One Year Later: The Diaspora Poem That Went Viral

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In March of 2015, Roberto Rosa shared a poem on Facebook called “Y nos llaman cobardes,” the title of which was addressed to the people he felt were unfairly criticizing anyone leaving Puerto Rico. They were accusing fellow Puerto Ricans of essentially abandoning the island during its ongoing economic crisis. As U.S. citizens, it’s seen as the easy way out. Buy a one-way plane ticket, start over. No big deal.

Some of the people critical of his and other’s decision to leave were people he knew, friends, acquaintances back home. Not only was he dealing with the memory of everything he had left behind in Puerto Rico, but also the reproach that was coming from the same exact place. It’s the divide between ‘los que se quedan’ and ‘los que se van’ that has become more pronounced in recent years, something Roberto had begun to notice more acutely over the course of several weeks leading up to the poem.

His birthday was also coming up around this time. Nearly six months had passed since he had arrived. But rather than a simple Facebook post, he chose to express himself in a different way. Poetry, which he had always enjoyed and occasionally shared on his profile in the past, offered an ineffable quality–something that would let him reach an understanding that went beyond your typical rant.

“Realmente fue lo que me salió en el momento, aunque siempre me han gustado los poemas, pero creo que era una manera más atractiva de llegar a las personas,” Rosa said.

On March 3, he wrote and published the poem to his Facebook wall in one creative burst. He was finished in less than an hour that morning. Poems don’t often go viral, or at least we don’t expect them to in the same way as a meme or a video. But according to Roberto, the response on social media was immediate. Within hours, dozens of friends had commented. People shared the poem and it quickly went viral. As of one year and one month, it has been shared over 12,000 times. Roberto subsequently did interviews, even speaking on the radio about his experience. Journalist Susanne Ramírez de Arellano even adapted the poem for a short article published by Latino Rebels.

People from different places around the country wrote to Roberto to let him know they identified with the poem and how much they liked it. And although he would spot the occasional negative comment, the majority of the responses have been positive.

He was right to adapt his thoughts to verse. The understanding he had sought was more accessible through rhymed stanzas than paragraphs of venting. When I asked Roberto why he thought poetry was important, he wrote back saying “Lo curioso de ella, es como otras personas se identifican y hacen de tu poesía su poesía.”

Perhaps it was easy for people to identify with the poem, not only for its transparency, but for its parallel with Roberto’s own life. In “Y nos llaman cobardes”, he’s honest about the things that he himself was going through at the time. He missed his family and friends, the warm weather. He missed things like salchichas carmela and pan sobao, among other things–though each has been included in the care packages sent from home. Even a few details about what’s going on back home on the island can be enough to satisfy one's longing.

Here in the United States he’s also been fortunate enough to find people willing to help him with the transition, like an extended family. Things could have been a lot worse, he says. In the year and a half since he left, Roberto has been working as a land surveyor in Fairfax County, Virginia, where he lives with his wife, who works as a translator. He continues to write here and there, though not as often as he would like. When Roberto’s sister left Puerto Rico not too long after him, he wrote another poem, but decided not to publish that one.

Looking back on “Y nos llaman cobardes”, not much has changed for Roberto. He still wants to go back to Puerto Rico and not have to leave. He still misses his friends and family. Some days are better than others, though he jokes, “unos días me salen mejor las palabras en inglés que otros.”

For now, he’ll continue working on his career as a land surveyor, one day hoping to return to Puerto Rico, as he says near the end of his poem, “aunque sea de morirme.”

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.