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PUERTO RICO HERALD
A "Taliban" Of Our Own
By Frances Negrón-Muntaner
July 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
For Island "chateros" on the Internet, there are only two truly important issues regarding suspected al-Qaida collaborator, José Padilla, aka Abdulla al-Mujahir, and these are telling to a great degree. About our Puerto Rican national "selves," of course, not José.
An indignant group cannot stand that Padilla is dubbed a Puerto Rican, so please stop saying that. Imagine, Padilla was born in Brooklyn, raised in Chicago, and probably doesnt even speak Spanish or been to Puerto Rico. My God, hes like a J-Lo! The other half marvels at the fact that hes a world-class terrorist, the Feds have him, and hes a Puerto Rican, wow, were so chic! The hybrids are weary that since Padilla is Puerto Rican, this fact can bring even more negative attention to the Island, so like a collective Judas, we should deny this guy three times and not look back.
Either way, the truly crucial thing for most is not that Padilla could have sent some of us to a radioactive grave, that his constitutional rights are being violated, and/or that the boundary between domestic and international terrorism is increasingly thin and vanishing. Whats really important is that a Puerto Rican is in the front cover of every newspaper in the world and this means that we count. The El Nuevo Dia headline of last week was breathtaking in its complicity: "Familia proclama inocencia del boricua." (The Family Proclaims the "Boricua's" Innocence).
One could say that the media is only doing what sells. The unexamined question is, of course: Why do many Puerto Ricans enjoy to sell (out) like that?
Let's cut to the chase: Modern Puerto Rican national identity is founded in shame -- of a particular kind and with a specific history. For the elites, shame became a defining trope in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The reason is simple. Important sectors of the Puerto Rican elites were politically "had" by the Americans. After intimate collaboration and apparent submission in the pursuit of autonomy, the constitution did not follow the flag and many of the Islands best and brightest ended up losing the modest degree of power that they so arduously amassed during the last heartbeats of the Spanish empire. The pre-invasion assumption that Puerto Ricans were "effeminate Cubans" was conveniently confirmed by the Americans and swallowed whole by high Island culture. The elite's shame became even more complicated and difficult to represent when the Commonwealth transformed colonialism itself into a somewhat enjoyable relationship.
For most Puerto Ricans, shame did not so much become a relevant category because of the elites loss of face. Although it can be argued that elite definitions of culture and nationhood permeate the entire "national" group, it is instead the specific experience of dispossession and being reduced to nearly worthless labor in the Islands countryside, in the urban slums of San Juan, and in the metropolitan "jungles" under new capitalist arrangements that made less economically privileged Puerto Ricans ashamed of where they came from.
In the United States, the racialization of Puerto Ricans as a distinct (and "undesirable") ethnic group reproduced Puerto Ricanness as a sign of community belonging, regardless of whether the San Juan elites think Puerto Rican-Americans are truly boricuas. Less than a "culture" in the anthropological sense or a vigorous (read impenetrably virile) nationality, what has united Puerto Ricans for decades across the ocean has been the common experience of a specifically located colonial shame if differently understood and worked through, depending on geography, class, race, gender, and sexual orientation (just to name a few variables). In other words, Puerto Ricans do not engage in displays of pride because we feel good about ourselves in the conventional sense, but to attempt to address the subjection processes that literally make us as a national group.
Its no coincidence that the only significant "pride" parades that exist in the U.S. are for gays and lesbians, and historically racialized ethnic groups, two of the most denigrated categories of people in America. So, if the cultural logic of Puerto Rican national identity is found in the back and forth between pride-dignity/shame-humiliation, this also explains the nearly universal boricua fixation with celebrity. Any kind of it.
Most enduring Puerto Rican celebrities are boxers, baseball players, beauty queens, entertainers, and outlaws: "Wanted" people that through their magnificent celebrity confirm that Puerto Ricans exist and transform the world in both trivial and important ways, specially against any apparatus that connotes or exercises legalized authority. Following this logic, there will always be more pride in identifying with José Padilla, regardless of whether he is a murderer and/or a victim of the Law, than in siding with the federal government. Remember bandit Toño Bicicletas massive funeral and how people disregarded his crimes because of his impressive abilities to outwit the police, and you get the picture.
Al Muhajir may kill again or be killed. But in living on as a celebrity which effectively destroys the private person -- Puerto Ricanness as a social sign of community lives on and multiplies. Puerto Ricans by now clearly know that Americans and Cubans -- to name two of our closest relations -- are great nationals not only because of their economic might or first rate literature, but because their peoples have been implicated in world history (read Empire) as indispensable protagonists for over a century. And this celebrity also confirms that they are quintessentially modern, part of the peoples with history, as Puerto Ricans have also yearned to be. Ironically, by virtue of being a colonial possession of the United States, experiencing a substantial transfer of population from the Island to the metropolis, and most recently, enjoying a degree of visibility as U.S. citizens yet Puerto Rican nationals, boricuas are getting a possibly short-lived shot at global protagonism and modernity, commanding the stage to affirm that we too are in the world and are worth every penny people pay to read about how we move our butt, throw a punch, look pretty, or kill somebody. Pa'que tu lo sepas!
True to form, Padilla is many things to different people and thats one of the ways that the Puerto Rican national drama is complicated. In the U.S. media, some have called Padilla the "Puerto Rican guy," affirming his exteriority to the United States, but he is more often referred to as "the American suspect" or "a U.S. Hispanic." Importantly, in the only instance of self-identification granted to Padilla in the press, he described himself in his marriage license as an African-American named Ibrahim. In foregrounding race, Padilla confirms that his rage may also be motivated by the shame implicated in racism and slavery, explicitly displacing both Puerto Rican and American nationalist narratives of identification.
Yet, much of the boricua response to Padilla reminds us that what can be called the shame of Puerto Rican national identity speaks through two crucial manifestations that the outlaw continues to embody, the boxer simulates, and the many adore: violence and spectacle.
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is a writer, scholar and filmmaker. Her column, The Writing On The Wall, appears courtesy of The San Juan Star. She can be reached at: Bikbaporub@aol.com