This is a story about contrasting narratives. The first one is the one most of the social and mainstream picked up: that a grassroots group from New York City started a campaign on May 23 (just eight days ago) against a Coors Light beer can that showed (or did not show) a Puerto Rican flag right under its product label. The beer was also deemed the official beer of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, suggesting that parade organizers and its board had fully sanctioned and approved this beer can for the 2013 parade, whose theme is “Celebrating Health.”
This whole little mini-fiasco came just two years after MillerCoors was slammed by the community for promoting an “emBORÍCUAte” (“Puertoricanize yourself”) pre-parade campaign that felt like a play on the Spanish word emborráchate (“get drunk”). Two years ago, MillerCoors pulled those ads. Yesterday the Chicago-based company said it would stop producing the beer cans.
The story took off, and it took off because of social media. From May 23 on, people started sharing the news of Boricuas for a Positive Image’s (BFPI) campaign and it got to the right people, like city councilor Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was quick to publicly condemn the beer can and made sure other city politicians of Puerto Rican descent did the same. There was outrage! There was offense! Then it hit the media. Next thing you know, MillerCoors stops producing the cans and the leaders of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade (NPRPD) had to issue a statement.
Critics of the campaign were just as vocal. People are wasting time on silly issues. The press is manufacturing stories on a slow news week. The Budweiser beer can shows the American flag and no one is calling for boycotts. And have you seen all the Puerto Rican flags on bikinis, sneakers, and boxers? This past week, I heard them all, and I am still waiting for someone to send me any pictures of a Guinness beer can calling itself the officially sanctioned beer of the St. Patrick’s Day parade draped with an Irish flag.
What the critics don’t and never will get is this: this story came from the grassroots and from the community.
A small band of people felt this was an important issue, and before anyone could react, BFPI was already ahead of the story and it was because of social media. Whether you like it or not, this type of story is becoming more common. To suggest that the media was behind all this is just laughable. It was just reporting what a group of people committed to a cause were doing. BFPI has been talking since May 23. It took Coors and NPRPD days before they would actually comment.
Even so, both the media and the critics are missing the bigger issue here, which is the second narrative.
This was never about a beer can. The Coors Light product was the latest symbol of what many in New York’s Puerto Rican community have been saying about the parade for years: it is no longer their parade. It is now a parade that one member of BFPI told me is just another example of “culture-pimping.” BFPI, Mark-Viverito, and other community leaders are already calling for the resignation of Madelyn Lugo and the formation of a brand-new board. They believe that the scale of the parade has gotten out of hand, that the strategic decision in the mid-1990s to expand the parade’s reach and influence has only lead to blatant over-commercialization and cultural exploitation. They question is if the parade’s current version truly matches the parade’s original mission statement, which reads:
The NPRDP was established to create national awareness of Puerto Rican contributions. Our mission is to empower the Puerto Rican community through promoting economic development, education, social advancement and environmental awareness. We have a responsibility to inspire our youth and instill a strong sense of self worth and pride in our community.
Such questions will linger, now that New York’s state attorney general plans to launch an investigation about the role of private companies like Coors and their relationship with non-profit organizations like NPRDP.
This is so much more than just a beer can. It is about a community demanding transparency and respect.
Julio Ricardo Varela (@julito77 ) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. In the past 12 months, Julito represented the Rebeldes on Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, Forbes, and The New York Times.