Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Once Upon a Time, When I was Puerto Rican

My name, legally, is Manuel Antony Marcano. I'm the 3rd in my family to have the name after my father, and his father. My true name however, the name I have been called by those I love since birth, is Maneco Manaque'to, or just Nico for short. Even now, few people outside of my family call me Nico. I was always trained to tell people to call me "Manny" and to stress my Italian and Spanish background. I was given the name so that I could blend, so that people would never know my tribe, so that people would never know what language I originally spoke. "Manny" was a crafted persona, along with my "American" accent and mannerism. The name Manuel Antony Marcano exists to hide the fact that I am a Taino.

Being a Taino (or "Skin" of any kind) is difficult anywhere in America but perhaps more so in the Caribbean because of the number of dissenters to your basic identity. Whether or not Tainos exist is actually debated. The language has been declared dead, the bloodline is considered erased and the culture is rarely spoken of beyond a footnote that says Taino history is mostly unrecorded. If you're able to get past that (if like me you can speak the language, know customs, and have a majority of Arawak genes even though they're really looking for Lokono ones) then you now become shunned by Puerto Ricans for being uppity. Being a Taino will see you scrutinized, brutalized and shamed.

It always made sense to me, why we adopted European names and mannerisms. I tried, with almost no success to fit in as a Puerto Rican and tried to accept it as part of my identity. Often I would speak broken or reversed Spanish to my peers, force-feed myself Arroz con Pollo, and try to identify with celebrities like Marc Anthony. As an adult I can admit I never fooled anyone. My accent was incredibly clear until I was 8 because Taino was my first language, Arroz con Pollo still makes me gag, and I walked out of "El Cantante" after the first few minutes. I tried to be Manuel Marcano, but Maneco was always there, always the real me.

As you can likely guess, this ended up being problematic. I was shunned by the other Puerto Ricans because they perceived me as different for reasons beyond being Taino. There is a long standing bias against people born on the mainland, and especially people born in New York. Language is often held over "Newyoricans". The Newyorican dialect of Spanish is considered crude and improper (an irony considering Puerto Rican Spanish differs greatly from Castillian Spanish and is littered with half formed Taino words) and any New York born Puerto Rican is guaranteed to confronted about how they speak the language for their entire stay on the island. The diet of a Newyorican is also called into question. Vegetarianism is generally frowned upon, and trying to explain the concept of Vegans is nearly impossible. The idea that you might not like the same food as someone on the island seems to drive a number of Puerto Ricans to the edge of sanity. The final and perhaps biggest reason Newyoricans are seen as inferior is how closely Puerto Ricans subscribe to Spanish behavior, most notably "Machismo". There is a great deal about Puerto Rican society that is inherently chauvinist and homophobic.

As a Manhattan born, bi-sexual, who spoke Taino, had feminist views, hated most Spanish food, and embraced features seen as feminine (like long hair and nails) I was pretty much public enemy number one outside of Quebrada Cruz, Toa Alta. To make matters worse, I would often lash out. I would use Taino words specifically when talking about places, such as calling the island Borinquen. I'd often belittle Puerto Rican dialect by calling it a slave language. Perhaps I was just an angry kid, but being a Newyorican was actually the least of my troubles.

Tainos have a number of issues associated with them. First anyone "claiming" to be a Taino isn't trustworthy, how could they be, they're from an extinct race of people. We're seen as traitors, as many Tainos joined organizations like the FALN and were the biggest terrorist threat to The United States of America until Muslims took the dubious honor. We're also seen as criminals, as outlaws many Taino or other indigenous people joined cartels like the Ă‘etas (a term which originated in Taino customs).  

This is where my story becomes far more violent. Members of my tribe have joined law enforcement, gangs, the US military and rebel organizations. I lived in a world where seeing a dead body was normal, where defending yourself didn't mean a schoolyard scrap, but rather a few slashes and killing a person was a valid possibility. I have watched people overdose, I've seen just about every type of drug there is be taken, and I've been attacked by junkies more times then I care to remember, some were even related to me. I watched terrorists have gunfights, gangs rape and deal drugs, and police brutalize based on race. 

In that, I'm not unlike many "Native Americans" who lived on reservations. Crime, especially acts of sexual violence are extremely high. As a kid, I always assumed Reservations would be a safe haven. I thought a place for people like us sounded like a great place to be. Due to this fascination with the concept and our dwindling numbers as a tribe, I would travel with my grandfather to other tribes.  As I traveled with my grandfather the realization became clearer and clearer with each one we visited. A "Reservation" was a nice way of saying "Ghetto".

This all came to mind because I was trying to answer two questions my father asked me yesterday.

"Why are you so invested in IGDA Puerto Rico when you hate Puerto Rican society" and "Why did you decide making games is important as the leader of our tribe?"

I couldn't readily provide an answer to either question. I can't even figure out why they asked me to lead the tribe when I was drunk and homeless. It took hours of thinking and writing things down and I think I only have part of it. 

I decided that making games was making art, and by creating art I could offer a piece of the culture I was born into. In order to adapt many of my people have left behind the ways of the tribe and become Puerto Rican in that they no longer practice our customs, speak our language or even stand by beliefs like gender equality. If I should die, and my culture with me, then I hope I can leave behind something in my games. I hope that through the interactive medium people can in some way understand my people. 

This leads me to the next part of my answer. I support IGDA Puerto Rico because I don't hate Puerto Rican culture even though I make it seem like I do. Not all Puerto Ricans are the ones I've interacted with. There are plenty of people who are empowered and empower others within that society even if the old fashioned ones soured my palette. At the end of the day I still believe in the people of the island and I recognize a group of people trying to extend their culture to the rest of the world. Many of the people involved are fighting against issues and stereotypes within the community in the same way I fought and they are people from my homeland. There is a kinship and they're making games for some of the reasons I'm making games so its important to help them along with their goals.

There is still a lot I'm not sure of, I'm not even sure if anything I've thought of today will actually be useful or if my games will actually reach people in a way where culture is even a factor but I need to try. In the end, I've found a way of expressing myself without having to hide.

My name is Maneco Manaque'to and I'm a Taino game designer.