With images of Puerto Ricans, it's one step forward, one step back
CNN Anchor Soledad O' Brien attends the 2009 Puerto Rican Day parade in Manhattan, New York.
June 10th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

With images of Puerto Ricans, it's one step forward, one step back

Editor's note: Rose Arce is a senior producer at CNN’s New York Bureau, and a contributor to Mamiverse, a website for Latinas and their families.  She was a senior producer of "Latino in America 2," which re-airs July 22 on CNN.

By Rose Arce, CNN

(CNN) - Somewhere, out there in Winter Park, Florida, a lechon is about to hit the grill. From Cleveland, a planeload of Buckeye Boricuas will fly to New York, where Mayor Mike Bloomberg has already begun showing off his emerging Spanish skills. It’s time for the National Puerto Rican Day parade which, much like Cinco de Mayo, is another annual American assessment of all things Latino.

In case you’re lost by now, a lechon is a slab of suckling pig and Boricua is slang for Puerto Rican. I knew nothing about this stuff when I was introduced to the Puerto Rican parade 25 years ago after arriving in New York for college. My parents are Peruvian immigrants.

I was fascinated by the enormity of Puerto Rican culture and the conundrum Puerto Rico created for the United States: How could a country have such an uneasy relationship with Latino immigration when it had nearly 4 million Spanish-speaking Latinos born into U.S. citizenship?

Opinion: Treat U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico fairly

The flag of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico looks a bit like an American flag knock-off with one distinct difference: The red and white stripes are joined by a big white star inside a dark blue triangle, a star too big to fit comfortably inside the American red, white and blue.

That says all you need to know about the U.S.-Puerto Rico relationship.

The Puerto Rican Day parade, held every June in New York City, is an in-your-face explosion of Puerto Rican pride with enormous, colorful floats and blaring salsa music. Pretty girls wave banners for everything from Goya beans to AIDS education. The crowds reach nearly 2 million, building over the preceding week with festivals, concerts and backyard barbecues in all the towns where the diaspora had planted a flag – Orlando, Chicago, Boston and the Bronx.

Blacks, whites and Latinos join together in the streets to hear salsa music and express camaraderie. And a long line of cars also heads for the hills.

Back when I went to my first parade, being Latino in the Northeast invariably meant Puerto Rican, which wasn’t a good thing to some folks. People would ask me where in El Barrio, a term for East Harlem, where a majority of Puerto Ricans reside, I grew up, and whether I had papers - meaning immigration papers– even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Mostly, people talked about rice and beans for some reason. Did I make them? Did I know where to get some?

Being Puerto Rican wasn’t pretty; it was ghetto, it was barrio, it meant poor.

Even other Latinos would often say that, so I wrote a magazine piece in college saying the rest of Latinos had to drop their own racism and close the wagons around the Puerto Ricans.

In any case, I wore my identity as a mistaken Puerto Rican with some pride. Puerto Rico seemed like Fantasy Island to me, with its bowing palm trees and brilliant sunshine.

Plus, I admired their guts. The island had been a proving ground for colonialism, pharmaceutical companies, economic development schemes and assimilation programs.

But the people clung to both their island pride and U.S. citizenship with equal enthusiasm. They even enlisted in the military, although they can’t vote in most national elections.

The community had exploded onto the larger public consciousness with "West Side Story" in 1957, a musical that bestowed stardom on Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno, who ultimately went on to win an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony.

Yet even this mega-musical had its issues, like the song: “America.” When the character Rosalia sang, “I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan,” Rita retorted, "If there’s a road you can drive on.” But with the Puerto Ricans it’s always un pasito p’alante, un pasito p’atrás (one step forward, one step back).

In the years that followed "West Side Story," tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans took a few pasitos northward and migrated to New York, Orlando, Boston and even Cleveland, slowly forming new communities and gathering political power in American cities. They fought to desegregate schools, stormed Congress over Puerto Rican independence and fought AIDS.

The parade was their call to arms, but it had its detractors.

The community struggled with an event that had grown large and unwieldy. Some objected to the half-naked girls, commercial floats, excessive alcohol and mafia-like sponsorship structure. A few bad spectators soiled the image further when several years of parades ended with mass arrests for gang activity and assaults on women.
That was exactly what the Puerto Ricans didn’t need when there was so much derision floating around on the mainland.

