When the founder and editor of Latino Rebels, Julio Ricardo Varela, found himself in desperate need of a vacation, he came to me in hopes that I might fill in while he breezed up to Maine to suck down shellfish and stare at the sea (this is Jealousy speaking). He tapped me, presumably, for three reasons: 1) I’m one of the best writers he knows, according to him; 2) I’m one of the most capable editors he knows, having edited for a long time now, for a number of outlets, even serving a stint as Deputy Editor at Latino Rebels back in 2015; and, perhaps most important, 3) I’m not tied to a 9-to-5 like most people, and while my days are far from wide-open, they’re mostly mine to mould and rearrange however, whenever. So, taken together, these reasons made me the perfect substitute editor.
As part of my duties, I was given the keys to the kingdom—not only full access to the site, but full control of LR’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. For four days, Monday through Thursday, I was the Head Negrito in Charge.
Billing the whole thing as a “MANO Takeover of Latino Rebels” was initially J.’s idea, and a brilliant move on his part. He needed my editing skills, and I needed to promote the fledgling online magazine I’d launched in April with a squad of other writers and journalists. Plus J. knows me to be a bit of a wildcard, a tad unpredictable, damn near in capable of biting my tongue or sugarcoating for the sake of peace and harmony. In my defense, those same qualities are what make me a writer in the first place. If I had learned to bite my tongue and not say what I really mean, then I would’ve entered politics or corporate America and never become a writer, at least not the kind of writer whose work is worth reading.
By presenting my four-day editorship at LR as a MANO takeover, J. would make use of my editing skills without fully endorsing anything I might say or do while in the editor’s chair. Pure genius.
And that’s how things worked out, until, with a few hours left in my mandate, I retweeted something by Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR), a progressive group working to unite and focus the energies of the six million Puerto Ricans living outside the colony. Their tweet promoted an IG Live discussion I was having on Latino Rebels’ Instagram account that evening, centered on the question “What to a Latino is the Fourth of July?” and featuring a number of guests from different walks of life, including Christina Mojica, who handles social media for BUDPR.
You would think it completely kosher for a site like Latino Rebels to retweet something from a group like BUDPR, especially when the group is promoting something from Latino Rebels. But the political landscape on social media has become so tribal lately, that guilt by association is now the most widespread cause for condemnation. A group of statehooders (Puerto Ricans for statehood) saw Latino Rebels (me) retweeting something from BUDPR, a pro-independence group, and immediately went on the attack, barraging poor Julio with DM’s and emails, demanding to know how Latino Rebels could commit such a heinous offense.
Latino Rebels is owned by Futuro Media, which produces Latino USA, the podcast In the Thick, plus a handful of other projects. As an independent nonprofit multimedia organization, Futuro must remain politically nonpartisan, and as a media outlet with a large Puerto Rican audience, it maintains strict neutrality in the debate about the island’s colonial status.
To protect Futuro’s nonpartisanship, I identified myself, as I’d done at the beginning of the week, as the special guest editor and social-media manager at Latino Rebels. But this only made the statehooders foam even more. They demanded to know how Julio—and, by extension, Futuro Media—could justify leaving an ardent independentista in charge of Latino Rebels, if even temporarily.
In response to the minor furor stirred up by that handful of twittering zealots, let me first say that I don’t let my politics interfere with my editing. As an editor working for other outlets, I’ve prepared countless articles and essays whose positions I completely disagreed with—LR’s “Case for Latinx” in 2015 comes to mind. As a writer first and foremost, and as a believer in individual liberty, especially freedom of expression, I never thought it my role as an editor to make sure that a writer’s submission falls in line with my own beliefs. All that matters to me is that the writing be strong, the arguments well thought out, and the conviction genuine. No one has a monopoly on the truth, and only by granting everyone the right to air his or her honest opinion can we ensure that the actual truth has a fighting chance. That said, a lie makes it around the world before the truth can tie its shoes, as Twain put it. But that’s a crisis of public education, not freedom of speech.
Plus I doubt it was my partisanship that offended these statehooders, since we wouldn’t have heard a tweet from them had I inadvertently expressed support for statehood on LR’s Twitter account. If anything, they probably would’ve liked and retweeted it en masse, with messages praising LR’s taking a brave stance in support of Puerto Rican liberty, American values, blah blah blah.
