The Puerto Ricans: Aqui se habla espanol

Whether blacks, protective of their own gains since the 1960s, would welcome this is another question. So, too, is whether such a bracketing with blacks would be acceptable to the Puerto Rican "establishment," which for the most part is "white." For example, such men as the successive governors of Puerto Rico, former Cognressman Herman Badillo, present New York Congressman Robert Garcia, or the polished mayor of Miami, Maurice Ferre (a Puerto Rican and not a Cuban as one might expect) could hardly be mistaken for blacks. A notable exception to this pattern is the sensitive Gilbert Colon, assistant in the White House to President Carter's special assistant for Hispanic affairs, Esteban Torres, a Mexican-American. Mr. Colon is black.

So, too, is the redoutable Miss Yolanda Sanchez, executive director of the East Harlem Council for Human Services, which runs an ever-busy neighborhood health center at Third Avenue and 122nd Street. A community activist for over a quarter of a century, Miss Sanchez said bluntly: "There is race prejudice within the Puerto Rican community. It's largely because Puerto Ricans have come to believe that the more you meet the white American standard, the better you get on . . . . None of the Puerto Rican elected officials are dark: They are loosely white. . . . Even in the legitimate theater, the two most recent Puerto Rican breakthroughs, Jossie de Guzman and Raul Julia, almost meet in appearance the North American norm."

Fernando Camacho, Mr. Bustelo's deputy at the National Puerto Rican Forum, said there is another kind of discrimination against Puerto Ricans: "institutional discrimination." He explained this was the kind of discrimination resulting from others low on the totem pole feeling they "could lose what they have gotten to latecomers like the Puerto Ricans." This is turn, he said, hardened the unfavorable stereotype of the Puerto Rican -- particularly that of the Puerto Rican teen-ager.

Puerto Rican youth on the US mainland, according to Mr. Camacho, lacked "male role models." The name of the game for them became survival. When they saw that the "negative behavior" of other groups in the slums was a means to make money, they adopted that as their model. Yet it was a cruel falsehood that "there are over a million Puerto Ricans out there robbing and rioting."

Mario Paredes, head of the Roman Catholic Church's North East Pastoral Center for Hispanics, said Puerto Ricans have in fact "managed to keep a sense of values. They remain human beings. And this despite housing that is devastating and subhuman, a health system that is scarifying, and schools which are deformative institutions. . . . The dominant [Anglo] culture thinks Puerto Ricans are lazy, retarded, and want welfare. But under these conditions, how can these people develop a normal life?"

Miss Sanchez, the community worker with a quarter of a century's experience, said: "sometimes you reach the point of despair, and you wonder. But you eventually conclude your efforts have made a difference." Her East Harlem Council for Human Services, with all that it offers, is evidence of that. The same can be said of Mr. Bustelo's National Puerto Rican Forum and of the grass-roots operations at parish level under the umbrella of Mr. Paredes's Pastoral Center.

In Williamsburg, the writer saw the rehabilitation work being done to dilapilated or abandoned tenement buildings by Los Sures, a neighborhood concern started in 1972 with the encouragement of the local Catholic priest. Los Sures has taken over the management and running of eight buildings and, with its board , recruited from the immediate locality, authority over funds and property worth between $4 million and $5 million.

(Mr. Paredes said that despite this grass-roots activity, the Roman Catholic hierarchy still does not fully understand the needs of the Puerto Rican community, particularly in helping it develop leadership. This failure, as he saw it, had given an opening to fundamentalist Protestan churches making inroads into a traditionally Catholic community. The Protestant fundamentalists had been quicker than the Catholics to recognize the importance of having Puerto Rican clergy to appeal to Puerto Ricans. And the Protestant fundamentalists had also perceived the appeal of a local church as a center of social activity: hence (he said) the minibuses belonging to Protestant fundamentalist churches seen ferrying groups around in any Puerto Rican barrio. The need for such activity among Puerto Rican communities on the Us mainland was all the greater because mainland poverty was "so much more heartless" than poverty in Puerto Rico itself.)

Mr. Bustelo's Puerto Rican Forum operates, like Miss Sanchez's organization, in a completely secular setting. One of its aims is to lift Puerto Ricans above and out of their ghetto government. Its thrust is two-pronged: (1) skills training and job placement, and (2) ensuring that laws are correctly interpreted so that Puerto Ricans get their fair share of the pie when it comes to the distribution of public money. It has five training centers in New York, deliberately located outside the barrios in business or downtown sections of the city. The aim, Mr. Camacho said, was to enable those receiving training to see that they were a part of Greater New York and must become part of it. Forum staff are expected to dress conservatively in business suits or their equivalent.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 Puerto Ricans are helped at these centers every year. Mr. Camacho said the forum has an 80 percent record in placing its trainees in jobs. The record for other such agencies in New York, he added, was 53 to 56 percent.

