24 posts

Puerto Ricans’ Thorny Response to Hate Speech

Six panelists engaged in a public discussion of hate speech and free speech at the Jewish Community Center in Maitland. Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel was the moderator. /Maria Padilla


Hate speech is a thorny issue, as recently proven by the Puerto Rican community’s reaction to the social media video of Puerto Rican Alex Michael Ramos of Georgia who rioted with white nationalists in Charlottesville and bragged of his dubious exploits.

When confronted with the news, many in Orlando’s Puerto Rican community questioned whether “he was really a Puerto Rican.”

Alex Michael Ramos

“He is not Puerto Rican.” “He was not born in Puerto Rico.” If you’re born in the states you’re not Puerto Rican.” “Only those born in Puerto Rico can call themselves Puerto Ricans.” And so it went.

It matters little whether Ramos was born in the states or Puerto Rico. That is a dead-end conversation – a stale and sterile non-starter. And, frankly, who cares?

The Ramos dilemma should have prompted a soul searching discussion among Puerto Ricans like the one this week at the Jewish Community Center in Maitland on free speech/hate speech that drew a crowd of several hundred.

Six engaging panelists attempted to shed light on what constitutes free speech and hate speech, and what communities can do about it, answering questions on the minds of many.

“The way we respond to Charlottesville is what defines us as a country,” said Mark Freid, president of the Holocaust Memorial Center adjacent to the JCC.

Protected Speech

Understandably but disconcertingly, one of the things Americans must learn to do is tolerate hate speech as part of the First Amendment. “Hate speech is offensive speech,” said Terri Day, constitutional law professor at Barry University School of Law. “The Supreme Court has pretty much protected offensive speech.”

Do we want to have the government dictate good and bad ideas? asked Day, who defended the right of white nationalist Richard Spencer to speak at the University of Florida, which cancelled his event. “The government cannot discriminate between the content, viewpoint or speaker.”

State Senator Geraldine Thompson (D-Dist. 12) pushed the conversation from the abstract to the real world, emphasizing that “words have power. If we can demonize a person, we can annihilate them.”

Extremists as Victims

Former Neo Nazi Skinhead Angela King, who served three years in jail for her role in an armed robbery of a Jewish-owned store, said she was torn between free speech and hate speech. But any publicity, she added, amplifies the message of far right extremists. “Good publicity, bad publicity. No matter. It was good for us.”

Extremists see themselves as victims, she explained. Denial of free speech provokes extremists to double down on the notion. “If someone told us no, then we could say we are the ones being persecuted.”

The recent relatively peaceful protest in Boston was held up as an example of how to handle free speech or hate speech rallies. “Boston did a phenomenal job of keeping the sides separated,” said Orlando Police Chief John Mina, adding that weapons or objects that could be used as weapons were prohibited at the protest.

“We have no open carry in Florida and many chiefs across the country have had to deal with that,” he explained. Some local governments are passing ordinances that restrict open carry during rallies, he said.

Push Back

Thompson and Mitchell Bloom, Holocaust Memorial Center resource teacher, offered other ways to counter hate speech. Thompson cited this year’s graduation protest at Bethune Cookman University, Daytona Beach, in which students turned their backs on speaker Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.  “It doesn’t mean we have to listen to them,” she said.

Thompson also mentioned the march of Skinheads through Parramore in 1995, an act of provocation to the predominantly black community. “What they want is violence and I suggested [residents] stay home or just be observers.”

Bloom, meanwhile, indicated the community should push back on hate speech with facts and by relating personal stories, which are softer and less confrontational. “There are people who can be won over.”


Rachel Allen of Valencia College’s Peace and Justice Institute, said creating a safe space for different voices is important, not as the namby-pamby coddling of feelings but as a space guided by principles on how to have that conversation.

Said Allen: “Gandhi said free speech was America’s greatest freedom but he also said we must prepare.”

Returning to the Puerto Rican who marched in Charlottesville, the Puerto Rican community in Orlando  must learn to peacefully confront Puerto Ricans whose beliefs offend common values and sensibilities.

