404 How My Heritage Helped Me Understand My Righteousness

How My Heritage Helped Me Understand My Righteousness

I am a third-generation Puerto Rican, born in New York. I would consider myself a New Yorican if it weren’t for the fact that I moved away when I was 3 years old. Most days I feel proud of my heritage. Other days I feel like an all-American gringo.

My parents divorced when I was very young and a few years later, my mom was remarried to a military man. Next thing you know, we were flying half way across the world to Okinawa, Japan. Uprooted from the prevalent Hispanic culture in Spanish Harlem, New York, I started to lose sight of where I came from.

Puerto Ricans typically have big, tight-knit families. Since we were travelling the world and living isolated in military housing, that scope of family dwindled to our household. That is, my parents and my two sisters. I never experienced the big family get togethers or what it was like to grow up with cousins that felt like brothers and sisters.

My parents didn’t speak a lot of Spanish in our house. They are both fluent but it seemed that they were more comfortable speaking the language of their surroundings. The times when we did get around other Hispanics, I was teased because I was too shy to speak Spanish. I felt humiliation when someone spoke to me in Spanish and I gave that squinty eyed look of confusion that indicated, “I have no idea what you just said.”

My surroundings and my reaction to those surroundings assaulted my identity as a Puerto Rican. The playful teasing made it worse. Even when I tried to hang a Puerto Rican flag from my rear view mirror to show the world my identity, it didn’t always ring true to me.

Birth Determines Identity

What I failed to realize in the moment was that my actions don’t determine my identity. I can “act” like a Puerto Rican or I can “act” like all my white or black friends. The fact of the matter is that, through and through, I am a Puerto Rican.

When I realized that nothing can change the fact that I am Puerto Rican, I took that burden off my shoulders. I stopped trying to act like a Puerto Rican and I decided to just be a Puerto Rican.

Made Righteous Through Rebirth

In the same way, I’ve struggled with my identity in Christ for the majority of my life as a Christian. Sure, I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and accepted Jesus into my life as my Lord and Savior. That was cool and all but I was still learning what that all meant.

As I immersed myself in Christian culture, I looked at other Christians and tried to mimic their behavior. I tried to figured out what a Christian “acts” like and do my best to look the part. The problem was that I fell short way too often. I didn’t always feel holy and pure.

It was always easier to consider myself “a sinner saved by grace” rather than take a hold of the radical message that I am righteous by His grace (Romans 5:19). How could I consider myself righteous when I kept on sinning and not acting like a good Christian?

The Reckoning

No amount of striving makes me any more of a Puerto Rican. Both of my parents are Puerto Rican. I am full-blooded, through and through. I can act like a Puerto Rican by speaking Spanish, eating arroz con gandules y mofongo, being an awesome salsa dancer and going to the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City. But even if I never do any of that, I’m still a Puerto Rican.

When I consider that my actions don’t determine my identity, I find it absolutely freeing. It takes away all my efforts in trying to be something. It takes the guilt away when I feel like I’m not doing it well.

Romans 6:11 talks about this “reckoning” of who we are in Christ. That word means to count, consider, esteem or regard. Paul is saying consider yourself dead to sin. Not by effort but by birth. This is the new life that is available to us weather we realize it fully yet or not.

In other words, he’s saying consider yourself dead to your actions. You are no longer a “sinner saved by grace,” you are now “righteous by birth”.

In the same way I had to consider the fact that nothing was going to change the fact that I’m a Puerto Rican, I have to consider the fact that nothing will change the fact that I’m righteous through Christ.

Comfortable In Your Skin

It took me awhile to be at peace with the fact that I’m not fluent in Spanish, I don’t dance salsa and I’ve never roasted a pig (pernil). But I’m getting more comfortable with that fact. In fact, that freedom makes me want to actually want to be more of who I am.

I’ve talked about taking salsa lessons with my wife. That would be fun, not to prove to anyone that I’m a Puerto Rican but to appreciate my heritage. I may not completely look like what some people might think a Puerto Rican looks like in my first lesson but soon enough I’ll become comfortable in my skin.

