If you don’t believe that one nation can fall in love with another, please buy a ticket to Puerto Rico. As a person with South Indian roots, growing up in San Juan, I have become extremely, happily familiar with the easy love affair that Puerto Ricans have had with the subcontinent for the past 15 years or so.
Boutique designers (such as the owner of Nativa boutique in the San Juan neighborhood of Condado) love India for the rich color of its textiles. Shopkeepers of all shapes and sizes are enthralled by the beauty of the nation’s jewelry, clothes, furniture, and, at times, medicinal systems (a very popular Ayurvedic shop co-owned by an Indian and a Puerto Rican sits in the heart of historic Old San Juan). And, perhaps most impressively, virtually all are captivated by its philosophical traditions, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Sufism.
They are also taken by India’s oldest and most widely adopted spiritual practices: yoga. As I grew up in San Juan, I was surrounded by India as much within the home as outside it. I found India in classrooms—India alone was discussed for four full months in my eighth and ninth grade history classes. I experienced India in taxicabs—one of my favorite cab drivers was a practicing Buddhist, and another had great respect for (and looked exactly like!) Mahatma Gandhi. I enjoyed India in popular stores—at Moon Dance, a well-reviewed shop in Old San Juan, where the owner has spent hours with my mother and me discussing the subtleties of Indian music and dance, going into so much detail that the conversation quickly flies over my head; and at Hecho a Mano, a store selling some of the most popular clothes on the island, which also features music, jewelry, and apparel directly inspired by the craftsmanship of India.
I experienced India at local dance studios—at DanzActiva, once again situated in Viejo San Juan, which teaches kathak (a classical North Indian dance) along with its flamenco, bomba, modern, and salsa, and, in 1998, its owner and students participated in a production that showcased the similarities between flamenco, bomba, and kathak.
And, perhaps most importantly for me, I found India in yoga studios—David Kyle (originally from Louisiana) and Elizabeth Sallaberry (from the island) own a small studio called It’s Yoga in Condado, where they teach classes in Sanskrit and refer to the original texts of Patanjali as they move through their series. When I first discovered the practice of yogasana for myself, my two primary teachers in both the philosophy and the asana (poses) were my Indian grandfather, who was a student of Vedanta (the experience of Brahman, of eternal reality), and David, an inspiring teacher of the physical practice.
In San Juan, I was at once Indian and Puerto Rican, Indian by ancestry and Puerto Rican by birth. I was able to situate myself evenly within both cultures, though at times the theoretical division between the two blurred almost completely. Thanks to my family and friends, I grew comfortable transcending often arbitrary categorization and instead came to occupy a space where Puerto Rican, Indian, Italian, and all else formed parts of a single, complete whole. I love most everything about Puerto Rico—its warm people, its fantastic food (which, incidentally, bears strong similarity to Indian food—arroz con habichuelas or rice and dal, anyone? mmmmm…), its wonderful culture (dance, art, music, and all else). I would like to think that I am a solid part of it all. But I think that what I love most is the fact that, there at home in Puerto Rico, it is possible for a new culture to take another by storm and inspire hybridization and transformation. It’s possible for one to be Indian, Italian, French Canadian, and Puerto Rican without being badgered about which box to check. I’m not sure that could happen here in the United States—not now, at least. Who knows, maybe here some culture will come along and take the nation by storm. ¿Quién sabe?