By Claudia Pascual
After leaving Puerto Rico to study in the United States, I quickly learned my country was portrayed as two things: 1) an exotic U.S. colony sinking in $70 billion debt or 2) a U.S. commonwealth where its citizens cannot vote for president of the United States.
However, Puerto Rico is more than its political status. Puerto Rico is a diminutive, yet flamboyant island (it’s so small it sometimes does not appear on maps), that despite its complicated relationship with the U.S., it’s filled with wonderfully peculiar customs that form its cheerful culture. Here are five nonpolitical facts that prove the island has a magnificent life of its own:
1. Puerto Rican Christmas: Asalto!
There’s not a silent night during Christmas in Puerto Rico. In the Puerto Rican version of carolling, Puerto Ricans do “parrandas” or “asaltos” (which literally translates to “assault”) where they surprise and wake up their neighbors with traditional lively music and instruments, like the “pandereta” and “güiro.” We drink “coquito” (a coconut-based, rum-infused drink sort of like eggnog) before leaving to the next house. The “parrandas” are loud, energetic and pure happiness. During the world’s longest holiday (no joke — Christmas lasts from Thanksgiving until Three Kings’ Day in January) Puerto Ricans eat, dance, drink and sing like there’s no tomorrow.
2. There’s no Criollo food without sofrito.
If you ever question where Puerto Ricans come from, just look at our food. Puerto Rican cuisine tells the magnificent story of how the blend of three clashing cultures (Taíno natives, Africans and Spanish conquistadors) created such passionate and loud culture. Comida Criolla (Creole Food) is Puerto Rico’s signature cuisine style. And let me tell you, it’s heavenly. Puerto Rican cuisine is Caribbean soul food. It’s the good kind of grease that soothes the heart. Influenced mostly by African and Spanish cuisine methods, many of the plates are deep fried, mixed with plantains and rice or have abundant amounts of olive oil. And for those who have sensitive stomachs, don’t worry, it’s not spicy. The outstanding seasoning known as sofrito is a puree of onions, small sweet green peppers, garlic and cilantro. It brings out the flavors of our dishes and makes everyone want more.
3. You’re 18? Welcome to the rum capital of the world.
If you’re 18, a fan of piña coladas and occasionally enjoy long walks on the beach, go to Puerto Rico. Believe it or not, the classic rum-based piña colada drink was created in Puerto Rico and instantly became a tourist favorite. Rum is part of the sugarcane industry that brought the island to its economic boom. While locals prefer their beloved rum and coke drink served with the best selling Puerto Rican rum Don Q Cristal, the island holds the largest distillery factory for the Cuban rum Bacardí. For Puerto Ricans, drinking is synonym to enjoying a chill time in the presence of great people.
This tradition devotes a whole day to enjoying traditional dishes, drinks and sharing with the local people. Chinchorrear is a made-up verb that sums up the act of “chinchorro” (or “bar”) hopping found in the rural areas of Puerto Rico. The most popular attraction is the pig roasting on the stick. It doesn’t matter how many times you have seen the pig on a stick, you will always be in awe watching one roast before your eyes. Afterwards, you can ask the butcher to give you the pig’s “cuerito,” or burnt skin. It’s a thin layer of fat topped with a crunchy skin that’s finger-licking, God-praising good. It may sound odd, but it’s the best guilty pleasure for any meat lover. In the outdoor heat of the “chinchorros,” Puerto Ricans also dance to salsa and merengue. Chinchorrear highlights the values of hospitality, family and sharing engrained in Puerto Rican culture.
5. Endless adventure
Before you get the wrong idea that Puerto Rico is a party island, it’s also a glorious paradise. Not only is it a beach oasis with countless crystalline beaches, but it is also home to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the national U.S. rainforest system. The distinct terrains and climates that connect rivers and mountains will fascinate nature enthusiasts. There’s so much to do in Puerto Rico: whether it’s caving in La Cueva del Indio (a habitat of native bats), snorkeling and surfing in the hippie west coast of the island or zip-lining in the island’s Cordillera Central, thrill-seekers will never be disappointed.