The People

^As is the case with many cultures of the world, once you say something in general about Puerto Ricans an opposing truth is likely to emerge. About four million people live on the island, and nearly two million more Puerto Ricans reside in the United States, leading some to say that there are actually two Puerto Ricos. Like US residents, Puerto Ricans shop at JCPenney and Macy's, eat at fast-food restaurants, and drive their sport utility vehicles to the mall. Yet they take pains to set themselves apart from americano culture. Puerto Ricans are laid-back and love nothing more than a party, but an intellectual spirit thrives, education is top priority and politics is a national sport (the island has one of the highest voter turnouts in the world). Puerto Ricans are intensely proud of their island's beauty. A Puerto Rican friend once said, "We suffer from a crisis of identity. That's what happens after 500 years without independence."

A recent "back-to-roots" movement begs the question: How do you define Puerto Rican-ness? The island's people are a mix of many cultures. Centuries ago, Spanish settlers began taking Taino brides. Many of their descendents later intermarried with African slaves. Immigrants from European countries, the United States and Asia trickled in over the years, and waves of political and economic refugees from South America, Cuba and the Dominican Republic have enriched the blend. Under the warm Caribbean sun, the country's cultural ingredients have slowly boiled down into a gumbo of outgoing people who welcome visitors and will bend over backwards to impress and help others.

Family ties are incredibly strong in Puerto Rico, where weekends typically involve animated gatherings with parents and assorted cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents. On the other hand, some young people here complain that the family bond also wraps them under a stiflingly protective wing. Puerto Rican parents rarely encourage their children to fly off to exotic places in search of adventure and fortune. They feel it's more important to shelter them. Tellingly, most swimming pools here are constructed without a deep end.

DID YOU KNOW! A recent newspaper survey found that, despite being surrounded by the sea, only one in five Puerto Ricans could swim.

Puerto Rican culture retains some of the chivalrous traditions of Old Spain. Men still open doors for women, for example. But feminism is alive and well in Puerto Rico and, economically and culturally, women are gaining power as fast as (and in some cases faster than) their counterparts in the US. Many women own their own businesses and, in the 2000 election, Sila Calderón became the first woman chief executive of the island.

If one must make a sweeping generalization about Puerto Ricans, however, it is that they are an outgoing, exuberant people. They love to dance, make music, show off, and flirt. They like company. At the beach, rather than spreading out in search of a private stretch of sand, they tend to crowd together into a tight knot of humanity, where they can socialize. In conversation, they make shake your hand 10 times in as many minutes.

Try an experiment: find a busy sidewalk here and ask someone for directions. Scratch your head and look lost. Soon a crowd will form. Arguments may break out, as even people who have never heard of your destination start to gesture and shout things like, "Just go straight ahead, then turn lef, right, left again, go around a corner, then head left and you can't miss it!" It's as ordinary for Puerto Ricans to help a stranger as to help a friend or family member. If you come to Puerto Rico with an open mind and a generosity of spirit, you will surely meet people who will invite you into their lives, in one way or another. Accept the invitation, ifyou're so inclined. It's the best way to learn about who Puerto Ricans are.

SIGN LANGUAGE

It's often said that Puerto Ricans love to talk and talk. Yet, charmingly, they have developed some unique sign language for simple expressions, such as the habit of pointing at things with their lips and pressing their fingers to their cheeks to indicate that something is tasty.

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