My mother, Mariana Hernandez Jusino, passed away on April 5, 2006. I’ve been posting the eulogy I read during her wake for the past couple of years as a memorial. This year, though, what I’ve been thinking about are my feelings about my mother and how they relate to my connection to sci-fi.
Yeah, I know. Yes, I am that much of a geek. Bear with me.
I actually addressed it in a blog post shortly after my mom’s death, where I talk about watching the “Sarek” and “The Offspring” episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation to help me through the grieving process. But lately? It’s Caprica that makes me think about my mom. However, it isn’t the stuff actually having to do with death that does it. It’s the Tauron elements.
But first, some back story…
Some of you may have heard this one before: I was in seventh grade, and it was just after gym class. I was getting changed, when two girls in my grade, Bridget and Myra, came up to talk to me. This was strange, because they were “popular girls” and never voluntarily came up to talk to me. They were also fellow Puerto Ricans. “What are you?” one of them asked (I forget which one, as they’ve become a composite blob in my memory). I knew what she was asking, but I wanted her to ask me outright if she was going to ask me. “What?” I replied, playing dumb. “What are you?” the other one asked. “I’m a New Yorker,” I said, a bit annoyed that they were asking me this out of the blue when they never talked to me before. “No!” the first one said, frustrated. “What are you? Like, what’s your background?” “I’m Puerto Rican,” I said. The two of them in their doorknocker earrings and slathered-on red lipstick looked at me as though I had five heads.
With knit eyebrows, one of them said “Really?” And the other said “You don’t act Puerto Rican.” And then they just walked away.
I was 12, and I wasn’t prepared for my identity to be called into question like that. Certainly not while I was putting my pants back on after gym class. I didn’t say anything, and I tried to forget about it for the rest of the day, but I couldn’t shake it. On the walk home from school, their words kept playing over and over in my head. You don’t act Puerto Rican. I wondered what this meant. I speak Spanish, and spoke it at home. My mother watched novelas on Univision every day, and sometimes I’d watch them with her (Maria Del Barrio and Te Sigo Amando were favorites). I was raised loving arroz con pollo even though I hated pasteles (“But they’re the food of your people!” my mom would say, to which I’d reply “Well, the food of my people is gross!”). I attended Spanish-language mass with my parents… It was one of the first times my being Puerto Rican was called into question, and it wasn’t the last.
A couple of years ago, Robin and I went to Puerto Rico on vacation and stayed with my aunt Ana on my father’s side. We visited my mom’s relatives in Guaynabo, and I nicknamed it The Place Where Everyone Looks Like My Mom. On a day trip, Robin and I took a cab, and I chatted up the cab driver in Spanish. After a while, he asked me where I was from. I said “Yo soy Boricua!” He asked me in Spanish, “No, where are you from?” I told him I was from New York, and he said “Ah…you’re ‘Nuyorican.’ That doesn’t count!”
I’m rarely given a hard time about my ethnicity by non-Hispanics. There was one instance in my teens when I was walking down the street with a non-Hispanic friend and when we were stopped by a cop and asked a question about a robbery that had happened near our high school, that “friend” said completely seriously, “He probably stopped us because of you.” But usually, I just get surprised reactions from them when I mention I’m Puerto Rican. “Really?” they ask, and I know they’re thinking But you speak so well! even if they’re not saying it. Also, as an actress, I’ve definitely been “too ethnic” for many roles. However, I’ve always been given the biggest hard time by fellow Hispanics, fellow Puerto Ricans. Because for some reason, despite the language I was raised with and the food I grew up eating, despite my skin tone and a town on a Caribbean island where everyone kinda looks like me, I’m never Puerto Rican enough.
So on Caprica, when Sam Adama tells Joseph Adama that he’s a “Caprican in a Tauron body,” I know how it feels to have someone in your family, your culture, your tribe say that to you. It hurts.
Honestly, the Taurons are the reason why I love Caprica rather than just like it. I understand Willie Adama not liking the Tauron food his Tsattie makes for him (pasteles, anyone? Ick.). I understand Joseph Adama and his desire to be educated and successful and part of the establishment, even as he’s proud to be Tauron. I understand his frustration at being too Tauron for some people and not Tauron enough for others.
But I also understand Sam Adama. I understand being the youngest in a family and clawing at your heritage, desperate to hang on, because you’re the furthest away from it. I understand being frustrated by the distance of years, and by seeing that your heritage doesn’t seem to mean the same thing to your older sibling(s).
And I understand that culture means even more to you after you start to lose family.
It’s always upset me when people call my heritage into question, because I’ve never believed that Being Puerto Rican required any one set of criteria. “Puerto Rican” is a broad label that encompasses a million shades, body types, interests, and experiences.
Though both my parents are Puerto Rican, I’ve always associated my own Puerto Rican-ness with my mother. She was the one I spoke Spanish with at home. She was the one who cooked the rice and beans, and it was with her that I watched trashy Spanish-language TV. It’s mostly her family I visit when I go to Puerto Rico, because most of my father’s family came to New York. So it’s especially painful to think of Not Being Puerto Rican Enough in the years after her death. It hurts that I’m starting to lose my Spanish from lack of practice. It hurts that I never asked my mom to teach me how she makes her rice and beans. And it hurts that, for whatever stupid reason, my memories and the life I’ve lived aren’t enough to “qualify me” for Puerto Rican status to a lot of people.
So, let’s make a deal, OK world? Let’s just agree right here and now that this IS what Puerto Rican looks like and acts like. I was raised in Queens and on Long Island, and I’m Puerto Rican. I spoke Spanish only at home, and I’m Puerto Rican. I’m a sci-fi geek, and I’m Puerto Rican. I’m a writer, I’m smart, I’m well-spoken, and I’m Puerto Rican. I’m Puerto Rican whether anyone likes it or not. I, however, happen to like it. I’m proud.
I only wish my mom were here so that I could practice Spanish with her. I always imagined that she’d help me teach it to my future kids. I’ll have to do that myself, I guess. And I will, in her memory, with lots of love.
RIP, Mommy. I love you.