Negi is constantly questioning her identity, even before the move from Puerto Rico to Brooklyn causes her to have a full identity crisis. She wonders how or where she fits into her world, since her world is constantly changing, undefined, or uncertain, and she struggles to construct her identity when parts of her identity are unreliable or don't make sense.
When Negi is seven or eight, she begins to question Papi about what a soul is, coming to the conclusion that her soul is the part of her that she often notices walking beside her or watching her during highly emotional events. These out of body experiences represent a physical manifestation of Negi's split identity. By conceptualizing her soul as something simultaneously separate from her body and a part of it, Negi is able to more productively consider the different states of being that make up her identity.
As a young child, Negi wants to be a jíbara when she grows up. Negi describes jíbaros as proud country people whose art, music, and image are celebrated throughout Puerto Rico. She notes that stories by and about jíbaros are required reading at every grade level in school, and Negi's family regularly listens to a radio program that plays jíbaro music and poetry. Mami, however, tells Negi that she absolutely cannot be a jíbara, since Negi was born in the city. But this isn’t the only reason why Mami doesn't want Negi to identify as jíbara. Particularly once Mami moves the family to the city, Negi learns that though Puerto Rico celebrates jíbaro art forms, the jíbaro people themselves are ridiculed as being simple and unsophisticated by their city-dwelling counterparts. What Negi finds even more confusing than having her chosen identity thrown at her as an insult, however, is the fact that when her family lives in rural Macún, they do live like jíbaros, yet Mami insists that they reject the label. Negi is faced with the uncomfortable truth that the very identity she'd most like to assume is an identity that many, including her own mother, consider shameful and worthy of ridicule. This suggests early on that identity isn't as simple as choosing a label for oneself.
During Negi's school experiences, she constantly has to navigate a complex social pecking order that she struggles to figure out or struggles to fit into because it differs so greatly from the social structure at work in Negi's home. Because of this, Negi constantly has to code switch, or adopt different attitudes or ways of doing things depending on who she's around and what's expected of her. This often takes on a humorous bent, particularly when Negi is asked to participate in religious rituals or events despite the fact that Papi describes the family's religious identity as "Catholic, but not very good ones."
The necessity of code switching becomes even more pronounced when Negi moves to Brooklyn and has to navigate the even tenser social fabric of a public school made up of distinct ethnic groups, none of which offer her friendship or safety. In this environment, Negi isn’t able to find her place or begin to construct a more useful and true identity until she's accepted to the Performing Arts High School in Manhattan. However, to get into the school, Negi's advisors force her to adopt an overly Americanized and English-speaking persona, one that her interviewers find absolutely hilarious. Even though Negi doesn't realize it at the time, the interviewers are in awe of the fact that Negi auditions with a barely-intelligible monologue about a middle-aged, possessive mother-in-law at the turn of the 20th century, which requires Negi to adopt a persona that's hilariously far away from Negi's true self. The fact that Negi is both willing and able to perform the monologue at all reveals her years of practice at code switching and assuming new identities.
In the epilogue, the reader learns that Negi went on to study at Harvard, while in the prologue, Negi laments the loss of her Puerto Rican identity as she studies guavas in the grocery store. This juxtaposition of a major success with a sense of cultural loss suggests that even though Negi eventually experiences outward success, the process of constructing her identity is an ongoing and difficult one, and one that she'll struggle with continually as she seeks to reconcile her childhood desire to be a jíbara with her American educational successes as an adult.
Identity 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."
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.
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.
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.
"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.