June 21 2002

First Person

In Popular Mind, Will I Now Look Like a Terrorist?

By Melanie Feliciano

I didn’t really understand how an Arab-American might feel being racially profiled as a terrorist — until I woke up one recent morning and saw on television one of my own kind accused of the same crime.

Puerto Ricans rarely figure in mainstream news. So I was shocked to see a face staring back at me that could have belonged to my cousin. It was Jose Padilla, aka Abdullah al Muhajir, accused of plotting a radioactive “dirty bomb” attack on the United States.

I don’t mind so much being grouped with people who are stereotyped as lazy, greasy, welfare-hogging, gang-banging, smelly codfish-eating, alcoholic, drug addicted, mocho (broken) Spanish-speakers. Such labels are ultimately harmless sticks and stones that can’t break strong Taino-bred bones (Tainos were the original, indigenous Puerto Ricans). But “terrorist” would be a different matter.

So I surfed the Web and found that Puerto Rico is one of the leading sources of domestic terrorism in the United States. Most resources mentioned Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), a group responsible for more than 130 bombings in New York, Chicago, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., between 1974 and 1983, including one at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street in New York City in 1982. In all those incidents, six people were killed, more than 70 were wounded. Other Puerto Rican terrorist groups have damaged property and attacked FBI offices in San Juan, sites said.

In one of the most notorious acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, four armed, pro-independence Puerto Ricans opened fire on the House of Representatives on March 1, 1954. Four years earlier, pro-independence terrorists attempted to kill President Truman at Blair House.

If President Bush happens to crack open his high school history book, he may start adding Puerto Ricans to his list of likely terrorists.

“There’s ... a full-scale manhunt on,” he told reporters at the White House. “And there are people that still want to harm America... As we run down these killers or would-be killers we’ll let you know.”

So far, Bush’s coalition has collected 2,401 “would-be killers,” mostly people who are Arab or Moslem.

I called home to find out if my parents and family members were nervous about showing their brown faces in public. If anyone wearing a headwrap is automatically identified by the general American public as a potential terrorist, surely my cousins — who drive lowriders with miniature Puerto Rican flags hanging from the rear view window — may be targeted as well.

My mother told me I was over-reacting, that I shouldn’t worry because I am not easily identifiable as Puerto Rican.

Besides, she added, this guy has been a lowlife criminal since he was a kid. Surely the actions of one person can’t color a group of people.

She may be right, but I can’t help but think of a few bad apples at the 2000 Puerto Rican Day Parade who sexually assaulted women, thus tainting the celebratory nature of the event. I think of actresses like Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek, who insist on portraying hotheaded and oversexed Latinas in mainstream movies. For 14 years, the popular television show COPS has beamed images of blacks and Latinos committing crimes for all the American public to see.

It’s the power of media to shape public opinion that worries me. Traditionally, when members of a few minorities become famous or notorious, the media automatically assumes they represent the whole.

I think Padilla’s alleged, extreme actions, combined with a U.S. government that can justify racial profiling in a post 9-11 reality, could potentially affect Puerto Rico’s Commonwealth status with the United States. The free flow of thousands of Puerto Ricans between San Juan and New York every day may become a luxury of the past, considering laws like the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act. This recently passed law restricts visas to non-immigrants “who are from countries that are state sponsors of international terrorism, which include Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan.”

No one can say Puerto Rico itself sponsored terrorism. But since Puerto Rico has this terrorist history and is outside the continental United States, it would be easy to impose restrictions on its inhabitants.

The government has already locked Padilla in a Navy brig in South Carolina, has not charged him with any crime and has denied him the right to speak with his attorney. He’s being treated very differently from Taliban sympathizer John Walker Lindh, an affluent white boy from Marin, who has several lawyers all claiming that a fair trial anywhere in the United States is not possible.

Only these days in the aftermath of Padilla’s arrest will reveal whether the Puerto Rican stereotype has graduated from the lowest class of Latinos to the highest threats of “would-be killers.” I am holding my breath.

Feliciano, 26, (melanie@youthoutlook.org) is associate editor and webmaster for Youth Outlook (YO!), a magazine by and about Bay Area youth published by Pacific News Service.

Return to the Frontpage