Puerto Rico’s Racial Politics Rears Its Ugly Head… Yet Again

Sep 7, 2012
9:16 PM

You would think that the leaders of Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party, the New Progressive Party (PNP), would just tell all their officials and supporters to stop using social media until AFTER this November's gubernatorial election and poetical status plebiscite. 

You would think that the PNPers should just stop tweeting after one of their own, Zaida "Cucusa" Hernández compared Rafael Cox Alomar, the Popular Democratic Party's (PPD) candidate for Resident Commissioner, to a chimpanzee.

Or after a key adviser to the island's current Speaker of the House, got slammed all over the world for her racist tweets about President Obama.

You would think that they would have learned. But apparently they haven't.

The latest example happened during the Democratic National Convention, where Cox Alomar was yet again compared to a monkey. This is what Melissa Mark-Viverito, a New York City council member of Puerto Rican descent, wrote in The Huffington Post:

Here we go again. Yet another prominent member of Puerto Rico's PNP (Partido Nuevo Progresista) has uttered an offensive, racist remark, this time right in the middle of the Democratic National Convention. As Puerto Rican journalist Ada Álvarez reported on Twitter, Senator Lornna Soto referred to Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Candidate Rafael Cox Alomar as "el monito" ("the monkey") at a DNC luncheon on Tuesday.

As a Puerto Rican elected official in Nueva York, I am repeatedly shocked and disgusted each time another one of these stories breaks, and again exposes the deep-seated racism that abounds in Puerto Rican political and social discourse. On each of these occasions, I have felt compelled to denounce these statements publicly as a way of shaming some sense into our public leaders. The last thing I want is to shine the spotlight on those who reflect so negatively on our beautiful island and who we are as a people. But remaining silent would create a climate where racist expressions by prominent leaders are tolerated and where hatred is allowed to fester.

Senator Soto's remark, on the first day of the Democratic Convention, which is being referred to as "the most inclusive convention of all time," is particularly infuriating. Just a few hours before the Senator referred to Cox Alomar as "el monito," I said a few words at the Puerto Rican delegation breakfast, where she was in attendance. Stressing the core Democratic value of equality for all, I alluded to the racist remarks of recent months against political figures like President Obama and Cox Alomar and encouraged the delegation to openly embrace the African heritage that we as Puerto Ricans share. I guess the Senator didn't get the message.

Simply put: if Senator Soto cannot adhere to the principles of our party, she should not have a place at the convention. At the very least, we expect an immediate and genuine apology from the Senator. We as Puerto Ricans, whether stateside or on the island, expect better from delegates who are sent to represent us.

And speaking of values and principles, with the third instance of racist comments coming from leaders of the PNP in just about four months, it is time for the party to take a serious look at its own values and the message its members are sending to Puerto Ricans of African heritage.

Clearly, Senator Soto, Cucusa Hernández and Heidi Wys do not speak for the majority of Puerto Ricans, but their ignorance speaks volumes about the unfortunate racist undercurrents in a party whose leader was a featured speaker at last week's Republican National Convention [Governor Luis Fortuño].

Whether it's a tweet accessible to millions of potential users around the world, or a side conversation held at public event, those of us who occupy positions of influence must strive to exhibit and model the type of behavior we want to see in our society. Senator Soto should acknowledge the offensiveness of her comment and immediately issue an apology to Cox Alomar and to all Puerto Ricans.

In the meantime, Soto has already gone on record to say that she did not call Cox Alomar a monkey. This is what she told Puerto Rico's El Nuevo Día, even though Álvarez said that she heard Soto use the term "monito" about six times, according to the newspaper's report (our translation):

I never referred to the PPD candidate in a way that that I am being accused of. I only said that he was walking around "de bonito" ("looking good and trying to show off") at the convention, looking for interviews because he wasn't participating in any of the speaking sessions. I am surprised by the level of imagination some malicious people. The expressions shared via Twitter from this PPD person are false and it is sad, because in a cordial environment between PPDers and PNPers. this young person decided to launch a personal attack on me. People know me and my roots.

Álvarez told the newspaper that this was not political and this had nothing to do with island politics. (Even though most PNPers are Republicans and most PPDers are Democrats, there are still some PNPers who are Democrats.) Here is what Álvarez said:

I speak as a Puerto Rican. A united Puerto Rico is what interests me. Even if it were a PPDer (a popular), I would have still shared what was said.