Identity Issues Affecting Puerto Rican Girls: An Artist Speaks

In her essay The Myth of the Latina Woman/ Just Met a Girl Named Maria, Judith Ortiz Cofer describes her Puerto Rican upbringing in a strict Catholic home in New Jersey, where she was taught to behave like a proper señorita. Cofer explains that the conflicting messages she received as a child, were those commonly propagated by Puerto Rican mothers. “They encourage their daughters to look and act like women and to dress in clothes that our Anglo friends and their mothers found to mature for our age.”

When the mere notion of latinidad equates passion and sexuality to gringos, why is it that Latino men are the first ones to point finger and to call these same women suelta (loose) or facil (easy)? Wouldn’t they understand? Have they not been subjected to the same treatment? Perhaps it is comes down to the way they were raised.

In the Latino culture ideas of masculinity and femininity are delineated very early on. Author Evelyn P. Stevens, first introduced this concept know as machismo and marianismo in 1973. Machismo grants supreme authority of the man over the woman. Under this doctrine women, who are considered to be morally and spiritually superior to men are able to endure abuse. They grow up expected to follow the sexual code of marianismo, and are submissive to the man’s authority.

Puerto Rican culture places women into one of two categories the virgin or the whore; mujeres de la casa (women of the home) or mujeres de la calle (women of the street). Una mujer de la casa, is expected to be pure, giving and compassionate. While, una mujer de la calle is considered to be sluty, wild, and dangerous.

In Honor and the American Dream: Culture and Identity in a Chicano Community, author Ruth Horowitz says the following:

The very presence of a woman outside the household implicates them in promiscuity and/or sexual misconduct. Puerto Rican girls learn this good girl/bad girl dichotomy most clearly in the recruitment into reproductive labor… A good girl cooks, cleans, takes care of younger siblings, and helps her parents. In contrast una muchacha de la calle is a transgressive women who has gone beyond patriarchal control whose sexuality is unbounded and therefore dangerous.

While in Puerto Rico this January, I had the privilege of meeting the incredibly talented video artist, Tamara Liz Rivera Boria. Tamara and I instantly bonded, finding similarity in the content of our work, and decided that we needed to collaborate.

I conducted a short series of interviews with her (documented with the camera from my laptop), where she describes her work as it plays on the screen behind her…

click on above image to view video

Interview with Puerto Rican Artist Tamara Liz Rivera Boria

Maya: Tamara, what can you tell me about muchachas de la calle and muchachas de las casa?

Tamara: De la casa and de la calle girls might as well be related. They exchange roles sometimes, de la casa girl wanting to be de la calle, and vice versa.

Maya: How has this affected you?

Tamara: I was raised in a catholic home, in a catholic school. I can tell you, I have been fucked up. I didn’t want to be told what to do, or what to believe in.How can you tell someone that using a condom is a sin? I had many issues over the years being raised like that. Even though my parents are not Catholic extremists. They were pretty easy going that’s how they could understand me or deal with me. Deep inside it made a mark, no matter how much I tried to live and understand the world. I became insane trying to understand other people lifestyle because indeed I might have been raised inside a bubble. I still am kind of in there, don’t wanting to look at how things really are.

Maya: What role does your cultural upbringing play in your work?

Tamara: Recently I made a video called él, baño de marîa. In this video I present various symbolism about religion, pecados (sins), sexuality, purity, faith among other things. Mainly because our culture has raised us thinking inside the box, controlling us with Christianity, especially Catholicism. Being pure, waiting till marriage although most don’t do it, is deep inside the mind. Like it is wrong to embrace sexuality.

Aglubium, is another video I made in collaboration with Ralph Vazquez and Rebecca Adorno. In this video I am drowning, or trying to kill myself by submerging my head in the water. It’s aggressive, and it’s beautiful. We just want to end, we don’t want to think. We don’t want to face fears. We don’t want to wait, we want to get it over. We want to drown our fears. We don’t want to face reality. Escape its what we do.

Maya: How do you escape?

Tamara: Most people (Puerto Ricans) use drugs. Puerto Ricans that do not use illegal drugs, use legal pills, alcohol or even coffee. Everyone has an addiction. It’s a shame but I have seen most of my friends doing drugs. I been there, I done that but I never had an addiction. My new boyfriend said I was an alcoholic, he didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t. It wasn’t till he lived with me for over a moth when he saw that I didn’t drink for so long that he believed me, and with the cigarettes the same.

For some weird reason I can try things for as long as I want and not create any addiction. I wish it were the same with those that surround me. But in the arts almost all the people I know use some kind of drugs, are the ones that worry me the most are the most intelligent that keep using. I guess they are not that smart…

Maya: Is there an alternative to escape?

