Puerto Ricans In Korea

During the summer of 2002 I interviewed several Korean War veterans in Puerto Rico. Those interviews were part of my research on the now famous 65th Infantry Regiment also known as the Borinqueneers. I hoped the interviews would bring a more personal feeling to my project. Those veterans did more than that. They opened my eyes to larger historical processes. Many of these veterans described themselves as jíbaros, as humble Puerto Rican rural folks. When I met them they no longer lived off the land. In fact, after the war many studied (finished high school, attended vocational schools or/and college). They set up small and medium-size business (from the local colmado and barra to an engineering-contracting firm and everything in between). Some became local leaders or assemblymen, or joined the army of technicians and technocrats in charge or carrying out the socio-economic restructuration of the island as envisioned by the creators of the political experiment we know as the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (ELA), or the Commonwealth.

They had been transformed by their military service and their experience in the war. Their professions had little to do with what we associate with that much romanticize Puerto Rican rural folk. However they proudly claimed that they continue to be jíbaros. And true to form, they showed me the hospitality for which the Puerto Rican rural folk is famous for. I was invited into their houses and to their tables. I quickly figured I was going through a vetting process. At their tables I was offered a mix of imported goods and the fresh plantains, green bananas, tubers, avocados, mangoes and oranges that they continue to grow in small plots of lands (el patio) behind their cement houses. The generous meals they offered me were representative of two worlds. There was the modern world exemplified by the processed exported food bought at the supermarket, Sam’s or Costco. But there also was a world that had supposedly disappeared during the march towards a modern industrialized Puerto Rico. That world was represented by the viandas (tubers) and other products they offered me from their yards. As I enjoyed their hospitality and broke bread with them I realized that these veterans had not just negotiated these two worlds, they had fused them. Military service had transformed them in many ways but it had also allowed them to subsidize- even if in small measure- that jíbaro way of living. And in that sense they had made their colonial encounter with the military a collaborative experience in which they “established the parameters of their own modern selves” to borrow Michael C. Hawkins description of the encounter of the Moros of the Southern Philippines with the U.S. Army.

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