(Edel Rodriguez/For The Washington Post)

Marcus Vega travels more than 1,500 miles from his Pennsylvania home to find his father on an island where people speak Spanish, English and sometimes a mix of both.

The story is told in “Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish,” an inspiring novel about a 14-year-old boy and his travels across Puerto Rico, la Isla del Encanto (see glossary below). The fictional story centers on Marcus’s desire to track down his dad, who left the family years earlier.

What a lot of kids — and adults — don’t know is that Puerto Rico is part of the United States, said author

Author Pablo Cartaya at a restaurant in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico. His new book is set there. (Rebecca Cartaya)

Pablo Cartaya, who is Cuban American but has been visiting Puerto Rico since he was young.

Puerto Ricans have been part of the American fabric since the United States took the island from Spain in 1898, just after the Spanish-American War. They are U.S. citizens by birth. They serve in the U.S. military. And they use the same money.

“And yet they can’t vote for the president of the United States. How does that make sense?” Cartaya said, raising a question that is also in Marcus’s mind as he travels around the island for the first time.

Because Puerto Rico is a territorio, residents of the island can’t vote for U.S. president or members of Congress. They have a commissioner who represents them in Washington.

About 5 million people born in Puerto Rico live across the 50 states, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That’s a lot more than the 3.3 million Puerto Ricans living on the island. After Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico a year ago, downing trees and destroying homes and the island’s electric grid, thousands more Puerto Ricans left for the mainland. Nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the storm, according to a recent official report.

Cartaya says he hopes his libro and Marcus’s story can get kids interested in learning more about Puerto Rico and finding ways to help the island and its people recover. He also wants to inspire them to

visit one day.

“Go visit and see for yourselves,” Cartaya said.

The book takes readers on a road trip starting in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. It’s a ciudad that sounds like “honking, music and fast cars.” In the story, Marcus travels on an old delivery truck from the narrow cobblestone streets of Viejo San Juan to a finca in the countryside, trekking through an area dense in trees and with bumpy roads. And then a pisa y corre takes the teen to a touristy coastal part of the island.

“The buildings are old looking. Some are painted white or really bright shades of pink, blue, and even lime green. It looks nothing like my neighborhood back home,” Marcus says in the book.

The trip helps Marcus — who has had trouble fitting in at school — connect with his Puerto Rican culture and with parientes he didn’t know he had. Along the way, he visits some of the island’s many chinchorros and he learns about the coquí, an animal that has become a symbol of Puerto Rico.

“It’s like another country out here. Except it’s not,” the boy says.

Author Pablo Cartaya recently talked to KidsPost’s Luz Lazo about Marcus, Puerto Rico and his life as a Hispanic writer.

Q: What do you explore in your books?

A: Oftentimes, we speak with our abuelas in Spanish, but we communicate with our friends in English. We go home and there is arroz con pollo or arroz y habichuelas. Sometimes words at home start in English and end up in Spanish. That is something that I really wanted to explore as part of the American story. I hope that my books can have an effect on readers to say, ‘I see myself there,’ which was something that I didn’t get enough when I was a kid.

A fruit and vegetable truck sells produce in Viejo San Juan in 2017 before Hurricane Maria hit the island. These trucks make it into town from the farms in the interior of the island. (Pablo Cartaya)

The Puerto Rican flag, la bandera puertoriqueña, hangs proudly throughout the island along with the U.S. flag. (Pablo Cartaya)

Q: Is that Marcus’s story?

A: He uses finding his father, whom he hasn’t seen in 10 years, as a way to go and figure out something about himself. As he goes to Puerto Rico and explores, there’s a literal transformation. He literally takes off his shoes and starts wearing sandals.

The island’s El Yunque National Forest is the only rain forest in the United States. Hurricane Maria badly damaged the area in September 2017. (Pablo Cartaya)

Q: Why did you write about Puerto Rico?

A: There’s this lack of understanding that Puerto Ricans living on the island are U.S. citizens. But you get out of the airport and you see the Puerto Rican flag and the American flag. So this idea that because it is an island or because they speak Spanish that somehow they are less American is completely bogus and wrong. What I wanted to do is make this a story of this one kid’s journey into understanding that. A kid that is reading can come to conclusions themselves. They come to this understanding of what it means to live in Puerto Rico and what that means for their own identity.


Isla del Encanto — Enchanted Island

Territorio — Territory

Libro — Book

Ciudad — City

Viejo — Old

Finca — Farm

Parientes — Relatives

Abuelas — Grandmothers

Arroz — Rice

Pollo — Chicken

Habichuelas — Beans


Chinchorros — places where locals gather to eat, drink cheap beverages and listen to music.

Coquí — a small frog native to Puerto Rico. It’s named after the sound it makes: “Co-KEE.”

Pisa y corre — (Stop and go). Little buses that generally travel from town to town.