Daily Archives: December 23, 2020

A Puerto Rican Story

President-elect Biden’s nomination today of Miguel Cardona to be Secretary of Education led me to recall a story from my college days at Catholic University in Washington DC. It involves Cardona’s home state of Connecticut, where Cardona has served as Commissioner of Education. Cardona is originally from Puerto Rico.

I had come to Catholic as a junior transfer straight from El Paso, Texas, where I had lived for more than ten years. El Paso is one big Anglo/Chicano mix, spiced up by the multicultural ingredients of a massive army base–Fort Bliss. Of course everyone in El Paso naturally assumed you were Mexican-American and so I often had to correct that impression, proudly pointing out that I am Puerto Rican. But when I got to the East Coast (on a full tuition college debate scholarship–more on that at the end) I wasn’t sure which of my two “identities” to emphasize. I felt then (and still do) close to Texas and soon learned that many of my classmates at Catholic–which draws heavily from the mid-Atlantic states and New England–had never traveled west of the Mississippi. So I wasn’t sure of the best way to answer the question “Where are you from?”

I started working at one of the university dining halls and the staff–many of them students–would gather to eat before the shift started. I was making conversation and talking about my dilemma of how to introduce myself–as a Texan or as a Puerto Rican. One young woman glares at me and advises: “Well, if I were you, I’d say I was a Texan. Because where I come from in Connecticut, Puerto Ricans are all lazy and dirty.”

This is me probably around fifth grade.

Thus revealed the reason why I have never been able to root for anything from Connecticut, even those fine women’s UConn basketball teams.

And about that full tuition debate scholarship. I would never have made it to the East Coast, I’m sure, if not for debate. And the only reason I ever got into debate was because of the advice of an eighth grade teacher in El Paso, Mrs. Bunsen. I wasn’t particularly fond of Mrs. Bunsen, she wasn’t touchy-feely or charming. (Although I wonder now as an adult if I would have enjoyed her more. She had a fine singing voice.) But on one of the last days of class before we went off to high school, Mrs. Bunsen pulled me aside and said: “Carmen, when you get to high school take speech and drama as your elective. You have the same problem of all Latins: you speak too loud and too fast. Speech and Drama will help you.”

I took her advice and speech and debate came to dominate my high school and early college years. I wonder whether today a teacher would offer such advice to a student. I certainly think they would look for a more diplomatic way of broaching it. I remember thinking at the time that I had never known that about myself–but I took her advice to heart.