It had been years since I’d gotten into a heated back-and-forth on social media. I used to do it all the time, back when I was an editor at Being Latino. I’d spend my mornings writing and editing for the site, and my afternoons bogged down in brainless debates with commenters. I was young, and I learned a lot from those earlier online battles, mainly that they’re pointless and unwinnable—at least, that’s what I thought I had learned. Debates online are not won by the person who marshals the most facts and presents them with the soundest arguments, but by the person who can be the meanest and most obnoxious, the person with the biggest or most “clapbacks,” as they say. For example: By the standard rules of logic, personal (ad hominem) attacks are baseless and should be disregarded. But by the new rules of Internet logic, ad hominem attacks are the most forceful of all, superseding any amount of facts or quality of argumentation the target can rally.
When the statehooders on Twitter learned that I was a Puerto Rican born and raised in Chicago, well, then, it was obvious to them that I couldn’t possibly know as much about Puerto Rico as someone living in the islands. In fact, I didn’t even have the right to speak on Puerto Rican issues, being so far from knowing Puerto Rico as the islanders themselves apparently do.
Just looking around my own native country, though, and seeing how little is known about America by so many of my fellow Americans, it’s plain to me that being a native doesn’t make someone an expert. And just as an islander might like to assume that no Diasporican can ever come close to knowing Puerto Rico better than they do, there are plenty of nativists in Alabama who would laugh long and hard at the mere suggestion that some Mexican or Arab newcomer might, just maybe, know more about the United States than them. And yet, thanks to the distribution of intelligence across the human species, and the state of public education in this country, there are certainly plenty of immigrants who know more about the United States than a lot of fifth-generation Americans do. Hell, every year the Ivy League churns out trained citizens who don’t know squat about this country except how to rule it, or milk it.
I’m not saying I know a lot about Puerto Rico. But to say I can’t know much about Puerto Rico simply because I’m from Chicago, and not Caguas, is ridiculous. Anyone who thinks so reveals how little he or she knows about the nature of knowing anything.
But alright. I’m willing to concede, for the time being, that an islander always knows more about Puerto Rico than any Diasporican, however idiotic the premise. OK, fine. But I was born in America. So, by the logic of the master debaters on Twitter, I definitely know more about America than anybody born and raised in faraway Puerto Rico. How could they know more than me, right? And supposing that’s the case, what I can tell the statehooders on the island, based on my vast knowledge of and native experience in my homeland, America, is that statehood for Puerto Rico is extremely unlikely within my lifetime, if ever—so long as Puerto Rico remains predominantly Puerto Rican, anyway.
Puerto Ricans who, like myself, were born in the States and are American—politically, culturally, geographically—are still treated as a foreign second class. Just the other week, some Karen in Florida or New Jersey told a pair of Puerto Rican dog groomers to “go back” to their country—this after Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens by birth for over a hundred years, and many have become prominent members of American society, in the arts, entertainment, sports, you name it. There’s even a Puerto Rican sitting on the highest court in the land! And yet still, no respect.
If statehooders on the island actually believe they can convince the U.S. government to grant statehood to Puerto Rico, and that statehood will bring full political and economic rights for Puerto Ricans, then evidently they don’t know much about the United States. Were I more simpleminded, I might decide that their relative unfamiliarity with the United States and its history stems from their being born and raised over there, in Puerto Rico, and not here like me. But I’m sure they know America about as much as most Americans do, which is very little, hence the wishful thinking.
Not only am I from America, but I’ve studied it—earning a degree in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago, my concentration being on ethnic relations in the United States—and I continue to study the country as a writer. From what I know, the polar ice caps have a better chance surviving this century than Puerto Ricans do of enjoying equal rights, by any method. America is still struggling to treat Black people as equals, and they’re the descendants of Africans dragged to this land in chains and forced to build it up for free. Never mind the Indians whose land we’re on, or the immigrants whose cheap labor feeds the nation. In terms of equal rights in the United States, Puerto Ricans are at the back of a long line, and the peoples toward the front have been waiting a looong time.
