Salsa in Puerto Rico with the Accidental Boricua

This happened during my trip to Puerto Rico in August 2011

It’s sometime after midnight and I’m in the lobby of a hotel in Puerto Rico.  I’m enjoying the music from a live band when I finally get asked to dance.

ImageI was a little intimidated by the idea of dancing salsa there, but I easily found my comfort zone with a few dependable dance partners.  I was asked where I’m from.  At this point, I don’t recall if it was in English or in Spanish.  For some reason, I tend to record all of my memories in English even when I know I was talking to someone that doesn’t speak English at all.  This is part of my brain translating for me I suppose.  More on my goal to learn Spanish later.

To be clear, it is NOT a compliment if someone says you dance like an American.  At least not in latin dancing. So I was intrigued by the question.

It’s not obvious I’m American?  That’s a good thing in this crowd.

So now I had to consider the source.  Was this another tourist, or someone with a clue about dancing?  I know now that novices generally think I’m an awesome dancer because they don’t know any better.

“Soy de Italia.” the man said.

I didn’t have a frame of reference for an Italian judging my dancing skills (yes, I’m sterotyping), so what I thought was a compliment now just seemed like general trivia.

Later, when asked the same question by someone I confirmed was actually from Puerto Rico, he was in disbelief when I told him where I was from.

Now, I was official.

Just as I got this little boost of confidence, a friend who had accompanied me on this trip was busy dancing in circles around me and being dipped and flipped in the air.

She had never taken a salsa lesson in her life.

Humbled again, I told myself there must be an explanation for her seemingly effortless and unlearned salsa dancing.  The same thing had happened the night before when we were out dancing in Old San Juan.

“OMG, I don’t even know what I’m doing.” she said.

I was not amused.

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Mofongo

After all, I had taken lessons.  I was supposed to know what I was doing here.  What’s more, my group of American cohorts was expecting me to navigate the island and know all things Spanish.  I was an expert among novices, but the truth is my Spanish sucks.  Meanwhile, my same friend that had automagically picked up salsa was blurting out Spanish phrases left and right.  Once again, she’s surprised by her own abilities.

“I don’t know how I know that!”  My lip curled.

I mean I was actually trying to learn Spanish.  How could she just come here and speak Spanish without trying?  I started joking that she was Cuban and didn’t know it.  That was the only viable explanation that would not bruise my ego.

Later she revealed that she vaguely remembers her father saying things to her like “Ven Aca! (Come here!)” and other phrases in Spanish.  I asked her where her father was from.

A blank stare came over her face.

“I don’t know…I have to ask my mother.”

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The accidental Boricua herself

As we were returning home, in a conversation with her mother she casually asked where her dad was from.

“He’s Puerto Rican.”

My ego was suddenly restored, and I told my friend to thank me for helping her find her roots.  On our way to the airport, we stopped in Old San Juan for some mofongo and bought her a Puerto Rican flag to proudly wear as she proclaimed her newly discovered heritage.

Just 48 hours before this grand discovery of identity and culture, we were running wildly on the beach in the middle of a hurricane.

More on that delirious moment tomorrow…

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