Note: If you have not yet read Part II, you can find it here: A Puerto Rican in Paris (2nd Part).
I met Professor Ramón Grosfoguel, one of the leading decolonial thinkers, while studying my master’s at the Sorbonne University in 2009. It was one of those rare occasions in which you actually meet a Puerto Rican outside the U.S.
A couple of days ago, I started reading his book “Colonial Subjects”, which in my opinion offers a valuable historical and contemporary overview of Puerto Rico’s place within the capitalist world economy. I found the following story worth sharing.
Grosfoguel, Ramón. Colonial subjects: Puerto Ricans in a global perspective. Berkeley London: University of California Press, 2003, pp. 33-34
I will now share some of the personal experiences that inform the perspective I develop in this book. As a white middle-class man in Puerto Rico who migrated to the United States, I have had the contradictory experience of living the privileges of whiteness on the island and the discrimination of a colonial/racial subject in the metropolis. An Afro-Puerto Rican does not have the same privileges, resources, and benefits (economic, symbolic, and political) that I enjoy as a white middle-class male in Puerto Rico. However, my experience of migration shifted my location in the racial/ethnic hierarchy, placing me at the bottom of the U.S. spectrum of ethnic and racial prejudices. Once someone is identified as Puerto Rican, doors shut and an army of stereotypes mobilizes. Un the Euro-American imaginary, Puerto Ricans are dangerous, lazy, and criminal or simply opportunistic people that take advantage of welfare programs. Puerto Ricans face discrimination in the spaces of everyday life in banks, stores, housing, and so on that white Americans take for granted. This is what Philomena Essed (1991), an Afro-Surinamese scholar in the Netherlands, calls “everyday racism.” It affects peoples’ abilities to get a loan or a mortgage, open a business, get a job, buy a house, get a promotion, get an increase in salary, get a license, get a degree, get a discount, and so on. White Americans take for granted their privileges in everyday life as I did in Puerto Rico where I am a “white middle-class” man.
I spent a year in Paris thanks to a postdoctoral fellowship I received from the Fernand Braudel Center and the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. My new location as a Puerto Rican in Paris exposed me to new experiences that would broaden my understanding of racial constructions. The Parisians treated me as exotic “Other” given the popularity of Latin jazz and salsa music in Paris during the 1990’s. Puerto Rican musicians (the majority of them from New York City) have conquered the world even though in the United States, where most of this music is produced, they have been ignored by the mainstream for decades. I became the exotic other, treated with sympathy and admiration because of my alleged ability to dance and play that “exotic” music called “salsa.” The French imaginary of Puerto Ricans contained nothing negative. During my first two weeks in Paris I thought that French people were not that racist after all; that is, until I went to a street market to buy food in the Quartier Latin at the heart of Paris. People were looking at me strangely, but I paid them no heed. I stopped at one of the fruit stands where a man proceeded to scream at me: “We are not going to sell you here. If you want food, go to Barbès.” Two other merchants also refused to serve me. Given my “demeanor” and “accent” in French, they thought I was North African and as such sent me to Barbès, the Parisian quarter where Arabs, Antilleans and West African people live. Rather than deny their accusations, I let them assume I was Arab and I struggled against their prejudices.
I discovered that I did not “pass” in the United States or in France. I went to the same places, institutions, stores, and public spaces where white European or Euro-American friends went, and I received discriminatory treatment. My only experience of “white” privilege is in Puerto Rico and in Latin America where I am seen as “white” despite my mixed “racial” background (Jewish, Afro-Caribbean, Arab, and Spaniard). In the United States, one drop of “African blood” makes you “impure” and, therefore, “nonwhite”. In Puerto Rico, like in many Latin American countries, the opposite is true: one drop of “white blood” makes you “white.” It can be a nightmare to be black or Indian in the so-called Latin American racial democracies such as Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, or Guatemala, where the “coloniality of power” is pervasive.