The thing about living away from home while your family is facing a natural disaster is that your mind is in two different places. For days before Hurricane Irma, all of my newsfeed on Facebook and Twitter, all of the texts I got on WhatsApp and iMessage and all of the news clips I watched told me to stay safe and take precaution. It would take me a few moments to remember that I was 1500 miles away from danger, safe and sound. It would take me another moment for a panic to set in because even though I was safe, many of my loved ones were not, and there was nothing I could do to reassure them that everything was going to be okay.
All things considered, Irma didn’t have as much of an impact on Puerto Rico as everyone was expecting. We got lucky. While Barbuda, Angula and parts of Haiti and Cuba were inundated in drastic measures, Puerto Rico mainly had infrastructure problems with getting power back on the island. That said, the few days where I felt entirely disconnected from my surroundings at Penn because of the hurricane made me think a lot about how being here has often felt disorienting.
I knew I wanted to leave Puerto Rico to study in the continental US all throughout high school. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my home, it was just that I was tired of being surrounded by water, unable to go anywhere else if I wanted to explore. I wanted to be at a place where people didn’t think like I did, didn’t look like I did, didn’t speak like I did. Puerto Rico felt too small, and I couldn’t stretch it out to make it fit me anymore. I saw Penn as a thrill I had been waiting years to have, and I longed to be on a campus where the rest of the world could seem so much more accessible.
It didn’t occur to me that living in Puerto Rico had actually sheltered me from a lot of the realities of living in the continental US. The fact is that I had never been a woman of color before coming to Penn. At home, I’m just a woman. Here, I’m an admissions decision. For the first time in my life, people made assumptions about my background based on my physical appearance. When they wondered how I spoke English so well, when they asked if I had auditioned for Onda Latina yet, when they wondered if my parents had gone to college, when they just didn’t know that Puerto Ricans are US citizens. I came to Penn because I thought it would make me feel limitless, and instead I felt confined within other people’s expectations of who I was supposed to be.
It didn’t help that whenever I actually did go home, I immediately felt alienated from so many of my friends and family members. Because all of my friends stayed at the University of Puerto Rico, there was little I could talk to them about without feeling like I was becoming American. How could I describe what ‘sabsing’ is to them? Or ‘Penn Face’? How should I tell my parents that there’s an unspoken pressure to prioritize my club meetings over my classes when they were sacrificing so much for me to get an education? The space between Penn’s campus and my home in San Juan stretched farther and farther, to the point where I feel like I’m two different people, my language and behavior changing depending on where I am.
In the same way that I feel like I can’t communicate with my friends and family, I tend to hide a lot of who I am when I’m at Penn. I’m eternally grateful for the Latinx community at La Casa – but I often feel like I can’t relate to a lot of students because I wasn’t raised in the States. I tried joining the Puerto Rican student’s association, but the vast majority of Puerto Ricans from the island that are at Penn come from such affluent backgrounds that the community completely inaccessible to me. With my non–Latinx friends, there are subjects that seem too personal to talk about, even though they shouldn’t be. I do not talk about my family dynamics, as much as I love my family. I do not talk about my religion, even though it’s an incredibly important part of my identity, and it’s intrinsically tied with my life in Puerto Rico. It’s not because I intentionally try to hide things from people I’m close to (and I know everyone has things that they don’t like to share)–there are just parts of myself that I haven’t learned how to translate yet.
I have to compartmentalize my life in Puerto Rico and my life at Penn because these places seem irreconcilable, socially as well as politically. Politically speaking, members of the Penn community have actively contributed to neolocolonialist policies in Puerto Rico. A current Penn Law Professor sits on the fiscal control board that now oversees our government. Our current Secretary of Education is an American Penn alum who has now closed over 100 public schools and dissolved our Puerto Rican cultural week programming in elementary and middle schools. Navigating my relationships at Penn as a Puerto Rican comes with the added recognition that while I am a US citizen, I do not consider myself American, mainly because this country has never done anything to be compassionate towards my island. We still can’t vote for the President of the United States if we live back home. We only have one non–voting representative in Congress. We are invisible. In a lot of ways, Penn reminds me of the US: it preaches inclusivity while clearly benefiting members of the white upper–class, and it ultimately only cares about money.
If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.
At this point, I’ve accepted that there will always be a small but loud feeling of betrayal stuck in my chest. I left home. I left for reasons that ended up being invalid. That was my decision. Looking back, I don’t regret coming to Penn because I’ve been able to grow into myself in many ways. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’ll always be conflicted about coming here, and will never feel quite at home on this campus. For what’s left of my time here, though, I’ll try to let my lives seep into each other just to feel a little less isolated.
Hopefully I’ll be able to do that without the threat of hurricane this time.