In 1979, Coach Bob Knight, a darling of college basketball, punched a police officer on the island during the Pan American Games, and told Sports Illustrated the only thing Puerto Ricans know how to do is “grow bananas.” Cosmo Kramer, a character on the wildly popular sitcom “Seinfeld,” accidentally stomped and burned a Puerto Rican flag in one of the highest-rated episodes.  A Puerto Rican named Mark Lyttle was mistakenly deported to Mexico because he couldn’t produce his birth certificate for U.S. immigration agents.

But Puerto Ricans are like the Little Engine That Could. By the late 1990s they had their own Barbie doll, even if she was light-skinned and wore colonial attire. They also had their own legal defense fund and elected people to Congress. State Farm caught hell when it tried to use Knight for an ad. So did Coors when it marketed beer during the parade with the slogan “Emborícuate,” or "Become Puerto Rican" in Spanish, which sounded too much like “emborachate,” or get drunk. By the time the film version of "West Side Story" was released, Rita was singing life was “all right in America.” And Rosalia would shoot back, “If you’re all white in America.” Indeed.

The last time I went to the parade, I had just finished producing a documentary called Latino in America with CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien. We wanted to publicize it to Latinos.

I was struck by how broadly the parade had been embraced.

This daughter of Peruvian immigrants hopped on the El Diario La Prensa float alongside a half-Cuban, half-Australian news anchor and took both our kids for a ride up Fifth Avenue through screaming crowds. There were Venezuelans, Panamanians and white couples from the Upper East Side. We hoisted her twin boys on our shoulders and dipped into the crowd to hand out CNN pins. My daughter, whose father is Puerto Rican, passed out tiny flags. It was really exhilarating to be in one of those truly American moments, when our differences become cause for celebration.

So are we finally all Puerto Ricans for even that one Sunday in June?

The New York Daily News ran a full-page ad saying it was sponsoring a float with New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who is known for his salsa dancing. The newspaper had just laid off staff of its Latino edition, so that didn’t sit well with some Latinos looking closely at the huge flag unfurling at the top of the ad. It has blue and white stripes with a white star inside a red triangle – Cuba's flag.

Guess the Puerto Rican one didn’t quite fit.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rose Arce.

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Filed under: How we look • Latino in America • What we think
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Al

    The Puerto Rican Day parade is LITERALLY the most embarrassing thing about being Puerto Rican in New York City. It's basically a show of people who are proud and poor and proud of being poor, celebrating for no reason in a really obnoxious way.

    October 23, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |

    I have served my country proudly for 15yrs, have deployed and left my children behind so ignorant people can have their rights of speech. I am a proud Puerto Rican but I am an even prouder American. Never in my life has anyone given me anything for free, my mother has worked for everything that she has and so have I. So for those out there that are so fast to throw insults out, I say "God Bless" your ignorance and insults just makes us stronger.

    June 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. J

    I am Puerto Rican, and I am proud to be Puerto Rican for the reasons mentioned in the article. I particularly like the part about how we hold no animosity towards other people regardless who they are or what they do.

    What I'm tired of is this perpetual generalizing of Puerto Ricans and other minority groups that leaves little room for a more objective interpretation of people's behaviors and actions. It's easier to lump a group of people into one or two categories. To really understand people, or individual people, which is more to my point, it takes time and work, and most of us would rather hold on to our prejudicial views than put in the effort it takes to really understand any one.

    By the way, I don't live in the ghetto (though there are a lot of decent people who live there), I don't really care for parades (though I have attended a couple of P.R. parades and others in my lifetime), I'm educated and have a Master's Degree (and being P.R. is besides the point), and although I like latino music, I'm not particularly crazy about salsa music. But this is only a very small part of who I am.

    Let's try to get beyond the smoke screens, O.K. For those who have a very superficial view of the world, try to get to know Puerto Rican people as individuals before you make any comments about who they are and what they represent.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Norm

      That's fine.
      Be proud of your heritage...but don't go around with the wrong flag hanging from your car rear view mirror and insist everyone around you has to speak Spanish.
      If you live in the USA (legally)...then have some respect for the country that offers you the freedom to better yourself and have a good life.
      Stop thumbing your nose at the USA and looking for free hand outs, and the arrogant stare down to anyone that's not Latino has got to go as well.

