For Andre Gomez, coming to the United States every year for summer camp was a welcome retreat — even when leaving paradise.
Now a top chef in Atlanta, Gomez grew up in Guaynabo on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, where his first restaurant job was at his grandfather’s hotel in San Juan.
But in 1993, he was just an 11-year-old kid in the woods of Westport, N.Y.
“I was the first Puerto Rican in the history of the camp. They gave us all numbers and I was #15874. So 15,873 people had come before me and not a single Puerto Rican,” said Gomez, now 35. “And to be asked how did I get here? Did I come on a boat? Did I live in a hut? As a young kid, that was surprising. But it prepared me. I am Puerto Rican and proud of it. When someone asks now, I say I am as American as you are.”
For Gomez and the nearly 90,000 Puerto Ricans who live in Georgia, that reality is as clear as the painted backdrop of Old San Juan on the back wall of Gomez’ restaurant, the Porch Light Latin Kitchen, in Smyrna.
On the island, Puerto Ricans recently voted overwhelmingly to become the 51st state. On the mainland, however, they often are treated as immigrants in their own country. Here they face a political environment that is hostile toward Hispanics in general; they even take criticism from Hispanics who are not Puerto Ricans.
“We are very proud people. The heritage is so deep and we are proud of where we are from,” Gomez said. “We are just like everybody else, we just want to be respected.”
‘There were people of every color’
When Edgardo Delgado’s family moved to Georgia from Puerto Rico 15 years ago, he welcomed the cold weather and occasional snow. But he was unprepared for some of the more painful realities.
“Where I grew up, there were people of every color, and we treated each other equally. When I arrived here I felt the division,” Delgado said. “In my childhood, the topic of race didn’t exist. My best friend was black and it wasn’t something that made him different than me. We were so close there, and when I got here I thought that it would be the same.”
Now 25 and a pharmacy student at Mercer University, Delgado remembers when he worked as a supermarket cashier and American customers would sneer “illegal” at him.
“You laugh, because it’s not true, and it’s not something to be offended by, because I know a lot of undocumented people,” Delgado said. “I consider them to be family.”
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According to 2015 Census data, Delgado and Gomez were two of the 86,792 Puerto Ricans living in Georgia, making them the second largest Latino population in the state. (Mexicans in Georgia number 550,000.) Cobb and Gwinnett counties alone are home to up to 25,000 Puerto Ricans.
In that same year, 2015, according to the latest data from the Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Institute of Statistics), some 89,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland from the island. That was 5,000 more than had left in 2014, in large part because of the crushing economic crisis that has devastated countless homes and triggered staggering unemployment numbers.
Immigrants in their own land?
Cynthia Román arrived in Atlanta in 2010, just before the financial collapse.
Although her husband is s successful professor at Georgia Tech, Román, herself the managing director of family services at the Latin American Association (LAA), likens their experiences to those of an immigrant.
“Legally speaking, we are American citizens, but culturally we are Latinos. So there is a separation there. We have the same experience as any other Latin American immigrant, because we have our Hispanic traditions, we speak Spanish, we conserve religious traditions,” Román said.
Puerto Ricans are a delicate blend of European, African and indigenous people of the island. Román’s Latin features are clear. But her husband, who is also Puerto Rican, has lighter skin, and their son is blonde with blue eyes.
“It is really about educating people that race is not just black and white,” Román said.“People ask me all the time if he is my child. Almost on a daily basis. It is like they look at us and say to themselves, ‘Something is not right there.’ And yes, they think I am the nanny.”
Román, whose organization serves those most in need in the Hispanic community, said her experiences have forced her to reinforce her Latina identity over her American one, although she has not faced the barriers that many Latinos encounter with regards to living and working legally in the country.
“I’ve had the same pattern that an immigrant from Mexico or Guatemala would have, with the difference that I can work, and my career is recognized here,” she said. “I don’t have to start over from scratch. But culturally, I feel that I am as much an immigrant as any Latin American immigrant.”
‘We have this sexy accent’
It is culturally where Puerto Rico has made its biggest mark on America — particularly in cities like New York, Chicago and Orlando, which have significant Puerto Rican populations.
“When I say I am from Puerto Rico, people assume I am from New York,” Gomez said.
In 2016, after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, many of the victims were quickly identified as young Puerto Ricans.
Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic to be nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court; Rita Moreno, the first Hispanic to “EGOT,” by winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award; and Lin-Manuel Miranda; whose Pulitzer Prize winning play “Hamilton” re-imagined America’s Founding Fathers as black and Hispanic, are all Puerto Rican.
One of the most famous Puerto Ricans was Roberto Clemente, the former outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates who became the first Latin American enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame after his untimely death in 1972.
Despite being revered in America, even Clemente struggled. Sports writers who struggled with “Roberto,” called him “Bob,” which he adamantly objected to.
“When you interact with people, we have this sexy accent that always distinguishes us, and your accent is always present and it identifies you. There are people who like it, there are people who don’t like it,” said Julio Delgado, a local chef. “There are people who, it doesn’t matter how you try to communicate with them, they don’t want to understand you.”
Where everybody knows your name
It is lunch time at the Porch Light Latin Kitchen and Andre Gomez is in his element. He opened his small restaurant, tucked in a strip mall in Smyrna, in 2015 after cooking at Buckhead Life restaurants and Kevin Rathbun Steak.
Salsa music blares as Gomez’ puts yet another giant “Puerto Rican Fried Pork Chop” on the grill – a crowd favorite. During his breaks from the grill, he strolls outside to greet customers dining on the patio in custom rocking chairs. Everyone knows his name and he knows all of theirs.
Carlos Maldonado, a regular, sits at the bar. The IT specialist was born in Chicago to a Puerto Rican father and Mexican mother. He was raised in Alpharetta but travels to the island occasionally.
“But I fully identify myself as a Puerto Rican,” Maldonado said. “I am most like my dad – calm and logical. But to tell you the truth, because of my name and the fact that I have lost my accent, most people think I am Italian.”
He laughed and swayed to the music.
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A constant adaptation
Puerto Rico became an American territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. Congress granted Puerto Ricans full citizenship 100 years ago, and Puerto Rican soldiers have fought in every American war since then.
Puerto Rico has its own constitution and its own governor. Residents may not vote for president, however, nor do they have representation in Congress. Everyone born there is a natural United States citizen.
More than 3.4 million people live in Puerto Rico, but nearly 5 million live on the mainland. New York alone has more than 1 million Puerto Ricans.
Island residents this month voted yes in a nonbinding referendum on whether Puerto Rico should be admitted as a state (which would require an act of Congress). Supporters of statehood argue that the move could boost Puerto Rico’s sagging economy.
In May, the commonwealth filed for bankruptcy. It faces $70 billion in debt and pension obligations approaching $50 billion that it cannot pay.
Nearly half of the island lives below the poverty line, and unemployment hovers at 11.5 percent.
If the island were a state, it would have the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation.