Off-Broadway show explores what it is to be Puerto Rican and American

Lately it seems everyone — including the President — is confused about Puerto Rico.

It’s not a country. It’s not a state. The residents speak Spanish and have their own culture, but are also American citizens. What gives?

It’s a question comedian Elizardi Castro tackles head-on in “Made in Puerto Rico,” an off-Broadway show running at New York’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theater.

Although Castro developed the one-man show more than a decade ago, it has never been more relevant.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump complained on Twitter that all Puerto Rican politicians do is “complain & ask for more money” to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, which struck the island in 2017. Trump called the politicians “grossly incompetent,” said they “spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from the USA.”

Trump’s remarks came amid a bitter feud with Puerto Rican officials over disaster relief efforts. The week before, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he would “punch the bully in the mouth.”

While defending Trump against backlash on MSNBC, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley referred to Puerto Rico as “that country” — not once, but twice. He later said the mistake was simply a slip of the tongue.

In fact, Puerto Rico is not a country or state. It’s a commonwealth that is controlled by the US government. Puerto Ricans hold American citizenship, vote in presidential primaries (not elections), and travel freely between the island and US mainland.

As such, Puerto Ricans are Americans — not immigrants. But they also maintain a strong cultural identity all their own.

It’s this unique experience that Castro, 46, shares with his audience in his show.

“‘Made in Puerto Rico’ started with wanting to share some of the stories about growing up in Puerto Rico that I missed, but also growing up in the US,” says Castro. “We live in in both worlds. … We express ourselves in both languages.”

“We are Puerto Rican but we are also American, but we sometimes feel like we are ‘ni de aquí, ni de allá’. (‘neither from here nor there’),” he added.

Castro moved from Puerto Rico to White Plains, New York, at the age of 9. As he tells it, the transition was both difficult and hilarious.

Among the many stories he shares with the audience is how he learned to eat American food (trust me, you’ll never eat a hot dog the same way again) and the pain of having to listen to 80’s punk rock music instead of Puerto Rican boy band Menudo.

“In Puerto Rico, we have a strong sense of cultural pride and it is not like the US. When we come here we may be legal citizens but that’s as far as it goes,” said Castro. “It is not an easy transition. Language is very strong. Our sense of music and style is very different. It’s a culture clash.”

Castro is aware of political controversies that have thrust Puerto Rico into recent headlines. But says he prefers to keep politics out of his show. In fact, Trump isn’t mentioned once.

The goal, he says, is to help others, especially on the mainland, understand and identify with what it’s like being Puerto Rican.

“I wanted to create a space to celebrate our culture,” he says. “Where people can come and see that it’s OK to feel different and say, ‘It’s great to be Puerto Rican, it’s great to be Latino.'”

“That doesn’t have to be offensive. You can be proud to be from wherever you are from, without having to lower yourself so that others can feel more comfortable.”

So far, audiences have flocked to that message. “Made in Puerto Rico” was supposed to run through March, but has extended its stay at the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater until April 21 and is sold out.

Castro says he hopes to one day take the show to Broadway so he can reach an even bigger audience.