When I Was Puerto Rican

When I Was Puerto Rican 4. The American Invasion of Macún Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The new teacher, Miss Jiménez, stands in front of Negi's class and they sing a song of English words. Negi says that according to one of the neighbors, Miss Jiménez has the most beautiful legs. Negi studies them and wishes for her own legs to be that beautiful when she grows up. Miss Jiménez arrives in Macún at the same time the community center does, and she tells her students that beginning the next week, they can get free breakfast there courtesy of the American government. She also tells her students that on Saturday, there will be a meeting for their parents where experts will speak to the parents about nutrition and hygiene. Mami assures Negi that they'll go to the meeting.
Negi's goals for the future are changing. While she once wanted only to be a jíbara, now she longs for beautiful legs, which shows that Negi is beginning to grow up and change as she approaches puberty. Similarly, Negi's interest in the meeting and hearing the experts speak is part of her desire to learn as much as she can about the adult world so she can become a part of it. At this point, all of what's coming to Macún seems very exciting, though much like growing up, it won't actually be easy or necessarily fun.
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On Saturday, the community center fills with mothers and children. The “experts” there seem as though they didn't plan for the children, and they convince older girls to watch the younger children outside. Mami asks Negi to watch her siblings. Negi ushers the children outside but sits with Edna on the steps by the door so she can still watch the experts speak. The first expert has a huge model of a mouth and uses highly scientific Spanish to talk about proper oral hygiene. Women giggle at the thought of spending so much time on their teeth.
Negi is denied the adult experience of getting to see the experts speak; instead Mami forces her to occupy a liminal space where she's a caregiver, but still very much a child. The experts don't seem well prepared for this meeting, which brings their level of “expertise” into question. The women are relatively polite but make sure that the experts know that their information is out of touch.
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A red-haired American expert then speaks to the group about nutrition. All the foods he mentions don't grow in Puerto Rico, and he mentions no foods that are staples in Puerto Rico. He suggests several substitutions when women point this out, but looks uncomfortable. He says that each family will receive a bag of groceries that correspond to their nutrition plan. Finally, another expert tells the mothers how to rid their children of lice and how to prevent their children from getting tapeworms. The mothers are disgusted, and Negi is concerned that she has a tapeworm.
Remember that because Negi is Puerto Rican, she holds American citizenship and in theory shares similarities with these experts. The American experts, however, are so far out of touch with Puerto Rican life that it's simultaneously sad, perplexing, and funny. Negi's concern about having a tapeworm is a somewhat sinister question of her split identity, as she wonders if she has an actual other being inside of her that she has no control over.
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Finally, the experts give the mothers groceries and toothbrushes. Mami unpacks the groceries and remarks that if the experts had just given them a bag each of rice and beans, they'd feed the family for a month. She decides that they'll save the groceries for when they're especially hungry or short on food.
The food from the Americans certainly serves a purpose for Negi's family, though not the intended purpose. Rather than supplementing a government-developed nutrition plan, it fills the gaps when there simply isn't food to speak of.
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One morning, Negi wakes up and feels something wiggling in her panties. She sees that it's a worm and screams. Mami inspects Negi's bottom and sits her in a bath of warm salt water to draw out the worms. Negi is terrified. Mami gives all the children a "purgante" to rid them of worms, and they spend hours the next morning taking turns using the toilet.
Negi's fears are confirmed, though this terrifying part of Negi's body and identity will in theory be eliminated by Mami's “purgante” (laxative). Mami acknowledges that the family is connected physically as well as emotionally by making sure everyone takes the purgante.
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Another morning, Miss Jiménez tells her students that they'll be vaccinated for polio. When Mami fills out the consent forms for Negi and Delsa, she tells them how horrible polio is. On vaccination day, Negi is terrified, since every vaccinated student comes back crying. She's sent to the nurse with a boy who pretends he isn't scared. He tells her that the vaccines are happening because of politics. He whispers that his papá says that it's an election year, so the government is vaccinating and feeding children so their fathers will vote for them.
Negi's classmate is probably partially correct about why they're being vaccinated and fed. Negi is stuck wondering then if the care she's receiving from the government now is worth being ignored the rest of the time. This basic question will be a recurring one, though later Negi will apply it to her relationship to Papi rather than the more abstract idea of the American government.
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The boy insists that Negi knows nothing about politics, but she can name the governor of Puerto Rico as well as the president of the United States. The boy declares that the president is an imperialist and a gringo (derogatory term for white North Americans), which shocks Negi. She explains to the reader that she's not allowed to say things like that about adults, even if they’re true. When Negi and the boy get their shots, neither of them cry.
Regardless of what Negi says about how her family functions, the fact that she's not allowed to say things like this is an example of dignidad being upheld in her home, and she's shocked to see that not everyone is forced to be respectful like she is.
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Later, Negi asks Papi what an imperialist is. Papi looks spooked, and tells Negi to not repeat either "gringo" or "imperialist," particularly since calling an American a gringo is a horrible insult. Papi explains how the United States made Puerto Rico a colony and says that Puerto Ricans call the American imperialists because the Americans want to change Puerto Rican culture to be more American.
