In one of the more pointed moments of the video, the man harassing a woman at a Chicago forest preserve for wearing a shirt featuring the Puerto Rican flag asks, “Are you a citizen?”
The viral video, emanating from a city with a large and celebrated Puerto Rican community, underscores what many already know: There are plenty of people out there who need a civics lesson on the self-governing commonwealth.
“Your average Illinoisan knows so little about Puerto Ricans,” said Illinois State University immigration and sociology professor Maura Toro-Morn.
The “average Illinoisian” isn’t alone, the professor said. A poll by Morning Consult reported by The New York Times found almost half of Americans don’t know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
“If you’re an American citizen, you should not be wearing that,” said the man in the video.
Toro-Morn said the encounter in the video is more about people feeling emboldened to act under ignorance than the flag itself.
“He feels offended by the Puertorriquena wearing a Puerto Rican flag and goes after her, as if she was an affront to his sense of identity,” she said.
While we don’t know the background of the woman who was the target of the rant, the exchange puts a bright, hot spotlight on nationalism and racism. Video of the incident has yielded not only close to 2 million views on social media, but also grabbed the attention of Puerto Rico’s top elected official.
In fact, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello weighed in on Twitter. “The United States of America is a nation that was built and thrives on diversity,” he said. “We cannot allow those who do not understand America’s greatness to terrorize people because of their background. This is not the America we all believe in.”
He even nudged Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who oversees the forest preserves, to “take matter(s) into her hands.” For her part, Preckwinkle called the incident “completely unacceptable.”
There has been some fallout from the incident, which apparently happened June 14 in the Cook County Forest Preserve’s Caldwell Woods on Chicago’s far Northwest Side. Timothy G. Trybus, 62, was arrested and charged with assault and disorderly conduct and a forest preserve cop, criticized for failing to help the woman being harassed, is now on desk duty and an investigation into the officer’s handling of the complaint is underway.
For now, here’s a refresher course on Puerto Rico and its unique ties to the United States and Chicago:
1. Yes, Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898 and Puerto Rican residents gained U.S. citizenship with the Jones Act of 1917.
The island is a U.S. commonwealth, meaning Puerto Ricans can travel and work in the U.S. but don’t enjoy all constitutional rights.
A push in Congress to make Puerto Rico a state has picked up over the years. It would achieve full federal representation for residents of the island and allow them to vote in presidential elections. In Congress, Puerto Rico is currently represented by a nonvoting resident commissioner.
2. Chicago has a robust Puerto Rican community
The Puerto Rican community gained a stronghold in Chicago in the late 1940s after migration picked up.
Most Puerto Ricans lived on the North Side, and eventually set down roots in Lincoln Park, West Town and Humboldt Park. In the 1960s, gentrification lead to an exodus from Lincoln Park and a concentration in Humboldt Park.
Puerto Ricans have since spread across Illinois, said Toro-Morn.
3. The Puerto Rican flag has long been an important symbol of the community
“Officer, I’m renting this area and he’s harassing me about the shirt I’m wearing,” the woman said in the video.
Her shirt featured the Puerto Rican flag, which was officially adopted in 1952.
“There was a time in Puerto Rico that it was illegal to fly the Puerto Rican flag, so it’s become a symbol of who we are as a people,” said Ruben Feliciano, the Director of Human Services and Housing Initiatives at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.
In Chicago, huge steel Puerto Rican flags bookend Paseo Boricua — that stretch of Division Street between Western and California avenues. Dedicated to the community in 1995, the flags are made of steel to honor the Puerto Ricans who came to Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s to work in the steel mills.
Feliciano watched the dedication of the flags from the 6th floor of Roberto Clemente Community Academy when he was a junior. “It gave the community a sense of pride, a sense of belonging, a sense of acceptance that, wow, the city of Chicago is acknowledging who we are as a people,” he said.
The red, white and blue flag, with its single star, is proudly flown and displayed on clothing during annual events like the Puerto Rican Parade and Festival — one of the largest Latino celebrations in Chicago.
4. Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria and Chicago has helped out
Chicago’s ties to the island were as apparent as ever after Hurricane Maria hit.
At a symposium held at the University of Illinois at Chicago in April, the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, thanked Chicago for aiding the island. The Chicago effort was coordinated by community organizations and churches, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, she said.
In March, CPS students went to Puerto Rico for spring break to help rebuild homes.
Even the Chicago cast of “Hamilton” rose up in support of the aid effort. Cast member and Evanston native Jose Ramos organized a benefit concert to raise money for hurricane victims.
5. Puerto Ricans’ influence on Chicago
“Puerto Rican Chicago has given Illinois a share of noted Puerto Ricans that have contributed on so many different levels,” said Toro-Morn.
Feliciano said leaders like Mirta Ramirez who brought the Latino youth-focused Aspira program to Illinois have “added to the richness of who we are as a city.”
“We’re a welcoming people,” said Feliciano. “And we’re also American citizens.”
Toro-Morn cited political leaders like Miguel del Valle, the former state senator and Chicago City Clerk and outgoing U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who’s moving to Puerto Rico after his term ends early next year.
“How many Cubs fans know that Javier Baez is from Puerto Rico?” she added.