June 24, 2011
If you get into a Brooklyn taxi and don’t see a Puerto Rican flag, ask the driver, “So what’s the deal with the Puerto Ricans?” Without exception, all cabdrivers who are not themselves Puerto Ricans will launch into an indignant and animated rant that includes the words “lazy,” “welfare,” and “useless,” followed by a lament that they’re still asking for more.
Perpetually scowling Puerto Rican Michelle Rodriguez says she believes “empathy is a beautiful thing,” so I’m inclined to ignore the immigrant driver’s xenophobia and try to understand why PRs are the way they are. It’s true that they’ve historically been a majority of the city’s welfare recipients, but what made them that way? What made them so averse to assimilation?
“Nuyoricans,” as they call themselves, are a very patriotic bunch—when it comes to Puerto Rico, that is—but Puerto Rico doesn’t really like them. There are more Puerto Ricans in America than there are in Puerto Rico, but the Nuyoricans I’ve come across seem to have nothing but animosity for their new home. Maybe it’s because of the huge sterilization programs in the 1970s where Puerto Rican single mothers were coerced into de-egging themselves in such great numbers the terms “sterilization” and la operacion were used interchangeably. That still wouldn’t explain why puertorriqueños back in Puerto Rico are so addicted to benefits. Only about one in two men work there. The Economist goes so far as to call it “Welfare Island” and the The Onion ridiculed Puerto Rican Day with the headline, “Puerto Rico Celebrates Dependence Day.” The Seinfeld episode mocking the holiday has been banned, and our own Taki scoffed at the celebration when he said there has never been a single contribution by a Puerto Rican outside of receiving American welfare. Geraldo Rivera threatened to kick his ass for saying it. He didn’t offer any examples of Puerto Ricans’ contributions. He just threatened to kick his ass.
I live amid this unique tribe of Latins and would also have a bit of trouble coming up with their cultural contributions outside of John Leguizamo’s seemingly endless one-man shows—oh, wait—he’s Colombian.
Here are ten random encounters I’ve had with them over the past ten years. In chronological order…
1. “SHUT THE FUCK UUUUUP!”
Nuyoricans are easy to spot because they cover themselves in the Puerto Rican flag, which bears such a striking resemblance to the Cuban flag, it almost suggests a conspiracy. To distinguish them from the generally peaceful and law-abiding Cubans, look for the red stripes and listen for the loud noises—those are the Puerto Ricans. If they aren’t wearing their tiny island nation’s flag as a cape, they have its emblem painted to their face or made into a hat. One of my first encounters with these people was living in New York’s Lower East Side and hearing STFU shouted so fucking loud, it sounded like a old-timey siren. I looked out my window and saw a young lady in a Puerto Rican flag T-shirt sitting on the sidewalk and screaming at her toddler daughter. The kid seemed so used to this volume of anger, she didn’t flinch. How do public-school teachers compete with a loud class of PR kids without using a bullhorn?
Verdict: Puerto Ricans are screaming to be heard in a world that just isn’t listening.
2. “OH YEAH, SAYS YOU!”
When Bush was in office, I regularly wore an American flag T-shirt that said, “Real Men Wear Stripes.” Somehow, American Hispanics see their own country’s flag as a “fuck you” to them, and a Puerto Rican dude stopped me on the street to get in my face and holler the pithy comeback quoted above. I said, “Yeah, I know” because that’s the deal when you have a shirt with writing on it. It literally “says you.”
Verdict: As Samuel Johnson put it, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” and when it comes to America, Puerto Ricans ain’t falling for that bullshit.
3. “YOU NOT GAY, ARE YOU?”
I used to buy a lot of cocaine in my single days, and the dealers were always Puerto Rican. I think this is a great solution to the welfare problem and I’m not the only one. Gang kingpin King Tone of the Latin Kings claimed he wanted to end the violence and focus on helping the community. That’s gangspeak for, “Let’s stop fighting, settle on turf borders, and focus on what we’re good at: selling cocaine.” This worked beautifully for almost five years but he was jailed for it in 1999. Not long after that, Kokie’s, an audaciously named bar down the street that sold cocaine, was shut down. Then Dominican gangs came in and carved out a niche for themselves using machetes. NY bloggers prayed this was Hispanic retaliation against hipsters because they love a story about the proletariat rising up against his oppressor—especially when they’re the hipster oppressor who’s facing retaliation. (I recently had a white guy with an anti-gentrification petition approach me and say, “We don’t need more people like me moving into this neighborhood.”) However, it wasn’t a statement on property value but a group of ambitious gangsters taking advantage of the power vacuum that Tone left behind. So on the evening in question, I was wearing a knee-length Puerto Rican flag T-shirt because I’m ironic like that and when I went to meet my dealer she said, “Oh shit, you Puerto Rican?” “No,” I replied, “I’m just really into the culture.” Then she looked down and noticed my pink sneakers. “You not gay, are you?” she asked, concerned. “Oh, hell no,” I reassured her while continuing the irony, “I HATE fags.” She was pleased and said, “Cool” while nodding her head and giving me the drugs by shaking my hand.
Verdict: Puerto Ricans are a religious and moral people who adhere to the Bible’s tenets.