Lecture spotlights Puerto Rican identity in Windy City

Students, faculty and staff filled Wege Auditorium last Thursday afternoon to hear Assistant Professor of Latino/a Studies and American Studies Mérida Rúa give the fourth talk of the 2013 faculty lecture series titled “A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Neighborhoods.”

Professor of Economics Stephen Sheppard introduced Rúa by describing his interaction with her at the College. Rúa came to the College in 2003 as a Bolin Fellow, and upon her arrival, Sheppard sought her out for her knowledge of Latino/a neighborhoods in urban communities. Her years of research on the Puerto Rican neighborhoods in Chicago manifested in a book recently published by Oxford University Press, A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago’s Puerto Rican Neighborhoods.

After Sheppard’s remarks, Rúa began her address by thanking colleagues and attendees of the lecture for their support and engagement. She then explained the motivation behind her work to the audience. By examining “multiple meanings of Puerto Rican-ness,” Rúa’s research expands beyond the black-white binary, giving more dimension to the study of how Puerto Ricans have influenced Chicago. Rúa’s work within the Windy City is also deeply personal, as much of her investigation centers around “the place [she] still calls home.”

Much of Rúa’s work looks into the legacy of Puerto Rican presence in Chicago. In focusing “on the series of neighborhoods Puerto Ricans occupy,” Rúa discerned a “powerful sense of loss of place and neighborhood.” Rúa investigated “some of the ways in which Puerto Ricans navigate differential inclusion” in order to “establish legitimacy and a sense of belonging.” Her findings reveal how “this multiracial population [began] to unsettle U.S. polarized notions of race.”

Rúa related the complex and paradoxical responses that greeted Puerto Rican immigrants. Though they were considered white and enjoyed citizen status, upon arriving in Chicago Puerto Ricans were categorized as foreign people of color. Discrimination in the workplace cheated Puerto Ricans out of earned wages and promotions and “working Puerto Rican communities [grew] on the north, near northwest, and south side [of Chicago].”

Rúa described her exploration of the Puerto Rican experience in Chicago through the lens of the Bishop family, the dynasty behind the first Puerto Rican owned funeral home in the city. Rúa lived above the Bishops’ Caribe Funeral Home while conducting fieldwork. Caribe “was, in a multiplicity of ways, a center of life as well as death,” she explained.

In painting a vivid picture of the Bishop family, Rúa captured the pluralities of Puerto Rican life in Chicago. Julius Bishop, an African-American from the south, returned from World War II and became a mortician, determined to provide “invaluable services to undervalued populations.” His Puerto Rican wife, Gina, lent him legitimacy within the community and “the identity of the business was based on his clientele.” As members of a “pioneering generation of Puerto Rican migrants to the city,”  the Bishops had to define a place in a “multi-racial and deeply segregated city.” Despite initial stresses about the Bishops’ cross-cultural marriage, “Julius became Julio” and embraced his wife’s first language and culture.

Rúa described Julius Bishop’s wake in 2008 and its effect on the community. “An intellectual committed to the study of the African diaspora,” Julius Bishop was remembered for his positive influence on the people around him. His children reminisced about the “constant debate in [the] Bishop household over recognition of race.” His friends recounted anecdotes of how “Julius became Julio.” Community members began “sharing ways they had partially overcome systemic marginalization,” a testimony to how even in death, Julius Bishop helped unite the neighborhood.

In discussing the inter-sectoral nature of the Bishop family, Rúa also illustrated Caribe’s role in the community. “In some circles,” Rúa said, “[it] is referred to disparagingly, as the gangbanger funeral home” and is “described as low class and dirty.” In the face such judgment, it is “imperative to consider the communities produced for Puerto-Ricans compared with [their] own ideas of community,” Rúa asserted.

Rúa spoke to the difficulty of portraying the subjects of her study authentically. She had to walk the “fine line between recognizing problems of community and denigrating a community” in her depiction of Puerto Rican life in Chicago. Rúa felt as though her subjects were “calling on [her] to write about them as real people,” who are “more human than their circumstances.”

Throughout her talk, Rúa highlighted the struggles associated with defining Puerto Rican identity, the process of determining “the meaning of Puerto Rican-ness in the past, in the present and in the future.” Rúa argued that this struggle for self-determination becomes necessarily tied to the past. “Even as identity is a matter of becoming, so is it deeply historical,” she said.

  • Rafael Ortiz-Sanoguet

    This is wonderful that scholars like Rúa are documenting who Puerto Ricans are in the U.S. There’s a large diasporic Puerto Rican population who are doing well in the U.S., but are hiding behind their mobility. These are the stateside Puerto Ricans who have migrated with their elitist personas, and although they themselves do not actually assimilate completely, they opt to disregard (self-denial) the real status of Puerto Ricans in the U.S.