Though much of Negi's coming of age is linked to her physical development and the responsibilities she's asked to shoulder since she's the oldest child, Negi's developing understanding of sex and the female experience deserves special consideration. Her world is one in which there are clear differences between men and women, and also between the roles they're expected to play in society. She's also acutely aware that there's a double standard when it comes to sex, and that sex is, more than anything, a power struggle between men and women.
Negi learns at a young age that there's only one type of man: the sinverguënza, or shameless sexual being. Women, however, are divided into several categories: longsuffering wives, future wives, jamona (spinsters), and the scorned "putas" (whores, either in the literal sense of prostitution or as used in the derogatory sense). Though Papi is regularly referred to as a sinverguënza, it isn't until Negi is much older that she has any real problem with his constant absences to see other women. Further, as a young child, Negi is led to believe that her neighborhood is made up of only wives and future wives—she's told that Macún has no putas, though this is almost certainly not the case. As a result, Negi nurses a secret desire to see a puta in real life so she can understand better how their power over men works. She's led to believe that "bad" women have a vast amount power over men, while women like Mami and her other adult female neighbors are helpless to keep their husbands from leaving them for these other women.
As Negi gets older, she naturally becomes very curious about sex and has her first sexual experiences with a neighbor boy, Tato. Though Negi and Tato initially consensually engage in viewing each other's genitals, when Negi decides she's had enough, Tato tries to forcibly touch her. This is the first time that Negi is made personally aware of the power dynamic involved in sexual relationships. It’s made very clear to her that as a female, she has something that men want, and she's responsible for keeping it from them. This lesson continues when Gloria, the neighbor woman who cares for Negi and her siblings, explains menstruation and where babies come from. Though Negi had seen animals have sex and give birth before, she'd never connected what she'd seen to the possibility of human sex. Notably, when Negi makes this connection, she phrases it in terms of power: in her understanding, sex is something that men do to women, not something that men and women agree to. Not long after making this connection, Negi begins to feel less warmly towards Papi. Though she was previously able to love her father despite knowing he's a sinverguënza, her new understanding of sex makes it difficult for her to see him as a loving person when she thinks she understands what goes on in private between her parents (it's important to note, however, that though Negi's understanding of sex is connected to power and fear, there's never any indication that Papi and Mami's sexual relationship is anything but consensual).
What follows throughout the rest of the memoir are highly uncomfortable sexual experiences in which Negi is catcalled, groped, or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable by the men around her. She struggles to reconcile her changing pubescent body with the unwanted male attention she receives because of it. What Negi deems her first true sexual experience is extremely confusing for her, and rightly so: she did nothing to attract the attention of a man sitting in a truck watching her and masturbating, yet Negi understands that he seemed to enjoy the experience anyway. This final sexual experience of the memoir leaves Negi's sexual development in a precarious place, as she struggles to understand how she can protect her body from men who want to use her body for their own pleasure, even when there's a great deal of physical distance between them. This offers the final, chilling note that Negi isn't really in control of her sexual body. Though Negi knows that she does have the power to seduce men, at least in theory, she understands that her power is minimal compared to that of the men around her.
Women, Sex, and Power ThemeTracker
Women, Sex, and Power Quotes in When I Was Puerto Rican
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.
"What do they call a man who never marries?" I asked as we settled ourselves in the front of the publico.
"Lucky," the driver said, and the rest of the passengers laughed, which made me mad, because it felt as if he were insulting me in the worst possible way.
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.
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.
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.
"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.