Statehood for Puerto Rico, as any student of American history well knows, is insanely impractical. A pipe dream. Worse than that even—a lie. Because if the dream were somehow, someday fulfilled, if Puerto Rico actually became part of the United States and not merely owned by it, statehood wouldn’t do Puerto Ricans much good. Don’t believe me? Go ask a Hawaiian, or an Inuit, or a californio, how much better it is living inside the belly of the beast. At the moment, Puerto Rico, as a colony, is still only in its jaws. There’s still a chance that Puerto Rico might shake itself free and avoid being swallowed.
My statehood attackers on Twitter took serious offense to my referring to them as “House Negroes.” It’s a political term, borrowed from Malcolm X’s famous 1963 speech, “Message to the Grassroots,” in which he presents an allegory to paint the divide between the separatists siding with him and the accommodationists siding with Dr. King. “There was two kinds of slaves,” Malcolm tells the crowd:
“There was the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes—they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good ’cause they ate his food—what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house quicker than the master would. The house Negro, if the master said, ‘We got a good house here,’ the house Negro would say, ‘Yeah, we got a good house here.’ Whenever the master said ‘we,’ he said ‘we.’ That’s how you can tell a house Negro.
“If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, ‘What’s the matter, boss, we sick?’ We sick! He identified himself with his master more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, ‘Let’s run away, let’s escape, let’s separate,’ the house Negro would look at you and say, ‘Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?’ That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a ‘house nigger.’ And that’s what we call him today, because we’ve still got some house niggers running around here.”
Oh man, you should’ve seen how pissed those statehooders on Twitter got when I called them House Negroes. Being almost all White or otherwise much lighter than me, I think they weren’t so much offended by my describing them as subservient slaves as they were by my comparing them to Black people, period. They took it as a slur against them as non-Black people, and tried to protect themselves by labeling me a “racist,” betraying the fact that, even in the year 2021, they still don’t know what racism is.
Malcolm considered any Black person clinging to America to be a House Negro, and I consider the Puerto Rican statehood movement to be another form of House Negroism, for identical reasons. Black people were once slaves in the United States, and they’ve been treated merely as freed slaves by the U.S. government ever since. Puerto Rico is a colony—slavery in another form. It has been a colony for nearly 123 years, and despite being U.S. citizens by birth, as with Black people, Puerto Ricans on average are far from standing on equal footing with Anglo Americans—and it promises to stay that way for a long while, statehood or not. After all, having been born and raised in a state never guaranteed any American equal rights. Not even a White person, if they’re dirt poor. Being born in a state doesn’t make most Black South Carolinians feel any safer, or keep young Boricuas in the Bronx from being guilty until proven innocent. So the Puerto Ricans in San Juan or Bayamón who think statehood is the solution to their problems are vastly mistaken.
Whenever I hear a statehooder bring up the economic benefits, especially, that Puerto Ricans might enjoy by being further integrated into the United States, all I hear is another House Negro fantasizing about what the master might give them for their pledge of allegiance. I understand the economic arguments for statehood—for one, Washington would have to pour billions into Puerto Rico just to raise it to the measly level of the poorest state in the Union, Mississippi. But increased federal funding is not compensation enough for national extinction, and every Puerto Rican must realize that the destruction of their culture, of their nationhood, is the price America demands for integration. America has yet to allow a people, especially a brown one, to become fully American while maintaining its distinct culture, religion, traditions, history, language, and so on. Most Americans already dislike Puerto Ricans, here or there, so they certainly won’t support Puerto Rico becoming part of America while maintaining its distinct character. “People fear what they don’t understand,” says the Prophet, and “hate what they can’t conquer.” Anyone who thinks America would accept Puerto Rico as a full and equal member of the United States clearly hasn’t lived in Chicago.
Plus, looking to benefit from the economic vitality of a country by integrating fully into it is pretty drastic and old school. In today’s modern world, trade agreements and other economic pacts work just as well, especially for smaller nations who want to participate in the global economy without weakening their independence and nationhood. Singapore, a tiny island nation with 5.7 million people, boasts the fourth-highest GDP per capita in the world. It does it by being a major financial and shipping hub in Southeast Asia, second only to Hong Kong. As with Puerto Rico, Singapore’s geography, located smack dab at the intersection of busy shipping lanes, made the islands ideal as a colonial trading post, only of the British Empire, not Spain. It’s still basically a trading post to this day, only on its own terms.
