Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Continuing Quandary of Identity: What I Learned in Puerto Rico

My husband, Ken and I just returned from a wonderful restful vacation in Puerto Rico. In almost twenty-two years of marriage, this was our first actual extended vacation not connected to work obligations, not inclusive of our amazing family, or Israel. This was just the two of us, no agenda, no one else to think about when making plans, really just to be relaxing and restful – away from responsibilities, work, the many concerns that keep us busy and happy in our lives.

That being said, I never get a vacation from me -- my thoughts, my big questions, and my analysis of the world! As my mom always said, you can’t run away from you because you take you with you! So true!

So given that my work and my life professionally as well as the way I am wired to think is always so wrapped up with identity and how that complex configuration of all that we are frames our lives contextually, why should this be any different! There we were for eight days in beautiful Puerto Rico with its vibrant colors, amazing nature, warm temperatures (though for my part, you can have the humidity – I am not a fan!), restful pace and of course… the Puerto Ricans. The people and their relationship to their entity of which they are part, their cherished religious roots and identity, developed art forms, and everything else were truly fascinating to me. So what is Puerto Rico and how do its citizens (?) relate to it and to the United States? This, I found is complicated, filled with conflicts and compromises and once again instructive for all of us in terms of our own identities with their inherent complications and questions, some of which just do not get resolved.

We learned that there is a governor of Puerto Rico that basically stands alone with a large infrastructure in Puerto Rico, connected to the United States in some sort of way, but not really so much. There are three political parties – those who want for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state of the United States, those who wish for things to stay the same – namely unresolved about what it means to be a “territory,” and those who want Puerto Rico to claim its independence as a separate country or republic. Puerto Ricans vote in primary elections for the President of the United States but NOT in the general elections. Puerto Ricans do not pay federal taxes but do get hit with heavy taxes on what they import, which includes just about everything as manufacturing is not part of the Puerto Rican landscape generally. The history of Puerto Rico is fascinating, with many hands and countries in the mix. The three flags that grace El Morro, the historical lookout point at the tip of Old San Juan give credence to this mix, with the Puerto Rican flag, the one representing the United States and the one from the Spanish military of so long ago. There are many beautiful parks and protected lands under Federal (United States) supervision and control. Many people work for the United States government and as many as one third of the Puerto Ricans work somehow for their own republican government. When you ask a Puerto Rican where they are form, they simply reply, “I am from here.” You do not need a passport to travel from the United States to Puerto Rico or vice versa, though I was told that is about to change and that eventually, US citizens will need passports for all travel. So are they citizens of the United States or of Puerto Rico as a separate entity (territory or republic) or both? While this has NOT been resolved, there is a comfortable compromise in which mostly people accept the ambiguity of their existence in this respect and go about their daily lives. What an interesting lesson to be learned from this!

Ironically (to me at least) we were told that the year that this uncomfortable compromise was struck was 1948. My mind turned to other as-yet-unresolved issues of identity and territory that date back to that year: India and Pakistan and, of course, Israel and other areas around it (a la trans-Jordan understanding). To be sure people in Puerto Rico have their frustrations and questions and sense of lack of fairness. That being said, we were also told that generally this plays out in a relatively peaceful manner, in spite of the fact that people hold very strong feelings about what should be and is not yet the case. So to what is this attributed? Is it the pride of being part of Puerto Rico connected with its beauty, its pace of life, and its history as well as culture towards which there is much allegiance?

During many conversations, people just basically shrugged and smiled. There are problems to be sure with the educational system and the government is presently on the brink of financial ruin, again according to what we were told. Nonetheless, that Puerto Rican pride of all that it is came through loud and clear. I, for one, was quite impressed by it as well as the people who showed it

So in my mind of course, I wander to Israel – with its shared pivotal year of 1948 defining its present reality. Yes, there are so many unresolved issues. Yes, there are longstanding conflicts still operative. And needless to say, there are identity issues that are dizzying. That being said, there are so many wonderful efforts of which one can feel so proud while so many people continue to work together and forge paths of cooperation while living with the ambiguity indicative of their own context. And of course, the landscape, the history and all that is part of Israel is a great source of pride.

What is the point here? I love the statement “Know before whom you stand” which often appears in prominent places in many synagogues and shuls. We all stand before God with our various identity issues and challenges brought about as a result of those issues. The question is how do we do it -- with grace and pride; or with anger and contention? I saw a great deal of the former in Puerto Rico, I see so much of it in Israel (though sadly too many people totally miss it) and it is what I look for wherever I am. We all stand before God as God’s created beings; the trick is to remember to respect each other as such, no matter what challenges threaten that goal!

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