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The New Barrio: Puerto Ricans in the Virtual Territory

Since 2003 there are more Puerto Ricans on the mainland than on the island. They are also more geographically dispersed than ever before within the United States. What used to be predominantly Puerto Rican communities 20 years ago are today mixed communities, where neighbors representing different countries and social classes coexist. The changes in neighborhoods as well as the geographic dispersion of Puerto Ricans have affected the traditional ways through which culture is transmitted.

As Puerto Ricans have moved away from the traditional population centers and spread throughout the United States, we have adopted and even embraced the use of new technologies to keep in communication. We are more dispersed, but we are also more connected and well on our way to creating a new nation, or at least a new barrio in the virtual territory.

But, is it possible to group Puerto Ricans into new communities, to have them communicate ideas, discuss social issues and exchange news? Is it possible to create one big barrio again, a home, a community for the over 5.1 million Puerto Ricans living in the United States? Of course it is! One who is doing it is George Torres, a community builder who presents, promotes, and preserves Puerto Rican culture via new media through his sofritoforyoursoul.com.

George is also co-founder of CAPICU! Cultural Showcase, which produces diverse poetry and performing arts events in New York City, and of RADIO CAPICU, the first live Latino talk radio show on the internet. He was recently appointed Director of the Latino Startup Alliance in New York City to help create a local ecosystem that helps mentor tech entrepreneurs from conception to execution as well as to promote STEM education for our children. He strongly believes in the power U.S. Puerto Ricans can have online.

I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years back at a national social media conference and then realized he was also a New Yorker. He agreed to an interview and when I asked him about the existence of a virtual community of U.S. Puerto Ricans he answered, “Boricuas, like any group regardless of origin, will find homes or virtual tribes online. The size of the tribes will be determined by the problem the community leader(s) are solving. By the vision, mission and path they take to get there. There are many communities that go way back, but I must give credit to Orlando Vázquez aka Don Jíbaro, who started jibaros.com around 1999 (2 years after the original Sofrito For Your Soul website was born). Don Jíbaro was a thought leader by using his website and the Yahoo groups service to really engage his community. He was a big inspiration in my push to deepen the relationship between my readers and myself. I learned a lot by watching his community grow.”

Marixsa Rodríguez: How does one create a community, online and offline? What does it mean to you?

George Torres: Community is created where we stand... it happens the moment we have an experience and in the moment that is shared. If we are both at Mama's house eating arroz con gandules y pernil, and I compliment her cooking, that moment you agree has made you part of the community that loves my Grandmother's cooking. Pero en serio...creating community for me was always about finding solutions to the problems we have in a shared space. When I started the website, I wanted to share my poetry about my culture with other second generation Puerto Ricans as well as other Latinos. My website transformed into a community when I allowed others to share their poetry and began creating spaces on campuses on Long Island where Latinos could recite poetry at an open mic with other poetry lovers. The website quickly grew into a place where people anywhere in the world came to reconnect with their cultural heritage by sharing their stories. Before I did this, they did not have a platform.

MR: How do you help people reconnect with their roots?

GT: In many different ways, for some it is a history lesson, for those that are more connected it is a conversation about how we are evolving within our community. My vision has always been to create spaces where people can express, appreciate and share stories via spoken word, music, visual art; as well as virtual town halls to discuss topics of cultural relevance. I am doing this through my web platform (Sofrito For Your Soul), Capicu Cultural Showcase (our events company), Radio Capicu (our online radio broadcast). I am also working to amplify this work by developing partnerships with organizations that empower Latino business/non-profits like Hispanicize (the annual conference for Latino trendsetters and newsmakers in journalism, blogging, marketing, entertainment and tech entrepreneurship), Latino Start Up Alliance (whose mission is to encourage U.S. Latino-led technology startups by providing a support network of entrepreneurs, investors, innovators and mentors) and Por Tu Familia (The American Diabetes Association’s Latino Initiatives health campaign.)

MR: Can you share a little about your interest and advocacy for poetry and other arts as mediums to share the culture and build community?

GT: As I mentioned, the only way to really build community is to share experience. I always believed that the spoken word movements as well as hip-hop did a great job telling our story. It also gives us insight to what is wrong in our community, what we are frustrated about. That is more powerful than any market research I can pay for... the artists are the spokespeople for all that we perceive to hold us back. Exploring the arts continues to lead us into the direction where a collective of organizations in our community are collaborating and creating solutions.

MR: How are Puerto Ricans communicating online? Are they more active in social media than other groups?

GT: There is a lot of research that shows that Latinos in general over index on most of the social networks but it has been hard to get numbers on Puerto Rican specific data. I do however know a great group of influencers working on creating a virtual map so that they can connect with Boricuas globally. Their project, Parranda.org, leverages popular platforms like Facebook and Twitter and creates a virtual celebration of all things Boricua. Their mission is deeply rooted in creating a greater Puerto Rico. In 2013, Parranda founders evolved their virtual community and created an actionable summit in which over 150 leaders from the global Puerto Rican Community could sit at a table to discuss issues impacting the quality of life for Boricuas including jobs, education, entrepreneurship, innovation, health care and empowerment.

MR: Is there really a Puerto Rican Renaissance going on in NY?

GT: ¿¿¿Que si que??? If you attended this year's Puerto Rican Day Parade, you would know that there is a renewed vision in seeing our culture, heritage and accomplishments celebrated on a bigger stage with a bigger audience. I think that sentiment has grown beyond teaching our children about our legacy, to teaching our neighbors about the people they see each day and having a better understanding of who we are as well as what we have brought to the table. The Puerto Rican Renaissance will take us to new levels as many of us recognize the successes as well as the failures we have endured as a community. It also creates new opportunities to ensure that the challenges we have experienced collectively in our history are not repeated. This is our time to despertar, luchar y superar but this time as one big Boricua family. I also see a shift in how Boricuas interact with other Latinos. I think we live in a moment where we see the current immigration struggle as a mirror of our elder's past. I think many are starting to realize that it was not that long ago our abuelos and abuelas endured these very same challenges. In my community I see more Boricuas reaching out to support these brothers and sisters. That gives me hope because I am a proud Boricua... but an even prouder Latino. I am a strong believer of the ideals of Panamericanism.

I cannot end this Q&A without a call to action to all the Boricuas reading this... that call to action is inspired by my creative partner and co-founder of Capicu Cultural Showcase, Papo “Swiggity” Santiago. The call to action is: let's write about each other. Let's tell the stories of our elders, let’s talk about the untold stories that were revised and did not include the darker shades of our ancestry (both Indigenous and African). Let's teach our kids everything we learned later in life through college and civic engagement. As content creators, let’s tell a better story about our people, our history and our vision to be better Boricuas.

George Torres builds community at sofritoforyoursoul.com, promotes poetry and events at CAPICU! Cultural Showcase and shares cultura at RADIO CAPICU. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published on 19 November 2014.