As someone studying foreign policy, there’s no doubt that when I found out about DukeEngage’s international programs, I was more than ready to pack my bags and run over to another country where no one knew my name and I knew no one’s language. Yet here I am, a wanderlusty Puerto Rican who instead journeyed to Miami, as close to home (physically and culturally) as I’ve been able to get since Hurricanes Irma and Maria. After 16 years of living on my little island paradise, economic instability and rising worries about crime and lacking federal funding, my parents, sister, and I made the gigantically short leap to Orlando, where I finished high school. Duke came next, and as much as the forests and occasional rain keep me tied to home, it’s in a minuscule way.
It’s been a year and a half since I’ve gone back home. Somehow in such a short time—in a relatively Latino-less environment—the disconnect I feel from my culture has grown to an unsettling degree regardless of the hours I put into tutoring at GANO, the rolled “r”s that a handful of my friends can pull off, and the occasional Guasaca-sponsored campus events. The hurricanes magnified this. I had people coming up to me left and right asking if my family and all of Puerto Rico was “alright,” what organizations to donate to, what to think of the politics that tied it all together. As trauma after trauma amassed in my homeland, I was biding time in the air-conditioned hallways of Perkins speaking for my entire nation time and time again.
DukeEngage-Miami was a decision that everyday becomes more and more intricate to me. Initially, my motivation for applying and consequently attending was based on its major themes that included things like globalization and international relations—two major topics in my career field. However, as the week comes to a close, I am grateful that merely being here has become something all the more special, and homey. The humidity clings onto me as it does back home, the smell of fresh bread and fish is just like when I was little, and everywhere I go my name is pronounced the way my mother dubbed it. It’s freakishly familiar: the downtown is Isla Verde to me, the beach is just like in Rio Grande, the people are like those I could’ve easily grown up around. No one here asks me about how Puerto Rico is doing, because they already know, some having been there not too long ago.
This similarity has made me reflect more upon the ways in which I bring people into my cultural world. When I talk about where I come from, I lay things out in high compliments and hyperbole. I talk about the hot Sun, savory food, glossy leaves of home, hoping that if I keep it appealing enough, the homelessness, racism, grime, poverty, debt in the picture will get overshadowed in others’ minds. I’ve found that just as I leave out La Perla in conversations about San Juan, the people here leave out Overtown in conversations about Miami.
The thing is, Miami is spectacular. Surely, these relics of the failure of democracy and institution are by no means romantic, and yet there is something so much more alive about this city. The people, the city are dreamily chaotic, resilient, experienced, with many lives before them it seems. Something in the air says that progress is precious here, rather than expected. Even with its scars and flaws, thinking back on the cityscape, the people begging and singing in the streets, trash that has missed the recycle bin, seeing the work and love with which people address this city is healing to me, in a way. The Duke students with whom I am so careful to speak of my own home simultaneously disregard and appreciate the space for growth Miami holds, and it makes me wonder if my worries are not so much about painting an idyllic picture to cover up the places where my island requires growth, but if rather than reformulating the way it is described, I may manifest a different reality through engagement and work in Puerto Rico as I do here in Miami.