This is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month series, "Our Latino Heritage" where we are profiling a U.S. Hispanic from each of our Spanish-speaking Latin American and Caribbean homelands.
Unlike many Latinos – who live in a color-conscious world that inevitably brings up the question “And where are you from?” – Robert Rexach often gets surprised looks when he tells people he’s Puerto Rican.
“Most people don’t know that Puerto Rico has a shockingly diverse population,” said Rexach, who works in the aerospace industry. “A lot of immigrants from European countries went to Puerto Rico and assimilated, totally blended in and added to texture to Puerto Rico, so I’m very fair-skinned.”
His skin tone didn’t necessarily make things easier to explain, however, in fifth grade when his family moved from Puerto Rico to Orlando, Florida.
Because he attended a bilingual school in Puerto Rico, his English was great so a lot of people didn’t believe he was from there. “Among other Latinos they were like: “What? You’re just a white guy from Miami that knows Spanish.”
“Still, it was fun, but it was initially a culture shock,” Rexach recalled. “And in the early-to-mid 90’s there wasn’t much knowledge about Puerto Ricans in Florida so I remember kids asking me if I had a green card and I was like ‘No, I’m a US citizen why would I have a green card?’”
Rexach’s family actually returned to the island after only a few years in Florida. Yet he recently had to flee Puerto Rico’s economic difficulties and returned to the Sunshine State. “I just couldn’t keep up with the cost of living so I started looking for a job wherever I could find something that paid well.”
Though Florida was not his primary choice, that’s where he found a great job and happily discovered that now there are about 850,000 fellow Boricuas living there.
At least that made the transition from Puerto Rico a lot easier,” Rexach said. “I’m not that person who goes from one place to another looking for the comforts of home, but when I first got here I learned that there were a couple of amazing Puerto Rican bakeries. And when I was looking for a car, looking for a place to live, getting a quesito” – a fried pastry covered in glazed sugar and stuffed with sweet cheese – “just made it all better. I had a few too many of those to calm the stress.”
"I’ve always felt Puerto Rican first and I’ve never really felt like the ‘typical American’ but I love the U.S."
Comfort food notwithstanding, Rexach has found that one of the things that makes him comfortable in his new home is the diversity of people around him.
“I listen to punk rock, I love really good craft beer – so while I actually do love salsa, I like that there are a lot of well-educated young urban professionals of my age around me,” Rexach said. “I don’t look for ethnic backgrounds so much when I’m looking for people I can have conversations with – I’m looking more for an educated crowd, people who want to keep moving forward, to make things happen instead of waiting for things to happen. And I’m pretty happy with the fact that I’ve found a very diverse crowd that includes Venezuelans, Argentines, Cubans and others who are like me.”
Still, Rexach left his heart in Puerto Rico – his girlfriend is still on the island – and visits often. And he sort of fears that the way things are going there, they wouldn’t be able to provide any future children with the kind of educations they both benefited from and will end up raising them here on the mainland.
“We’ve spoken about it and we definitely want to provide them with a Puerto Rican upbringing, so we’d probably have them in South Florida so we could have them immersed in Latin American culture with that warmth and the bright colors,” Rexach said.
“You never know, though, I feel comfortable in any U.S. city,” he concluded. “I’ve always felt Puerto Rican first and I’ve never really felt like the ‘typical American’ but I love the U.S. – I love the history of the U.S., I love the people. The people are why I probably won’t return to Puerto Rico. I love this country, I love Americans – love living with them. I guess I feel like a very regular guest who always cleans up after himself when he’s here.”
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based nationally syndicated columnist and an NBC News Latino contributor. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.