      June 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
      • FashAddiX

        Wow Norm, talk about bigotry. Really, that's why the USA is great. We have the freedom to hang our flag and wave it with pride anywhere we go. It looks like you didn't get many hugs when you were little. Why the animosity? We do not all come here for free handouts or look down on people. That's very stereotypical of you. And why can't we speak Spanish? Being bilingual is an accomplishment to anyone who wants to advance themselves in such a diverse nation. I have friends from all walks of life, and they always rave about how great Puerto Ricans treat them when they visit the island. If you live in a box, you will always think inside the box. I tell you one thing Puerto Ricans can't fix–mentally handicap people who think like you do.

        June 19, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
      • Norm

        Ok...so you addressed the flag issue...what about the rest of my post?

        June 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  4. J

    I'm Puerto Rican, and I am proud to be Puerto Rican for the reasons mentioned above. I particularly like the part that we hold no animosity towards others regardless of how badly we are treated or labelled.

    What I don't appreciate is the perpetual generalizing of people that doesn't allow for more interpretations of Puerto Ricans or any other minority group, for that matter.

    By the way, I don't live in the ghetto (and there are lots of decent people who live there), I am educated with a Master's Degree, and while I like latino music, I don't particularly care for salsa music.

    Let's try to work through the smoke screen a little more, O.K., You would be surprised at what you might find.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
  5. CNN Posters Are Full Of Derp

    The joys of a commonwealth or protectorate or which ever name you wish to use.

    Yes, the people on the Island of Puerto Rico are not given voting representation in congress and are not allowed to vote on national issues. But they get all teh benefits of being a US Citizen and get Federal tax dollars sent their way without having to pay Federal Taxes.

    Now, if they look around to their neighbors and wish to live that lifestyle, they are free to try to gain independence from the US.... but I don't see too many of their island neighbors making off very well as independent nations.

    June 18, 2012 at 3:34 am | Report abuse |
  6. burgos

    "do some research before you post."

    June 16, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. burgos

    @kurt do you know where the puerto rican flag was designed and made?????in new york,it's just like any other american state flag..please do some research before you posting,because right now youre starting to look very ignorant.

    June 16, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Norm

      No burgos...kurt is right.
      These people....the majority of them...come here to the US to collect all the free tax money they can get their hands on. The Average light skinned family can't afford to have more than one or two kids , while these people get extra welfare for every newborn they drop out.
      And if you see anyone else driving around with their state flag (lol) hanging from their rear view mirror, let me know.
      It's like they are purposely thumbing their nose at the government that supports them and their huge familes.
      No amount of rationalisation is going to change reality on this issue.
      We have been been invaded and taken over without a single shot being fired.
      Now they want us to work for them and learn their language.
      When will the whites in this country become the minority so we can get all the free hand outs?
      Not going to happen...

      June 19, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
      • FashAddiX

        Please educate yourself. And PS> Many Irish, and Italians also hang their flags in their car (I should know I live in their neighborhood). But excuse me Norm, you probably don't consider them white either. Are you 100% American? I'm sure many white Americans are embarrass of people like you.

        June 19, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jrod

        Puerto Ricans don't have to come here to get "handouts" smart guy. They're US citizens and can get your supposed "handouts" right at home. I'm from Texas and we fly the Texas flag just as proudly as a Puerto Rican does theirs. Read a book

        June 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • Army SGT

        I live and work at Ft Hood Texas and I can tell you I constantly see cars with state flags hanging from their rear-view mirrors. And as a native Texan I know lots of people who only fly the Lone Star (Texas flag). Why can't someone be proud of where they come from?

        June 19, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
      • Norm

        There's always going to be a handful of people like you who are related to or have friends or drug suppliers that you feel you need to defend.
        The majority understands what I'm talking about.

        June 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
      • Joanna

        With the exception of the Polish muuesm, the rest are all hispanic based places. There are some great muuesms on African Americans and some other cultures as well. As a side note, the Museum of Science and Industry has a christmas tree special in November thru December featuring cultures from all over the world. This is an excellent experience for all ages.

