Rediscovering Puerto Rico's Magic Through the Eyes of a Local Returning Home

Laura Redburn

For a Boricua, a trip back is more than a homecoming—it’s a return to her true self.

There's a popular saying in Puerto Rico: “I would be Borincano even if I was born on the moon.” It’s part of a poem written by Juan Antonio Corretjer, one of the great poet-luminaries from the island and a pro–Puerto Rican independence activist who died in the 1980s. It was turned into a folk song by the singer Roy Brown in 1987 and has since become a second national anthem of sorts. If you play it anywhere on the island, or anywhere in the world where Puerto Ricans are congregated, everyone will sing along.

Related: What to Do With Just 24 Hours in San Juan, Puerto Rico

I think of this song often when I am abroad, and I am reminded of how much I love my people when I land in San Juan. Puerto Ricans always applaud when the plane touches down. It’s a celebration of the pilot getting everyone to their destination safely, but lately, my cheer is the relief of finally being back home. The first step upon arrival is a trip to Piñones, an area known for its oceanfront kiosks that sell fried food and cold beer. Everyone has a favorite spot they go to, and El Rinconcito Latino is mine. I have not properly arrived on the island until I am seated at one of their white plastic tables, an alcapurria fritter in one hand and a Medalla beer in the other. This meal is the Proustian memory key that unlocks all the parts I have hidden from myself in the time I have been gone. After this ceremonial meal, my provenance is indisputable, my English feels heavy rolling off my tongue.

It’s a tricky thing when a trip back home is also your vacation. There are the spots you need to visit every time you go, the ones that fulfill you somewhere deep inside yourself—the places that act as therapy, like the secret beach in the town of Cabo Rojo, followed by the seafood restaurant where I drink a passion-fruit mojito and fried hake with a side of arañitas, or deep-fried plantain chips. And there are the places you rediscover when you play tour guide  for visiting friends. I can’t remember the first time I had a mallorca sandwich at La Bombonera, a restaurant in Old San Juan that dates back to 1902, but I know when I went again with my husband five years ago, I was furious with myself for letting more than a decade pass since I’d last been. Sitting at the counter eating a ham-and-cheese mallorca topped with powdered sugar along with a café con leche and fresh-squeezed orange juice has since become a holy grail breakfast for us—and a new tradition. Another budding tradition: After our wedding last year we went on a hike through El Yunque National Forest, a place I had not been since a high school class trip. It was lush, the view was breathtaking—how could I have ever taken such beauty for granted?

Related: Travel Guide: Vieques, Puerto Rico

And then there are the old places that have grown into something entirely new since I’ve been away. My friend Carmen always picks a cool new restaurant for us to try when I visit, and last time it was Azucena, a restaurant in Condado that specializes in cocina criolla, or typical Puerto Rican fare. Condado is known as a tourist spot, but it’s also where we often ran around as teens looking for trouble. As adults, we were just slightly more civilized, enjoying drinks that flowed as freely as our conversation alternated between English, Spanish, and Spanglish. When we finally left the restaurant three hours later, we realized the lot where we had parked had closed—with our car locked inside of it. A slight panic quickly turned into laughter. A friend who lived nearby was happy to lend us his car for the night, and as we drove home, music blasting through open windows, I felt like something had been set free from within me. My little island could still surprise me. A trip home could never be boring. I would be Puerto Rican even if I was born on the moon, but I am truly myself when I am right here under its skies, breathing its mountain-fresh air.