That’s how I feel about my identity in Christ. When I stop trying so hard to be what I already am, I’ll find the freedom to be comfortable in my skin. From that freedom is where I’ll find rest in exactly who I am.


  1. Yes, the heritage forms the belief and attitudes of a certain person. What we are right now depends on the practices that are handed down from the past by our tradition.
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  2. Excellente!

    I know you know I feel this the way you feel this.

    Or something.

    Anyway. LOVED the tie-in to our identity as the Christ-purchased righteous.
    Jessica recently posted..His Love is Relentless

  3. Tony, I also struggled a bit with my Puerto Rican heritage. I was born on Brooklyn, NY. I lived in PR three years, but then came back to the states and pretty much grew up in Buffalo, NY. I use to be embarrased when I had to get in the dance floor and try to dance salsa and/or merengue. There was nothing Puerto Rican about me when I tried to dance. I know very little to no Puerto Rican History. The majority of my family lives in PR but I hardly relate to any of them at a deep level. I do speak spanish fluently, thank God. I also write and read it. By the way my favorite dish is arroz con gandules, chuletas, y tostones. Also, last year my wife and I went to PR by ourselves on vacation and I had mofongo for the first time – we went to the same restaurant three times to eat mofongo con bistec. Thanks for sharing your story. God Bless.
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  4. Thanks for such an easy-to-understand post. Coming from a legalistic background, this is very freeing.

    • I came from a pretty fundamental background as well, Nigel. There have been a lot of mindsets that I’ve had to “unlearn” before I could really understand the good news of the Gospel.

  5. Tony,

    As someone who is bi-racial, and has long felt pulled between two worlds, I can so relate to this post.

    My longing to “fit into” a particular race was answered in Christ. I don’t have to worry about being black enough or white enough, not because I just am, but because I am His.

    As I have grown in my love for Jesus, I have come to realize more and more that the things I so often seek to find my identity in are fleeting. So to answer, your question, yes, I am righteous. But only because He says I am and His view of me is all I’m after.

    Great post!
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  6. In Christ alone…. is where it all lies. Thanks for sharing this Tony.
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  7. Great food for thought Tony!
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  8. I agree w/ Stephen… this line said it all, ““No amount of striving makes me any more of a Puerto Rican.”

    If that doesn’t speak to our identity in Christ, I don’t know what else will.

    Great post, Tony.
    dustin recently posted..Look Who I Know!

  9. I am a mutt (a mix of too much) but my family of origin, the strong and wielding opinions of six older siblings, formed much of my identity. Thankfully, I have an identity in Christ and a new heavenly name to look forward too, so although I am wholly this last-born girl, a PK, a wife, a mom, a writer… I am something altogether more wonderful: a beloved daughter of God, made pure through the sacrifice of Christ.

    My kids are 1/2 Filipino, and they sometimes forget they aren’t full — I often have to remind them that they’re Norwegian, Italian, German, too. But I love how you paralleled your ID in Christ to your heritage — what a gift I can translate into my children’t lives.

    A favorite verse from Romans 9 ties in well: It is not up to him who runs or to him to wills. It’s all based on the mercy of God, not up to our effort and striving or to our reason and will.

    Great thoughts, Tony.
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  10. I had a similar struggle, not so much with my heritage, but with what it meant to be a man. I’m not a stereotypical guy. I don’t really like sports (playing or watching), I’m not into cars, until recently, I never really worked out, I’m not big into video games or anything else that society uses to define a man. Plus, for a long time growing up, I was afraid of men because of issues with my dad. I grew up in that constant state of “I’m not a real man.”

    It wasn’t until I came to Christ that He started working on that issue, and I experience the biggest breakthrough when I read Donald Miller’s “To Own a Dragon.” In there, he lays out the definition of what it really means to be a man. You have a penis. It made me laugh but also freed me to realize I don’t have to fit the stereotypical ideals of manhood to be a man. It greatly helped me understand righteousness as well – that I have a new identity in Him.
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    • That’s another great analogy, Jason. We so often equate tasks (what we do) to define an identity. Especially as men and women.