        August 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. kurt

    If they want or are Americans why don't they wave the American flag? What are so many people ashamed to be an American? Everyone wants to come to America for what they can get not because they want to be an American. I am very proud to be an American

    June 16, 2012 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • USMC0331

      Hey Kurt, Im an American, Im a Marine, Im a Puerto Rican, and I have Tattoos of all three on My body and damn proud of it!! I also have 4 Kids and guess what I dont get a dime from the government, I work 60 to 80 hours a week live on the beach have two cars and a Harley!! suck It!!!
      Oh I dont have a College degree it seems if you work hard and take resposibility for yourself instead of blaming others you can go far in this great Country of mine!!

      June 20, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse |
  9. dee

    I must add- Boricua is not slang for PuertoRican, Boricua is best discribed as an Indigenous name. Puerto Rico was known as "Borinquen" the name given to the island by the Native Taino Indians, therefore if you were from Borinquen, you are a Boricua. Calling it slang downgrades it's value as cultural heritage to a simple made up name on the streets.

    June 14, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • sas

      What do you expect? It was a Peruvian that wrote the article. Even within latinos we need to do some education.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
  10. marc

    Mostly, people talked about rice and beans...yeah sounds Hispanic to me. The National Puerto Rican Day parade and Cinco de Mayo are nothing more than ghetto day festivals.

    June 14, 2012 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
    • olar

      So what! That is their day, your head line doesn't make it any less important to the contribution of open-minded folks who are willing to keep learning and loving God's people.

      June 18, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Report abuse |
      • Norm

        If only it worked both ways olar.
        Maybe you need to get out more.........

        June 19, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mildred

    Contrary to what Rose Arce reported, "Boricua" is not slang for Puerto Rican. It comes from the words"borinquen" or "boriken" which is the Taino (native American. Please, remember, Puerto Rico is in America) name for Puerto Rico. It is proudly used by us Puerto Ricans to describe our heritage.

    I would also like to point out that we, Puerto Ricans, as American citizens, have the right and the privilege to vote in the U. S. elections as long as we reside in the mainland. The same is true for any fellow American who moves to paradise. Unfortunately, when we take that un-driveable road back to the Island, we automatically lose our right to vote. We can, however, serve in the military (and have proudly done so) as well as make donations to political candidates who come to the Island to fundraise, President Obama among many. Now, whose fault is that? Ask Congress! Better yet, ask the Puerto Rican people.

    This proud Boricua bids you Adios while singing "I am so pretty!"

    June 14, 2012 at 2:47 am | Report abuse |
  12. FashAddiX

    Am the owner of ThingsLatinosLoveorHate website. This is an interesting article. Especially the quote, "The red and white stripes are joined by a big white star inside a dark blue triangle, a star too big to fit comfortably inside the American red, white and blue." Those same exact words is in many of our "jibaro songs" of Puerto Rico and what many Puerto Ricans state and believe today. The beautiful thing about Puerto Ricans is how they move on. Despite everything we suffered in the past we don't go around hating or blaming anyone. That's an admirable quality.

    June 13, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
  13. Dr Bill

    Love you Soledad!

    June 12, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Jorge

    I don't think most fellow Puerto Ricans are the kind of folks to waste their good time holding a grudge(or giving undue importance, for that matter) against the inner rumblings of the Daily News, the quirks of some meat-grinder sitcom screenwriter or Bobby...who? There are too many real life matters to deal with that pre-empt subscription to that cr@p.

    June 12, 2012 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
  15. JJ

    Do realize that none of what happens in NYC or other enclaves of people with PR ascendancy has anything to do with the reality of the island, right?

    June 10, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  16. NYDNguy

    Cheap shot against The News, Rose. Guess you couldn't quite figure how to wrap up this mess of a column you dribbled out. Also, perhaps the editor's note should mention up top that you also once worked for The Daily News. One may presume you left on bad turns and here's your chance at revenge. Seriously, how does one person screwing up a house ad at a newspaper indicate some sort of trouble or disrespect for the Puerto Rican people?

    June 10, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Author

      Hey Mr.DN, Love the Daily News. Worked there for a year nearly 25 years ago and left with lots of love in both directions. Im just reflecting the comments made by your readers about the ad.

      June 10, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |