Boycotting Puerto Ricans

An interesting thread has appeared on EveryBlock, a community-generated message board website. Its creator, calling themselves “EastHumboldtNeighbor,” wants to launch a boycott of neighborhood businesses that aren’t welcoming of Humboldt Park’s newcomers:

“Being that we as neighbors are not welcome in certain establishments because of our relatively recent entry into HP, I believe it is necessary to give those establishments their peace. I believe if they do not wish to have me or other new residents in their establishments then certainly they do not want my money as well. If you care to join, it is quite simple. Do not frequent those businesses and agree not to frequent those businesses. […] If the owner does not want my money, I will not give him it. Thus, my family will no longer be going.

Please inform us of any establishments in the 26th ward that are not open to new customers and residents and we shall post here.

If you wish to add businesses who welcome residents new and old, please post on this page too. It’s time for businesses to pay in the pocketbook for their sentiments. It’s time for businesses to prosper who treat all the same.”

A commenter calling herself “Carol Ann” seconded the decision to boycott businesses that displayed any sort of resentment toward the neighborhood’s latest residents, saying “I believe in speaking with my dollar.”

At first glance the tactic seems fair enough. If you feel unwelcome by a business owner, it’s only right that you respond by no longer patronizing their business. That’s pretty much how commerce has worked since time immemorial.

But then EastHumboldtNeighbor revealed his true motivations with a second post:

“Also, add all businesses who had the Maldonado sign up this past election. […] I need to know where not to spend my money. We are getting screwed blind during the day while we are at work. It is time to fight back with the money we have earned through our labor and by denying those who sponsor people who vote against our interests. It is time to fight against those who would have our families out of the Ward with our dollars.”

First, it’s clear EastHumboldtNeighbor wasn’t among the 52 percent of voters in the 26th ward who reelected Ald. Roberto Maldonado in the first round of voting back in February. (Second-place Juanita Irizarry earned 34 percent of the vote.) And I can understand a consumer not wanting to support businesses that support politicians whom the consumers themselves don’t support. Again, it’s our right to make sure our money only goes to people and projects we endorse. Still Maldonado, a Puerto Rican alderman, was reelected by a majority of votes in a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood, so to boycott both pro-Maldonado businesses and Puerto Rican businesses reveals more at issue than just simple politics.

It’s how EastHumboldtNeighbor rationalizes the boycott of pro-Maldonado businesses that isn’t kosher: the bit about “getting screwed blind during the day while we are at work” and “fight[ing] back with the money we have earned through our labor.” By adding this part, is EastHumboldtNeighbor suggesting that Maldonado’s constituents aren’t at work during the day or earning money through their labor? Of course we can’t be sure, but perusing through the post of other boycotters leads me to believe this isn’t about feeling welcome. It’s about race and class.

Whether likeminded or not, a poster “Tracy Bartels” who agrees with the boycott asked, “Are the PRs [Puerto Ricans] the only ones allowed a handout?” She expressed her view on Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican community asking newcomers to respect the cultural heritage of the neighborhood:

“I love that now it’s about us blending into a neighborhood. A neighborhood that refuses to blend in with anything. Guess what, I’m blending in with the Norwegians that are now living in the community and we’re coming out strong. Don’t like it? Go back to pr if it so great there. […] Don’t like Norwegian hospital serving you in the neighborhood? Take your gunshot wounds and domestic violence injuries somewhere else then. Since I’ve been threatened with rape and robbery I can definitely make the jump as to what kind people live in this area, total scum.”

Tracy returned to the message board the following day to elaborate:

“I bought a house with money I earned through working! Not sitting around with my hand out, waiting for someone to give me something, that I didn’t work for.

I didn’t sit around in public or low income housing, thinking that a better life was coming to me. I went out and took it and now I have it to an extent. I made it happen. I’m still making it happen.”

Tracy’s were undoubtedly the most racist comments from the bigoted boycotters. But overall I didn’t find the general tone of the boycott to be racist, merely ignorant and insensitive to the circumstances in the neighborhood. The boycotters don’t seem to appreciate the social and political history of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, or understand why Humboldt Park has struggled with crises in education, economic development and crime for so long, and how the recent influx of higher-income newcomers could pose a threat to poorer, working-class residents and the decades-long effort at community building.

Evidently the boycotters are still shocked and upset that a group of longtime Puerto Rican residents were able to dislodge Riot Fest, the multimillion dollar music festival intent on returning to the park in September after last year’s event left $182,000 in damages that took months to repair. After Riot Fest owner Mike Petryshyn told DNAinfo in April he was “100 percent confident” the festival would stay in Humboldt Park, Riot Fest announced it was moving to Douglas Park in North Lawndale.

Riot Fest supporters, which the boycotters seem to be, argue that the festival was derailed by a small minority of noisy, “racist” Puerto Ricans. (The charge of racism stems from the fact that most of the Puerto Rican activists in Humboldt Park are pro-independence nationalists working to preserve their battered culture. Along those lines, Carol Ann defines an unwelcoming business as one that displays Humboldt Park No Se Vende signs or has “Jose Lopez signing autographs in back.”) But was Riot Fest truly foiled by such a small group of people? I doubt a politician as shrewd as Ald. Maldonado would side with such a small sliver of his constituency, even if he shares their puertorriqueñidad. From what I know about Chicago politics, elected officials will sell their souls before sacrificing their seats.

With Riot Fest now moved to Douglas Park, due in large part to Ald. Maldonado’s opposition, the pro-Riot Fest (dare I add anti-poor and anti-Puerto Rican?) gentrifiers are resolved to chuck Maldonado for an alderman who knows what time it is.

The boycotters may believe they’re following in the footsteps of heroic figures like Rosa Parks, whose brave refusal in 1955 led to a black boycott of buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In reality the residents boycotting Puerto Rican-owned business in Humboldt Park are more akin to the White Citizens’ Councils of the Jim Crow South that boycotted black-owned businesses and those supportive of desegregation. (The Councils lost their battle too.)

By using their money to overrule a majority and hurt Puerto Rican businesses, these boycotters epitomize the marrow of gentrification. Newcomers — and yes, five years still makes you a newcomer — demand certain changes that are rejected by a majority of the community, much of which consists of longtime residents. But instead of accepting the will of their neighbors, the newcomers decide to use their stronger economic footing as leverage against the mostly poorer and working-class majority, to muscle them under or force them out. In the end, every case of gentrification is a boycott.

Not a single person in the thread attests to being directly made to feel unwelcome by any of the Puerto Rican business owners. All they talk about is the mood in the neighborhood, created by a Puerto Rican community resisting efforts to be displaced for a third time. (Near North Side was the setting of the first act; Lincoln Park the second.) Some people find it unsettling to discover a beleaguered community standing firm, head high. They expect such people to cower and cringe. Too many Americans still adhere to the false notion of Manifest Destiny, feeling entitled to move anywhere they please and uproot anyone living there who dares challenge their prerogative. You’ll hear the pro-Riot Fest crowd complain that the Puerto Ricans haven’t done enough with their turf to develop the local economy — just what white settlers said about the Native Americans.

But the Puerto Ricans of Humboldt Park have no intention of fleeing ahead of this most recent incursion. They’re prepared to fight for however much or little they’ve been able to preserve all these years.

Hopefully there are enough Chicagoans who see gentrification as a threat to the cultural and economic diversity of the city. Hopefully there are enough people in Humboldt Park who want to work with Puerto Ricans, not boycott them.

[Photo: Richie Diesterheft via Flickr]