Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Yo soy boricua, pa' que tú lo sepas

Offensive photo on Page 8 of The New York Daily News

“Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tú lo sepas,” (I am a Puerto Rican, so you know it) seems to be the eternal chant of Puerto Ricans everywhere. And year after year, that’s exactly what thousands of voluptuous Boricua women sing while moving their buttocks in cadence with the upbeat rhythms of ‘reggaeton,’ and salsa that mark the never-ending, procession-like march down the Fifth Avenue in New York City known as the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Women dressed in second-skin clothing adorned with the red, white and blue colors of the single-star banner, or traditional “jíbaro” costumes, wave small flags while wearing little crowns or baseball caps and wave to the crowds as they dance on top of the floats sponsored by such companies as Goya Foods, and Coors Light, is another hallmark of the parade, something that for many symbolizes Puerto Rican heritage.

For others, the parade is a chance to be on TV or close to famous Puerto Ricans including Benicio Del Toro, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Marc Antony. Politicians of Puerto Rican descent from both the island and the mainland also attend as a means or remaining connected to the community in a nationally broadcasted platform.

But, as has happened in the past, there has been controversy leading up to the often 
beleaguered Puerto Rican Day Parade, but instead of the allegations of embezzlement or fraud that were alleged two years ago and led to the dismissal of the board of directors by the Attorney General, this controversy is about how one of the parade’s media sponsors portrayed the event’s participants and the outrage and humiliation that it’s garnered.

The controversy started when the New York Daily News‘ ran a Page-eight photo featuring two topless, g-string-wearing women with “Puerto Rico” and “Boricua” written on their buttocks in body paint with a cutline of “Rear view of the parade”. While this picture was associated with the June 14 parade by the Daily News, it turned out that the picture wasn’t even taken at the event.

So obviously, the community got pissed. There were massive protests outside of the paper’s headquarters; complaints were quickly made public in the New York Hispanic media — especially on radio and television — and the hashtag #BastaYa (Enough) was promoted on social media.

Community leaders, elected officials and the board of directors of the parade demanded a public apology on the newspaper’s front page, but the paper did not comply.

It was not the first time that the New York Daily News has published images or comments that have been offensive to the Puerto Rican community without issuing an apology. In 2014, they published a humiliating cartoon that promoted negative stereotypes.

In this case, Puerto Ricans were offended not only for the newspaper’s intention to downplay the political and cultural importance of the parade for the community, but also by the fact that the models they used in the photo were not themselves Puerto Rican. According National Puerto Rican Day Parade chairperson of the parade, Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, the Daily News admitted that the picture was taken in Times Square, and the women were two strippers – Colombian Gaby Santos, 26, and Venezuelan Diana Pena, 22, who pose topless for tips.

After a week of protests and controversy, the New York Daily News published an apology in an editorial on its website June 20, where it admitted it was a mistake to publish the image. As a result, the board decided to end it’s 25-year-long relationship with the paper.

“We recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and work with partners who have the strength of character to recognize and correct; particularly when such errors are harmful to families and communities,” parade organizers said. “Because the Daily News has chosen to do otherwise, we will not associate us with the newspaper, now and in the future.”

Was it an overreaction?

2015 Parade
But did parade organizers overreact? Who says that Puerto Ricans can’t be carnal and sensual? After all, Iris Chacon’s curves ruled the Latin world in the 1980s when she was “La Vedette de América” (“America’s Showgirl”), dancing and singing while wearing a g-strings and feathers. Jennifer Lopez, undoubtedly one of the most recognized entertainers in the world, has been compared to Chacon.

But the exploitation of the female body was not the problem. The issue that angered Puerto Rican communities was the fact that the New York Daily News chose to display this image of bare rear ends that were not even in the parade to lead its coverage of an event that has struggled to improve itself over the years.

This year in particular, the parade featured Academy-Award winner Rita Moreno as grand marshal, and organizers tried to turn away from the commercialism to focus on community-based organizations.

The National Puerto Rican Day Parade is more than just a march. It’s one of the largest events of its type nationwide. Which is why organizers were so angry with what the Daily News did.

