When I Was Puerto Rican follows Negi from age 4 to 14, from early childhood to the beginnings of puberty. As the oldest sibling, Negi is required by Mami to grow up and mature much faster than her younger siblings, male or female. Because of this, Negi is acutely aware of how she mentally and emotionally develops. Her family members, however, seem to care little for Negi's emotional development and instead fixate on Negi's developing body and physical passage from child to woman. Though Negi is certainly interested in and perplexed by her changing body, she sees Mami's consistent refrains to sit with her legs closed as reductive and not useful in light of the very intense emotional coming of age that Negi undergoes.
Once Mami gets a job, Negi—as the oldest child—is tasked with caring for her siblings after school. Negi struggles with this responsibility, partially because she herself is still a child—she's around nine years old when Mami first gets a job. She's also aware of the gross unfairness that her younger siblings are allowed to act like children, while Negi must act like a much older person in order to carry out Mami's instructions and "parent" her siblings. As a result of being forced to take on an adult role so young, Negi cannot have the dependent relationship to Mami that her younger siblings do. Because she sees how hard Mami works for her family, Negi feels that it's her responsibility to not need things, even when her requests are as simple as attention or kindness. This attitude kindles an early sense of independence in Negi, though it also makes her feel unmoored and distant from the person who is supposedly raising her. Notably too, Negi experiences these realizations fully on her own, as she's unable to talk to Mami about any of them. This contrasts greatly with her physical coming of age, which is the subject of much conversation among Negi's family members.
Negi's physical coming of age is a much more public process than her internal, emotional coming of age. Beginning when she's around ten years old, adults begin to remind her that she's "casi señorita," or quickly approaching womanhood, as represented by beginning to menstruate. Negi's family watches her closely as she matures until she finally does begin menstruating at age 14. Though the adults in Negi's life make a major fuss out of Negi's impending señorita status, when Negi finally does start her period, it's a surprisingly anticlimactic event. Mami shows Negi where she keeps her Kotex hidden and agrees to get Negi a bra, but keeps her excitement mostly between herself and Tata. This suggests that the physical markers of adulthood that Negi experiences are far less important to Negi than they are to her family, drawing an even more distinct boundary between physical and emotional coming of age.
Negi's true coming of age happens in several events: first, when she realizes she's strong enough to escape Mami's physical abuse, and then when she gets accepted to the Performing Arts High School in Manhattan, thereby accomplishing her goal of getting out of Brooklyn. These events are moments in Negi's life when she gains a degree of independence and for the first time in her life, gets to dictate the course of her future, set her own goals, and work to accomplish them.
Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Coming of Age Quotes in When I Was Puerto Rican
Even at the tender age when I didn't yet know my real name, I was puzzled by the hypocrisy of celebrating a people everyone looked down on. But there was no arguing with Mami, who, in those days, was always right.
"Does anyone call Titi Merín Esmeralda?"
"Oh, sure. People who don't know her well—the government, her boss. We all have our official names, and then our nicknames, which are like secrets that only the people who love us use."
An older sister! I'd wondered what it would be like not to be the oldest, the one who set an example for the little ones.
Chief among the sins of men was the other woman, who was always a puta, a whore. My image of these women was fuzzy, since there were none in Macún, where all the females were wives or young girls who would one day be wives.
In Santurce a jíbara was something no one wanted to be. I walked to and from school by myself, watching the jíbara girl with eyes cast down...
The doubt in his voice let me know that I knew something he didn't, because my soul traveled all the time, and it appeared that his never did. Now I knew what happened to me when I walked beside myself. It was my soul wandering.
I wondered if Mami felt the way I was feeling at this moment on those nights when she slept on their bed alone...whether the soft moans I heard coming from their side of the room were stifled sobs, like the ones that now pressed against my throat...
It seemed to me then that remaining jamona could not possibly hurt this much. That a woman alone, even if ugly, could not suffer as much as my beautiful mother did.
But until Gloria asked, I'd never put it together that in order for me and my four sisters and two brothers to be born, Papi had to do to Mami what roosters did to hens, bulls did to cows, horses did to mares.
"I can't count on anyone from outside the family. Besides, you're old enough to be more responsible."
And with those words Mami sealed a pact she had designed, written, and signed for me.
What makes them so good and me so bad?
She was overwhelmed by what she called "the sacrifices I have to endure for you kids," and my love, expressed in demands, added a greater burden.
Each man who did a double take or pledged to love her forever, to take her home with him, to give his life for her, took her away from me. She had become public property—no longer the mother of seven children, but a woman desired by many.
The women suffered. Frequently they were orphaned, brought up by nuns or stepmothers who made them do all the housework. In spite of this, they were cheerful and optimistic, never doubting that if they were pure of heart, life would eventually get better.
I called up the images of Armando or Ricardo, and with Mami and Papi's shrill fights as background, I imagined a man and woman touching one another gently, discovering beauty in a stubbled cheek or a curl of hair, whispering adoring words into each other's ear, warming one another's bodies with love.
It didn't seem possible that he was a good man when he wasn't fighting for her or for us. He was letting us go to New York as if it no longer mattered where we were, as if the many leavings and reconciliations had exhausted him, had burned out whatever spark had made him search for us in swamps and fetid lagoons.
I hadn't done any of the things women did to get men interested. I'd been minding my own business at home...It was alarming, and at once I realized why Mami always told me to be más disimulada when I stared at people, which meant that I should pretend I wasn't interested.
But more and more I suspected Mami's optimism was a front. No one, I thought, could get beat down so many times and still come up smiling.
"Hit me, go ahead. You can kill me if that makes you feel better," I screamed loud enough for the world to hear. I stood in front of her, shaking all over, hands at my sides, martyrlike, fully aware of the dramatic moment that might backfire but willing to take the chance.