Italians vs. Puerto Ricans: In Which Racism Exposes Its Ludicrous Side

When I was growing up in Western Massachusetts some thirty years ago, there were two main racial groups in town: the Italians and the Puerto Ricans. Now, I can’t tell you what or even if the Puerto Ricans thought about the Italians, but I do know that the Italians, at least the ones I knew, hated the Puerto Ricans. You even pronounced it differently, as if it were a swear word: PortaRican.

Now, my mom was American-born and didn’t speak Italian, but her grandparents had come from the old country around the turn of the century and that was sufficient to qualify us to be at home among the Italians, so quite naturally we lived in the Italian neighborhood. With my second-generation Italian friends I celebrated the Italian holidays, worshipped Sylvester Stallone, the Italian Stallion, and tried to pick up the art of swearing in Italian from the native speakers. But I never could figure out why I was supposed to hate the Puerto Ricans. I mean, it sounded really stupid. Both groups seemed to me only slightly different shades of white, and among the older generation, both spoke equally incomprehensible foreign languages.

“It’s because they’re so poor,” my friends would sniff. “Look at where they live.”

I did. I didn’t have to look hard; their neighborhood was directly across the street from ours.

“They shop at Kmart,” they sneered. Back then this was the refuge of the very lowest classes. You did not want to be seen walking into or out of a Kmart. But we knew that they shopped there because we often saw them in the aisles when we were trying to pick out our shoes and shirts for school.

When I moved away from Springfield and met other Italians it became clear that Italians in general had no particular grudge against Puerto Ricans; indeed, in most parts of the country neither group is numerous or dominant enough for racial conflicts even to exist. And that’s when it finally started to make sense to me. The Italians of my old neighborhood didn’t hate the Puerto Ricans because of how they lived or because of anything specific they had done. They were simply the other big tribe in town. Natural enemies, if you will. And very likely the Puerto Ricans were equally unfond and distrustful of their Italian neighbors.

To my mind, racism, like many other isms, is inherently flawed in concept and therefore doomed to eventual failure. It may have been sustainable as long as the whites stayed in Europe and the Asians in Asia and the blacks in Africa and the Latinos in Latin America, but today’s society is so incredibly integrated that this simply can’t be the case anymore. As much as you can’t talk people out of their convictions, you also can’t talk them out of their sexual desires, and as long as people of one color continue to think that people of other colors are hot, there are going to be interracial babies who will, in turn, make more interracial babies. And at some point it becomes ludicrous, trying to carry a prejudice against people who are the same color as your grandkid or your best friend’s live-in boyfriend or you after a summer in the sun or a winter without it.

It’s difficult to detest groups that are so ill-defined. It’s even tougher to feel threatened by an ethnic population that doesn’t outnumber you and that has no more power than your own. I mean, who in the U.S. really hates the Irish anymore? When was the last time you saw a fistfight break out between an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian? It is both the burden and the beauty of cultural diversity. Many reasons to hate other kinds of people and many more reasons not to.

So the real question is, when racism at last draws to its timely end, will that mean universal peace and cooperation? Will we enjoy a Golden Age in which all peoples are appreciated and respected, in which cultures of every kind live in utopian harmony?

I doubt it. Because if the Italians of Springfield could find reasons to hate the Puerto Ricans, then people everywhere are always going to be able to find some irrational reason to despise their neighbors. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the hate crime of the future involved sports fans being beaten to death for supporting the wrong team. Or gang warfare between those who like country music and those who like hip-hop.

It will still be an improvement. If we’re going to hate people for no good reason, at least it ought to be for a cause that’s under their control. Much more fair than holding them accountable for some characteristic that was passed down to them before they were even born.

Race

21 thoughts on “Italians vs. Puerto Ricans: In Which Racism Exposes Its Ludicrous Side

  1. Boris Merman

    Italians and Puerto Ricans look nothing alike ! They are from two different parts of the world and the only thing they may have in common is dark hair, eyes and olive-skinned complexions. Puerto Ricans are from a Caribbean island and the history of these islands has native American Indian as the original indigenous inhabitants of these islands, the blacks that were brought there from West Africa as slaves by the Europeans, and the whites from Europe that came mostly from Spain. There is an admixture of all these faces easily seen in the faces of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, etc. Italians come from Italy, a country in Southern Europe. There is no native Indian or black (negro) influences there. They can have Arab and Moorish influences, and that is visible also in their faces, complexions, etc. This is also true for other peoples from that region along the Mediterranean like Spain, Portugal, Southern France, Greece, Malta and even Turkey and parts of Persia.

