The former governor of Puerto Rico and co-chair of Joe Biden’s campaign on the island is facing bipartisan fire for remarks this week that sounded racist to some listeners.
The controversy was sparked when Alejandro García-Padilla went on a Spanish-language Univision show Wednesday to discuss island politics. He was criticizing the pro-statehood party known as PNP when he uttered one of two words, “moro” or “mono” — it was unclear which one.
Moro means “Moor,” a racially offensive term that can pejoratively refer to Muslims or black people; “mono” means monkey.
García-Padilla said being a PNP member “is the same if not more dangerous than being with [a Moor or a monkey] with a revolver inside an elevator.” One of the hosts reacted with surprise by placing her hands over her mouth and nose.
García-Padilla and others , including one of the show’s other hosts, insisted he said “mono” and that it wasn’t racist. García-Padilla said being stuck in an elevator with a pistol-packing monkey is just a creative metaphor he has used before on radio to describe a chaotic situation. However, the word monkey also has a racist history.
A PNP member and the island’s leader of young Democrats, Gabriela Medina, was certain the former governor said “moro.” Medina — who is also an alternate delegate to the Democratic convention for Biden — said she sent the clip to about 20 friends and associates, who also heard “moro.” So did Republican officials of Puerto Rican descent.
Medina took to Twitter and called García-Padilla out in a thread on Thursday that featured a video of the clip from the show, “Jugando Pelota Dura,” or “Playing Hard Ball.”
“The word moro has long been used in a derogatory manner by Spanish people against Muslims, and later Arabs and dark skinned people in general,” she wrote. “AGP, is a known hispanophile with many business dealings in Spain, would know the weight of this word.”
The dust-up in Puerto Rico came on the same day Biden was forced on the defensive for remarks on the differences between the diversity of the Black and Latino communities.
"Unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly diverse attitudes about different things," he told the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists on Thursday. "You go to Florida, you find a very different attitude about immigration than you do in Arizona. So it's a very diverse community."
After his campaign tried to clean up his remarks by saying they were taken out of context, Biden again made the comments about diversity, prompting his campaign to tweet a further clarification.
Florida, which Biden mentioned Thursday, is home to a large Democratic-leaning Puerto Rican electorate that, if it voted in force, could carry the day for Biden in the swing state and therefore help him win the White House. But activists have long worried his campaign hasn’t done enough outreach to the Boricua community or with Hispanic voters more broadly.
More broadly, the dual controversies that nagged Biden this week highlight some of the challenges he has faced on the campaign trail as he stumbled over his language concerning Black and Latino people.
Polls show Biden has also struggled with young voters and specifically young Black and Hispanic voters, many of whom are more attuned than older people to nuances about race.
In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations this spring and summer, Latinos are also starting to discuss problems of anti-Black racism during the marches and in their communities , an issue that the García-Padilla controversy is steeped in.
When he was governor in 2013, Garcia-Padilla was criticized for saying that the island would become a “Latin American ghetto” if Puerto Rico became the 51st state.
The issue of the island’s status is an organizing principle of Puerto Rico’s political system. Some parties advocate statehood, others want independence and others, like García-Padilla’s Popular Democratic Party, are associated with preserving the island as a commonwealth. The U.S. mainland political parties are a separate political system altogether. So people like García-Padilla and Medina belong to different island parties but are also Democratic Party members.
García-Padilla said that Medina took his words “out of context” or misheard them.
“The same day I used it in the TV show, people in the media texted me laughing. Everybody understood mono,” García-Padilla said, before suggesting he didn’t know Medina and criticizing her for being “from the pro-statehood party. She’s not from my party. I’m from the Popular Democratic Party, which is the party mainly allied to the Democratic Party in the United States.”
Medina said she was surprised by García-Padilla’s attempts to cast doubts about her.
“We may belong to different local parties, but we both serve as party leaders at the Puerto Rico Democratic Party Central Committee and he has long known me from my Democratic activism on the island,” she said. “I would have not brought his racist comments to the public’s attention were I not 100 percent certain of what he said.”
She called on him to apologize.
Though it comes from the word “Moor“ — a reference to the Muslims of North Africa — “moro” is used as black in some contexts, such as the dish of white rice and black beans that’s called “arroz moro,” namely by Cubans.
Abraham López, who is of Afro-Puerto Rican descent and is a Florida-based committeeman with the Republican National Hispanic Association, said he was “flabbergasted that a campaign co-chair for a major presidential candidate displayed what is blatant racism.”
But in numerous polls, supermajorities of Hispanic and Black voters say López's candidate, President Donald Trump, is racist. López countered by pointing to pre-pandemic job growth among Black and Latino Americans under Trump. Either way, he said, García-Padilla can’t escape his remarks.
“It’s no secret in the Hispanic community, using the word mono can definitely refer to a Black person,” López said. “As the son of an Afro-Puerto Rican, the descendant of slaves from Puerto Rico, there’s no excuse for that language. And it doesn’t matter if it’s ‘mono’ or ‘moro,’ he meant black. But he said moro.”
García-Padilla said he has repeatedly used the metaphor on the radio, that it has never engendered any controversy and that it does not in any way refer to a human being.
As controversy over García-Padilla’s comments rose, he pointed out that the issue was discussed the following day on Univision when one of the hosts, Alex Delgado, sided with him.
“To clarify," Delgado said, "García-Padilla said ‘mono, not ‘moro,’ because people are trying to create a controversy over whether he said ‘moro’ ... a xenophobic issue, so that’s clarified.”
Sabrina Rodriguez and Carlos Prieto contributed to this report.