The Truth About Mexicans & Puerto Ricans, Pt. 1

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There’s no such thing as Latino solidarity, only instances of it. Same goes for pan-Latinism. No matter how much Latinos may hope for such things, it doesn’t make them so. In truth, Latin America is no more united than Europe, and the bonds of friendship between Mexico and Puerto Rico are nearly as weak as those between Germany and France.

That’s what I meant by an observation I recently posted on Facebook:

Mexicans hate Puerto Ricans

and vice versa

Mexicans think Puerto Ricans are the lazy, gibbering, thieving niggers of Latin America

Puerto Ricans think Mexicans are the lazy, gibbering, thieving savages of Latin America

marriage between the two still remains something of a taboo

both are glad they’re not Haitians

both are puppets of the same empire

Hondurans hate Mexicans too

and vice versa

and for similar reasons

everybody likes Cubans

The reaction was mixed. Some readers appreciated my honesty. Some cringingly disagreed, pointing to moments where members of the Puerto Rican and Mexican communities have come together under the banner of latinidad to combat some common threat. Then there are others who reached out to my colleagues in private, wondering whether my comments weren’t divisive and antithetical to the goal of achieving true Latino solidarity in the face of rising fascism and xenophobia — two terms which greatly overlap one another.

When I wrote that “Mexicans hate Puerto Ricans/ and vice versa,” I was speaking generally. Obviously there are instances in which Mexicans love Puerto Ricans, and vice versa, just as there are instances in which Newton’s laws of physics don’t apply: at the subatomic level, or on the edge of a black hole. I myself can point to Luis Gutiérrez, the twelve-term Congressman from Chicago who, despite being of Puerto Rican descent and spending his high-school years in San Sebastián, has become a leading voice in the yearly struggle to rectify the nation’s immigration system. There’s also my partner, Rocio, who seems to love my Puerto Rican ass beyond reason, despite her having been born in Juárez.

But my experiences at the personal level are precisely what allow me to reach the conclusion that Mexicans, generally speaking, hate Puerto Ricans, and the other way round.

In Chicago, where I’m from, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans live in largely segregated neighborhoods on opposite sides of the city. Humboldt Park on the North Side is the Puerto Rican neighborhood and La Villita (Little Village) on the South Side is the Mexican one, basically, though there are Puerto Ricans who live in La Villita and vice versa. Still, every Latino Chicagoan knows this to be the case. The Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park have their own cultural and community organizations, with their own events, their own schools and their own businesses. Same goes for the Mexicans in La Villita. The artists of each group work on separate projects and the activists rally for separate causes. There are Puerto Rican gangs and Mexican gangs, obviously.

As a North Sider and a Puerto Rican, born and raised a bit in the Humboldt Park area, I’d never been to the South Side, except to go to one of the museums along the lakefront. I only stepped foot in La Villita during a class outing during my last year of college. I came to Pilsen as writer for a predominately Mexican art-activism media company based in the neighborhood, and for a while I was the only writer who discussed Puerto Rican issues and the goings-on in Humboldt Park. Mind you, nearly everyone in the group was Mexican, young and progressive; many were even leftists. And yet, geography and nationalism kept them from exploring much beyond their own Mexicentrism, just as it had kept me from knowing much about their world and their culture.

The summer after second grade, my Honduran mother finally left my Puerto Rican father and moved us from predominately-Puerto-Rican Humboldt Park to a predominately-Mexican suburb. That second “predominately” is both an exaggeration and an understatement: the suburb was actually somewhat racially and ethnically diverse, though mostly white, but the Latinos who lived there were almost exclusively Mexican. For a long time my brother, my sister and I were the only Puerto Rican kids we could name in the whole town. All of our Mexican friends affectionately called us “pinches potorros” and we lovingly called them “beaners” — though eventually, as we started to feel more and more paisa, we began to call ourselves beaners, too.

Being Honduran-Puerto Ricans from Humboldt Park, the Mexican world was completely foreign to my siblings and I. Our only window into Mexican culture had been our aunt’s Mexican husband. My aunt herself sort of adopted Mexican culture — just as my other Honduran aunt would adopt Puerto Rican culture — and I first caught the rhythms of Mexican Spanish from her and my uncle. The only time I heard Mexican music was when my uncle was grilling or when we were riding around in my aunt’s Ford Explorer. When we fled to the burbs in ’93, we moved in with my aunt and her husband, and my cousins, boy and girl, both Honduran-Mexican, naturally. The marriage soon collapsed and my uncle went away, taking his Mexicanness with him. By the time Selena died in ’95, I was still so clueless about Mexican culture that when classmates showed up to school with Selena t-shirts and wet cheeks, I thought some local girl had been killed. (Our neighborhood was a bit rough.) I’d heard “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” in my aunt’s truck, along with some of Selena’s other hits, but I’d never known what she looked like, and my trouble deciphering Mexican Spanish — which persists to this day — made all Mexican music sound the same to me.

Even when I met my future wife in 2009, I still didn’t know much about Mexican culture. My best friend at the time was an undocumented Mexican, and I’d been friends with Mexicans all along. Granted, they were Americanized Mexicans who probably knew only a bit more about their own culture and heritage than I did, otherwise I would’ve picked up a better understanding of it. I had dated only one Mexican girl, the only Latina I had ever seriously dated, back at the beginning of my senior year of high school, but I hadn’t been with her long enough to pick up much about Mexicanness. Plus she’d broken my heart bad, thus scaring me off Latinas altogether. (I then opted for an Asian — a Korean J.A.P., in fact — dating her for seven years.) I’d also worked at the local Olive Garden, where nearly everyone in the kitchen were hardcore Mexicans — except the managers, as usual.

