October 08, 2016
From Mayagüez to San Juan: Somos Puerto Rico
By Ana Portnoy Brimmer
Every muscle in my body was tense. My jaw, elbows, and back were locked without the remotest possibility of release. My fingers were tight around the steering wheel, eyes wide, darting from windshield, to mirror, to blindspot, and back, heart racing like I was running a marathon. I was driving in San Juan.
Shifting between defensive and offensive driving and constantly making sure I was still alive, I realized how much I missed the narrow, single-laned, crowded-in-by-mango-trees streets of my hometown: Mayagüez.
I’m a small-pueblo girl. Raised in el barrio Miradero of Mayagüez, I’d spend my days going up and down the same roads: la carretera 108 and la carretera número 2. I lived five minutes away from my elementary school, and later from my university (the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez Campus), from the supermarket, the movies, los jangueos, and the best spot to score quenepas when in season.
Mind you, I’m not claiming people outside of San Juan are perfect drivers, but in Mayagüez, con todo y cortes de pastelillo, people are more relaxed behind the wheel.
I snapped back into reality, a car honking at my slow driving (I was going 55 mph). Everybody had somewhere to be, someplace to go, something to do, and it all had to happen quickly. Using the brakes is never an option and tailgating is a specialty in the metropolitan area. Navigating a six lane street is not easy as you try to find your exit, street signs pointing out dinner at high scale restaurants, glamorous nightlife, and hotels in Condado, coffee shops and hipster gentrification in Santurce, colonial charm and cocktails in Old San Juan.
Back in Mayagüez, street signs lead to empanadillas and fire-red sunsets in Joyuda, Medallas and helados chinos in el pueblo, salsa-dancing in Dulces Labios, and the beaches and gastronomy of the neighboring towns of Cabo Rojo, Rincón and Añasco.
I arrived to Río Piedras, where I’m pursuing my Masters in English (Literature) at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras Campus. Río Piedras is the campus that serves the largest population of students out of the eleven UPR campuses. Curiously enough, however, it always seems to feel empty, emptier than the Mayagüez Campus, which not only serves a smaller population of students, but has a smaller population as a pueblo as well.
People come to Río Piedras, take their classes, and leave, changing the social dynamics and redefining the idea of the college community, giving off more of a commuter college vibe. In Mayagüez, however, the public spaces, hallways, and green areas of the campus are populated till the late hours of the afternoon. People hang out at the university, using it as a space to meet beyond the expected class-taking and work-study.
I took care of some business at the university, and decided, most capriciously, because it was a beautiful afternoon, to go to Old San Juan. A cruise ship was anchored in one of the docks along the Paseo Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, tourists flowing in and out in waves. And el Viejo San Juan was ready for them, colorful and sophisticated menus alluringly dangling in the direction of sightseers looking to taste Puerto Rico, or gourmet versions of it. Bartenders were polishing the last wine, martini and piña colada glasses; salsa, techno, and bossa nova bewitchingly pulsated within establishments; and the tightly-packed, colonial-style buildings and apartments beamed in the pink, afternoon haze.
As I walked along the cobblestone streets, darkness starting to set in, I could hear the echo of clinking glasses, subdued and sultry conversations, concoctions of music styles, and the rumble of car engines. I also noticed that I couldn’t hear any coquíes. Back at my parents’s house in Mayagüez, coquíes were the evening entertainment, singing alongside chicharras and the occasional howling dog and screeching cat. Mayagüez is not as frequented by tourists as San Juan, so most of the people out and about are locals, nightlife fluctuating between college bars, gas station hang-outs (gas stations no longer cater only to cars, but provide nightlife entertainment, drink, food and the occasional musical performance as well), and local food favorites.
I hadn’t had any dinner yet, so I walked into one of the most iconic food establishments in Old San Juan: La Bombonera. I was hungry, and the air smelled of comida criolla and buttered-up Mallorcas. I had myself a plate of pollo a la parrilla, arroz con habichuelas and tostones. After eating everything down to the very last grain of rice, I ordered un café con leche. The waiter, in a pingueon-like tuxedo and white waist apron, brought it over, steam levitating over the porcelain mug. The waiter and I had chatted between the intervals of my ordering the food and his attending other customers, sensing my still palpable foreignness to the metropolitan area.
“Dama, don’t worry about el café, it’s on the house,” he said kindly, and I stared at my coffee, swirls of white, almost translucent, smoke disappearing into the air.
San Juan and Mayagüez are different. The lifestyle, the pace, the layout, the ambiance, the dynamics, the people... But that solidarity in the face of the everyday, that unity in the quotidian, that reassuring smile, that warm good-morning, that seemingly mundane yet actually encouraging exchange between strangers, that coffee on the house consolidates us, despite the demonyms we cling to or divisions on a map.
“Muchas gracias,” I answered back, el Sanjuanero and la Mayagüezana smiling at each other.
And so I drank my café con leche on the house, savoring our diversity, and how from West to East, from Mayagüez to San Juan, somos Puerto Rico.
- The borough
- An anglicism, meaning “hang-outs”
- A native or naturalized fruit from the Caribbean, also called Spanish lime
- To cut someone off while driving
- Fried turnovers
- Local beer
- An ice cream establishment in downtown Mayagüez owned by a Chinese family
- A borough famous for its salsa nights at La Naza
- A tiny frog, native of Puerto Rico
- Puerto Rican food
- Sweet bread with powdered sugar
- Grilled chicken, rice and beans, and plantain fritters
- Coffee with milk
- The coffee
- Thank you very much
- We are Puerto Rico