Soraya Ferdman: On discord

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 25, 2018

When I left Puerto Rico to go to college, I had no intention of returning. I never felt quite at home there, in part because I did not look, speak or think like those around me. My mother is Iranian, my father is a Jew from Argentina, and I grew up speaking primarily English. This made it hard to relate to my mostly Catholic, Spanish-speaking peers. Though people took interest in my mixed background, I was also teased for what made me different. 

 In grade school, I often confused the English word “embarrassed” for the Spanish term “embarazar” which means to be pregnant. Thinking back now, I can see why people laughed. Missi, tell fulano to stop impregnating me! 

 As I grew older, I became impatient, and the mere idea of college had me itching to leave. Before I ever stepped foot on Brown’s campus, I had begun to imagine it as my new home with my island far, far in the distance.

My first couple of years in Brown were their own brand of chaos. After years of feeling like an outsider, it was a great relief to be around so many like-minded people. It was a time of rigorous self-investigation and self-exploration. Poor fashion choices were made, as were questionable hairstyles. There was a time freshman year where I think I went through four ideological transformations in a single week.

 I had successfully escaped the clutches of my former home. I remember flying back to Puerto Rico that first summer after freshman year thinking I was unrecognizable, that I had outgrown my old community. What could this island possibly do for me besides hold me back? 

 The liberal arts education teaches a person how to think. Learning, in this view, is not the absorption of facts but of skills — how to analyze information, communicate your data, organize evidence and write persuasively. It is the act of taking an idea, whether it be a literary argument or scientific discovery, and placing it in conversation with others.

 In sophomore year, I decided to concentrate in history with a focus in modern America. While most of my classes were about Europe and the United States, I found myself repeatedly making connections to Puerto Rico. Brown gave me the tools to imagine new ways of relating to Puerto Rico. I started to consider how other Puerto Ricans related to the island and why they might have perceived me as an intruder. It’s not that my feelings of discomfort weren’t real, but that I was stuck there, unable to see past it. I came to Brown to learn who I could be outside of Puerto Rico, only to find that my identity was inextricably tied to it.

This past October, a category-five hurricane devastated my island. The days following the hurricane were extremely difficult. News seemed to only get worse. Suddenly, every complaint I had made of my home felt cruel in the face of such loss. I craved my community but felt shameful to either ask or offer support to people I had left behind. I had spent so much time differentiating myself from them, it felt hypocritical to take part in our shared grief. And so I waited, for the lights to turn back on, for some roads to be fixed, but even then, my shame persisted.

That winter, I took a plane home. In the seat next to me, a man with thick Puerto Rican accent — instead of rolling his r’s, he produced a guttural sound not unlike Hebrew — struck up a conversation. He asked me if I was Puerto Rican and I said yes. I waited for the eye twitch, the “but you don’t sound Puerto Rican!” Surely, this man, with his impenetrable Puertoricanness wouldn’t let a gringa like me call herself boricua without some kind of certification. But there was none of this. Instead, he asked me if my family was okay, and after I assured him they were, I asked him the same question. For the rest of the plane ride we spoke here and there, sharing memories of our childhood. At one point, he nearly teared up. I was sure he would change seats. 

“You felt ashamed?” he asked me. “I still do,” I said. “Shame is no good,” he told me, looking at me almost too close. “It’s just a failed pride.”  

Puerto Rico is not just a place, it is the people. People who I resented for having opinions other than my own. High school friends I dismissed as unimportant or unhelpful, family members I considered  outdated. What person would want to speak to someone who thinks of them in these terms? The past four years have shown me that I’m tired of choosing pride over relationships. I am tired of thinking I’m right.

Brown students are passionate. It is this passion that you hear in our voices when we protest sexual assault on campus, the lack of diverse university faculty and the potential deportation of DACA recipients. But it is also this passion that has garnered us the reputation for being difficult to speak with. Though at times I have disputed this accusation, and spiraled into a defensive or silent resentment, I know that I have not been exempt. 

To communicate our ideas, we must consider our audience: to interpret a text, we are involving ourselves with another’s ideas; to write persuasively, we shape an argument for others to better understand us. All these skills imply not one, but many minds at work. Is it not imperative that we face the problem of conversation with the same creativity, thoughtfulness, and passion for which we are known?

I’d like to think I’ve grown a great deal since I first left Puerto Rico, though it’s more likely the tip of the iceberg. One would think that an Ivy League education might encourage a person to talk over people and seek out only the most insular of spaces. I’m resisting this habit. Because real learning occurs when we enter discussions, especially ones that scare us, with shared honesty and vulnerability.