April 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Pedro Albizu Campos, the notable leader of the struggle to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule. Albizu was born in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce in 1891. His father was a Spanish Basque merchant and his mother a domestic worker of mixed African and indigenous Taino background. Albuzu grew up in humble circumstances. His parents never married and Albizu’s father did not officially recognize him as his son (filed legal documents) until Albizu was at Harvard.
He was a brilliant student. Although he did not start his schooling until he was 12, he finished his elementary education and high school in seven and a half years. He received a scholarship from the University of Vermont to study engineering and his performance was so outstanding that a professor recommended him for admission to Harvard.
During his stay at Harvard, Albizu completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Letters, the requirements of a Chemical Engineer, and a Law Degree. He learned Portuguese, French, Italian, and German as well as Latin and Greek.
Albizu was a victim of crass racism at “august” Harvard, where he was robbed of an academic honor. He had the highest grade-point average in his Law class and as a result it fell upon him to deliver the valedictory speech. He never got the chance. One of his professors delayed Albizu’s third-year final exams so that Albizu could not graduate on time. The professor wanted to avoid the “embarrassment” of a Puerto Rican law valedictorian. Sensitive to US racism, Albizu published in 1932 a letter accusing a US physician, Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, of killing Puerto Ricans as part of his research. Someone gave Albizu a letter that Dr. Rhoads wrote to a friend where he made savagely racist comments about Puerto Ricans and advocated their genocide. He also admits that he killed Puerto Rican patients and transplanted cancerous tumors into others:
They [Puerto Ricans] are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere. It makes you sick to inhabit the same island with them. They are even lower than Italians. What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. It might then be livable. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8 and transplanting cancer into several more. [My emphasis]
In light of these experiences with US racism, it is not surprising that Albizu joined the movement that pursued Puerto Rico’s independence from the United States. In 1930 he became president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. His nationalist militancy resulted in three separate prison sentences and died in prison. Again: A brilliant man and a Harvard graduate who still came face-to-face with racism in the US.
Puerto Ricans are lazy, filthy, thieves, parasites. They expect everything to be handed to them. They are dumb people who have no initiative or talent. They lack discipline and a sense of responsibility. They love to party. They hate their compatriots: [they say that] the island is sinking, losing its population and coming apart.(Translated from Spanish.)
Who in the world would utter such diatribes against Puerto Ricans: White supremacists? The Ku Klux Klan? Not really.
According to Benjamín Torres Gotay, a Puerto Rican journalist writing in San Juan’s Spanish language El Nuevo Día, it’s Puerto Rican themselves. Torres asserts that these beliefs represent a campaign carried out by people who are convinced that the solution to Puerto Rico’s problems is statehood. Because Puerto Ricans are by nature incapable of taking care of themselves, it is claimed, the US would step in and solve the problems of its 51st state.
Puerto Rico’s problems, Torres asserts, are rooted in a system that grew out of Puerto Rico’s dependence on the US. “Laziness” is due to the lack of decent jobs, “ignorance” grows out of a disastrous school system, and “lacking in initiative” is the result of a deeply embedded popular notion that Puerto Ricans need US help to take care of things.
We may add that the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci pointed out that after long inculcation such myths penetrate the average individuals’ psyche and become an unquestioned “commonsense.” Gramsci denominated this state of affairs “hegemony.” All colonies suffer from this “hegemony.”
To Torres’ penetrating accounting of the root causes of Puerto Rico’s maladies we need to add racism. Anti-Latino racism is part and parcel of US culture. In the halls of Congress, no less, Latinos have been called inferior mixtures of Spanish, Indian and Black stock, or “mongrels.” The US is not sympathetic to people of “other” races (that is those who are not white) and consequently unlikely to hold a benevolent view of Puerto Rico.
The racist message has become a component of Puerto Rican commonsense. It teaches that as an “other race,” Puerto Ricans have no one to blame but themselves for their problems. This is an ironic twist: exploit a people and blame their race for the consequences of their exploitation.
A recent article in Latino Fox News decries the “serious” crime situation in the island:
Puerto Rico . . . suffers from an astronomic violent crime rate; the U.S. territory registered 13 murders in the first five days of 2014 – four of them occurring during a single night.
Thirteen murders in five days constitute an verage 2.6 murders per day. However, this figure is not as ominous when compared with cities in the U.S. such as Detroit:
Six people have been killed and nine shot during a 24-hour period in [Detroit]. This round of violence began early Thursday morning and extended into Friday.
Six murdered persons in one night is double an average of 2.6 murders in one day. This Puerto Rican figure probably pertains to the San Juan area (Fox Latino doesn’t specify), an urban enclave with high poverty and substantial drug traffic, not unlike in Detroit, which foment violence.
What the Fox article fails to mention is that in Puerto Rico there have not been any incidents when a deranged (and usually white male) individual invaded a school and killed innocent children, as has periodically been the case in the mainland United States.
There is more to death by firearm than simple numbers: the wanton nature of the crime — and who the perpetrators are — must also be taken into consideration.