A Brief Look at Ethnocentrism in US Media’s Coverage of Puerto Rican Cuisine

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.

Adam Rapoport, the former editor-in-chief of Condé Nast food magazine Bon Appétit, resigned on June 8 after receiving strong criticism for—amongst other things—a photo taken with his wife in 2003. The photo, which mocks the Puerto Rican community in New York City, was posted on his wife’s Instagram in 2013, and was apparently framed on his desk. When it went public, the image unleashed a torrent of accusations of a toxic, racist workplace.

A series of screenshots from freelance writer Illyanna Maisonet detailed a recent conversation with Rapoport involving a pitch she’d sent the magazine to cover Afro-Boricua cuisine. In the text exchange, he noted that their coverage needs to reflect “right now”—but whose “right now”?

Rapoport’s mockery and othering of Puerto Rican culture reflects the construction of superiority and privilege of Anglo-American culture upon the island. Manifest Destiny, a phrase coined in 1845, is based on the idea that the United States is destined by God to expand and spread its ideas of democracy and capitalism. Abraham Lincoln claimed, the United States is “… the last and best hope on the face of the Earth.” The philosophy drove 19th-century U.S. territorial expansion and was used to justify the forced removal of Native Americans and other groups from their homes. The rapid expansion of the United States intensified the issue of slavery as new states were added to the Union, leading to the outbreak of the Civil War.

This philosophy also led the U.S. government to invade Puerto Rico and supposedly liberate it from Spain in 1898.

That colonialist mockery is nothing new.

After the invasion, the United States imposed its image and ideas of superiority upon the island. Like all conquerors, they attempted to change and denigrate our culture, imposing dependent relations via exploitative mercantile tariffs such as the Foraker Act in 1900 or the Jones Act, (1920) which requires goods shipped from the mainland to Puerto Rico to arrive on U.S.-owned and staffed boats. That law has made products in PR much more expensive than on other Caribbean islands and factored into a recession that’s been ongoing locally since 2008.

Meanwhile, Operation Bootstrap, passed in 1947, replaced agriculture with a textile, pharmaceutical and canned food industry. That decision was made to meet the needs of the U.S. and entice their companies to open on the island—where people could be paid lower wages. These companies would also be exempt from paying import duties, and their profits could be transferred to the mainland free from federal taxation. This resulted in a manufacturing and tourism-based economy, as well as an import-based food system—nearly 90% of what’s available in markets comes from outside the island.

All of these political and economic decisions made by the United States—Puerto Ricans are taxed American citizens without the right of representation in D.C.—accompany the white vision of Puerto Rican culture. That is further reflected in degrading images and writing from a white perspective, like Rapoport’s and others. That colonialist mockery is nothing new.

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
Read more

In 1898, the New York Times sent a writer, Otto Schoenrich, to report on Puerto Rico’s local culture. “One of the reasons many dishes of Puerto Rico’s cuisine is repulsive to Americans,” Schoenrich wrote, “is because of the strong treatment with oil, onion, garlic and pepper.”

120 years later, on September 21, 2019, Bon Appétit’s Aliza Abarbanel listed several local San Juan-area restaurants filtered through the white gaze: The person on chef Mario Juan Paganthe’s Pernilería Los Próceres food truck is named as Karl Marx, when in fact it is Ramón Emeterio Betances—a Puerto Rican icon (prócer) of independence. The writer also compared the malanga buñuelos of chef Natalia Vallejo at Cocina al Fondo with arancini, which is an Italian dish, as though they require a Eurocentric definition in order to be understood.

The privileged and superior white American vision is consolidated when white writers are tapped for projects that would be better covered by local experts or, at the very least, those who live in the region that is to be written about. This is reminiscent of local bakeries being replaced by fast-food chains, a Starbucks opening in Old San Juan despite there being a number of local coffee shops serving the island’s beans, and the fact that menus at most restaurants are primarily available in English.

These ethnocentric, often racist actions must be uprooted, but the resignations of Rapoport and his ilk aren’t enough to change an over 100-year-old mentality that has been enacted in Puerto Rico’s politics and culture. Rotten apples spoil the whole bunch.