Work It: The Reactionary Backlash

“Life would be much simpler if people who are subjected to persistent marginalization and disparagement weren’t so “sensitive” and just took their insults and degradation, or pretended they weren’t really about them. Persistently marginalized and disparaged people should not speak up because they are to blame for their own problems. Identifying with marginalized victimhood prevents them from enjoying the benefits of the American dream.”

These are the voices of the reactionary backlash against the idea of protesting the dehumanizing joke uttered by Amaury Nolasco in last week’s episode of the largely tasteless sitcom “Work It,” soon to be canceled by its creators, the American Broadcasting Company. The reactionary element that still has so much power in American discourse suggests that presenting “the other side of the story” involves the reasonable assumption that well, after all, Puerto Rico is a drug-riddled island, so is the joke really offensive?

A Huffington Post (Latino/a) column puts it this way:

The 3,515-square-mile island has an average of three violent deaths per day. According to U.N. figures for 2008, the island averaged 20.3 murders per 100,000 residents. Mexico, by comparison, had 11.5 murders per 100,000 residents in that same year. And the documented corruption of the island’s police force corruption has even lead to fears of it becoming a ‘narco state.’

The reality painted by these disturbing figures should be a focus of debate among Puerto Ricans, said Mariana Vicente, Miss Universe Puerto Rico 2010, in defense of Nolasco.

“We are not in a position to demand that the media guard our reputation when in our country we don’t even respect ourselves, brutally killing people, firing bullets in the air and so much violence in the home,” she told Primera Hora. “Let’s start out by caring for ourselves and demonstrating the contrary to the rest of the world.”

I’m not sure about the logic of setting up Ms. Universe as a spokesperson in a political debate, or someone to initiate a serious dialog, but i guess that’s what happens in a celebrity driven culture and the media outlets that promote it. It’s telling that the post uses a link to Fox News Latino to establish the idea that Puerto Rico is in danger of becoming a narco state, and not the more informative piece in the Christian Science Monitor, nor one of its major sources, the DOJ National Drug Intelligence Report , which clearly states that the increase in drug traffic in Puerto Rico has been caused by a shift by Venezuelan and Colombian drug traffickers to points in the Eastern Caribbean to avoid the DEA’s ineffective machinations. It is clear that the drug problem that has exploded in Puerto Rico is not self-generated, unless you think Puerto Rico is such an integral part of the US that it deserves partial blame for the largely disastrous decades-long failure known as the War on Drugs! Here’s one argument against that idea: Puerto Rico has never had a single elected representative in Congress who could even exercise the right to vote for or against the disastrous failure known as the War on Drugs!

So, let’s have a debate on this: Should we agree or disagree on the deployment of the War on Drugs? We have no choice in the matter. Should we limit our own consumption? The major cause of the drug problem is the fact that Puerto Rico is a transshipment point for the distribution of drugs to the mainland US, and not the island population’s consumption of drugs. Should we ask Americans to limit their consumption of drugs? Wait a minute..we are Americans. If we stop firing bullets in the air, will that help the DEA shift the transshipment point somewhere else?

I won’t even mention how the current government cut 20,000 government jobs and used Obama’s ARRA (stimulus) funds as a way to boost the island’s employment figures even though their rhetoric claims that the private sector is the best hope for job creation. More jobs = less drug dealers. The absolute silence of the Puerto Rican government on the “Work It” controversy speaks volumes.

Finally, let’s talk about the drug dealers, who make up a tiny percentage of the Puerto Rican people. Let’s talk about how the Amaury Nolasco character was someone living in the U.S., and the fact the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. have nothing to do with drug dealers in Puerto Rico. And let us note that while there have been some Latino characters in network television network shows over the last few years, I can’t remember a single one that was Puerto Rican! Not Ugly Betty, not Desperate Housewives, not Sofia Vergara. The last thing I can remember is that flag burning on Seinfeld, and because some of us chose to speak out they will never show that on the air again. And this really hazy memory of Freddie Prinze. So, when there finally is one, the first thing he says is “I’m Puerto Rican, I’d be great at selling drugs”?

This is not an insignificant grievance that can be compared, as this misguided Chicago columnist did, to the drug-dealing white suburban dealer in Weeds. (“Get a grip,” she says. “If you go around looking to be insulted, you’ll never be disappointed”.) But for every Mary Louise Parker weed pusher, there’s…well, there’s just about every other character on network television to contrast her with! The entire cast of Friends, The Office, Cheers, Seinfeld, Married With Children, How I Met Your Mother, Mary Tyler Moore, Will and Grace, Taxi, The King of Queens, Beavis and Butthead.

As a drug dealer, she is an exception. A shining example of American exceptionalism. The one who can deal drugs and remain attractive and upscale without being imprisoned. For Puerto Ricans, there’s Amaury Nolasco and…no exceptions.

We live in an era where synagogues are being trashed with swastikas, nooses turn up in parks and universities, people are given receipts in fast food places that read Lady Chinky Eyes, young people are committing suicide over their sexual identity, and our freely elected President has been portrayed in every racist way imaginable by right-wing Republican activists. While this backlash cannot be blamed on sitcoms, they demonstrate that somehow messages of intolerance are being transmitted with increasing velocity, and network television shouldn’t be part of laying the groundwork for this.

When is it going to stop? It’s certainly not going to stop if reactionaries discourage people from speaking out against these things, by pining away for a return to time when people weren’t constrained by “political correctness.” Their time, thankfully, is 30 years past.

6 Comments

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  1. Bless you for your insightful article in Defence of our right to act out our anger to insults against our community. As a Puerto Rican businessman trying to survive in this concrete jungle taking valuable tome to picket in front of ABC in the frigid cold was not something i planned to do that morning with my friend Lucky Rivera. However after seeing the segment that Lucky was asking me to see I could not contain my anger. Thank you for defending my right to be angry & respond. “I’m a Puert Rican businessman – Not A Drug Dealer” & that’s why we reacted & formed “Boricuas For A Positive Image.”

  2. This is perhaps one of the most eloquent and amazing responses I have read about this fiasco. The detractors miss the point and they miss the point about the REAL issues here. But kudos kudos kudos for this very well-written piece. We would love to run it and cross-link back to you on latinorebels.com and feature it today. If so email us at latinorebels@gmail.com Thank you! Our readers would be very interested in this response.

  3. This is the the most accurate article I’ve read regarding these issues. This demand to be treated well is only the first step in the healing process.

    The examples you have listed of believing anyone deserves to be degraded is an example what Social workers call ‘blaming the victim’. It happens when a person has been so abused the ego is damaged and they forgot how to love themselves.

    I would appreciate so much if you would sign & share the petition.

    http://www.change.org/petitions/abc-tv-network-abc-apologize-to-puerto-rican-community-for-broadcast-racist-remarks

  4. Deep, considerate and approaching it from various stances– political to social. I admire this piece and the work that went into it. It shows.
    Thank you for adding the piece at the end, about all the other hateful and discriminatory situations that happen, regardless of race or creed. It’s an issue that we have to fight all the time whether it is Latino oriented or not.
    To those who criticize the point that the line was “just a joke,” it is possible to be funny without being prejudice, racist or sexist. I’ve seen it.

  5. Excellent post Mr. Morales, some of very points you make here are what I regard to being a part of the overall problem on the island. As I mentioned in my own post, “like a stubbed toe which goes completely ignored and becomes gangrenous”. This is exactly what can occur. If there were more positive roles portrayed of Puerto Ricans, then yes, we could all just laugh and brush it off, but that is not the case.

  6. oddgirlinentertainment January 12, 2012 — 8:50 am

    Finally an intelliget response. Thank you.

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