Chicago police subdue a protester after a demonstration for Puerto Rican independence in June 1977. AP Photo

Why does civil unrest in Latino communities often go unrecorded?

On July 21, 2012, a police officer in Anaheim, California, shot a Latino man as he tried to flee through an apartment complex parking lot. Manuel Diaz was unarmed and 25; he was pronounced dead at the hospital three hours after he was shot.

His death set something off in the midsized city south of Los Angeles, the home of Disneyland but also a place of increasing racial and class tensions. On the day of Diaz’s death, protesters gathered at the crime scene and allegedly threw objects at police, who responded by firing non-lethal projectiles into the crowd; the next day, police shot and killed another Latino man, Joel Acevedo, spurring escalating protests and unrest in front of City Hall. More than 20 businesses were damaged, while a Disneyland fireworks show exploded above the heads of protestors a few blocks away.

The violence that erupted in Anaheim wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s part of a longer and more obscure history of Latino urban unrest, one that many Americans appear to have collectively forgotten. “There’s a perception that Latino rioting is unusual or isolated, whereas black rioting is typical,” says Aaron Fountain, Jr., a Ph.D. student in history at Indiana University. “People don’t know much about Latino history, so they don’t put [these events] in a social context. This creates this perception that Latinos are passive, or that they only riot when conditions are really extreme.”

Fountain, Jr. is determined to correct that perception. He’s created a map of Latino “urban rebellions” dating back to the 1960s, which builds on an original list of 57 riots he compiled last year.

The word itself is a charged one: From Los Angeles in 1992 to Ferguson and Baltimore in 2015, whether a civil disturbance qualifies as a riot or an uprising has often depended upon which side of the police line you are standing. For his project, Fountain, Jr. establishes a specific definition: To qualify as a riot on his list, the event must have involved more than 100 people, caused significant property damage, and triggered a police response. Some pinpoints on the map are listed as “disturbances” or “unrest,” when they didn’t meet the definition for a riot but spurred discussion about underlying issues in the community.

There are several patterns in Fountain, Jr.’s findings, many of which he outlines in extensive posts on his research. For starters, while the majority of urban riots in African-American communities happened in the 1960s, most Latino riots occurred several years later, in the 1970s. About two-thirds of the riots were in Puerto Rican communities, mainly in the Northeast. New Jersey had the greatest number of disturbances out of any state—21.

Most were sparked by police violence or harassment, but several were not. The Passaic, New Jersey riot of 1969 began after the eviction of a 12-person Puerto Rican family from their home. In Hartford, Connecticut, violence flared in September of that same year after a fireman made racist comments about Puerto Ricans to the Hartford Times. (“They are pigs,” the story said. “A bunch of them will be sitting around drinking beer and when one is finished...he just throws the bottle anywhere.”)

One common element in these disturbances was a perception that problems in the Latino community were being overshadowed by problems in black neighborhoods, or by other Latinos. In the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami in December 1990, hundreds of young Puerto Rican residents took to the streets after the acquittal of six police officers who beat a drug dealer to death. One resident, Clemente Montalvo, told the New York Times, “We want people to know we exist. Cubans get everything; we get nothing.”

Uprising, New Jersey: Rioters in Newark on September 1, 1974, after a Puerto Rican festival at Branch Brook Park. The 1970s saw the greatest number of Latino civil disturbances, according to Fountain, Jr.’s research. (AP Photo/DL)

Despite these violent eruptions, the frustrations in Latino communities have failed to break into the American conversation about race relations in a meaningful way. This is an apparently willful blindness, Fountain, Jr. says: Newspaper coverage often used misleading terms that failed to highlight Latino participation in urban riots, consistently referring to “Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhoods,” even when the majority of participants were Puerto Rican. In some cases, Latinos themselves have denied this history of violence in their communities. “To this day, there are Puerto Ricans in Newark who will tell you the riots never happened,” says Fountain, Jr.  

There are lots of complicated racial dynamics at play here: Civil unrest in American cities has tended to be associated with African-American residents, and there is a long history of Latino communities avoiding connection to and comparison with black people. From Fountain, Jr.’s post:

Urban rebellions in the United States are largely seen as the byproduct of African American rage. Thus, some Latinos might feel embarrassed that identical outbreaks of violence have occurred in the community, especially considering the fact that numerous sociological studies have noted that Latino immigrants try to distance themselves from African Americans.

A constant national focus on immigration as the predominant issue in Latino communities has also helped create reluctance among community leaders to acknowledge this violence. Riots don’t fit neatly into the “good immigrant” narrative of a hard-working, family-oriented, and religious people that some Latino community leaders have worked hard to cultivate over decades. In the midst of such a fraught national conversation over immigration, some have asked Fountain, Jr. why he insists on documenting events that might only add to negative stereotypes surrounding Latinos.

“If one views urban riots as irrational, pathological, or typical ‘black behavior,’ then they might not want to discuss this history,” Fountain, Jr. says. “However, if one views urban riots as rebellions, revolts, or uprisings, where marginalized people rise up against a collective set of grievances, then they might view this history through the lens of resistance and probably will use it to build pride.”

The general tendency to see Latinos as immigrants and foreigners can also prevent Americans from focusing on and addressing a long history of institutional discrimination and neglect. “Not all Latinos are immigrants,” Fountain, Jr. says. “When you just focus on that [issue], you render invisible issues of discrimination. And if we only focus on positive images [because of the immigration debate], we lose all this history.”

If riots are, as Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “the language of the unheard,” cities may soon face a rude awakening. Latino communities continue to suffer in relative silence, despite President Donald Trump’s growing anti-immigrant rhetoric, high unemployment, poor schools, generational poverty, and the legacies of institutional discrimination such as segregation and redlining. Police violence and mistrust in law enforcement remains a pervasive problem in Latino communities dealing with traumatizing histories of police brutality. Gentrification is pushing low-income Latinos out of cities and into suburbs that lack resources for them.

Society ignores these conditions at its own risk, Fountain, Jr. says: “Latinos have been here longer than we think. They’re a crucial part of our history; they have helped shape our understanding of racial politics. We need to incorporate them into our discussions about discrimination, unemployment, police brutality. This is not just black and white.”

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