As this writer moved through Hispanic communities -- from Chicago and Los Angeles to San Antonio and Miami --for discussion, Chicanos and Cubans repeatedly said that Puerto ricans had an extra burden to bear, in additon to their language, their color, and their poverty. It was, they said, the psychological uncerntainly resulting from the limbo which Puerto Rico's commonwealth status had turned out to be. To the average Puerto Rican, the argument goes, commonwealth status means his or her being made a kept man or woman of the US.

Cuban journalist Ivan Castro in Miami said Puerto Rica had in some ways been an unwanted colony from the ourset. He recalled the point made by Barbara Tuchman in her book "The Poor Tower" that the US had gone into the Spanish-American War 82 years ago with Admiral Mahan's call ringing in American ears. The admiral had maintained that the US needed to annex cuba and the Philippines (then both under Spanish rule) to protect the Atlantic and Pacific approaches to the proposed Panama Canal. But when victory came, the US deemed it politically impossible to annex Cuba and settled for Puerto Rico instead.

The commonwealth status, enjoyed by Puerto Rico now, falls short of full statehood. Puerto Ricans are formally US citizens and benefit from federal programs, yet neither vote in US presidential elections nor have any voting representation in Congress. Paradoxically, they do hold party primaries and send delegates to presidential nominating conventions. They also vote for their own governor and island legislature. Mr. Paredes said over 50 percent of the island's population were on welfare programs of one kind or another. And an associate of his commented: "What the US has given Puerto Rico is subsistence, and this has deprived them of their self-respect." [Text omitted from source] reached New York was that commonwealth status was now broadly recognized as nonpermanent, and the ambiguity had to be ended by a decision either for full statehood -- demanded by incumbent Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo -- or for independence. (The commonwealth government maintains an office in New York. Mainland Puerto Ricans sometimes resent its efforts to speak for them, believing that it does not really understand their problems or accurately represent their interests as mainlanders.)

In terms of popular support, independence has not hitherto proven to have much backing.But an opinion voiced among various groups of Hispanics was that the longer the delay before a resolution of the present Puerto rican ambiguity, the speedier the polarization of Puerto Rican views was likely to be -- and the greater the likelihood of violence. A handful of Puerto Ricans are already resorting to that, with attacks on US service personnel in Puerto Rico and acts of sabotage on the mainland.

In New York, the biggest surprise for the writer was the view of Miss Sanchez on this issue. Knowing that she was US-born, that she works tirelessly to get mainland Puerto Ricans into the US mainstream, and that she has long been active in Democratic Party politics in new York City, I put the question to her delicately. She did not hesitate in her answer: "Of course, the relationship between Puerto Rico and the government of the US must be resolved definitively. As long as the present situation persists, Puerto Rico will continue in the only position it has known since Europeans came to the Americas: that of a colonial outpost of a world power -- first Spain, then the US. This means Puerto Ricans still don't know who they are. And if you're not clear who you are, it's difficult to function."

Pressed further, Miss Sanchez said she herself favored independence, but she was aware that the final choice was up to the Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico, not to those who were born in or had migrated to the US.

Journalist Julio Moran wondered whether the US Congress would ever admit to the Union a 51st state whose people were Spanish-speaking. It would mean two Spanish-speaking senators, and possibly 7 Spanish-speaking congressmen in the House of Representatives. Were the Congress and the American people ready for this, he asked, even if the people of Puerto Rico voted overwhelmingly for it? And another question, according to Mr. Moran, was whether the Puerto Ricans on the mainland would in fact be helped if an attempt was made to settle the ambiguity by going for full statehood. The implication was that independence might in fact be better for mainland Puerto Ricans because it would help them define more clearly than statehood their status here.

Whichever way the status of Puerto Rico is eventually resolved, mainland Puerto Ricans would still find valid writer Piri Thomas's cry from the barrios: "I once read somewhere that a land is only as great as its people. If every American could enjoy the fruits of true firt-class citizenship, we would truly have a great land. Adelante!" The meaning of "Adelante"? "Right on!"

Next: a summing up

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