When I Was Puerto Rican is a study of family dynamics, structure, and culture. Negi's family, both nuclear and extended, is large, ever-changing, and at times fiercely loyal. However, family isn't always perfectly defined or straightforward: particularly during times when Negi lives with various extended family members, she struggles to understand what it really means to be family, and seeks to define what family means for herself. In this way, Negi questions who's family, who isn't, and who's technically family but doesn't act like a family member should.
Mami is one of 15 siblings, and it's never stated how many siblings Papi has. This creates a vast web of aunts, cousins, and grandparents for Mami to call on when she needs help or is attempting to escape Papi. Negi notes that she barely knows most of these aunts or female cousins, yet they're always there to help Mami when she needs it. They treat Negi and her siblings as though they've known each other forever, and Mami's mother in New York sends regular packages of money and outgrown clothes from Mami's cousins. This gives Negi the security of a reliable extended family; they're always willing to take in Mami and the children, or just the children, as needed.
Over the course of the memoir, Negi is offered a variety of conflicting narratives regarding what's to be expected of a man in family life. She listens to Mami discuss with her friends that they fully expect their husbands to be unfaithful, even though it's always a surprise when their husbands or partners indeed act unfaithfully on a regular basis. These constant betrayals, however, don't stop Mami from dutifully preparing supper for Papi every night during his absences, on the off chance he comes home. When Papi is home, he and Mami seem both intimately close to each other and as though they hate each other in turn, sometimes within the span of a single day. Eventually, Negi witnesses her parents' most brutal fight, which comes about because Mami has decided to move her children to New York, since Papi refuses to marry her. As Negi watches the fight unfold, she realizes that Papi believes that family is mostly symbolic. His reason for not wanting to marry Mami is that he's already legally claimed every one of his and Mami's children, and they all have his surname. He insists that he's always provided enough money for food for their children, but Mami insists that a surname and money for food isn't enough. She craves the legitimacy that comes from a marriage license, and the fidelity that Papi has denied her for the entirety of their 14-year relationship.
This fight defines Negi's relationship to her family. She comes to see her mother as fully in the right, particularly when Papi shows so little remorse as he drives Mami, Negi, and two of her younger siblings to the airport. She feels even more betrayed when she finds out that Papi distributed Negi's remaining siblings among family members and married another woman following Mami's departure. Negi sees his unwillingness to keep their family together as the ultimate betrayal, one that suggests that for Negi and Mami at least, the true meaning of family is tied closely to reliability and fidelity.
Family 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.
Doña Zena dragged Delsa and Norma into her yard, while I straggled behind, fretting about what had just happened, jealous that, even though my lap had been stolen years ago by Delsa and then Norma, another baby was coming to separate me further from my mother, whose rages were not half so frightening as the worry that she would now be so busy with an infant as to totally forget me.
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.
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...
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.
Is that what you want? Marriage? What would that do? I've recognized them all. They all have my last name...
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.
Mami became, even more than before, both mother and father to us. We could count on her in a way we had never been able to count on Papi, Tata, or Francisco, who had made everyone happy for such a short time before dying and becoming a ghost that haunted us all for the rest of our lives.
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.