Over the years, I have been extremely fortunate to have traveled all over the world. From Lithuania, to China, to India, to France, and now Puerto Rico, I have been exposed to a plethora of people with different backgrounds. Despite the different cultures people have, I have noticed that people all over are more alike than different. One thing I found extremely interesting about Puerto Rico was the culture. Everything about Puerto Rican culture was very distinct. They have specific foods, dancing, music, and everything else. It was extremely interesting to see how Puerto Ricans were able to maintain their culture while adapting to the culture of countries that influenced them. This was very evident from Old San Juan. You saw Spanish architecture, but American and Puerto Rican music filled the streets. The atmosphere in Puerto Rico was nothing like I had experienced before. Puerto Rico had a strong sense of community, and the constant dancing, upbeat music, and colors truly exemplified just how active the area is.
Discovering a culture different than mine forced me to reflect on my own culture. I always felt as if I never really belonged to a culture, and because American “culture” is really just a mixing pot of other cultures, I always envied those who had very specific culture traditions they followed in their home. However, in Old San Juan and in Cabo Rajo, I realized that my family has a very distinct culture, and we do practice several traditions in our homes. My mom is Lithuanian and Croatian, while my father is mainly Irish. However, because I was born and raised in a predominately Irish neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago, I see my Irish culture is more evident. However, both my mother and father are very strong Catholics.
Growing up with mostly Catholics, the Catholic traditions we practiced never seemed unique to me. It wasn’t until coming to college that truly made me realize how much being catholic was a part of my identity. For example, while in Puerto Rico, the surrounding village near our apartment celebrated three kings day. Some of my peers on the trip weren’t really aware about that holiday, while I knew all about it because it was celebrated in our home. While I did notice some differences between my culture and the culture of Puerto Rico, the strong Catholic faith I saw here made me feel at home. In fact, I think the Catholic faith is stronger here than in America. Every grocery store we went into had religious candles, and the church was the center of San Juan. I also noticed that many places had chapels attached, just like the fort we visited. I found myself taking pictures of the local churches and even some remains of St. Pius and sending them to my family. Just like St. Barnabas Church in the Beverly Community (My hometown Church), Basilica of Our Lady of San Juan defined the community. Despite being 2,000 miles away from home, I found a connection to Puerto Rican culture and found myself feeling at home.
However, there were some differences I noticed between Puerto Rican and the United States culture. In Puerto Rico, I noticed an extremely friendly and family oriented atmosphere. Every morning while I strolled down the streets of Cabo Rojo, random construction workers would smile and say good morning. Our group also was greeted by a lady who yelled “Happy New Year!” out her car as we walked to the beach. Everything about Puerto Rico was extremely lively and colorful. People always seemed to have a smile on their face, and they were willing to help with whatever we needed. Everyone was so open to share their culture and let us become a part of it- from the tour guide at the sugar cane farm, to the farmer at the coffee plantation. Despite all Puerto Rico has been through, they still welcome tourists with open arms. Our questions were answered no matter how silly they seemed, and despite the small kitchens in Puerto Rico, restaurants were always willing to accommodate our small group.
Ultimately I believe traveling abroad has made me realize a lot about myself and my cultural identity. There are so many aspects to a culture that I didn’t quite realize before coming on this trip. Although Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States, it has a rich history and culture that differs from the environment I am used to. Puerto Rico is an interesting blend of Latin American and American culture. Traveling abroad with the University of Illinois has helped me foster a new found respect for Latin American culture. I now realize that I am nothing but a mere spec of all the cultures and ethnicities that is what we know as the world today.