Tamara: I can see clearly that with true art I can make a difference, I can say what I understand to be real and important. I might help somebody. Other people just ignore what is going on (Puerto Rico). So many things had happen here, that demanded the people marching up the streets in protest, because our government is insane. But people don’t, they just “sit quietly”. They don’t want to get involved, they think they cannot change anything. They believe they have no power, when indeed I say, with all your power, what would you do? – I love that flaming lips song-

Maya: How does this affect Puerto Rican girls?

Tamara: Puerto Rican girls have many issues. Not only because of gringos (Americans) our identity issues extend into religion and the ways women are portrayed in the reggaeton culture. Girls want to be thin like gringas (American girls), they don’t like they’re beautiful curves, ass and tits. They always feel fat no matter how thin they are. I bet this happen everywhere, but these are issues we shouldn’t have.

Accepting ourselves, as we are its what we should do. Because we are not gringas! We are not blonde and white! But boys see these girls in TV, and everywhere and they expect girls like that. It’s the gringo media. I’ve forgotten all about this, but I also had these issues. I think I kind of still do, I just ignore most of the time.

Maya: You mentioned Reggaeton, what message do you think Reggaeton is sending to young women?

Tamara: Reggaeton is a part of that movement leads ladies to feeling less than the man, like he has to buy her. Girls learn to use their sexual power way to early with reggaeton. It is a confrontation for some, between what they like (reggaeton movement, lifestyle) and the religious foundation they might have. But since it probably was forced (religion) they escaped thru reggaeton. Ultimately ending in ugly situations.

Maya: Okay , I agree with you. But I am not going to lie, I love reggaeton… are you sure you don’t secretly like it?

Tamara: I don’t dig reggaeton; I see how girls embrace being just a piece of meat, especially high schools girls. How much is this necklace, like a million? Said a girl, the boy answered – no. The girl said – well then, work and buy me this necklace.

Yesterday I heard a senior girl say that to her boyfriend at a hotel, it was their prom. Girls parade in lil’ dresses, easily they could have been mistaken for high-class whores. I won’t even comment on the dancing. It has gotten worse, every time. Since parents are so young they allow they’re children to behave like this. I mean, I see a problem with these situations. Boys catch another boy,looking at their girls, no matter if its sexual or if they just passed and look because its simply there, they get all worked up and want to fight. What is that dumbass looking at? So basically, what, people cant look at each other now? Girls can’t stand if you look at them either. Puerto Rico was not like that; you went to the mall, smiled and people smiled back at you.

The reggaeton anger and sexual damage can be easily identified. Even kindergarten boys are sexually harassing little girls. My mom is a teacher and I have heard some stories. I haven’t analyzed reggaeton issues deeply; this is just for what I have seen.

Maya: Thank you for your insight Tamara, I can’t wait to see what you produce next. I hope we can collaborate together in the future.

Tamara: I know I could make more sense out of my ideas, since they’re not organized very well, but it doesn’t matter. This is just the beginning of many wonderful works to come, ideas to flow… I’m glad that I can collaborate with you.

“Everything that surrounds me, mi entorno, makes a part of who I am and what I say in my videos. Little by little its somehow implicated.”

As I begrudgingly stated in my interview with Tamara, I am a fan of reggaeton. Like most, I don’t even acknowledge the lyrics or really think too much beyond the beat of the music. Yet now I find myself wondering, are most girls conscious of the message? I guess to some extent they must be, after all as Tamara shared many sing the lyrics as they grind (rub up) on men.

In my research I found extensive commentary regarding the direction of Salsa and its implications on women in the Puerto Rican community. However, as it is relatively new form of music, the writing concerning Reggaeton seems to be incredibly limited.

So I turned to a more contemporary source and found a blog entitled REGGAETONICA, written by Raquel Z. Rivera; author of New York Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone. In a recent post: From White to Mulata: The Darkening Powers of Reggaetón, she shares an email addressing this very issue:

I think reggaeton has been raunchy & explicitly all along, but I think the lyrics have reverted back to the “Reggeaton Sex” days of Underground. I think that “raunchiness” & degradation have become more mainstream & therefore are seen as less scandalous & more acceptable to society, so I think it has questioned our value as a community. The fact that Reggaeton outright refers to sexual references & acts & is accepted as mainstream Puerto Rican culture posing an interesting cultural issue for me. Now you can go to Puerto Rico and see young girls singing “dame con el palo, ” & they’re parents paying no mind to it, which I think is crazy. In the beginning of Reggaeton I found the lyrics to be much more raunchy, violent, & drug-related. Then mainstream Reggaeton came along, switched the “sexo” to “amor” & the “nenas” to “gatas.” I think these subtle changes in language allowed Reggaeton to be more successful in the mainstream, but now a lot of artists are moving back to the original lyrics because they already have a stable fan base. I mean, look at someone like Tony Dize, if you translated some of his songs into English, they could put even 50 Cent to shame with the blatant sexual references & degradation of women.

