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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Rum and Racism

It is raining now in San Juan, and yet…it is still San Juan. It will stop eventually, I’m sure, and I will be able to go lay out in the Caribbean breeze…but I digress.

Yesterday, I attempted to blog, but lost my post in Puerto Rican cyberspace. I took it as a sign to go on the rum factory tour and relax. I should stop paying attention to my signs. From a sociological perspective, this was a very bad tour.

We had heard that this tour delivered non-stop alcohol, so we wanted food to coat our stomachs. After trying very hard to find a place that served faster than molasses, we got to gobble down half a plate of cheese fries and rushed to board a bus that…broke down. After a delay to get another bus delivered, we got on the road and…stuck in traffic. When we arrived at the rum factory, they were above capacity, so we had to wait to deboard and enter the facility. This is when things got bad.

Our tour guide may have had translation troubles, or may have intended to explicitly say that Columbus discovered America, and brought sugar cane to the New World. Although several brown people in the crowd gasped or looked askance, our tour guide continued with a narrative of how Puerto Ricans, as a fusion of Indians, enslaved Africans and Spaniards, were like a cuba libre, the famous drink made with rum, coke, and a little lime. One big, happy family. Interesting. I would like to note that I am willing to hold the space for people to not be affected by the legacy of slavery in the same way I am…and yet.

I must add now that our fellow tourists were well into performing their role as Ugly Americans. Perhaps it was the unique combination of so many academic elites with very warm weather and brown bodies in service, but I found myself irritated by the blatant displays of entitlement and white privilege. So they swallowed the narrative that completely glossed over painful historical moments, whole.

The tour was very crowded and unwieldy; after watching a video that advertised splashing rum around like water as a vector for instant rhythm and heterosexual sex with thin, beautiful women, we shuffled from room to room of reconstructed areas central to the company’s development. We looked at the Founder’s office, the original distillery, etc. There were video screens that would show the production process, but by the time we got to that part, I was over this tour. After a demonstration of mixing some classic rum cocktails, we watched the “drink rum, have sex” video again, and were released into the night, to drink the actual rum.

The gift shop was an easy miss. Since I had not seen any of the production process, I figured the gift shop rum was the same as that which I could buy across the street from my house. Each tourist received four drink tickets, and there was to be food, vendors, and cultural demonstrations.

Complaining is not my intention- I discuss the conditions to give you a context for what happened. The lines were long. Very long. The food was mostly gone, and what food there was, was being served by conference presenters (brown bodies). When we got drinks, the glasses were definitely sample-sized. And the atmosphere invited voyeurism and consumption. The amphitheater was ringed with vendors, some of whom I saw smiling at the antics of the crowd, and not in a good way. Folks pushed and cut lines, loaded plates with food they tasted, then abandoned, and watched the dancers with alcohol-fueled disinterest. Our time was short, as well; because the busses were paid for by the hour, people had to cram a lot of drinking and eating into a truncated time period to feel they got their “money’s worth.”

Many of my colleagues stopped to remark on the blatant exploitation of “authentic” Puerto Rican culture. It did not feel like an exchange; it felt like an invasion. The emcees presented the band and dancers as being from “a little town up in the mountains,” as if their rural origin somehow made them pure, or more real. I was embarrassed and just wanted to go away.

The entire evening made me think of Lisa Bowleg’s presentation earlier that afternoon. Dr. Bowleg, talking about research on people of color, emphasized that while many people research “these people,” very few take time to actually talk to their respondents, and to let their voices be heard. Instead, researchers map onto them interpretations of behavior that have no context.

By the time we reloaded onto the bus to return to Condado, I was furious at sexuality researchers, and I wanted to question every bit of knowledge this group had produced. How can you be a good researcher about something as racialized as sexuality, if you, yourself, have no idea how to interact interculturally? Not even the rum helped with that question.

--Tamara Williams

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