“N U Y O R I C A N”
For Us by Us: The Untold Stories of People of Color on Campus
Nuyorican: A person of Puerto Rican descent, but born/living in New York City.
Cassidy Van Cooten is a sophomore at Brandeis who is from Brooklyn, New York. At home, she lives with her parents and younger sister. Her mom, Doreen, is Puerto Rican and grew up in Red Hook, New York, with her parents and sister. Cassidy’s father, Louis, also grew up in New York. When asked about her father’s background, Cassidy said, “My dad’s mom is from Puerto Rico and my dad’s dad is from Suriname, which is in South America. My dad said that my grandfather immigrated through Ellis Island and that his name is in ‘the book.’ He grew up in Suriname, which was colonized by the Dutch. However, my dad recently did the ancestry thing, and it turns out we don’t have any trace of Dutch in us at all. Before, I used to say I was Puerto Rican and Dutch, but now I don’t really know.”
AM: So what do you identify yourself as?
Cassidy: I mean, I don’t know. For the longest time, I identified as that [Puerto Rican and Dutch]. When we would fill out applications for school and stuff, my mom would always put Dutch and not Puerto Rican. When you would want to get in some place, you’d want to sound “exotic,” so my mom would put Dutch. For example, to get into my elementary school, she put down that I was Dutch because it added some “diversity” to the school. It was more a “Oh, we have a Dutch girl here.” Mind you, I didn’t know any Dutch, and when you look at me, you don’t see Dutch. It was very interesting, so growing up, me and my sister would always say “oh yeah we’re Dutchericans,”but when my dad took this test it changed things for me. For sure I’m Puerto Rican, but I’m mixed with something else, and I don’t know what. I used to joke around with my parents and ask them, “What am I?” but deadass though, what am I? I really want to do the DNA thing to know more about myself.
AM: Do you identify as Nuyorican, and how do you define it?
Cassidy: I do. Basically, Nuyorican is a branch-off of Puerto Rican. So it’s Puerto Rican as, like, a big culture, and this is like a subculture of being Puerto Rican. The term was coined up from during the time when — I mean there is still — but during the time when there was a lot of shit going on in Puerto Rico and a lot of them [were] coming to the U.S. While they were here, they had to assimilate because there was a lot of hate toward any immigrants coming in. We kind of had to adapt and conform into the New York and American lifestyle but also try to keep our culture. I know I’ll get heckled for this, but a lot of Nuyoricans don’t speak Spanish. I actually wrote a research paper on this. Through my research, I found that a lot of Puerto Ricans and a lot of Spanish-speaking people in general would get a lot of hate towards them when they speak Spanish outside of their household. They would get told, “Go back to your country. This is America. We speak English here.”
When in school, teachers would force them to speak English, but they wouldn’t know English well because their parents only knew Spanish. This would result in them not speaking at all for a long period of time. They would not participate in classes, which resulted in them getting held back because the teachers and the school itself would think that the students were not capable of succeeding. These things continue to this day. It was a lot for Puerto Ricans, so parents would tell their kids to only speak Spanish at home as a way to protect themselves. From that point on, that generation would grow up and not teach their kids Spanish. Personally, my mom tried to teach me, but I was just a stubborn little kid. I remember at one point my mom told me that I said, “Oh this is America, we speak English.” I said that back to her when she was trying to teach me the language. I was probably in elementary school, so I was very young. I think what influenced me was the elementary school that I went to. It was very white, and all of my friends were white, and I wasn’t really surrounded by bilingual people, which is why I think I felt that way.
Another thing [about identifying as Nuyorican] is the Puerto Rican Day Parade, which is a huge thing for us because we’re celebrating our Puerto Rican pride without being on the island. It is a way to connect us back there by coming together. For example, if I go to Puerto Rico, I’m not going to speak Spanish, and even though I might look Hispanic, they’ll classify me as some gringa. It’s frustrating because it’s like, “No I’m one of you, but I just have a different experience.”
AM: How was it growing up in New York?
Cassidy: Growing up in New York, honestly, I would say for the first couple of years of my life, I grew up listening to all pop music and had a lot of white friends. I was surrounded by that, so that’s why I can sometimes sound like a valley girl. I’ve had people tell me, “Oh you can’t be Hispanic; have you heard the way you speak?” Which made no sense, but alright. My house was very Americanized, but we still had Hispanic aspects. In my household, we keep our pots and pans in the oven, which is normal for me; like why you have your shit hanging out? I’m just saying. We have our rice in the little Keebler cracker tin and our sofrito in a little butter container. So we have some Puerto Rican traditions that have been passed down from my grandmother to us. It wasn’t until middle school and high school that I experienced going to a school that was predominantly students of color. In my graduating class for my high school there were probably five white kids. I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where I saw different kinds of cultures and was able to understand them. There is so much Hispanic culture in the city, and you get to experience that all of the time. For example, you could be going into the city and you see individuals playing traditional instruments. [You see] an African drummer or a Jazz player performing, so you don’t only get exposed to a variety of ethnic cultures but also different music. I feel that it helps round you out as a person, and everyone should experience that. It was a culture shock coming here and being in an environment that lacks so much diversity. I am so used to seeing different colors, different faces; different everything.
