When I was growing up in Puerto Rico, more than thirty years ago, I heard a cruel joke attributed to the Cuban comedian Álvarez Guedes. The joke relied on the supposed fact that Cubans cannot roll their “r”s and find it hard to say words like “corbata.” Instead, they find it more natural to say “cohbata,” giving themselves immediately away.
The joke went something like this. When General Fulgencio Batista’s regime fell, Cubans tried to get to the US by pretending to be Puerto Rican. They waited in line to get on board the planes airlifting US citizens out of Cuba. One Cuban pretender was standing in line, practicing the proper pronunciation of “corbata.” Furiously rolling his “r”s. After he passes the “corbata” test, the Cuban guard asks him for a cigarette. When the man delivers, the guard asks him a trick-question: “what brand is it”? “Mahboroh,” answers the unwitting victim. The guard immediately sends the fake Puerto Rican straight to jail.
The cruel joke reminds anybody from the region of the massacre by the Dominican Dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1937, when he ordered ten thousand Haitian cane workers executed because they could not roll the “r” when saying “perejil,” the Spanish word for parsley.
Setting aside the fact that Puerto Ricans don’t roll their “r”s either, the dark and literally self-effacing Cuban joke is typical of our Caribbean sense of humor. Perhaps the joke is a symptom of our traumatic collective history and of episodes such as the “perejil massacre.” Whatever the case, when I was young, the cruel joke made me feel superior. It made me feel like a “real” Puerto Rican. Since then, I’ve learned that the joke is really on me.
I confirmed it recently. A Puerto Rican young man won a legal victory against the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) after flunking a test about his Puerto Rican origins, which led to his unlawful arrest two and a half years ago.
Kenneth Cabán González went to get a new driver’s license with his original driver’s license from Puerto Rico, his social security card, and his birth certificate. Despite all of the documentation, Mr. Cabán González was quizzed about his knowledge of the Island to prove to the officers that he was from the unincorporated territory and not a so-called illegal alien from the Dominican Republic. To his surprise, he failed the test, and was pronounced a fake Puerto Rican, with very serious consequences for him and for his family.
Good thing the test was ruled to be illegal, its injustice was addressed and the wrong was righted. But I can’t imagine the ordeal Mr. Cabán González went through.
I too am from Puerto Rico, and I live in the South—although I live in Nashville, Tennessee, where I teach Spanish at Vanderbilt University. In fact, I have lived in the US ever since I graduated from college in 1984. And, I too was recently at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to get a so-called Real-ID driver’s license. As it happens, I brought with me my old social security card back from when I was in high school in Puerto Rico as well as my passport. Thankfully, nothing happened to me. I was not arrested. I got my new driver’s license soon after. I passed the test, but was I given a second look by the officers at the DMV? There, but by the grace of God…
After I read the news, I felt a morbid fascination with the test Mr. Cabán Gonzalez took. There is something uncanny about it. (I’m sure most Academics have nightmares about flunking examinations, but this was a doozy). I wondered whether I would flunk the exam, which was reported to be full of trick-questions like “where is Caguas’ beach?” (every Puerto Rican worth their salt should know that the landlocked town is miles away from the ocean). Would I be sent to jail for not knowing the correct answers to all the trick-questions, leading my interrogators to conclude that I was a fake Puerto Rican?
I looked for a copy of the DDS Puerto Rican Interview Guide on line and I found it. The questions about the Western part of the Island (where both of my grandmothers were from) scared me. I was born and raised in San Juan, but I didn’t know the largest employer in Mayagüez is StarKist Tuna. I had a very vague notion of a nuclear experiment gone wrong back in the sixties, but I didn’t know that the abandoned nuclear energy plant was in tiny Punta Higüero, near the small town of Rincón on the Western coast. Apparently, Driver Services thinks these are well-known facts to the people of the Island. Perhaps I was no longer a certifiable Puerto Rican according to Georgia’s DDS.
Then I got to the “Commonly Used Vocabulary” part of the interview guide. The Vocabulary had three columns. The first had words in English. The second had the translation into Puerto Rican Spanish. And the third included the same word in Spanish from the Dominican Republic. The vocabulary lists were clearly designed to tell Puerto Ricans apart from Dominicans.
At a certain level, the vocabulary was a pleasure to read. Who knew that childhood words dear to my heart like “chiringa” (the Puerto Rican Spanish for kite) and “piragüa” (the Spanish for snow cone) have similarly playful translations like “chichigüa”, “yún yún” or “frío frío” in Dominican Spanish? I also learned, that my knowledge was superior to that of the test maker. I knew, for example, that the imaginative “zafacón—our ingenious transliteration for the arcane military safety can—is also used in the Dominican Republic. The test was mistaken in assuming that Dominicans use the more commonplace “cubo” or the dreary “balde” for the equivalent trash can. I was flying high, lifted by my superior knowledge of these local and familiar words.
But then, one word shot down my imaginary “chiringa,” crashing it back to earth and making me realize again the irony of the test and its tragic consequences.
Between the relatively harmless words for “frog” and “grade,” I found the word “gay.” The DDS Guide gave the Puerto Rican translation as “pato” and the Dominican as “maricón” (another questionable translation, since both of these words are part of the arsenal of both Puerto Rican and Dominican homophobic insults). The inclusion of this word and its insulting Caribbean versions was a reality check that went beyond the cruel joke about the Cuban pretender. Not only was Georgia’s test a language exam meant to trip-up the unwitting Dominican pretender. It was also a test about autochthonous forms of homophobia. The questionnaire tested whether the test taker was a Puerto Rican homophobe who supposedly calls gays “patos”, or a Dominican homophobe who calls gays “maricones.”
The test also reinforced the base inhuman impulse to identify, name, and tag an even more oppressed form of humanity out of an instinct of self-preservation. The so-called Puerto Rican “pato” and the Dominican “maricón” are still more denigrated than either the Puerto Rican citizen or the Dominican alien. Perhaps the question was designed to trick the pretender into a false sense of security, the better to catch him unawares. What is clear is that the DDS test tragically confirms our capacity to shift blame to others. And it does so in three languages.
The test was no joke. But it triggered my dark sense of humor, and confirmed my sense of tragic irony, which is unmistakably Caribbean, whether you are from Puerto Rico, from Cuba or from Hispaniola. It made me realize that as soon as we give this sort of test we all get an F.
In this case, the “F” does not stand for fake (Puerto Rican, Cuban or Dominican for that matter). F is for failure, a tragic and monumental failure to imagine our shared humanity.