Negi has an idea of what American culture means thanks to the experts, but what she's seen is enough to impress upon her that American culture and Puerto Rican cultures are very different. Further, American culture isn't necessarily "good" for Puerto Rico, as evidenced by the experts' poorly thought out nutrition plan.
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Negi declares that she's not going to learn English so she doesn't become American, and she and Papi discuss that culture isn't simply the language you speak. Papi introduces her to the derogatory term "spik," which is what Americans call Puerto Ricans who speak English with an accent. Negi points out that Americans speak funny Spanish, and Papi says that part of imperialism is expecting Puerto Ricans to do things the American way, even in Puerto Rico. Negi observes the unfairness of that, and Papi agrees that it's unfair. She asks if eating the food from the American experts will make her American, and Papi says that it'll make her American if she likes it better than Puerto Rican food.
Negi is very protective of her Puerto Rican identity; at this point in her life, it's the one she identifies with most because it allows her to feel closer to her original dream of being a jíbara. Having this conversation with Papi also brings Negi closer to him and offers her a sense of security in her family life, particularly at this point when life outside her home is confusing and is potentially trying to change her to be something she doesn't want to be. Further, it adds some political commentary to the memoir, as America is portrayed as an imperialist state primarily concerned with Puerto Rico for reasons of economics and power.
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On the first day that the community center serves breakfast, Negi and Juanita line up as the lunch matron asks them to. Inside, the walls are plastered with Dick and Jane posters, and Negi wonders what the smell is. She and Juanita line up to get their food: powdered eggs, margarine on bread, American sausage, and fruit juice. Negi thinks it tastes bland but is glad it doesn't taste good. She plays with her food instead of eating it.
It's important to note that the Dick and Jane posters would show characters and situations that are overwhelmingly white and suburban; in short, they don't show a way of life or people that Negi and Juanita will recognize as being like them. This confuses Negi's identity further, as the posters show a potential future that is not very Puerto Rican at all.
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Miss Jiménez teaches her class English through songs, with varying degrees of success. She also teaches them the Puerto Rican national anthem, which Negi loves. One day she asks Papi about a particular verse that she finds sad, in which the man is sad to leave San Juan for New York.
Negi's affinity for the Puerto Rican anthem certainly comes from the fact that it's in Spanish and she therefore understands it, but she also seems to find a new national pride connected to her fear of becoming American. Singing in English while not understanding the words is another form of code switching.
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Another day, Mami unpacks a box of hand-me-down clothes from Tata. Mami is pregnant again and she puts away some clothes for herself for later. She pulls out several items of beautiful, barely-worn clothing for Negi, Norma, and Delsa to try on. Norma remarks that their cousins must be rich, but Mami says that clothes like these aren't as expensive in America. Mami opens a letter with a ten-dollar bill in it and reads the letter to her children, and suggests that Negi write a letter back to Tata saying how much they love the clothes.
Even though Tata lives far away in New York, she's still very much a part of Mami's web of helpful family members. As Negi grows, she hears more and more about America. This is indicative of Negi's coming of age through her world expanding, though it also plays into the formation of her identity. America sends many things to Negi, some good like these clothes, while other things like the breakfasts are less so.
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Negi loves writing letters and relishes the opportunity to write to Tata. When she finishes, Mami reads the letter out loud. She insists that Negi made a mistake by not starting with a proper salutation and tells her to write the letter over. Negi argues and Mami grabs her arm, slamming her against her chair. Negi wants to hurt Mami and starts crying. Mami stands over Negi and oversees the writing of the new letter.
Mami makes Negi feel powerless, which is how she asserts her dominance over her children. Whether Mami is right or wrong about how to properly start a letter, by insisting Negi write in this particular way she makes sure that Tata won't be offended and therefore insures that Tata's kindness will continue.
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Later that week, the community center offers a new breakfast food: a glass full of peanut butter and hot milk. Negi and Juanita sit and regard their breakfasts suspiciously. They stir their milk and Juanita tastes it. Negi takes a huge gulp, gags, and drops her glass. It shatters and sends milk and peanut butter all over the floor, and Negi vomits what she swallowed. The lunch matron scolds her as Negi tries to explain that the milk was sour. The matron suggests that Negi would rather go hungry in the mornings, and Negi screams that her parents can feed her without "disgusting gringo imperialist food."
The milk and peanut butter are well outside of what Negi and Juanita are used to eating. The matron's scolding betrays how the American experts see Puerto Rico: as an exceptionally poor place where children are, without fail, underfed. When Negi screams back, she asserts her independence and insists on identifying very strongly with her Puerto Rican identity, albeit through a childish tantrum.
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Everyone in the community center gasps and the matron's mouth drops open. A child whispers that she'll trap flies with her mouth open, and the matron turns on the crowd and away from Negi. The matron grabs Negi, forces her out the door, and says she needs to tell Mami what happened. Negi trudges home and decides to lie to Mami about what happened. She tells Mami she threw up in the lunchroom and promptly faints. Negi spends several days sick in bed, the matron never speaks to Mami, and when Negi returns to school, the elections are over and the breakfasts cease.
Negi's classmate turns out to be correct about the reason for the breakfasts and the vaccines, since they stop after the elections. This suggests that the question of Negi's ties to America will take a backseat in the narrative for a while.
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