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    1. Ismael Jusino

      Moorish, yes, the true Black men. Actually, the first people called “Negro” in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, which is not as offensive in those languages and I do not pretend to be. So yes Boris, Italians do have African ancestry, in fact, most Europeans do because the Moorish and Berbers were invaders. On the other hand, Puerto Rico is the less black of the Antilles. There are Puerto Ricans of every race and complexions, and yes, White Puerto Ricans and Italians do look very much alike and their traditions, even language, are just a bit away.,

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    2. Domingo Hernandez De Jesus

      Dear Boris, you may not know this but a large number of people from Corsica migrated to Puerto Rico in the mid 1800s, This is why Italian surnames are fairly common in Puerto Rico, another link is that Spain was part of the Roman Empire and a lot of gene pool sharing between Spain and the Italian peninsular happen for about two thousand years. these Spaniards came to our island with some Roman genes just as with their Roman Catholic religion. As to the African contribution you are correct, we most surely had a stronger African influence in our history than Italy , however with the recent migrations of Blacks to Italy that country will soon be catching up. I hope they will be able to see that diversity can be a blessing.

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      1. Mel Jusino

        Agree. Just want to say that Not only Corsicans went to Puerto Rico, also Italians, especially Sicilians (I carry two last names from Sicily).

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  2. Mel Jusino

    I was born in Spain of puertoricans parents, American by birth then. My blood is Corsican, French, Spanish, Irish and ITALIAN (Sicilian). Where I was raised in Puerto Rico, many people are like me. There is no reason at all for hate between Italians and Puertoricans. They are both Latins, in fact Italians were the first Latins. White Puerto Ricans and Italians look very much alike, customs and language are not that different. Racism and hate are The product of insecurities, emotional restrain and fear. Be FREE!

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  3. Mel Jusino

    I was born in Spain of puertoricans parents, American by birth then. My blood is Cordocan, French, Spanish, Irish and ITALIAN (Sicilian). Where I was raised in Puerto Rico, many people are like me. There is no reason at all for hate between Italians and Puertoricans. They are both Latins, in fact Italians were the first Latins. White Puerto Ricans and Italians look very much alike, customs and language are not that different. Racism and hate The product of insecurities, emotional restrain and fear. Be FREE!

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  4. Janie

    I’m the daughter of a Puerto Rican/Cuban father and a mother of Italian and Irish ancestry, she identifies more with her Italian side. Thank goodness I’ve never encounter problems with Italian Americans or any other ethnicity for that matter. From my personal experience I find that apart from both sides of the family being Catholic, we also have a love of food , family and we take pride in our heritage. Another similarity I find is how loud we can be and how much we use our hands when talking. Another important fact that I like to point out is that not only the US received a big influx of Italian immigration , Latin America also did , especially the countries in the south cone of south America like Argentina , Uruguay and Brazil . Venezuela also received a large number of Italian immigration and Puerto Rico has descendants of Corsican ancestry in the south west coast. Corsica is now part of France but the last names are Italian.

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  5. Ron

    My father is Italian and my mother French & English. Although there are no fair haired people on my father’s side, the complexions vary quite a bit. I have dark brown hair and eyes and a medium complexion. My brother has darker hair and eyes and a slight olive complexion. Some of my relatives on my father’s side have my features, but some of my relatives on my father’s side have black hair, black eyes and very olive complexions.
    I have an uncle who is Puerto Rican (married to my father’s sister) decent and his family looks so similar to my father’s family. When our families get together, to an outsider it would be imposable to tell who’s Puerto Rican and who’s Italian, really. Just like father’s Italian family, my uncle’s Puerto Rican family the complexions vary quite a bit. My Uncle’s father had black hair and dark eyes and a slight olive complexion, his mother had light brown eyes, red hair and freckles. Some of my uncle’s family have olive complexions, but most have medium complexions.
    Ironically, the Italian side and the Puerto Rican of my family both always did the pig roasts in the summer.

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  6. LANI

    That’s NOT quite true, Italy is quite racist against African Americans, Asians, Indiana and any and ALL indigenous peoples. Research, the travel for indigenous peoples to Italy is a threat to them do to grotesque discrimination.

