By Lara Báez
I remember one of my first interactions with the people of Israel. I was sitting in a café, surrounded by art, mirrors, and friends when the waitress approached us to take our order. After hearing my accent, she asked me where I came from. I was bewildered. I debated with myself about where my home was, concluding that my heart and mind have been forever divided between two islands: Manhattan and Puerto Rico. But for the sake of my Boricua pride, I answered with the latter. As soon as the two Spanish words escaped my smiling mouth, curious listeners reacted joyfully, serenading me with a classic: “I like to be in America. Everything’s free in America.” I was perplexed. I didn’t know what they were referring to, but after the fifth time someone literally broke into song when I told them where I was from, I began to understand that some Israelis’ view of my island was purely based on a musical called West Side Story. The 1950s musical, set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, revolves around Tony, a former member of a gang of white teens called the Jets. Tony falls in love with María, whose brother Bernardo leads a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants called the Sharks.
For weeks, that excerpt of the song America kept playing in my head; I had to admit it was a catchy tune, but did I agree with what it said? Do I like living in America in the 21st century? I googled the rest of the song, and the sentiment behind the lyrics felt familiar: two girls discussing whether they preferred living in Manhattan or Puerto Rico. Toward the end they sing, “Immigrant goes to America,” a line that breaks my heart because it feels obsolete.
Many people escape the place they call home in search of a better life. This exodus of young people has been generating uproar back home, where the multitudes keep leaving for America or elsewhere to seek an economic harbor. They never look back at their Island of Enchantment, as Puerto Ricans used to call it for its mesmerizing beauty and rich culture. Yes, I feel guilty looking back at my island from my new home in Manhattan. I feel that the diaspora—along with political issues, economic decline, the destruction of nature for mega hotels, and the Americanization of Puerto Rican culture—is slowly killing my 100×35 mi island. However, this is an action that is mirrored in the countries of the Old World, where the people run from their troubled homelands in order to save themselves, and not be forgotten under the debris.
I can confidently say that one way or another we depart our homes in pursuit of the great perhaps, of safety, of anything and everything at the same time. Because this is what I do when I look at the world outside my island: I look for opportunities to grow as a person, to challenge my perspective and to achieve my dreams. We know that our homes are inescapable because they’re part of us, and that someday they’ll need our help to rise. But it all starts with leaving. In order to return and offer a helping hand to our island, we have to go live somewhere else.
Had someone asked me if I wanted to live in America when West Side Story was first performed in the ‘50s, I would doubtlessly answer yes. But in 2017 I shamelessly answer that I don’t want to live in America. During World War II, the United States was the sanctuary for the French escaping the forces of fascism in Europe. People would travel miles and miles just to obtain a visa granting them permission to migrate to the United States, just as the song says. Time and time again, people from around the world have looked to these 50 states for greater opportunity. America was a safe haven, the land of the free, and—most importantly—it already was great.
I once read that the history of the U.S. began with migration and the stories of the brave people who came here. By revoking visas in 2017, the U.S. government is denying its own history and impeding the growth of the nation. The person supposed to protect the American Dream that a Puerto Rican sang about in West Side Story is instead recklessly corrupting it. Many will argue that the safety of the nation was in peril, but what about the teachers being prohibited to enter the U.S.? What about students trying to gain a higher quality education at the universities here? What about all the good people that long to reinvent themselves in the United States of America? Are these dangerous people? We’re no longer moving forward; we’re not making America great again. We’re becoming surrounded by hypocrites that reject the truth of their land. America, are you OK?
The United States can never isolate itself from the world. It doesn’t have the advantages of an island like Puerto Rico or England, who just bid adieu to the European Union. No amount of walls, bans or executive orders will ever deprive the states of the varied cultures or eclectic dreamers they produce.
My illusion of this country is wavering, and my hope for the people here is slowly perishing. But there’s a glimmer of something telling me not to give up on it, because I know there are more dreamers out there like me. One day I’ll be able to sing “I like to be in America” and be proud of it. Until then, let’s break down the walls, disobey the bans, and let us make America desirable and truly great, again.
Lara Báez is an Island Girl from the Caribbean who loves writing, exploring new cultures and the way the golden hour makes everything look beautiful. If you ever see me I’m probably smiling. Peace.
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