Puerto Rican flag is draped across the upper half of a warm white background; there is a semi-transparent AWN logo in red and blue at the right end of the flag. Below the flag there is text in a black handwriting font: “I’m Puerto Rican and I'm autistic. That’s not something you hear everyday.” Red text reads: “¡Feliz Mes de la Herencia Latinx!” At bottom right in black text is “- Kayla Maria Rodriguez, awnnetwork.org

Latinx Heritage Month: Being Puerto Rican and Autistic

Hello, I’m Kayla Maria Rodriguez. Happy Latinx Heritage Month my fellow Latinx people! I’m Puerto Rican and I’m autistic. That’s not something you hear everyday. 

I get why you might not ever hear Puerto Rican (or Latinx) and autism in the same sentence, but I know I’m not the only Puerto Rican (or Latinx) autistic in the world. Even if it sometimes feels like it. I think many Puerto Rican (or Latinx) autistics live their lives misdiagnosed. This could be for a number of reasons. Most research and diagnoses of autism are geared toward white boys. 

So many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) including Puerto Ricans (or Latinx) autistics live their lives undiagnosed. This is probably due to lack of financial resources and lack of understanding of autism in other races and genders.

Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain, but became a U.S. territory in 1917. To be honest, I hate that even though Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., Puerto Ricans have been and still are treated like second class citizens. As  a U.S. terrority, people living in Puerto Rico cannot vote in the nationwide elections, which really makes no sense to me and I hate the concept of U.S. territories. This is colonialism at its finest. They want to claim us, but they don’t care what we think or feel.

Even though I am Puerto Rican, I wasn’t born there. Instead, I was born in New York and it just so happens that both of my parents were born in Puerto Rico. Even though I’ve only been to Puerto Rico a handful of times in my entire life thus far, I call Puerto Rico my home and I’m very proud of it, its people and its culture. I became more proud of being Puerto Rican after Hurricane Maria.

The way the paper towels were tossed to the people of Puerto Rico right after Hurricane Maria was extremely hurtful. It felt like my people were being given a message of “go clean up this mess yourselves because I won’t help” and it felt disrespectful.

Not to mention how little assistance Puerto Rico received after the hurricane. It really hurt me and I have family that live there to this day. My great grandmother died right after the hurricane, but thankfully the rest of my family are okay. I’m scared to go back because I know some of Puerto Rico still hasn’t recovered thanks to this administration’s lack of support, and I don’t want to see the beautiful island I call home in ruins. I do want to go back at some point, but I know it’ll never be the same and it makes me sad.

Now, how my identities of being autistic and Puerto Rican intersect is interesting. Sometimes, I don’t feel like I belong in either community. Normally, in gatherings of autistic people, I’m the only person that looks like me. Whether it’s a social gathering or an advocacy space, I don’t see anyone who looks like me. They’re almost always exclusively filled of white people and sometimes mostly exclusively filled with men. I blame this both on the undiagnoses of Latinx autistics I mentioned earlier and the fact that Latinx autistics don’t even get considered to be invited to these events, panels, etc.

On the Puerto Rican side of things, I feel like most of my family don’t understand autism due to lack of knowledge, financial resources and ableism (the discrimination of people with disabilties and mental illness). I also have a really hard time even considering myself Puerto Rican. Maybe because of my autism, it is very hard for me to learn Spanish. I have tried for years and I feel like I’m finally making progress, but I’ve had difficulty learning it all my life. My parents did speak Spanish a lot around me, but I never picked it up. Because I’m a picky eater due to my autism, I don’t like any of the food associated with Puerto Rico. I also don’t like the music. 

I’m not criticizing my culture. In fact, I think it’s beautiful and I’m proud of it. But because I grew up in the United States, I feel like I am a white girl when I know I’m not. I feel like the U.S. has white washed me. Maybe it’s also due to my autism. I love being autistic and there’s nothing wrong with it. I feel like I wouldn’t be myself without being autistic and I don’t want it to be cured, treated or prevented. However, autistic people have challenges like everybody else. I’m not entirely sure, but maybe my autism made it harder for me to be connected with my Puerto Rican identity. I feel lost because I am proud of both of my identities yet I don’t feel accepted by people of both of my identities. 

I am a POC because being Latinx isn’t being Caucasian. Latinx is an ethnicity that comes in all skin colors. Puerto Rico is my home because the people look like me and I have family there. It’s a part of me that I can’t deny, like being autistic and a lesbian and mentally ill. I’m proud of my identities and will always advocate for them. 

I’m tired of my mere existence being a political statement. I’m tired of fighting to be considered equal because of my identities as Puerto Rican, autistic, a lesbian and mentally ill. I feel like I always see something racist, ableist and homophobic online and in society all the time. Not directed towards me, but to the identities I have and I’m tired of it. I just wish society would consider people like me a human being. We’re not less than anyone else, we are all equal. I’ll continue advocating so hopefully one day during my lifetime it will happen.

I’ve been an advocate for almost 4 years now, but this is the first time I’ve written and/or talked about my experience as being autistic AND Puerto Rican. Thank you, AWN, for giving me an opportunity to do so. The autistic/disability community, please stop being racist. The Puerto Rican and Latinx communities, please stop being ableist. We should accept each other since we are both oppressed and marginalized. Society needs to listen to these important communities, as well as other BIPOC, Mental Illness and LGBTQIA+ communities. If we can accept each other and celebrate what makes us who we are, the world will be a better place for everyone.

If any of you have any thoughts or questions, please feel free to email me at [email protected]

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