Rocio is neither hardcore Mexican nor fully Americanized, but she definitely shows flashes of both. She’s become my translator, literally and figuratively, teaching me a lot about Mexican culture and even Latino culture in general. I learned about Cantinflas when she compared his comedic movements to the way I dance banda. She taught me about El Chavo del OchoMaría la del Barrio and other shows, as well as the classic Mexican ballads, between which I’m still learning to differentiate. It was Rocio who taught me about pozole, menudo, tamarindo and the late Juan Gabriel: I’d been that clueless.

Within my own family, it had been expressed on a number of occasions and in a variety of ways by the older folks that my generation was not to date Mexicans, much less marry them. (If we could, we were to marry upward — that is, marry white people — but that’s a different issue for a different day.) As Hondurans, an aura of superiority permeated our clan, as we viewed Mexicans, and even Puerto Ricans, as vulgar or corriente — a word I learned from my Mexican partner. I remember my grandmother serving me a plate of huevo picado con frijoles y tortilla and frowning as I tried to make tacos with it as I’d learned to do from my Mexican friends. We (Hondurans) don’t make tacos with our tortillas, she informed me, showing me how to eat with a fork in one hand and a rolled-up tortilla in the other, like a true, civilized Honduran. Even now, whenever my grandma mentions the fact that someone’s Mexican, she whispers it.

Still, that’s no slight at my grandmother, who’s quite progressive for her age. As I said, I’ve been in the company of plenty of Mexicans — my friends and their family members — who, not knowing I’m Puerto Rican, have spoken at least as derisively about Puerto Ricans, and even black people, if not worse. According to most of the Mexicans I’ve encountered, there’s nothing worse than being black or Puerto Rican, which many of them equate with one another. Everything Mexicans say about Puerto Ricans they say equally about blacks: they’re lazy and always looking to rob or receive a handout.

Upon meeting me and learning I’m Puerto Rican, a progressive Mexican girl my age studying to become a teacher immediately told me this joke: “What did the Puerto Rican say to the potato? I’ll cut you, papa!” It’s funny, for sure, but it also tells you something about how Mexicans perceive Puerto Ricans, at least on some level. And, again, this was a progressive Mexican who shared this joke with me. She couldn’t help herself.

Just within the last few months, during a chat about the early days, Rocio admitted to me that she had been waiting for the moment when my inner Puerto Rican would reveal his machista self and either start limiting her freedom, or worse. She was surprised to find my masculinity present but muted, which she found strange, for a Puerto Rican. Her fears centered on the old stereotype about Puerto Rican men being Lotharios. As it turned out, she wasn’t exactly wrong about me, but I was already on the long and narrow path toward a more enlightened manhood.

Being part Puerto Rican, I’m also aware of how Puerto Ricans view their Mexican cousins: lazy, squat, primitive, with the blood-soaked savagery of Moctezuma coursing through their veins. Many Puerto Ricans blame the negative perception — and the rotten treatment — of Latinos in the United States on Mexicans, who make up 60 percent of all Latinos in the United States and therefore have an weighted influence on the Latino image. As the majority group, all the sins of the Mexican communities fall on the entire Latino population. It isn’t fair, but that’s life. The average non-Latino white person, whose thoughts and beliefs dominate mainstream culture, has trouble distinguishing between the  various national-origin groups, and so he or she ends up seeing, if not labeling, all Latinos as Mexican. (Asians get the same treatment when non-Asians, not knowing the difference between Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese or Singaporean, label everybody Chinese.)

Fortunately, much of my accusations carry less weight among the younger generations of Latinos, who are increasingly American-born, American-raised and, thus, more cosmopolitan and multicultural than their foreign-born, nationalistic and monocultural predecessors. Younger Latinos more and more see themselves as being in the same boat with not only other Latinos but also other minority groups — with all young people, really. Plus the increasing dominance of pop culture, combined with the advent of social media, makes today’s younger generation much more interconnected, with more things in common, than previous generations. For many Latino millennials, being a millennial is more significant to their identities than being Latino. That’s true of this Latino millennial, at least.

And that was my point from the beginning: I wasn’t being divisive by pointing out the divisiveness between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans — the two largest national-origin groups within the U.S. Latino population. I was simply laying it bare so that Latinos might feel embarrassed, get angry and, at last, get rid of their antagonisms. These are serious times, politically, economically, socially, locally, nationally and globally, which will require the forces of progress to stand united in the face of ascendant reactionary forces. Trump and his lot won the most recent battle for the soul of the country because the rest of us were too divided and fuzzy-headed. Now is not to time to pretend things are another way. We must stare reality in the eye in order to effectively organize. If we try to slap the solidarity sticker on a group that is still far a way’s from it, we risk wasting our time and energy when, predictably, that solidarity splinters for a million different reasons that could’ve been properly addressed but were instead ignored.

So I say again: Mexicans hate Puerto Ricans, and vice versa. What are they going to do about that inconvenient truth? Will they blame me for articulating it, or will they own up to fact and make sure future generations can never make such claims?

In the second part, I’ll offer my thoughts on why this animosity between these two groups exists, much of it having to do with the history of U.S. hegemony, colonialism, institutionalized racism and domestic policies. I believe the relationship between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans is defined by history U.S.-Mexico relations and U.S.-Puerto Rico relations, as well as the racist system in the United States.

But, until next time, don’t shoot the messenger.

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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