Couldn’t Puerto Rico, shouldn’t Puerto Rico, be the same for the Caribbean? Couldn’t Puerto Rico do for itself what it does for the United States? I mean, they don’t call it “Rich Port” for nothing.
Before climbing out of the swamp I’d stumbled into on Twitter, I floated the insinuation that statehood is mostly popular among White Puerto Ricans, who look to benefit the most from marrying the richest and most powerful country in the world, one whose government remains in the grip of White supremacy. The statehooders were quick to point to José Celso Barbosa, the so-called father of the Puerto Rican statehood movement, who will be dead now a full century this September. But Barbosa is only one name—I got a handful of others thrown at me—and an old name at that. The United States has committed tons of abuses and outright atrocities against Puerto Ricans between 1921 and 2021. Were he alive today, seeing what being tied to the United States has meant for Puerto Rico, and what full citizenship rights have meant for Puerto Ricans born and raised on the mainland, would Barbosa still believe in the salvation of statehood? Who knows.
I’m told there are “a lot” of Afro-Puerto Rican statehooders in the islands, namely in Loíza. I have no reason to doubt the existence of Afro-Puerto Rican statehooders anywhere. Even with a clear and concerted effort by Republicans to roll back civil rights for Blacks and Latinos, there are still plenty of Black and Latino Republicans, and even immigrants who support building a wall along the southern border. There’s just no accounting for taste. Or stupidity.
If there are Afro-Puerto Rican statehooders, and they’re not self-loathing or blind, then their support for statehood can only be for one reason: protection from the White power structure that has ruled Puerto Rico since the Taínos took Salcedo for a swim. Black Puerto Ricans who genuinely support statehood must believe that being Black in a future State of Puerto Rico will be better than it is in the current colony. As a Black Puerto Rican myself, born and raised in the States, and having studied the plight of Black Americans of all kinds, I find that Black Puerto Ricans hover near the bottom of America’s socioeconomic hierarchy, being not Black enough for most Black people, not Puerto Rican enough for most Puerto Ricans—who, in turn, aren’t Latino enough for most Latinos—and not American enough for most Americans. Black Puerto Ricans catch hell from all sides.
Puerto Rican society and government being what they are, I’m not surprised to hear there are Black Puerto Ricans who fear what might become of them in an independent Puerto Rico. The statehooders on Twitter tried assuring me that I had it all wrong, that Puerto Rico isn’t as racist as all that. These were mostly lighter-skinned Puerto Ricans telling me this. Lighter-skinned people keep themselves busy by trying to convince others, even themselves, probably, that the racism where they live isn’t so bad. Unfortunately for them, though, people have eyes. All you have to do is look at a place, see what color is in the majority, what color holds most of the power and wealth, and you’ll know more or less how racist it actually is. Somewhere with a pale-faced minority, with a government and economy overwhelmingly controlled by pale faces, and entire ghettos where a pale face is rare, is pretty run-of-the-mill as far as racist places go. But tell me again how post-racial things are in Puerto Rico, and I’ll tell you how respected Puerto Ricans are in Humboldt Park.
I find it odd that Puerto Ricans living in the islands and pushing for statehood wouldn’t want to hear from their Puerto Rican cousins born and raised in the States. Islanders pushing for statehood want to be full American citizens under the law, as I am, and yet they think I should quit telling them what it’s actually like, and what’s in store for them should they keep pushing. These humble colonials, born third-class citizens, insist on telling me, a Puerto Rican and a full citizen by birth, what statehood for Puerto Rico will mean. Part of me prays they get their wish, so they can see for themselves, and eat their words. But, unfortunately for me, and them, statehood will never happen.
In the meantime, Puerto Rico should abandon its hopes for statehood and push for independence. I know that as an American and as a Puerto Rican.
Featured image: “Puerto Rican flag, with icicles frozen on at bottom. Homemade painted wood mounted on top sill on garage in Humboldt Park. #folkart #streetart #painting”by banditob is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0