For it matters not if Ramos was born in Puerto Rico or the states, only that he is a lost soul with whom we need to engage so that others don’t follow his destructive path.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Orlando Confederate Statue to Watch Over the Dead

Five prominent Confederate state flags depicted in a postcard for sale at the American Civil War Museum, Richmond, Va.

Orlando’s Confederate statue, known as “Johnny Reb,” will be moved to a new home watching over the dead in Greenwood Cemetery, in the Confederate section appropriately enough.

There is no timetable for moving the statue, which has been stationed at Lake Eola for about 100 years. Ironically, Johnny Reb is in poor condition and may get a cleaning and repair, thanks to the progressives who want him banished.

The Orlando City Council voted 4-3 to remove the statue, a vote symbolic of how the Civil War still divides the nation more than 150 years after it ended. Mayor Buddy Dyer, and Commissioners Patty Sheehan, Sam Ing and Regina Hill were in the majority, while Commissioners Jim Gray, Robert Stuart and Tony Ortiz were in the minority.

Dyer said the solution “balances the inclusive morals of our community today, while carefully preserving historic artifacts from our past that can be used to further educate and serve as important lessons in today’s society,” as quoted in the Orlando Sentinel.

No Record of Hearing

There is no record of the actual hearing, which was pushed by former Orlando Sentinel colleague David Porter, because it was not an agenda item and the nearly two-hour video of the City Council’s May 15 meeting ends with the last item concerning medical marijuana.

Before the Confederate hearing, Ortiz, representing heavily Hispanic District 2,  announced his “philosophy” on the subject. “We have soldiers that have served in all kinds of wars and we have to respect that,” he said.

Ortiz Is Against

It’s not surprising that Ortiz would vote against removing the Confederate statue for he often votes against social issues such as this. He was the lone City Council vote against gay marriage, for example, explaining that it was against his values. And he cannot bring himself to put up a plaque in District 2 honoring the late community activist Rico Piccard, a plaque that was approved by the state. In at least these three regards, Ortiz appears to be out of sync with his district.

The Front Lines

But Ortiz has a point about people who fight wars. Lots of enlisted or drafted soldiers have found themselves in the front lines of battle confused about why they are there. The Viet Nam War is a 20th century example. Iraq and Afghanistan are others.

It’s fair to say that many Johnny Rebs fought in the War Between the States without fully understanding why, except that it was the thing to do in the South.  (Many Civil War battlefields, such as Appomattox, are hauntingly sad.)

The South fought to defend its right to own slaves and to expand the peculiar franchise to new states joining the union. The policy benefitted the landed gentry but also the entire economy of the South founded as it was on the slave labor of blacks. The complicity of the North – its financial institutions and great universities awash in money generated by the slave trade or economy – is only now coming into focus, revealing that the entire nation is indebted to slaves.

Historical Context

The historical context is too nuanced for many defenders of all things Confederate, including the flag (of which there are several versions, by the way). First a symbol of battle, the meaning of the Confederate flag and other symbols has been lost over time, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s as the civil rights movement ratcheted up.

If it was once a symbol of history and heritage, the Confederate flag is now seen as a symbol appropriated by the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist groups without much pushback from others.

“There are people who have confronted that flag in the hands of people who have meant to do them harm or at least want to deny them their basic civil rights,” explains John M. Coski, official historian of the American Civil War Museum. And I would add deny people their basic humanity.

Divisive Meaning

That is the divisive meaning of the flag to millions of people, particularly blacks, whose full equality means they shouldn’t have to confront these symbols daily in public spaces.

It is time for Johnny Rebel and company in Orlando and across the South to put down their rifles and flags and go home so that all of us may live and breathe freely.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

Puerto Rican Parade Takes Over Downtown Orlando


The Puerto Rican Parade marched through the heart of downtown Orlando, ending with a festival on the grounds of the Dr. Phillips Center. /Maria Padilla

A newly revitalized Puerto Rican parade, led by Cong. Darren Soto (D) and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and his black labradoodle, packed the heart of downtown Orlando Saturday with hundreds of Puerto Ricans waving their treasured flag.

