Yesterday I worked a twelve-hour workday. The day before I had worked for thirteen hours straight. The day before was nine hours. I had taken exactly two days off in four months since I started my new job. I have worked on weekends and even when I have given my staff a day off, I have gone to the office or worked from home to finish a project or start a new one. My staff is always supportive and they have, on more than one occasion, asked me to take it slow, to pace down, and even encouraged me to take a day off. The Board of Directors of my organization expects me to work hard, but they have also encouraged me to practice self-care, to take time off, and to work at a healthy pace. I can show you emails, texts, and social media messages I have gotten from staff and Board members encouraging me and reminding me of practicing self-care. Yet, I continue to work.
Why do I do this? Sure, I love what I do. I thoroughly enjoy administration, management, strategic planning, and all that comes with this. But there’s a second, equally important reason why I work so much… and it is not because I am a workaholic.
The first new world in learned when I moved to New York City in 2000 was “spic.” There was a definition attached to this term. The spic is a lazy person; they live off of government handouts, they despise work, they are irresponsible, the have moved in droves to New York City and had made the space less livable, less desirable, less safe. The spic didn’t speak English and didn’t want to assimilate to the evidently superior “American” culture.
People – especially USAmericans – have been enraged with President Trump’s comments about how Puerto Ricans have not done enough to help ourselves in light of the major natural disaster we have just experienced. For Trump, we are lazy people who do not want to work collaboratively. This is what he was taught about our community in the New York City of his early childhood. For the USAmerican public, for the most part, these are atrocious accusations. For the Puerto Rican community, these are just the same comments we’ve been hearing since our community started migrating to the mainland in the 1950s.
Although I commend and welcome the rage that Trump’s comments have sparked among my USAmerican friends, you must understand that his comments are not made in a vacuum. Trump is talking about the lazy spic that I have been told I am.
As a Puerto Rican living in exile, you are taught that you are part of a group of people who are, at once, “job stealers” and “lazy people.” How is it possible that we steal “American” jobs and don’t work enough at the same time, I have no idea.
Perhaps for many of you it was a surprise that the President of the United States depicted the people of Puerto Rico as lazy people who do not help ourselves. However, this is what we have heard as a community since the 1950s when our people started migrating in droves to the USA due to the economic realities of the Island cause, precisely, by the USA’s policies towards its colonies. It is this message the one that is still ingrained in my head, to the point that I work and work and work, lest someone accuse me of being lazy and not doing enough.
This is not something I am making up. Neither is this something that happened a while ago and certainly not in so-called “progressive” spaces. On the contrary. This thinking that Puerto Ricans, and Latino people in general, are lazy is still alive. Take, for instance, what happened to me for four years while I served a progressive congregation in one of the most so-called progressive cities in the USA. A woman who self-appointed as the leader of the church would call my office at random hours of the day, just to check that I was there, just to make sure I had come to the office that day. She wouldn’t want to talk to me. She just wanted to make sure that I was there. Her excuse was that she had heard I had not been active in the community, or doing enough home visits to the folk in the congregation. She used her self-appointed status as a leader of the church to let me know that “there were concerns” in the church that I wasn’t being effective. Of course, like any good oppressor, she couldn’t notice the flaw in her argument: I had to be in the office so I could demonstrate that I was doing my job of being in the community and visiting folk.
When you are confronted with this reality every day, you learn to navigate the system. You know that you must be perfect, perform beyond what people’s perceptions of your abilities are, and work twice as hard as anybody else. No wonder the great Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri wrote about our community:
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like
All died yesterday today
and will die again tomorrow…
 Pedro Pietri, Puerto Rican Obituary, 1969