Growing up in Puerto Rico, our family was no different than so many others. My parents got married after my father came back from being stationed in the Dominican Republic when the war ended. Both professionals—my mother a teacher, my father a civil engineer—my parents were struggling with the hard economic realities of the time. But somehow, they found time to cherish those cultural values that shaped our everyday lives. We celebrated every birthday, every graduation, and all holidays with music and dancing, typical foods, and friends and family. When we visited our family in the countryside—a trip that took two hours in an un-air-conditioned car, with five children fighting as to who would get a window or the front seat—we would break out in song, and somehow the trip would turn into fun. We would sing fun children’s songs but also beautiful love songs, songs about the love of country, many times not even understanding the meaning of the words.
When I was nine years old, my father took me to a classical music concert as part of the Pablo Casals Festival. I can’t remember what we heard; I can’t remember who the artists were. What I do remember is asking my father why he came and why he brought me. He answered, “You know, Carmencita, I really do not understand this music, but I know I like it. I come, and I listen, and I feel.” This statement taught me two important lessons: one, to be honest and unpretentious, and the other, that art is not only about knowing and understanding but, perhaps more important, about feelings.
I came to Philadelphia for the first time in 1973 to do a residency in family medicine after attending medical school in Puerto Rico. I remember the many hours of work. I was facing issues of life and death and confronting the stark social inequities and issues of poverty and race. These were all aggravated by my feeling of cultural isolation.
An important turning point in my life happened one Saturday night in 1976 when I attended a concert of Puerto Rican singer and composer Antonio Cabán Vale. The concert was held at a small performance space in a church in the heart of the Puerto Rican community in North Philadelphia. The room came alive, the music reverberated my familiar rhythms, and the words spoke to my heart. I had found a space to express, celebrate, and share my culture in Philadelphia. The organization sponsoring the event was Taller Puertorriqueño.
So, I believe in the right of cultures to coexist in a society where diversity is seen as an asset and not as a disadvantage. I believe in the right of individuals to be free of domination from others. As a Puerto Rican, I am a mixture of races. I am a mestiza, with indigenous, black, and European influences, and I believe in my strength because of this. And when I see a group of boys and girls perform the traditional Puerto Rican bomba and plena (traditions that have been passed on for generations) with passion, pride, and fervor, I believe in race; I believe in the human race.