Perhaps reggaeton is so widely accepted by mainstream and popular culture, because it provides a free ticket to promote these concepts in a non-threatening form. If Puerto Rican women and other Latinas are fine dancing to this music, then what harm is there in gringos doing the same.

This then becomes representative of Puerto Rican culture. When a gringa dances to reggaeton she can purse her lips and grind on men, but without an attached stigma. She is just acting like a Latina girl. The Puerto Rican girls participating in this scene are aiding in the further perpetuation of the stereotype of Latina’s being easy.

However, as Tamara explained a lot of this has to do with a search for independence. Wanting to rebel against the forced restrictions of being una mucha de la casa, girls go to the furthest extreme to break down those barriers. But to what cost?

I myself am unable to provide a concrete solution. Yet I do think that one of the primary steps to forward progress is conversation. Tamara and myself have opted to publish the text on the web so that others may join in the dialog…

19 thoughts on “Identity Issues Affecting Puerto Rican Girls: An Artist Speaks

  1. Hello. This discussion is highly relevant. I am a Puerto Rican from New York, and I have recently decided to make some paintings exploring the issues presented here. I was initially inspired by the book ‘Random Family: Love,Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx’ by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. It is a very poignant ethnography tracing the lives of Puerto Ricans living in indigence in the Bronx. It is a fascinating read, though, admittedly, it furthers many of the stereotypes we all know about (drug abuse, welfare-dependency, multiple partner fertility, etc).
    Women in every culture have been marginalized. This is an age-old dilemma, and it is not unique to Puerto Ricans. What can be problematic for a people is when the negative aspects of a milieu become what define them. The effects of this can be highly disadvantageous and we have to recognize that we as individuals have the power both to consume and shape a culture, and we have enormous responsibility in how we choose to do so.
    I recently went into Manhattan for the Puerto Rican Day parade, and I have mixed feelings about what I experienced and learned there. On the one hand, I felt like a giddy schoolgirl again, being immersed in the sights and sounds of my own people. The sense of unity and camaraderie is overwhelming and the pride that I felt was immeasurable. The theme was all about music, and it was wonderful to move to the unique rhythms and beats of the island- from salsa to dembow, and to see the red, white, and blue ocean of the crowd. It is the biggest parade of the city- bringing together 3 million spectators for an incredible celebration.
    However, there were some aspects that were unsettling as well. I went with a British friend who was visiting the United States for the very first time ever, and he was surprised by the ‘fashions’ of the people. Women were wearing pants that barely covered their (for some, wide) bottoms and generously displaying their backs and breast cleavage. I didn’t even feel embarrassed because I had expected to see this. I can’t judge these women. I think to most of them, this is complete normalcy and their way of expressing the beauty of their curvaceous Boricua bodies. However, I personally feel that there are better ways to express that beauty.
    It is important to contextualize the things I saw. I’m fairly certain that these women do not gallivant like this on a day-to-day basis, and I understand that the regular conditions of society are relaxed for an event like this. Nevertheless, when the image of a scantily clad woman becomes the paragon of what it means to be Puerto Rican, I think it is okay to question these representations. Does dressing so provocatively liberate women, or does it further bind us as merely another way of defining the female body in terms of its utility to men?
    There were other things that were weird about my visit to the city that day. When I went into the Bronx with my friend, who is white, I heard a little Black boy yell across the street, “There’s a lotta WHITE people here today!” I laughed. I thought it was funny. But when I think about it, it’s really not. It just reminds me that there is still a lot of functional segregation today. Later, when two Black men were riled up in anger to see me, a Puerto Rican woman, walking with a white man, I was left in utter disbelief. Why should that be incendiary at all? West Side Story was so 1961. It is now 2009.
    After a long, exhausting day, I got on the train and had the pleasure of sitting next to Anthony. This gentleman (Puerto Rican) was someone I had never met before, but we immediately established a rapport as we had both had travelled to see the parade. Some of the things he said really shed a little light on the male perspective. He told me about how beautiful all the women were and how the way they dressed was, in some sense, appealing. However, he had a certain austerity in that he was resolute about not approaching them. In his mind, whichever of these women he might approach, in all likelihood, had been approached by many other men before him. He assumed that these women, presumably for their dress, were tainted in some way. Is that fair? Who knows– but in all likelihood, there was probably some truth to his conjecture.
    It is hard to temper the bad with the good in any culture. I like to wear form fitting clothes from time to time. I can’t really salsa, but if a Daddy Yankee song is playing, I’ll go into a corybantic fit of dance. Ultimately, being Puerto Rican is a part of who I am, just like being a woman. These are ascribed characteristics, though, and ultimately, I can’t allow them to be the sole dictators of my identity.

