pietri’s poetry is about the Nuyorican experience, ranging from, living in poverty, survival, aspiring to achieve the “American Dream”, etc. From a select few, two of Pietri’s poems that talk about trying to achieve the “American Dream” and living in poverty are, one of his most popular, Puerto Rican Obituary and Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project. These two poems will be used to discuss whether or not Flores’s model on how immigrants adapt to city life matches up with Pietri’s characters in the two poems.

Puerto Rican Obituary by Pietri is a poem about five different individuals who live in Spanish Harlem and are living out their days waiting and dreaming for things. The characters: Juan, Miguel, Milagros, Olga, Manuel was navigating their city life struggles of being underpaid, overworked, and overlooked. According to Flores, to be Nuyorican is to stay engaged with Puerto Rican culture while also trying to incorporate some aspects of American culture. However, this model does not match up with how Pietri writes about the characters in the poem. Pietri talks about how all of the characters died waiting for something, such as money (Pietri 3). However, what they lost in the process of trying to struggle less in NYC was part of their culture. For example,

They are dead

and will not return from the dead

until they stop neglecting

the art of their dialogue

for broken english lessons

to impress the mister goldsteins

who keep them employed

as... factory workers maids stock clerks (Pietri 8).

In essence, Pietri is writing about how Puerto Ricans are losing parts of themselves to become more Americanized. So no, Flores's model does not work for the characters in this poem. The next poem, Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project dives into the lifestyle of living in a housing project. The character in this poem is expressing anger about living in poverty whilst also fighting to stay alive. Comparing Flores’s model to this poem, his idea of keeping Puerto Rica culture alive while living in the United States matches up. 

This particular part of the poem stanza is expressing the desire to keep Puerto Ricans physically alive throughout America. This poem talks much about the hunger aspect of being impoverished. If people cannot afford to eat, they can become ill, which could possibly lead to death if their hunger problem is no corrected. The character in this poem is begging for help so that the Puerto Rican people do not die out due to starvation.

From the poems above, Pietri presents city life for the characters in the poem as a constant struggle. The biggest struggle, which is constant between both poems, is survival. In both poems, all of the characters struggled with not having much, whether that be money, food, or both. Living in a big urban city is a struggle for pretty much everyone, however, there is nothing being done to help tons of people struggle with the same thing.  

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