The parade, in its second year, ended at the public plaza at the Dr. Phillips Center, where an outdoor festival continued through the afternoon and evening filled with live music, food and other vendors.

The parade capped a week of activities in the local Puerto Rican community, including a Puerto Rico Day in Tallahassee that drew two busloads of attendees in what has become an annual outing.

Orlando has hosted Puerto Rican parades going back more than 20 years but some of the wheels fell off the event after the death of Mildred Zapata in 2015, who for many years coordinated the parade and its affiliated events.

Current parade organizers Ralph Morales and Mike Moreno are said to once have been connected to the New York City National Puerto Rican Day Parade held in June, considered the largest Puerto Rican parade in the U.S.

Morales and Moreno last November pulled together a team of local activists and organizers to plan the parade, which promoted the achievements made by Puerto Ricans in business, health, music, science, arts and government.

Rival New York?

Florida’s Puerto Rican population has skyrocketed in the past 10 years as an economic crisis has gripped the island and Puerto Ricans from other states migrate to the Sunshine State. Today, over 1 million Puerto Ricans reside in Florida, and the expectation is that Orlando’s Puerto Rican parade could one day rival the New York original.

Orlando City Commissioner Tony Ortiz./ Maria Padilla

“We finally made it official,” said Orlando City Commissioner Tony Ortiz, who also sang Puerto Rico’s national hymn “La Borinqueña.” The Puerto Rico-born commissioner added that the community must push to make the parade an annual event, a sentiment echoed by Morales.

“It was not easy but the important thing is to continue,” said Morales.

This was the second Orlando parade for the organizers and, according to some attendees, it was much larger than the 2016 parade.

“There weren’t that many floats” in 2016, said an employee of Orange County who didn’t want to give her name.

From Marching Bands to Bomba y Plena

This year’s parade included 10 floats, including floats representing Costa Rica and Mexico. But there were many more participants, including marching bands from University, Evans and Edgewater high schools; a classic Toyota club of Orlando; beauty queens, motorcyclists, military veterans and bomba y plena dancers. Elected officials such as Cong. Soto, the first Puerto Rican in Congress from Florida, who was honored at a banquet earlier in the week.  Puerto State Sen. Victor Torres (D), State Rep. Amy Mercado (D) and State Rep. Carlos Smith (D) also took part. 

Bomba y plena dancers at the Puerto Rican Day Parade. / Maria Padilla










There was no shortage of Puerto Rican flags at the Puerto Rican Day Parade. /Maria Padilla


Puerto Rican Parade attendees along Orange Avenue show off their Puerto Rico colors. /Maria Padilla








Nationalism Is Hiding in Plain Sight

Nationalism is hiding in plain sight today in almost every corner of the globe, coming at us fast as global economies and governments seek to protect “their own,” whatever that means.

Since taking office, President Donald Trump‘s brand of nationalism has come into focus – economic nationalism. Companies and jobs stay in the U.S. to benefit American workers. Immigrants and outsiders are bad and must be kept out of the country. America should not concern itself with other nations’ problems. America First!

There is another type of nationalism loose in the land that’s not as recognized or lamented – Puerto Rican nationalism, which has been growing for years after a lapse in the 1940s, considered its hey day.

Puerto Rican Nationalism

Puerto Rican nationalism has much in common with Trumpism. Puerto Rico comes first, last and always. Puerto Rico does it better. (This was a tourism slogan until the island’s economy collapsed). ¡Alza la bandera! Puerto Rico can do no wrong, not even in its current economic debacle.

Under the thumb of the United States for over a century, the territory of Puerto Rico has limited agency, which accounts for some – but not all – its nationalistic instincts. These are instincts whose boasts obscure a lack of confidence not an abundance of it, that demands Puerto Rico’s purported uniqueness or singularity be proclaimed every hour on the hour.

