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  • Let’s Beat Up the Poor!
  • Patricia Gherovici (bio)

It is well known that racialized communities experience ongoing, disproportionate levels of poverty. In my personal experience as a psychoanalyst working with a predominantly Puerto Rican, inner-city community in Philadelphia’s barrio, I was surprised to discover that for the so-called “Hispanic” population the notion of “race” was used to mean “poor.” Illustrating this claim, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, The National Council of La Raza, in a paper titled “Cultural Relevance: An Anglo’s Guide to Working Effectively with Hispanics” that was written to increase cultural sensitivity promoting tolerance and mutual respect among diverse populations, acknowledges that “some characteristics considered to be ‘typical’ of Hispanics are actually typical of low-income Hispanics” (McKay 1985, 3). Most sociological studies agree that richer Hispanics, once away from the ghetto, will lose most of the characteristics typically associated with being Hispanic.

Historically, in the case of Puerto Ricans, their racialization as inferior “Others” was initially entangled with the racialization of African Americans [End Page 1] (see Grosfoguel and Georas 1996). A story from Oscar Lewis is emblematic of this process of “racialization” experienced in the early 1950s by many Puerto Rican migrants in the mainland:

When I came to New York...[I] was asked my nationality and my cousin answered Puerto Rican, but she wrote down Negro. My cousin protested, “No, no, no, not Negro, Puerto Rican.” She gave him a look but erased “Negro” and wrote down “Puerto Rican.” It was my first experience of that kind up here (narrated by Soledad).

(1966, 227)

Gradually, Puerto Ricans became a newly racialized group different from whites and blacks primarily because they had become an “underclass,” “a redundant colonial/racialized labor force” (Grosfoguel and Georas 2000, 24).

In an example of “cultural racism,” a new form of racism that combines biological bases with supposedly immutable cultural features, the economic disadvantage of marginalized minorities is naturalized and traced to a people’s way of life; thus, socioeconomic disparity is ascribed to a failure to conform to a productive work ethic and to obey institutional authority.1 With this subtle form of racism, which compounds race and ethnicity and projects onto a group a set of behaviors and characteristics that justify their situation not only as immutable but as divorced from social conditions, Puerto Ricans, a phenotypically diverse group, became “a new ‘race’ in the United States” (Marger 2009, 25–26).

Since the mass arrival of Puerto Ricans in the 1950s, other immigrants have been subsumed into this “race” that occupies the economic niche of low-wage manufacturing jobs. This is confirmed in the words of a Dominican informant: “In New York City, if you are not white or black, then you belong to a third racial category called ‘Puerto Rican’” (Grosfoguel and Georas 2000, 24.) Many multiply their efforts to distinguish themselves from the label “Puerto Rican” to avoid being associated with the negative symbolic and economic capital that the rubric denotes. Even for those who can “pass,” once someone is identified as Puerto Rican, “he or she enters the labyrinth of racial Otherness” (24). What is important to underline is that “Otherness” here seems to be class-based—it conveys the heterogeneity and alterity of the dispossessed. [End Page 2] The construction of a Puerto Rican “race” conceals the class constraints that point to the end of the American Dream of upward class mobility. Can one overcome the essentialist determinations ascribed to one’s “race”?

If it is clear that in the “land of opportunity” upward social mobility for racialized disenfranchised communities is becoming more and more unlikely, then one may wonder if other forms of movement are available to poor people. In the world of community mental health centers that serve inner-city populations, treatment stagnates in a mechanized ritual: sessions are used to impose an orthopedics of behavior, straightening up, re-educating, persuading, and domesticating. Replicating the morass of class, after many years in treatment, most patients do not experience any changes. The emphasis of the treatment is placed on the implementation of low-cost standardized techniques that produce few results other than offering social...


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