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Ashley Montalvo

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This is the story of Ashley Montalvo's father and grandmother, who came to the mainland United States from Puerto Rico and, despite being citizens, faced discrimination and cultural barriers. Today, Ashley is aware of her heritage and partakes in a hybrid blend of cultures.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please contact Immigration History Research Center staff for permissions not covered by this Creative Commons license.

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For my project, I decided to tell a story I am quite proud of, that being the story of my family, mostly with regards to my father and my grandmother, who are both from Puerto Rico. “But Wait,” I hear you say, “this project is about immigrants from another country and Puerto Ricans are citizens.” Well, if you’re thinking that, congratulations! You make up a very small minority of people I’ve ever met that actually know this, as I will cover later on in this project.

Puerto Ricans, aside from being born with US citizenship, are in many ways treated as foreigners and face many of the same barriers to both coming to and settling in the States, such as a language barrier, and facing ignorance and blatant racism. Through recent conversations I’ve had with both my father and grandmother have reflected this as well. They both feel that although they have been living in the States for decades, they don’t necessarily feel wholly American, but they don’t feel like they belong in Puerto Rico anymore either.

My grandmother, more fondly known as “Mami Sonja,” was born in 1954 and grew up in the projects of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. The whole area was very poverty-ridden, and many, including her mother, my Mami Ana, did not even know how to read and write. Seeing how the public education system had failed so many around her, she took it upon herself to study hard enough to get a full-ride scholarship to the private school in the area. It was here that she started to learn English and became fluent by the time she was in high school. Even though she never imagined she would leave her island, she knew it would open up many opportunities for her.

Growing up, she saw one of the biggest injustices done to the people of Puerto Rico, in the form of what is known by many as a “blood tax” on the island. This refers to Puerto Ricans being drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War, despite the fact that many of them did not even speak English. This included two of her beloved family members, one of whom did not make it back.

Seeing this, she joined the FUPI, an organization that was in favor of Puerto Rican independence from the US and went to many of their protests despite the fact that many of them turned dangerous. Little did she know that she would end up marrying an American soldier and moving here to Charleston with her three children, of of which was my father, who was only five years old at the time. Her passion for fighting against injustice against those who can’t always fight for themselves led my Mami Sonja to begin working at Child Protective Services for thirty years as a case worker and an interpreter. And even though she has been living here for decades and serving the community, I have often seen her treated with much intolerance, just because of her heavy accent. She even told me recently that she was asked for her green card at the DMV and that she had some very colorful words to say to the worker.

The next person I want to talk about is my father, who did not spend as much time growing up in Puerto Rico as Mami Sonja as he came to live in the states with her when he was only five. He told me that his first few years he spent were very hard for him because he missed him hometown of Santurce and his father, who was still living there. He used to cry every night to my Mami Sonja and told her that English was an impossible language and that he’d never be able to learn it. Despite what he may have believed at that time, he did in fact learn English with a lot of practice and the help of music. He told me that his two favorite genres growing up were hip hop and punk rock. He liked hip hop because of the storytelling aspect but he liked punk rock because it was quote on quote: “angry like me.” He liked it so much in fact, that when he was fifteen years old, he started a band called “Aggravated.” He wrote lyrics, sang, and played lead guitar for his band and it became quite well-known in Charleston’s underground punk scene. “Aggravated’s” biggest rival band was apparently a group comprised of neo-nazis, which after making xenophobic remarks to my dad, it became a regular occurrence for the two bands to brawl.

However, after I was born five years after the formation of “Aggravated,” his punk days were over and he took on a more domestic role. He often tells me what he remembers of his life in Puerto Rico, although he says many of them are starting to fade as he stopped visiting after his father passed away when he was thirteen. Both him and my Mami Sonja are proud of their heritage and have both passed on their culture and traditions down to me and the other children in my family. For every holiday, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, we eat food that is typically eaten here in the States, such as turkey and stuffing, but we also always include a few Puerto Rican dishes and conversations switch back and froth between English and Spanish. It is this mix of cultures that I find to be unique and beautiful about my family and I am happy that I get to experience both because of them and share their stories and journeys.