AM: What are your opinions about the gentrification crisis in New York and hipsters?
Cassidy: I have like a love-hate relationship with gentrification. A rough definition of gentrification, as I see it, is when individuals come to a lower-class, impoverished area and improve it so that middle class individuals can move in. I tolerate it because it makes the neighborhoods look nice and more modern. The bad part of it is that it is taking away from the people who live there and pushing them out of their neighborhoods. I think they are trying to do this with Spanish Harlem. First of all, they are trying to change the name to ‘Soha.’ There is a place in Manhattan called ‘Soho,’ so they’re trying to do that with Harlem. Things like rent increases and redlining is forcing people out of their homes to make space for upper class individuals who can afford them, which are usually white people, hipsters and all of that. Hipsters are stupid. I cannot stand them. They need to go. They have found a way to use the diversity of New York to their advantage. Hipsters appropriate all different kinds of cultures.
Going back to gentrification, I grew up in Gowanus, Brooklyn and I would go to this bodega all of the time. Once I moved out, I would go back there because my mom worked in that area. One day I go back and the bodega is gone, and the next day it’s replaced by this doggie daycare grooming spot. I was like, ‘Wait, where did my bodega go?’ It hurt so bad. I’m thinking they just kicked those people out by increasing their rent. They did the same thing all around downtown Brooklyn. It’s hard on my dad because where he grew up looks completely different now.
I used to never understand why people of color would get upset when white girls would wear — you know — the box braids. I would just think, “Oh, it’s just a hairstyle” but then I saw how the U.S. is doing that to bodegas and other institutions, and I understand that fury. They’re just taking something that is not theirs and now, all of a sudden, it’s “so cool” and [they] want to bring it into pop culture. It’s not good, because you don’t understand the story, the heartbreak and the pain that went into just trying to keep these stores open. Instantly, for any Hispanic immigrants that just came from their home country to a new place, going into a community like that makes them feel at home. The fact that they are taking something like that and saying, “Oh yeah we’re just going to make an app called Bodega” — like what is that bullshit? I hate the fact that this is a constant thing in the communities of people of color.
AM: Who are you, how do others perceive you and who do you want to become?
Cassidy: Okay, who am I? I honestly don’t know. I’ve noticed that I am the type of person who fits into different friend groups and that, as a person, I am diverse. I am also a people-pleaser, and I like to make people happy but along the way I have lost who I am. Some people can tell you directly like, “Oh I’m this type of person,” and can label themselves, and I can’t do that. I am known for being happy and energetic, but what kind of person am I? I don’t have an answer. If we’re basing it off of culture, I say I fit into the white community and the POC community very well. However, I am either too ghetto for the white community or too white for the POC community. It’s like I can never fit.
I guess that’s one of the struggles of my identity. It’s hard to go through every day not knowing who you are when labels are such a big thing in our generation. Instantly, what someone will say about me is, “Oh her energy is great,” but when I have a down day, all of a sudden I am not allowed. I feel like people don’t take the time to really understand the levels that there are to me because they see [me] happy and assume, ‘Oh she must be this way all of the time.’
So nobody really takes a step back to be like, “Okay. Who are you really?” and I think that is one of the reasons I feel so lost. Also, I overthink things and want to be known as one thing but that’s not possible. Who I want to be? Oh God. Career-wise I want to become a college professor because I love teaching, I love educating people, and I love attention. I like working with people and having an impact on people’s lives.
Personally, I want to be someone who can live with her mental illnesses. I want to be able to accept them because, right now, I live with the mentality of “I want it to be gone so I can be normal.” I have to realize that the only way that would happen is if I get a new brain put into my head. There’s no way this is going to go away, so it’s something I need to live with. I want to be accepting and realize that I am going to have rough days but I will overcome it.
AM: Anything else you want to say?
Cassidy: I guess last words would be, for those who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere on this campus, you are not alone. I am right here with you. It’ll get better. Remember that we are here for an education, and don’t let other people’s perceptions of you distract you from your main goal. You are going to be successful as long as you try your hardest and put your mind to it.