Last week, Tara Sherry-Torres and Jesabel Rivera, the president of the Latin American Cultural Union in Greenfield, Pennsylvania, wrote a letter to the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to make the point that, in their words, “Puerto Ricans are not outsiders.”
Mayor Bill Peduto, they pointed out, had declared September 16th “Roberto Clemente Day” for the city of Pittsburgh. The letter also noted that the paper had published a story just a day or two before telling of the plight of Jose M. Rodriguez-Perez, who was born in Puerto Rico and lives in Brownsville, Pennsylvania. He had been stopped for a minor traffic violation and accused of having no “travel documentation.”
Mr. Rodriguez-Perez, who lives in Brownsville and was carrying a driver’s license from Puerto Rico, spent five days in jail. The arresting officer remarked, apparently in explanation, that Rodriguez-Perez didn’t speak English.
Sherry-Torres and Jesabel Rivera pointed out the irony of celebrating Puerto Rico-born Roberto Clemente and at the same time treating a driver who hadn’t understood a traffic sign as an “outsider” — to the extent of locking him up for nearly a week. “If he had an ID that says he lived in Brownsville, he would have gone home,” the police chief was quoted as saying.
But people from Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens and are not required to carry “travel documents.” The title of the story, “Most charges dropped against Puerto Rico native detained after rental car stop,” added to the irony. There’s nothing wrong with using the phrase “Puerto Rico native,” any more than it is offensive to refer to someone as a “Pennsylvania native.” But the choice of words reinforced the impression that someone from Puerto Rico is an outsider in Pennsylvania.
The letter made this point:
Puerto Ricans are natives to the United States. The island of Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States since the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Jones Act of 1917 granted U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans. Speaking Spanish (or any language other than English) does not mean you committed a crime nor does having Puerto Rican identification.
Commenter David Hammond added another point:
Clemente joined the U.S. Marine Reserves, doing his six months active duty in the 1958-59 off season and being discharged in 1964. At least 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the U.S. military since 1917 and were subject to the draft, as were all American men.
Roberto Clemente referred to himself as a “double outsider” as a dark-skinned Latino. When he was at the peak of his professional career, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, there were relatively few Spanish speakers in Pittsburgh, where he played for the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. There were also relatively few Spanish speaking baseball reporters, and Clemente obliged to give interviews in English.
After Pittsburgh won the 1971 World Series, Clemente was named most valuable player. Speaking in Spanish, he started a live postgame television interview by thanking all Puerto Ricans on “the proudest moment of my life.”