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  7. Vicente Adolfi

    God post and very good reflection. I just like thought to make some corrections if you dont mind. First the original latinos or latins where not from latin america, but from europe actually. And more preciselly from italy btw. If you have some time you should check about the historical latin civilization as well as the language and the where concept of latin apeared (it was very far from latin america). Second, there are racially white, black and asian people in latin america, there are racially white and asians in africa and the original latinos were ftom europe (caucadian) before they (and latter africans abn asians) arived there were only pure native indians and the concept of latin america would not exist. So those are, in my opinion, incorrect points on your post but the rest is good.

    Btw did you know spanish and italian are both latin basedv(romance) languages with remarkably similarities between then.

    Anyway thanx for leting me participate and sorry for my flaw english. Best regards.

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  8. Charli Mills

    Interesting, Lori. Where I grew up, Mexicans, Italians, Portuguese, French and Irish all had one commonality that bound the different groups — they were all Catholic! And in my neck of California they were all Catholic cowboys. My half-French, half-Scots great-grandmother married my half-Portuguese, half-Irish great grandfather and they passed down a Portuguese recipe — enchiladas (really, it’s Mexican but I didn’t know). That’s the melting pot I grew up in, and we shared a lot of culture, yet also a lot of shame which I think stemmed from being “other.” One day, may we have no shame in sharing who we are and who our neighbors are.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      I think that’s exactly how it happens – if being Catholic is what separates you from the “mainstream” then suddenly your shared trait becomes more important than any differences in culture or ethnicity. Moving around as you have, you’ve probably noticed the same kinds of things I have – the boundaries between “Us” and “Them” are largely dependent on where and when we are. Which I do think makes the whole construct rather silly.

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  9. TanGental

    One of JG Ballard’s bet dystopian novel was about warring sports teams whose battlegrounds were enormous malls, in a future where that had overtaken colour and nationality as the driving forces of social inclusion/exclusion. There will, as Anne posits, always been a means of distinguishing between groups that are grounds for prejudice, distrust and violence. I was intrigued and not a little saddened at the way, post 7/7 when a lot of antagonism was being directed to the Muslim community how the old antagonisms between white British and Afro Caribbean groups seemed to reduce as they found a new common enemy. London is a complicated experiment in multiculturalism and the miracle is it works by and large. But it is a fragile construct and in need of constant vigilance. You may not have heard (since it is a very British anxiety) about a recent debate on the taboos of multiculturalism and how they may have caused more problems than they have solved http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/05/nigel-farage-and-tony-blair-in-c4-race-and-diversity-documentary I wonder, does it have any echoes in your neck of the woods?

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Here it really depends on where you are. California is a tremendously multicultural society – I believe “whites” are officially a minority now, or at least not the majority – yet, in my experience, there’s more racism here than in small-town Massachusetts. The reason? Minorities in mostly white small-town suburbs are completely assimilated. If you set color aside, there is virtually no identifiable difference between peoples of different races. Here in California, however, the “minority” groups are so large that they often have separate and very well-defined cultures. Blacks are very much Blacks and Asians are still Asians – but more in my generation than in the next one. Believe me, if you visit a suburban middle school around here and are suddenly surrounded by dozens of shrieking, giggling twelve-year-old girls who are all dressed the same and carrying their iPhones, it no longer seems to matter what color they are. But that isn’t really multiculturalism, is it? It’s uni-culturalism. I suspect that’s a natural development, but I’m not convinced it’s really about tolerance or acceptance.

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      1. TanGental

        I agree Lori. I think we do assimilate over time but all that means is we reform our groups into a different format and find ways to distinguish our new enemies. We simply have to create villages and compete with other villages.

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  10. Annecdotist

    Alas, I think it’s built into human nature for us to bolster our self-esteem by denigrating those we perceive as different to ourselves. It’s especially scary when this happens in areas, such as Bosnia, where people have been living peaceably as neighbours. But interesting, as you point out, that some hatreds become a bit of a joke as they fizzle out over time (Northern Ireland being a sad exception). And, on a lighter note, these feuds to bring us some interesting fictions: where would we be without Romeo and Juliet? And I did come to your post wondering if it would be about the musical version of that story, West Side Story!

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      You make a good point about stories that derive from these types of conflicts, Anne. It reminds me of the trope of the boy or girl from “the wrong side of the tracks” hooking up with someone from the “right” side. I don’t think you see those stories as much anymore, perhaps because our notions of class have changed subtly as well. But you’re more up on modern fiction than I am, so I’ll leave it to you to judge! :)

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  11. Norah

    I like that Golden Age you talk about, Lori, but I agree with you that it’s probably not going to happen. I don’t like the idea of hating anyway, but if it’s for a difference of opinion than … Nah! Bring on the Golden Age! :)

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