IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Puerto Ricans' Miss Universe response shows racism isn't just for white people

That our community's colorism is no longer a secret between us is a good thing because it forces us to confront our own ugliness.
Image: The final two contestants hold hands in the Miss Universe pageant at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta
Madison Anderson, of Puerto Rico, and Zozibini Tunzi, of South Africa, the final two contestants in the Miss Universe pageant at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta on Dec. 8, 2019.Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

Thousands of Puerto Ricans glued themselves to their various screens last week to watch what is a national sport. But it wasn't baseball, the other national obsession; it was the Miss Universe pageant. While it is true that Miss Universe is seen in the United States and in Europe as anachronistic and frankly a bit embarrassing, in Puerto Rico it is a reaffirmation of national identity and national pride. In short, for an island colonized and deeply divided by political ideologies, the pageant unites all Puerto Ricans under one banner — Miss Puerto Rico.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the THINK newsletter to get updates on the week's most important cultural analysis

Most of them hoped to see Miss Puerto Rico, Madison Anderson Berríos (who doesn't use her last name in competition) capture a sixth crown for the island. Anderson's own crown, though, didn't come without controversy. The Puerto Rican public initially didn’t see her as Puerto Rican when she entered the pageant because she was not born on the island, doesn’t speak Spanish and looks "American" with her light skin and fair hair. Her father also happens to be a bondholder who brings investors to the Caribbean, a sore subject as the island languishes under the weight of a $74 billion debt to Wall Street bondholders.

“To be Puerto Rican, it is carried in your blood and heart. I am proud to be the voice of Puerto Ricans from outside of Puerto Rico,” she said in an interview with a local paper after her local win, after which many Boricuas embraced her as their own.

But it was Miss South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi, 26, who took the crown with intelligence and poise after she extolled leadership in answering the final question, “What is the most important thing we should teach young girls today?”

"I think we are the most powerful beings in the world and that we should be given every opportunity," Tunzi said. "That is what we should be teaching these young girls, to take up space. Nothing is as important as taking up space in society and cementing yourself."

Anderson, by comparison, said, "In a world where many people wear masks, it’s such a beautiful thing to see an authentic soul."

Tunzi was crowned, Miss Puerto Rico became the first runner-up and many Puerto Ricans, angry their entrant had not won, expressed their disappointment via social media — and showed people's authentic souls, which were racist instead of beautiful.

And it was not only the usual social media trolls. The vitriol also came from well-known actors, television personalities, candidates running for office and members of the government, from both Puerto Ricans and elsewhere in Latin America.

Jose Pastrana, a supervisor for Special Education for the island’s Department of Education, posted a racist message on his Facebook page calling Tunzi “La prima de Shaka Zulu,” ("the cousin of Shaka Zulu," a South African military leader, though she is no relation). He is now reportedly being investigated by the Department of Education because of his postings.

Telemundo host Maria Celeste Arrarás, a Puerto Rican, also came under fire for her comments during a segment for her Telemundo show "Al Rojo Vivo." (Telemundo is owned by Comcast, the parent company of NBC News.) She said, in Spanish, that Miss Universe is a pageant meant to measure beauty, not intelligence or IQ, implying that Tunzi was clearly and incorrectly not selected for her beauty. Arrarás also posted on Instagram a photo congratulating Miss Puerto Rico for her participation and adding: “Without a doubt, the new Miss Universe is also very attractive.” To Puerto Ricans, the repeated slights to Tunzi's looks were unmistakably racially motivated.

And, as reported by Latino Rebels, a man named Gaby Rivera posted a video on Facebook with Yamilet González, a House of Representatives candidate for the pro-statehood New Progressive Party in which he compared Miss Universe to the basketball star Kobe Bryant. González agrees with Rivera and says: “When I saw Miss South Africa I was shocked. Why was she there?”

“Nothing like a beauty contest to uncover the disgusting racism that is lived in Puerto Rico every day,” wrote Colectiva Feminista en Accion, a Puerto Rican feminist group active on the island.

Yet, among the awful postings, there also came a backlash, mostly from the younger generations, who will no longer stand for the discrimination, racism and colorism in their midst.

“We were not born racist, but if we do nothing to unlearn everything we have been taught for years, we will get nowhere,” Puerto Rican feminist and activist Aliana Margarita posted on her Instagram Con-Sentimiento.

Such a backlash has been a long time coming. In 2013, the Bronx-born Puerto Rican community organizer, journalist and hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente wrote about being told that she is "not black" because she is Puerto Rican: “Many times I am asked why many Boricuas refuse to affirm their Blackness. I attribute this denial to the ever-rampant anti-Black sentiment in America and throughout the world, but I will not use this as an excuse,” she said.

Racism and colorism — a form of prejudice from members of the same race treating people differently based on skin color — doesn’t begin and end in Puerto Rico.

“Often Puerto Ricans who assert our Blackness are outcast by Latinos who identify more with their Spanish Conqueror than their African ancestors,” she added.

She is right, but, of course, racism and colorism — a form of prejudice from members of the same race treating people differently based on skin color — doesn’t begin and end in Puerto Rico. It is endemic throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, ingrained in the culture since colonial times when the Spanish ran their colonies with racial codes that organized the Spanish Western Hemisphere into more than a dozen different racial classifications.

Hispanics have a very important question to ask themselves: How do we eradicate racism and colorism within our communities? We need to teach our girls and women that beauty has many shades and that a woman’s worth does not reside in her looks. We need to stress education for women and open spaces for them to define their own lives. And finally, we must debunk the Western standards of beauty and success and champion our diversity.

The fact that this truth of our community's racism and colorism is no longer a secret among us but as public as possible is a good thing because it forces us to confront our own ugliness. Isn’t it ironic that it a Miss Universe pageant, designed to determine who is the most beautiful, that has opened the door to this conversation?