Carmen Rivera's bilingual drama follows a young girl visiting her home country of Puerto Rico from New York for the summer. While she expected to be welcomed with open arms, she instead was greeted with a general consensus from her family that she is not, in fact, "really" Puerto Rican due to her American status.
Back home in New York, she’s known as the Puerto Rican girl. Leaving her in-between both cultures, feeling outside of both.
U.S.-born journalist Amaris Castillo knows that feeling firsthand. Here’s her open letter to those who identify with the lonely, sometimes warm, feelings embedded in La Gringa.
Being a child of immigrants means you’re in-between. You’re code switch embodied. You toggle between the norms of your parents’ homeland and of the country you were born into. You’re a split screen. Inside you are fragments culled from memory: Food, language, and culture.
Here’s a concise list of the in-between. May you feel less alone after reading:
The teller behind the glass window looms over you. Your abuela has brought you to the bank to translate for her. You stand there, unsure of what she’s asking you to say. Abuela wants you to explain an issue with her account. You do your best, but you’re maybe eight years old. When it’s clear this errand is going nowhere, your grandmother takes you by the hand and you both leave. You feel bad that you couldn’t help.
The Dominican Republic lives inside your apartment. Mami decorates the living room with wicker furniture. The kitchen smells of rice and beans and pollo guisado. Paintings of wooden houses with flamboyan trees, red and flaming, adorn the wall. Ma and Pa speak to you in their Spanish with its plural words chopped at the ends. The second you step outside your building? Oh, right. You’re in the United States.
When you’re out at a store, park, or even a bathroom stall at a public restroom, your ears perk whenever you hear Spanish. Words come alive in your mind. You want to mind your business, but sometimes you smile at what’s being said. It’s a sweet feeling. In their voice you recognize your parents, tías, tíos. Those dear to you.
A few of your classmates fangirl over Lil’ Kim. She isn’t familiar to you. They stare at you, pure confusion all on their faces. This is the ‘90s. Brooklyn. You don’t know who Lil’ Kim is?! they ask. There’s a Kimberly in your class. Feebishly, you guess: “Kimberly when she was little?” Everyone laughs. So you don’t know that Lil’ Kim is a rapper who spits fire, born and raised in Brooklyn like you. That’s because, in your building, merengue and bachata and salsa dominate. At home, Papi plays mournful boleros of a lost love.
You’re 15. You’re volunteering at a Suncoast Hospice resale shop on Saturdays because you really want the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship. Money is tight at home, so you’ve been obsessing over ways to earn free money elsewhere. You don’t want to burden Ma and Pa, even though they’ve only ever been selfless. There’s an unspoken pressure to pay back your parents for all the sacrifices they’ve made, to make them proud and to get farther in your education than they did. You wouldn’t nor want to deviate from your goal.
So you’re at this thrift store. You’re the only young volunteer, and the only Latina. Everyone else is white and retired. You sometimes work behind the register because the boss trusts you. One day a customer walks up to you. She speaks Spanish with a Mexican accent. Without skipping a beat, you switch to the language your parents taught you. As you wrap up the transaction, another volunteer – an elderly white lady – mutters to another, “Why can’t they speak English?” You feel a pang in your stomach and chest. You freeze, your back turned to them. You suspect the speaker’s disdain for a foreigner is because her family is many generations removed from immigration. You’re too young to have heard the word “xenophobia,” but you’ve witnessed it. It’s an out-of-body sensation. It feels like an attack on your parents, tías, tíos. Those dear to you. Should you turn around and say something? Explain to her that it’s very hard to learn a new language when you’re new here? That there’s not a button you can press for “English, please”? That once this Mexican woman learns English she will probably know how to speak more languages than she does? Then how fruitful is it to be bilingual? But you’re only 15. You don’t feel equipped to take on a battle against bigotry. So you swallow the shock and hurt, this knotted and nauseating feeling. You don’t say anything. And wait patiently for the next customer, wondering if they will also be in-between
by Carmen Rivera
directed by Tatyana Marie-Carlo
Winner of the 1996 Obie Award La Gringa is about a young woman’s search for her identity. When Maria Elena Garcia goes to visit her family in Puerto Rico for the first time she arrives with plans to connect with her homeland. Once home though, she realizes that Puerto Rico does not welcome her with open arms. If she is seen as a Puerto Rican in the United States and an American in Puerto Rico, Maria concludes that she is nobody everywhere.