“Journalism has the power to affect and touch many people’s lives. When false information is published and left un-rectified, others, who are not aware that the reporting was inaccurate, perceive misleading and erroneous news reporting as `truth.’ The New York Daily News editorial team’s irresponsible actions, which can be deemed as yellow journalism, are damaging to our communities and to our Parade,”  Cortés-Vázquez said in a letter to the CEO of the New York Daily News.

Yet the lingering problem here is the true meaning of self. It’s what is and what is not a Puerto Rican, the images and stereotypes that the community projects of themselves, the misrepresentation and the often implicit — and sometimes explicit — racism in mainstream media toward Latinos, as it appears to have happened in this case.

So for all those reasons the community agreed that the newspaper did not report the story truthfully, used a derogatory and disproportionate photo caption, and in other ways practiced bad journalism in this case.

But even if there was a clear intention to belittle the event, and even if those women in the pictures do not represent the culture, it is no less true that for a significant number of Puerto Ricans, this was a non-issue. On the Island, the story was only touched on briefly and had no impact.

The natives and the diaspora

It could be argued that the controversy didn’t matter for many Boricuas because of the differences between those who live on the Island and those in the diaspora.

There are more Puerto Ricans living around the world than in their native country. Of the almost 8.5 million Boricuas, about 3 million live on the island. And since immigration to the mainland increases every year, it appears that these numbers will not change, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

On the island, Puerto Ricans living in the diaspora are seen as a convenience. When the local government needs to push its  political agenda, they remember the congressmen of Puerto Rican origin such as Democrats Luis Gutierrez, Jose Serrano, Nydia Velazquez or Republican Raul Labrador. When islanders wanted to showcase the struggle for the release of political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera, to whom the 2014 National Puerto Rican Day Parade was dedicated, they go to those on the mainland.

Or perhaps the Nuyoricans are remembered because of their ties to local politicians such as the friendship between New York City Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. At the end of the day, there are clear distinctions between the island and the diaspora, particularly with the the Nuyoricans.

“The image of Nuyoricans as immoral, violent, dirty, lazy, welfare-dependent, drug-addicted felons was not restricted to the United States; to this day, both countries produce media images that depict stateside Puerto Ricans as overwhelmingly engaged in some type of objectionable behavior,” stated Miriam Jiménez Román in her essay, “Boricuas vs. Nuyoricans—Indeed!,” published by Harvard University.

As the anthropologist and historian Jorge Duany states in his book The Puerto Rican Nation on the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States, several studies have found that Island-born Puerto Ricans perceive Nuyoricans as a different group, and Nuyoricans also tend to view themselves distinctly from both Island-born Puerto Ricans and Americans. They tend to share solidarity with African-Americans, whereas most islanders deny and try to hide their African ancestry.

Most islanders tend to see themselves as a nation, whereas mainland Puerto Ricans see themselves as a minority and an ethnic group in the United States, something that illustrates some of the larger differences between the two groups, according to Karina Borja-Freitag in Puerto Rican Identity: Differences between Island and Mainland Puerto Ricans.

As a result of those differences, many Puerto Ricans on both sides chose to ignore the parade, claiming it does not represent the true meaning of the culture. Part of the confusion comes from the very origin of the political relationship between the Island and the mainland.

Puerto Rico is unique in that it is an autonomous Commonwealth of the United States and all Puerto Ricans are considered American citizens at birth. But there are crucial differences between those on the island and on the mainland. Islanders have their own constitution and elect their own bicameral legislature and governor, but are subject to U.S executive authority and cannot vote for the President. Thus, what they have in terms of United States citizenship is considered second class.

The various and seemingly contradictory differences in Puerto Rican cultural identity are marked by how Puerto Ricans define themselves. And the reasons for the different definitions are a direct result of continuous assaults on Puerto Rican identity and character, said Nelson Denis, author of the book War Against All Puerto Ricans. “The U.S. has twisted and steamrolled the Puerto Rican character for over 100 years,” he said.

But the truth is that the defense, preservation and struggle to maintain the cultural and political heritage of the collective comes from a historical defense and social advocacy from the diaspora. And any attack on a Boricua anywhere, affects all.

As one the most recognized writers on the island, Luis Rafael Sánchez says in his book “La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos”(The importance of being called Daniel Santos), “I left Puerto Rico, but Puerto Rico has not left me. Is this another syndrome of the colonized?…The song of my country seizes me.”

NOTE: This column was originally published on June 26, 2015 by All Digitocracy.

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