  2. Ok Monica,

    what is the good stuff? Sure there is a lot of harmless sex speak, but where is there something else. What are some lyrics that maybe give women some depth? I think somewhere in tamara and maya’s conversation we need to consider that, yes reaggaeton is rebellion for a lot of men and women, but it is not empowering to women. it allows women to be sexually free in a very limited sense of what men want and what men can give them. I live in PR, I am gringa, and I’ve been drunk and danced a few times as well, and maybe you’re right, I am playing a role, but I’m not playing a Latina role, Im playing an ultra-slutty one, and I think most other girls are as well.
    It has been my experience that despite what most other latinas chicks down here are wearing and saying and moving to, the ones that are not pregnant are not really fucking anybody. There is a lot of show; we gringas have the reputation, and probably deservedly so, of being much easier. So I can see how many middle-class puertariquenas may want to flirt with that overt sexuality on the dance floor, because it is all about sex. But we should all take a step back and think what image we portray. Because all the women down here are much more than sex, but when we give ourselves over to portraying ourselves that simplistically, for whatever reason, we do ourselves a diservice.

  3. umm chick u need 2 chill wit dat u seem like u dont like reggaeton like maybe tony dize has 1 or 2 nasty songz but look if u translated it to 50 cent 50 cen t izz so much worst he talks about killing and stuff so whta if tony dize makes a song like that he aint hurting no1 if singing about sex makes him happy let him do it. but if u lidten to more of his music he has alot of nice songs (no invovlving sex) i highly upset maybe you need to listen to reggaeton more and listen to the songs that dont say stuff. like 50 cent has a song call “amusement park” when he comapres a girl and himself to carnival rides but yeah i think that you shoudl give it another chnce because reggaeton is not all that bad. just dont llisten to the bad stuff.

  4. Nach- i believe that is just a matter of missinterpretation. Communication is not as easy as it seems.

    Ricardo- I have no doubt about what you say, then again, come to Puerto Rico and visit the nightclubs. I know you’ll be satisfied. lol 🙂

    By the way, I have many contacts with psycologist if you like i can give you contacts. Thyre friends, and they might be stressed finishing summer classes for their doctor’s but I bet they can manage to help/

  5. “It is not right to talk about people within those classifications”
    …Then I ain’t right. I do it (without those classifications). I know the people that do it and, believe me, ellos no te gustarían.

    WYSIWYG. I see you through your words. Sorry if I’m a lil’ bit “short”.

    One saludo!

  6. Nach –

    Please disagree with me! Tell me that I am a racist!! It is not right to talk about people within those classifications.

    I hope all about me isn’t “raza, etnia, grupo, taxonomía, clasificación”, although I would agree that the majority of the content on this blog is. I do however think that it is important to shed light these issues.

    If you want to provide more feedback please do!!

  7. Tamara I am pretty much estranged from my family so I don’t know the latest stuff happening on the Island . However, it seems to mirror almost exactly what I see with the Puerto Rican community here. Now….these models in the video, I DON’T see that here and, being a man, I wish I did. But I couldn’t date them. Not with that mindset. But I’ll be happy to look. forgive me on that one but there’s no off switch when a man sees beautiful women barely dressed.

  8. “Identity Issues Affecting Puerto Rican Girls: A Psychologist Speaks”
    I think you need to find the right people to speak about certain subjects.

    All about you is raza, etnia, grupo, taxonomía, clasificación…
    I’m wrong if I say that you’re a “racista”? Please, don’t misinterpret me.

  9. Very good!

    and yes before reggaeton there was Salsa, and it pretty much was the same, but with the media and the popularity of “ton” music, it has gotten worse.
    Much of the problem relies on children being parents. You can find 14 year old mothers, with 30 year old grandmothers! Is just not right, this was a “caserio culture” and now is an everyday thing.

  10. hey there!
    Thanks Ricardo
    Not all is lost! This is, of course a generalization of some of the many issues that go on in P.R.
    Thank you Maya, I love your web site and your work. You are opening doors in a very organized way, I believe great things will come.

  11. MAYA ESCOBAR!!! This content is unacceptable!!! I’ve never been more disgusted than I am now!!! How could you make me watch this!?!? 😉

    Curse you Maya and curse you Tamara!

  12. Ahhh…..

    I have much to say about this but……I’m not going to say it here. But I will say that she is a very observant woman. Viva Tamara!

    Want to know the rest of what I think? Check your email in a bit. Check your email.

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