While we certainly have our share of strivers and success stories, curiously we are among the least envious, most inherently happy people on the planet, content to make a living, make love and debate politics. Without bragging or being condescending there is an openness and innocence about Puerto Ricans that in all my world travels I have found unmatched. Strangely, in my experience it is Afghans who come closest to our extraordinary willingness to welcome strangers and our perhaps disproportionate hometown pride of place. Italians and Lebanese also come close. One Puerto Rican's success is every Puerto Ricans' success. Again, if you don't believe me, watch the Parade just one time and see how it seems a gigantic family gathering. When the young and old, men and women cheer Jennifer Lopez or Ricky Martin, they do it without an ounce of insincerity or envy, only pride.
If only our ambition for education and achievement matched our compassion or ability to love. In his book, The Governor's Suits, my longtime friend and confidant Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, an island-born and trained psychiatrist, believes that part of the reason for our community's tranquility is that as the world's oldest continuous colony, conquered by Spain on November 19, 1493 and then by the United States on July 25, 1898, someone else has always been in charge of us. As a child prospers emotionally in the absence of anxiety and responsibility our centuries-long colonial status has meant less stress for us. The big bad world wolf is not our problem. But we have sacrificed self-determination and drive for tranquility; the assurance that Uncle Sam will always take care of us.
My first professional hero, role model and mentor, Herman Badillo, the first Puerto Rican congressman, is even more pessimistic about our community's current plight. Badillo blames our persistent social problems and relative lack of success on an addiction to entitlements and preferential public programs, like bilingual education and open admission to public colleges, programs he not only benefited from, but, until leaving the Democratic party and becoming a late-in-life Republican also championed. "We act as if our New York neighborhoods were part of Puerto Rico," Herman told me in an interview. "We haven't taken advantage of the assets we have available to us here, like the City University. We're becoming part of a permanent underclass."