Global Awareness

Just Met A Girl Named Maria

By DVGS Editorial

We are weaving in and out of the lives of those misunderstood. We are wandering among stereotypes, those views built upon clouds of air, those views constructed with the narratives of others.

But since we wish to leave these stereotypes behind, we are ready to walk the paths worn out by others’ footsteps.

The juniors and seniors of the Girls School AP English Language class discussed stereotypes in class on February 21, 2019. They were wading in shallow waters (“Girls can’t do sports;” “Girls can’t do math”) when they discovered that stereotypes extended outwards and downwards until they were engulfed by an ocean filled with wrong assumptions and warped impressions.

“Maria had followed me to London, reminding me of a prime fact of my life: you can leave the Island, master the English language, and travel as far as you can, but if you are a Latina, especially one like me who so obviously belongs to Rita Moreno’s gene pool, the Island travels with you.”

— Judith Ortiz Cofer

The class pondered over the labels in Cofer’s well-known essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria”. Unwilling to wait wondering about the truth of Puerto Rican stereotypes, the juniors and seniors chatted with a native of Puerto Rico, the Spanish teacher at DVGS, Ms. Power.

Below are the edited excerpts from that day’s question and answer session.

Disclaimer: the images and captions below are meant to bring awareness to cultural stereotypes, not to create offense.

“Is Puerto Rico a state?”

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Q: Is it possible for strangers to evolve from their feelings of unbelonging to belonging?

Ms. Power: If you are educated and professional, like Judith Cofer, you have an easier transition. By the way, Judith Cofer is not her actual name. Her actual name is Ortiz Cofer, because of a very cultural thing about Spanish names: both the father’s and the mother’s surnames are taken by the child.

“You can’t speak Spanish?!”

Hurricane Humor

Q: What do you like the most about your Puerto Rican culture?

Ms. Power: The humor that people have that sustains them. For example, two years ago Hurricane Maria destroyed the island. People feel sadness, but there’s always humor that brings them back.

“Is the weather nice?”

Perks of Puerto Ricans

Q: Are there many different cultures in Puerto Rico?

Ms. Power: Yes, there are Spaniards and Europeans, the descents of Africans who were slaves, and the American Indians — a very, very small, almost non-existent population.

There is also a cultural difference between those who grew up in the city versus those from the country. Judith Cofer was “Nuyorican” or a Puerto Rican who grew up in New York. However, I didn’t leave Puerto Rico until I was an adult. I have cousins who are Nuyoricans. One of the differences is the main language spoken. My cousins have English, while in Puerto Rico, we learned Spanish and English but mainly spoke Spanish among ourselves.

“You’re Puerto Rican? Are you from NYC?”

Old Colony, Old Stereotypes

Q: What did you wish people knew more about Puerto Rico?

Ms. Power: I’m sure you’ve heard the stereotype: that Latinas are hot. I wish people do not have those prejudices, those stereotypes. Also, politically, most people don’t really know the political status of Puerto Rico. It is considered the “oldest colony in the world.” Its history has affected people mentally. As Cofer has mentioned in the past, there is a sense of inferiority in the minds of some Puerto Ricans because it has never been a “real country.”

“You must be the fiery type.”

Musical Mismatch

Q: What are some of the cultural differences between Americans and Puerto Ricans?

Ms. Power: One of the cultural differences is that Spanish song lyrics can be sad but the song sounds happy. To Americans, this wouldn’t make sense, but we have a different perception of what sounds “happy” than Americans, who might be more likely to focus on danceability and energy.

We also have a different perception of “death.” In Western cultures, there is often a fear surrounding death, but in Puerto Rico, we “remember” the dead and there is not a “fear.” In this way, the Latino perception of death is similar to the Buddhist idea of death.

“You’re a chemist?”

A Stranger’s Assumptions

Q: Have you ever encountered a time when someone misinterpreted your culture?

Ms. Power: I’ll give you one example of a wrong assumption about me, which happened when I was young. I should not have let it go. I was talking to a very nice white man, who asked me what I did. I said, “I’m a chemist.” He laughed. He said, “I’ve heard it all.” I’ll never forget those words, “I’ve heard it all.” I guess he assumed that I was lying or joking. This encounter was when I just came to the United States. Now, I’m more culturally attuned.

Stereotypes come from narratives.

At the conclusion of the talk, Ms. Power summed up her stance on stereotypes: “It’s human to create these ideas about someone we don’t know,” but we should try to change our attitudes.

The juniors and seniors enjoyed the engaging dialogue with Ms. Power and hoped to renew the discussion in the near future.