      Discussions on gender absolutely fascinate me. I might have to explore this more in a series or something. Every time I think I have a grasp on it though, something else seems to give me another way of thinking about it.

  11. I really like what Chris said about holiness and the process of sanctification. I can’t forsake that part of the faith journey simply because I’ve already been made righteous. I like to describe sancification as that which draws me closer to Him and makes me more like Him. Where it gets dangerous is when I pursue sanctification as a token of righteousness. I can strive to know Him more, but I’ll never be able to do or be anything that determines my righteousness. That’s by His blood alone. Great analogy in this post, my brotha!

    • Yeah, Chris’s comment stirred up a lot of thoughts. Finding that tension between pursuing Christ and striving for right behavior is where things seem to get confusing.

      I need to study this out more to come to a better understanding of it.

  12. AMAZING post, Tony!

    Love this illustration and LOVE my Puerto Rican esposo just the way you are!
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  13. Yes! I think we all have to grapple with this at some point, it’s a hard thing to wrap the mind around. This is such a great post, so beautifully written and heartfelt. Thanks for sharing!
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  14. Para estar Puerta Riqueño no es por los estereotipos pero por la sangre de tu herencia. Es igual con Cristianos, son hecho justo por su sangre tambien.

    Dijiste ” I tried to figured out what a Christian “acts” like and do my best to look the part. ”

    In this sentence lies the stumble for so many, me too. To act like it isn’t letting the new nature in us flow out.

    Ñande Jara Tande Rovasa. Just kidding that’s Guarani a tribal language down here. It means God bless you.
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  15. Tony,

    This beautifully rich and complex essay is why this remains among my favorite blogs. Or, rather, you remain one of my favorite bloggers!

    Thank you for this. My wife and I are working so hard to cultivate heritage in our family for our biological sons and adopted daughters. It’s a mixed heritage: Southern, American, Chinese, Christian. It’s complex. I just hope we can offer a framework that allows each child to discover who they are in God’s eyes.

    It’s interesting that your struggles with your Puerto Rican heritage parallel my struggles with my Southern heritage. There are elements I love. And some I loathe. Ways I fit in. And ways I don’t. I guess it’s the tension in our respective struggles that deepen us.

    Did you know one of my favorite bands, Balun, is Puerto Rican? But they defy all stereotypes. If you like electronica and dream pop, check them out: http://www.balunonline.com/
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    • That means so much coming from you, Keith. Thank you!

      I love what you’re doing in the realm of adoption in your family. It’s such a picture of our relationship with God and how He adopts us into His family.

      I’m going to check out Balun. I always love your recommendations.

  16. “No amount of striving makes me any more of a Puerto Rican.” Strong analogy, brotha- love it.
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  17. Tony,
    This may be one of the best posts you have ever written!
    The hard part in believing righteousness is when people confuse it with holiness. We all know we have a way to go (or grow) in holiness. But righteousness is a gift of God. We should believe it! But we look through the eyes of our holiness (process of becoming more like Christ)
    So yes – I believe we are righteous – because of Christ, not me

  18. What a great illustration of what it means to belong to a family and a people in a “strange” land. Isn’t it amazing how God can take even the painful parts of our past and use them to heal us in the present?

    On a side note, my paternal grandfather is Polish, but my grandmother is Puerto Rican, so I know a lot about family get togethers where you don’t quite know what’s going on or how to dance. I’m working on acquiring a taste for plantains right now, but I’m afraid the Polish side of me is winning.
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    • My whole life is about how God used my past to heal my present. Or so it seems. 🙂

      Oh man, I LOVE plantains. The sweet ones and the fried ones! But I love food of all kinds so you’d be hard pressed to fid me turning anything away.

  19. Mira Tony, que eso que tu no sabes hablar espanol? No te preocupes chico porque tu sangre es Puerto Riquena y nada y nadia te lo puede quitar. Tu sangre baila salsa, tu sangre conoce el pernil, tu sangre nadie te la puede cambiar!

    Y si chico, yo soy Justo. Por el nuevo nacimiento del agua y Espiritu!
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