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?
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.