Today begins a weekly column called Sarah’s World Beat about being a multiracial American (Black, Japanese and White) living on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico who is also a citizen of the world. .
In 2008, following more than two decades in corporate America, my husband and I abruptly quit our jobs, sold our house in Southern California (just north of Los Angeles) and laid down roots on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
There were many reasons why we did this and this little list is meant to summarize all the reasons, based on our 40+ years of living in the United States:
- We both had numerous stress-related health problems due to long hours, traveling too much and juggling multiple deadlines, including:
- Heart palpitations
- Idiopathic IBS
- Pinched nerves
- Complex migraines, to name a few
- Racism—no matter where we lived, there was racism in some form or another
- Always feeling like we were square pegs in round holes (we never really fit in at work, with friends or in our neighborhood).
We had friends and sometimes we even had good friends but we always felt we never quite meshed with people. My husband is monoracial (Black) and many of his friends (both Black and White) would tell him he didn’t “fit in” as a Black person or “act like” a Black person. What does those even mean?
He likes science, he dislikes sports, like me he’s a vegetarian, he’s into world history, and his musical tastes are all over the place. People would “joke” that he came across as too geeky to be Black.
In their eyes, shorts and hiking boots don’t fit in with men who read GQ, dress sharply and wear expensive cologne, the guys who get together every Sunday for football or who go to bars and dance clubs.
Me? Well people can “blame” my being all over the place in my musical and food tastes, hating sports, meat loathing, dyeing my hair purple one month, blonde the next, comfortable in the South France drinking wine at a family vineyard followed by hanging out with jibaros (Spanish for hillbilly) drinking Puerto Rican moonshine on the fact that I am multiracial. However, it wouldn’t be accurate.
I came out of the womb very different from my brothers. Like my husband, my tastes and interests won’t allow people to put me in a box. My mom used to call it Sarah’s world beat, others called it weird.
If I had a dollar each time anyone called me weird, hoooooweeeee! I’d be so rich!
First and foremost we wanted to live someplace where we didn’t have to experience racism all the damn time.
Next we wanted to be closer to Mother Earth and rid ourselves of the trappings of corporate America. Ideally we wanted to live in a place where people were nice, treated us like we were one of them and not like outsiders, and grow our own food organically.
We had been looking to change our lives but we hadn’t known what we wanted to do. Both of us in our 40s, we knew we wanted to reinvent ourselves, we just had to figure out what to do with what we hoped would be the second half of our lives.
At the time both of us worked for the same company. I was an assistant to an executive, having left my chosen profession (marketing) because of the stress. My husband was an IT person. The company we worked for sent him to Puerto Rico to upgrade their entire storage system and from the moment he got off the plane Paul said he felt at home. People not only didn’t clutch their purses as he walked passed them, they all spoke to him in Spanish.
They thought he was Puerto Rican!
We went back on vacation and I fell in love, too. All the things he loved about the island I saw immediately. No matter where on the island we visited, people assumed we were both Puerto Rican and when we told them we weren’t, their response was, “well you are now!”
Four days into our two-week vacation in a rental on eight acres of farmland we both agreed we’d felt like we’d been traveling our entire lives and that we were finally home. We did something I have since told other people never to do: don’t move to a new city, let alone a new country after a vacation. Vacations aren’t representative of real life.
I have written seven books on relocation to a new country and I always tell people to live there for at least six months first. Ex-pat depression is real. I especially caution people not to move to a country with a language that’s different from your own until you’re close to fluent in that language. The need to communicate is paramount to ensure safety, happiness and that things go smoothly.
We took none of our own advice. While many Puerto Ricans living in the bigger towns, in particular coastal ones like Rincon, Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Ponce and the island’s capital, San Juan are bilingual, Paul and I moved to a very rural town where very few people are bilingual. We knew only a handful people when we moved here and there was the very real fear of becoming isolated and developing depression.
Before moving to Puerto Rico between us Paul and I spoke maybe ten words of Spanish. Our accents were horrible and apart from knowing people were really nice, about the island’s history and the fact that it’s a colony of the United States, we honestly knew very little about the island.
Nevertheless we would not allow those things to create barriers between anyone we met and us. We had three goals to achieve within the first six months of moving to Puerto Rico:
- Learn Spanish
- Find a piece of farmland to buy
- Make at least ten friends and start to build a support system
I am really happy to report that we achieved the second and third within the first six months. We’re still “works in progress” with the language. It’s not as easy learning a language in one’s 40s as it is in one’s 20s. We found the perfect piece of land and were moved in a year later. We had to remodel the old house. Today we have seven goats for dairy.
Number three I have to say we’ve really well with. Within three months we had made at least 20 friends and by six months we had probably another 50. Today people joke that I know so many people, I should be the mayor of our town.
Before we knew it we were being invited to parties and to people’s homes for lunches and dinners. We moved in September (2008), three months before Christmas, which is an absolutely magical time on Puerto Rico.
Christmas lasts from Thanksgiving until the second or third week of January. We were invited to many holiday parties, which are pretty different from American parties. Blending culture, history, religion and celebrating what’s important in life: family and friends, the best way I can describe one is that Puerto Ricans know how to throw a party!
We danced to salsa, bachata, merengue and the music generally heard only in the campo (countryside). We ate lots of foods we’d never had before and our new friends taught me to cook many dishes, which I learned to modify for two vegetarians. I incorporated all of this into my cultural mixed bag and decided to adopt my mother’s moniker for me and called it Sarah’s world beat.
We still dressed differently, didn’t eat meat (meat is a very big part of the Puerto Rican diet—referred to as Comidas Criollas), did farming differently from people around us and I wore my hair very differently from many of the women in my age group, which included dyeing it multiple colors. Many Puerto Rican women straighten their curls, while I let mine get big and out there. I’m very proud of my Black, Japanese and White big, curly and all over the place hair.
Did people think we were weird? Probably, but they also continued inviting us to their homes and including us in family events where we’d be the only Americans and almost always the only non-family members.
So while we were and still are different, for the first time in our entire lives we are part of a community.
What you’ve read is just a tiny snippet of who I am. I am an adopted/honorary Puerto Rican and people know about my racial mixture and the response is always the same, “well, you’re Puerto Rican now.” While this may seem dismissive of my multiraciality, it’s not. They’re saying, “no matter, you’re one of us.” And what they mean is two-fold:
- They’re welcoming my husband and me into their culture
- Puerto Ricans are by definition multiracial: African, Spanish and Taino (the native people who lived here before the Spanish conquered the island)
I am also someone who was born in the Netherlands, who lived in Nigeria, and has spent a lot of time in Europe. Because my parents are many different ethnicities, I am multicultural and because of this I embrace art, music, food and customs from all over the world.
Sarah’s World Beat column will be a reflection of my races/nationalities, the influences of living on Puerto Rico and embracing the culture the entire world has to offer. I will cover a variety of cultural topics about Puerto Rico, the Caribbean at large and the world.
My name is Sarah and I am one of the founders of Multiracial Media. Not only am I multiracial (Black, Asian and White), but I’ve also lived in or spent long periods of time in several countries, throughout the United States and now my husband and I live on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. I see myself both in terms of my racial and ethnic identity as well as someone who appreciates the food, culture and customs of all nations—like a citizen of the world. Sarah’s World Beat column reflects this.
If you would like me to write about your culture or country, please drop me a line and suggest a topic.