During a “sermon” aired live on Facebook and YouTube, the head pastor of an evangelical church in Puerto Rico denounced people of color as racist, slammed the LGBTQ+ community, and complained that the Black actress starring in Disney’s live-action remake of The Little Mermaid was ugly.
The United Nations defines “hate speech” as offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics (such as race, religion, or gender) that may threaten social peace.
The diatribe broadcast by Iris N. Torres Padilla, head pastor at the Church of Jesucristo El Caballero de la Cruz in Bayamón, fits the bill.
Looking like a Boricua Tammy Faye Bakker, Torres Padilla began her hate-filled rant by calling the Black community racist.
“What is the problem with calling a Black person Black, just to say that a Black person’s life is worth more than a white one, than a yellow one?” she said, referring to the Black Lives Matter movement. “What are Blacks looking for, privilege?”
“You want me to tell you something?” she continued, her long acrylic nails stabbing the pulpit to make the point. “If there are racist human beings in the world, it’s Black people.”
“They have taken the figure of Aunt Jemima from me,” she added. “From the pancake syrup bottle, we grew up with Aunt Jemima.”
Torres Padilla ignored the fact that Aunt Jemima is an image synonymous with slavery. Nancy Green, born into slavery, assumed the role of the original Aunt Jemima character in the 1890s.
Green grew up in Montgomery County, Kentucky during slavery, then lived under the segregationist laws of Jim Crow, and survived the multiple waves of lynchings that dominate the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She created the Aunt Jemima recipe and, with it, the birth of the American pancake.
In 20202, Quaker Oats, the company selling the brand, admitted that the image is “based on a racial stereotype“ and was taken from an African American “mammy” character of the once-popular popular minstrel shows that mocked and denigrated Black people in the late 19th century.
Someone should inform Torres Padilla of this history, assuming she cares. But her ignorance of facts didn’t stop there.
“They have changed the Little Mermaid,” she said. “And they have replaced her with a black Ariel uglier than the word ‘boo.’”
Torres Padilla referred to Disney’s latest live-action remake of The Little Mermaid starring African-American singer-songwriter and actress Halle Bailey, who earned five Grammy nominations since 2018 – and is beautiful.
Torres Padilla then aimed her vitriol at the LGBTQ+ community.
“Why are they (the gay and progressive communities) searching for privileges for a community with a distorted identity?” she said. “I am talking about the LGBTQ plus.”
“They changed Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother for a man, ah well, physically he is a man, and Black, dressed as a woman,” she said.
“It’s a desire, it’s satanic, it’s diabolical,” she said. “And they want to take this to your work, to church, to the community, to your house, your bed, and school.”
Torres Padilla is referring to none other than African-American actor, singer, writer, and director Billy Porter, a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama and the recipient of so many awards —including a Golden Globe in 2022 for the FX series Pose— that there isn’t enough space here to list all of his accolades.
After watching Torres Padilla’s bizarre sermon, I visited the website for Los Caballeros de la Cruz, which states that the church’s vision and mission are one of love for “humanity.”
In Puerto Rico, religion plays a significant role in life and politics. A majority (56 percent) of Puerto Ricans living on the island identify as Catholic, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey of religion in Latin America.
At least 33 percent identified as Protestants, among whom 48 percent also identified as born-again Christians.
Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have multiplied like locusts on the island. Many of these religious groups have political agendas tied to ultra-conservativism.
The rise of the religious right is symptomatic of the redrawing of the island’s politics, dominated until recently by a two-party system: the pro-statehood New Progressive Party (PNP) and the Popular Democratic Party (PPD).
The new politics of the island stem from what Puerto Rico has been through in the past decade. A $70 billion debt; a federally imposed fiscal control board; cuts to education, pensions, and health services; the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and María; earthquakes; government corruption; a pandemic; and rampant gentrification have changed the political architecture of the island.
Boricuas turned to new parties founded in 2019 that championed social issues, such as Movimiento Victoria Ciudadana (MVC) with its anti-colonial platform, and Proyecto Dignidad, a Christian-led party proclaiming to “respect life.”
In the 2020 elections, the PNP won by the skin of its teeth with a mere 33 percent. Afterward, however, the MVC, the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueno (PIP), and Proyecto Dignidad eroded the PNP’s and PPD’s voter bases.
Now the fight for political power has moved to the pulpit, and Torres Padilla is taking full advantage of her platform.
She concluded her sermon by listing bills before the legislature she disagreed with and attacked prominent left-wing Puerto Rican politicians, calling them Black, unkempt, and ugly. She even went after PNP Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.
“Maria de Lourdes Santiago (PIP) and Ana Irma Rivera Lassen (MVC), she’s black, and there is no problem that she is black, but she’s evil,” Torres Padilla said.
She had choice words for Pierluisi too, who she says is not her governor because she didn’t vote for him.
“Look, sir, you would do this country a favor if you resigned from the governorship,” she said. “And you go to live on an island in Spain. There are some beautiful islands in Spain whose name begins with a C… and stay there to live until the Devil comes and gets you.”
She is sending him to a place called “El Carajo.” But the icing on the cake was this: “There has never been a worse governor on this island than you because you are a communist.”
If Pierluisi is a communist, then I’m Greta Garbo.
It would be easy to dismiss Torres Padilla as just another ridiculous figure. The problem is that people like her, with access to a pulpit, can do untold damage.
She uses racism, sexism, religious dogma, and homophobia to further a political and social agenda and drive her flock to vote for the party of her choice.
As the late British author and journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote: “We keep being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid.”
I think Torres Padilla makes Hitchens’ case brilliantly, don’t you?
Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living between San Juan and New York City. Comments can be sent to her email. Twitter: @DurgaOne