June 8, 2009

What does it mean to be Caribbean American?: James Nadal

What does it mean to be Caribbean American?

What does it mean to be Caribbean American?


Are we Americans Yet?

There was the exhilarating sense of adventure, mixed with the quiet anxiety of venturing into the unknown. Though but a mere six years old, I can still remember the trip along the Puerto Rican north coast, down PR 2 from San Juan to Ramey AFB, a long drive that would alter our lives forever, for better or worse, or a bittersweet combination of the two.

Growing up bicultural, bilingual and a military brat to boot, makes for a strange life, a chameleon like existence, or who the hell am I anyway?

Our father told my brothers and I that we were going to be Americans, and would from then on, he would try to speak to us in English so we could learn the language, which was the first step. This was before we knew there were academic studies on the proper introduction and teaching of a language. Our names were anglicized into this new environment--as if by changing our names we would become one of them. Nice try, Dad. Then we were placed in regular classes in their schools. We would become Americans, and that's the way it was.

My father had the novel idea that we could learn English by listening to American records. With the constant playing of this music at our house, we listened to all the ones my dad bought at the Base Exchange, and it was my luck that Elvis had exploded on the popular music scene and so he turned out to be my main inspiration. I still speak English with a Southern drawl, and can copy Elvis perfectly. Though I must add that Harry Belafonte was a close second, because my father had spent some years in Trinidad and so “Day-O” was a perennial favorite, and also a huge hit back then. This added to the bewilderment.

I picked up a stuttering stammer that I carry with me still when I get nervous or drunk. The translations in my head were not quick enough for my tongue. I would discover later that my breathing was too shallow and hurried. I was supposed to breathe and speak with the serenity of a Zen master when approached or called upon by the teacher. My mind was a rush of words and confusion. I was panting like a rabid dog. I was not informed of this breathing technique back in 1956.

One great advantage in our cultural assimilation procedure was that we went frequently to the movies on the base as a vital part of our curriculum. It was through the eyes of a child sitting in the theater that I got an insight into this seemingly continuous and varied way of life. I was to learn later as a teen that history is always written by the victors, and the movies were not always quite realistic in their portrayals, but that’s for another story.

The food was undoubtedly different. There were all these new names that went along with the introduction of a new cuisine. The main diet seemed to revolve around the hamburger and French fires, and those were in constant demand and supply. I learned about mustard on balogna sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly. I was curious about ‘leftovers’ which was a new concept as at our house there were never any of those. I would note here that a lot of the kids I met were very supportive and kind enough to accept me as a new friend and invited me into their homes; they were just as curious about me as I was about them. To those, I am forever grateful.

My mother went along with this integration process just so far, and so Spanish was the language at home. She wanted us to hold on to as much of our culture as possible and had the foresight and discipline to back her up. As everyone knows it is the mother who really runs the house. “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.” She continued to cook and serve our traditional Puerto Rican food, though she did try to incorporate some American dishes into our diet. We preferred our own, and so it was.

We did over the next few years learn the language, and adapted very well to our new lives, and thus became who we were. For we behaved like and were like typical American kids while on the base, but when we off the base, or visiting relatives, we were Puerto Rican again.

We went on an overseas assignment to Spain, where we were lucky in that we could speak the local language and used that to a great advantage. But the Spaniards considered us “Americanos.” So it seemed like it had gone full circle. Upon return to Ramey in Puerto Rico, we were in a much better position to enjoy the experience, being of course older and wiser.

So, who were we? Well, it has turned out that we were both of the above. I can recall asking my father many times during memorable situations, “Papi, are we Americans yet?”

The experience has carried over into a dualistic personality blend which has, in retrospect, served me well into adulthood. Evolving into a lifelong existence within the two cultures, I still enjoy very much the music, food, literature, and experiences which have led me to where I am. I am lucky to have many lifelong friends from “here and there,” and would not change a thing save for maybe learning that breathing technique sooner.

For my father, Jan A. Nadal.


James NadalJames Nadal (b. 1950) was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1956, he and his family moved to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, and in 1958, they moved to Zaragoza, Spain, where they lived until the end of 1960. After this brief stint, his family relocated back to Ramey.

Nadal traveled a lot as a young man playing music and seeking adventure in the Caribbean and in North and South America. He has been married since 1979 to Maria Nadal with whom he has had three children.

James has been a professional chef for many years in the Aguadilla to Rincon area of Puerto Rico, and has continued his interest in music by writing articles for music websites. He is the music editor for allaboutjazz.com. Family, food, wine, and music--the essence of life!


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