They sound a lot like Trump’s trademark claims, aimed at those who have lost confidence in the nation and need much affirmation. As if saying so makes it so.

But if nationalism is bad for America – as both the right and left state – it must be bad for Puerto Rico as well. If Trump is allegedly gaming voters, who are Puerto Ricans gaming? If Puerto Ricans can identify nationalism in Trump, how is it that we cannot identify it in ourselves?

“Puerto Rican nationalism throughout the 20th century has been characterized by Hispanophilia, anti-Americanism, Negrophobia, androcentrism, homophobia, and, more recently, xenophobia,” writes Jorge Duany, the author of several books on Puerto Rico.

All are hallmarks of nationalism. How can this be helpful in forging Puerto Rico’s future?

Quest for Equality

For instance, the quest for Puerto Rico statehood or equality often is built on Puerto Rico’s supposed uniqueness, as lawyer Anthony Suárez argues here in a recent Orlando Sentinel column marking the 100th anniversary of American citizenship for Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Rico is “a perfect bridge” to Latin America. It is “strategically placed.” The island can “lead the charge in American values and institutions.” And on and on, Suárez states.

Which is irrelevant. The island ought to be admitted as a state or cut loose not because it is special but because second-class citizenship is untenable in the United States, where equality supposedly rules. Period.

Corporate Exploitation

In a counterargument, law student Phillip Arroyo states, “The island has been exploited by corporate America for decades through exotic tax loopholes.” Because, of course, Puerto Rico is a passive vessel for American greed.

True up to a point. Puerto Rico and Congress collaborated for decades – with the full consent of the island’s political establishment – on a number of federal tax schemes to bolster the island’s economy whose engine has never generated sufficient activity for its people.

One such “loophole” poured billions of corporate dollars into the island’s banking system, enabling Puerto Rico banks to reinvest the cash in mortgages, auto loans, small business loans and more, benefitting locals (often at usurious rates).

Not a Victim

Then Congress, stalking additional revenue, took it away. Puerto Rico was not a victim. It was a partner that preferred rapid development to creating its own entrepreneurial class, which would have taken longer to develop. As a U.S. territory it took full advantage of the U.S. bond market – Wall Street – borrowing billions to fill budget holes rather than make needed reforms. Until it could no longer borrow.

Puerto Rico was not a victim. It was a partner in its own financial demise. (But Puerto Rico is not a partner in federal programs, in which It is treated unequally.)

A Cult

Pride in ethnicity or identity results in cultish behavior, a religiosity about anything related to Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans. An egregious example: the 2016 Kissimmee race for mayor which pitted Cuban-American José Alvarez against Puerto Rican Art Otero, who pulled out all the stops to remind voters to “vote Puerto Rican.” As if shared ethnicity were sufficient qualification for elected office. (Imagine a campaign that urged people to “vote white.”)

Fortunately, voters did not play along, supporting the better qualified candidate – Alvarez – with the help of many non Hispanic voters, to be sure.

How can Puerto Rican nationalism help the island? How can nationalism help Puerto Ricans in Florida and other states, where nationalism often is even more pronounced, as in the previous example?

More to the point, has Puerto Rican nationalism helped in any way?  No.

Infantilizing Puerto Rico

Insistence on Puerto Rico victimhood infantilizes the island, shooing away unpleasant truths in which Puerto Rico apparently has no agency, no ability to act. Which is not entirely true.

Cries of nationhood are hollow when Puerto Rico itself has professed little desire to be independent.

Talk of Puerto Rico’s greatness does not bolster confidence but makes it suspect, helping to create faux heroes such as ex-terrorist Oscar López Rivera. Or mythologizing our indigenous past or revolutionary resistance. Having “confidence in confidence” doesn’t mean you possess it.

Alza la bandera, if you will. But for Puerto Ricans faced with economic and migrant crises aquí y allá  the way to harness the future is to unfurl the flag with less rah-rah and more realism grounded in an actionable agenda. Or continue to suffer the consequences of shoddy sovereignty.

˜˜Maria T. Padilla, Editor