Recent events have brought a years-ago experience to mind.
My husband Greg and I used to be vendors at The Big E, a huge event in Western Massachusetts that I’d describe as the combined state fair of the six New England states (New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island). The fair had all the rides and “fair food” and agricultural exhibits of most state fairs, but there was also a strong cultural emphasis on the unique “character” of each of those six states.
For me personally, my month-long residence in Western Mass was a different type of cultural experience. Not only was I immersed in a New England “lifestyle” that was foreign to this native Southerner, but for the first time in my life I was exposed to strong pockets of immigrant culture -- whole neighborhoods where to varying degrees the “mother” culture and language were preserved. Russia, Ireland, Italy, and Puerto Rico were strongly represented; there were even weekly newspapers in Russian and Spanish. I thought it was pretty cool, and it certainly was very interesting.
One of the many friends I made over the years was Ricky, a young man who worked at the station where UPS and FedEx packages were delivered. Greg met him first, and was very impressed with this hard-working individual who always took vacation time from his principal occupation to work The Big E. Ricky wanted to make extra money for all the reasons that all of us want to make extra money: the dream of marrying “my girl,” one day owning a home, and of course just everyday Life. He always had a smile on his face, it seemed, and as his friendship with Greg developed, he seemed to take extra-special good care of us. After Greg took ill, and was no longer physically capable of picking up the parcels himself, Ricky even took it upon himself to deliver our shipments because he knew how hard it would be for me to leave our booth.
When the shipment station closed down for the day, Ricky would sometimes come by to hang out a little, maybe drink a beer, and we got to know him even better. It was during one of these times that I learned something from him that has stayed with me ... and probably -- hopefully! -- will the rest of my life. Because he appeared to be Hispanic, and knowing that there was a sizable Puerto Rican population in the area, I asked Ricky if he were Puerto Rican. He smiled at me, then emphatically said, “I’m ‘Rican! I’m ‘Amer-rican!” He then went on to explain that, while both of his parents had been born in Puerto Rico (which is, of course, part of the US and has been since 1898), he had been born IN America (one of the 50 states); he was all-American and of Puerto Rican descent.
The pride with which he made this declaration filled my heart with pride as well.
I think back on Ricky today, remembering his ambition and industry, his work ethic, his willingness to go above and beyond, his smile, his friendship ... most of all his pride in his American citizenship. “My” America is richer because of him.