Originally appeared on EdMorales.net. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Ed Morales is a journalist who has investigated New York City electoral politics, police brutality, street gangs, grassroots activists, and the Latino arts and music scene. He has been a Latin music Newsday columnist and longtime Village Voice contributing writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Miami Herald,San Francisco Examiner, The Los Angeles Times and The Nation. He is a frequent contributor of editorial columns for The Progressive Media Project. For more about Ed (and his bio is IMPRESSIVE, click here).
Work It: The Reactionary Backlash
“Life would be much simpler if people who are subjected to persistent marginalization and disparagement weren’t so “sensitive” and just took their insults and degradation, or pretended they weren’t really about them. Persistently marginalized and disparaged people should not speak up because they are to blame for their own problems. Identifying with marginalized victimhood prevents them from enjoying the benefits of the American dream.”
These are the voices of the reactionary backlash against the idea of protesting the dehumanizing joke uttered by Amaury Nolasco in last week’s episode of the largely tasteless sitcom “Work It,” soon to be canceled by its creators, the American Broadcasting Company. The reactionary element that still has so much power in American discourse suggests that presenting “the other side of the story” involves the reasonable assumption that well, after all, Puerto Rico is a drug-riddled island, so is the joke really offensive?
A Huffington Post (Latino/a) column puts it this way:
The 3,515-square-mile island has an average of three violent deaths per day. According to U.N. figures for 2008, the island averaged 20.3 murders per 100,000 residents. Mexico, by comparison, had 11.5 murders per 100,000 residents in that same year. And the documented corruption of the island’s police force corruption has even lead to fears of it becoming a ‘narco state.’
The reality painted by these disturbing figures should be a focus of debate among Puerto Ricans, said Mariana Vicente, Miss Universe Puerto Rico 2010, in defense of Nolasco.
“We are not in a position to demand that the media guard our reputation when in our country we don’t even respect ourselves, brutally killing people, firing bullets in the air and so much violence in the home,” she told Primera Hora. “Let’s start out by caring for ourselves and demonstrating the contrary to the rest of the world.”
I’m not sure about the logic of setting up Ms. Universe as a spokesperson in a political debate, or someone to initiate a serious dialog, but i guess that’s what happens in a celebrity driven culture and the media outlets that promote it. It’s telling that the post uses a link to Fox News Latino to establish the idea that Puerto Rico is in danger of becoming a narco state, and not the more informative piece in the Christian Science Monitor, nor one of its major sources, the DOJ National Drug Intelligence Report , which clearly states that the increase in drug traffic in Puerto Rico has been caused by a shift by Venezuelan and Colombian drug traffickers to points in the Eastern Caribbean to avoid the DEA’s ineffective machinations. It is clear that the drug problem that has exploded in Puerto Rico is not self-generated, unless you think Puerto Rico is such an integral part of the US that it deserves partial blame for the largely disastrous decades-long failure known as the War on Drugs! Here’s one argument against that idea: Puerto Rico has never had a single elected representative in Congress who could even exercise the right to vote for or against the disastrous failure known as the War on Drugs!
So, let’s have a debate on this: Should we agree or disagree on the deployment of the War on Drugs? We have no choice in the matter. Should we limit our own consumption? The major cause of the drug problem is the fact that Puerto Rico is a transshipment point for the distribution of drugs to the mainland US, and not the island population’s consumption of drugs. Should we ask Americans to limit their consumption of drugs? Wait a minute..we are Americans. If we stop firing bullets in the air, will that help the DEA shift the transshipment point somewhere else?
I won’t even mention how the current government cut 20,000 government jobs and used Obama’s ARRA (stimulus) funds as a way to boost the island’s employment figures even though their rhetoric claims that the private sector is the best hope for job creation. More jobs = less drug dealers. The absolute silence of the Puerto Rican government on the “Work It” controversy speaks volumes.
Finally, let’s talk about the drug dealers, who make up a tiny percentage of the Puerto Rican people. Let’s talk about how the Amaury Nolasco character was someone living in the U.S., and the fact the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. have nothing to do with drug dealers in Puerto Rico. And let us note that while there have been some Latino characters in network television network shows over the last few years, I can’t remember a single one that was Puerto Rican! Not Ugly Betty, not Desperate Housewives, not Sofia Vergara. The last thing I can remember is that flag burning on Seinfeld, and because some of us chose to speak out they will never show that on the air again. And this really hazy memory of Freddie Prinze. So, when there finally is one, the first thing he says is “I’m Puerto Rican, I’d be great at selling drugs”?
This is not an insignificant grievance that can be compared, as this misguided Chicago columnist did, to the drug-dealing white suburban dealer in Weeds. (“Get a grip,” she says. “If you go around looking to be insulted, you’ll never be disappointed”.) But for every Mary Louise Parker weed pusher, there’s…well, there’s just about every other character on network television to contrast her with! The entire cast of Friends, The Office, Cheers, Seinfeld, Married With Children, How I Met Your Mother, Mary Tyler Moore, Will and Grace, Taxi, The King of Queens, Beavis and Butthead.
As a drug dealer, she is an exception. A shining example of American exceptionalism. The one who can deal drugs and remain attractive and upscale without being imprisoned. For Puerto Ricans, there’s Amaury Nolasco and…no exceptions.
We live in an era where synagogues are being trashed with swastikas, nooses turn up in parks and universities, people are given receipts in fast food places that read Lady Chinky Eyes, young people are committing suicide over their sexual identity, and our freely elected President has been portrayed in every racist way imaginable by right-wing Republican activists. While this backlash cannot be blamed on sitcoms, they demonstrate that somehow messages of intolerance are being transmitted with increasing velocity, and network television shouldn’t be part of laying the groundwork for this.
When is it going to stop? It’s certainly not going to stop if reactionaries discourage people from speaking out against these things, by pining away for a return to time when people weren’t constrained by “political correctness.” Their time, thankfully, is 30 years past.
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