Originally posted on April 15, 2013, but it is significantly updated
Last night we were watching Gabriel (Fluffy) Iglesias’ latest special (Note: he is not that Fluffly anymore; he’s lost a lot of weight for the sake of his health. Good for him!). Fluffy is a comedian and a hilarious one too. He is also (relatively) clean, which is a plus. I am no prude, but a comic that uses profanity and/or crude gestures as the only tool to make comedy just turns me off.
Alas, this is not a post about comedy.
In last night’s special, Fluffy talked a little bit about his personal history, specifically in terms of his struggles to establish himself as a performer. He spoke of his frustration as being labeled as a Latino comic rather than as a good comedian, period. I get him; I really do. Let me say right away that he is obviously proud of his heritage while at the same way acknowledging that it has very little to do with his talent.
So, again, I get him; I truly get him because I feel exactly the same way about being a scientist.
First, dear readers, I want to tell you that I am very proud of where I come from. I was born and raised in the tropical island of Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory since 1898, but with close to 400 years of Spanish colonization before that. Even today, the political reality of Puerto Rico is strange, even truly weird to say the least but this is a topic for another day.
The main point is that culturally, I am Hispanic or Latino, however you wish to label me. This includes aspects like habits and customs, food (Puerto Rican food is the best, bar none, period!) and language. For example, even though I am completely fluent in English, my first language is Spanish. Physically, I do not look like the stereotypical “Hispano”, I am a blue-eyed “jincho” (A jincho is a Puerto Rican slang term for someone with “**very** fair skin”, incidentally, not usually a compliment), and again, my mother tongue is Spanish. Incidentally, we come in all colors. Case in point: My wonderful wife is the product of a beautiful black woman and a tall-green eyed, blondish guy) and this is not at all uncommon in Puerto Rico.
By the way, how can you tell what is your true first language? Easy; there are two main ways of knowing. You just need to ask yourself two questions: First, in what language do you count (especially in a hurry)? Second, in what language do you pray? But as usual, I digress…
Anyway, I love my culture, which to up to a certain point defines who I am, but my culture of origin is does not say everything that there is to say about me. You see, I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother… (You get the picture)…, but I also am a pretty good professor, scientist, etc… who happens to be Puerto Rican.
The point that Fluffy tried to make in his brief monologue spoke to me because sometimes I get irritated when I hear people identifying themselves as “a Puerto Rican Scientist” or something in those lines and I get **really** irritated (starting with the letter “p”, and sometimes “encabronated”; ask a Puerto Rican about this one, you won’t find it online…) when I am described as a “Puerto Rican Scientist”.
Now, my dear fellow Puerto Rican scient…. Darn it, I did it myself!
The point that I am trying to make is that I am a good scientist because I worked for it; I am a scientist because I was fortunate enough to have a pretty decent mind, the support of a loving family, the financial means (through a MARC predoctoral fellowship –full disclosure– and student loans), tenacity (the kind of tenacity and work ethic that you absolutely must have in order to **earn** a PhD) that allowed me to go to graduate school and eventually get my dream job. And I am incredibly grateful for that. Last, but absolutely not the least, I had wonderful mentors who believed in me when I did not believe in myself. Mentors from Puerto Rico, Croatia, Poland, and American (please check out my first book for the whole story).
I am also a good scientists because I contribute to my discipline…
I suspect that the path that led you to your science career is very similar to mine.
Let me give you a very important example. Recently, another fiend and colleague of mine (@dacolon) coauthored a very important opinion piece with none other than the prestigious journalist Dan Rather. Do you think that Dr. Colón-Ramos got to do that because he is Puerto Rican? No, he got to do that because he is a top-notch scientist and professor; he is that, period, whether he’d lived and worked in Puerto Rico, England, Australia, Antartica, or the Moon itself (Yes, I am aware of the song Boricua en la Luna; I happen to love it!)
Mi friends and colleagues, we are not good scientists because we’re Puerto Rican. We are good scientist because we took full advantage of the opportunities and abilities given to us, and because we worked our collective butts off. By allowing yourself and others to define you as a “Puerto Rican scientist”, you are implicitly accepting thinking of yourself in the lines of “I am a good scientist… for a Puerto Rican”.
Now, please tell me, is that the way to gain respect? We deserve the respect of the world, not mere tolerance or patronizing attitudes…
Let me point out that as a good friend of mine, Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer (@moefeliu) told me, this does not preclude the possibility that good scientists, who happen to be Puerto Rican, African-American (and sometimes both, yes, again, it’s true, we come in all colors…) can become “visible examples” for younger people of our own culture to identify with us. Moving on, any other ethnic / cultural group or even Martians for that matter can serve as role models and good examples for younger minds, and I am all for that! Now, all of this also applies to people in all areas, it will also apply even if you are not in the sciences (nobody is perfect… (;-)…)
P.S. If you disagree with me and want to yell at me, fine. Just note that Doña Lucy Ojeda (mi madrecita) had nothing to do with this blogpost… (:-D)
I thank my wife, Liza and my good friend, Dr. Mónica Feliú-Mójer (@moefeliu) for useful comments and for reminding me that representation matters.
Picture credit: Gabriel Iglesias
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