“Yo no tengo pelo en la lengua” - “I don’t have hair on my tongue” is probably one of my favorite Puerto Rican sayings, usually spoken in a defiant and assertive tone. While it could be deciphered as simply the fearless ability to communicate something, there is also a greater message at hand: the awesome power of language. This is accentuated by an era of Internet social networking and mass media. Accordingly, if one is prepared to speak, one must additionally be equipped to face and understand any subsequent consequences. This is a lesson we all learn, one way or another.
On February 21, I, like many others, discovered their Facebook pages and e-mail inboxes full of brewing outrage and frustration. Then the text messages and phone calls began. Claims of racism, calls for protest! And it all started with a mix of ill-humor and coded language from a mere Australian pastry chief, Naomi Levine. The infamous words: “I bought a bakery in Humboldt Park in 2006 and there were just too many gunshots in the cakes….” said on the City Soles TV promotion of her bakery, Tipsy Cake. To make matters worse, Levine laughingly advertised her “crack cakes,” popular among the area police officers, which is distributed by the Whole Foods market chain. Some disregarded this “slip of the lip” as misguided, ironically tasteless, and even unintentional. But for many, this is impossible if one is mindful of the greater historical, social, and economic paradigms that informs such comments. Levine, like anyone on this Earth, exists not in a vacuum. Nor are such words, broadcasted to thousands of people in this age of information, without broad implications. The powerful language she used leaves a lot to unpack.
First, we must highlight the community she speaks so ill of. Humboldt Park, for nearly everyone who lives in Chicago and even in this country, is specifically synonymous with the Puerto Rican enclave and generally as a neighborhood of color populated by Blacks and other Latinas/os. Her statement of “gunshots in the cake” and the showcasing of her crudely named “crack cakes” serve as coded language for Puerto Ricans and other people of color and associates them to violent crime, vice, and social pathology. She perpetuated and reproduced the racist notion and stigmas that saturate mainstream print and visual media. In other words, she paints Humboldt Park as a savage no-man’s land, following in a long tradition of “urban pioneers” who bravely seek to tame the indomitable through imperial mechanisms of power and privilege.
Secondly, her white-skin privilege affords her the social and economic capital to open a business in a community suffering the displacement of its long-time residents, businesses, and institutions. This is made ever more problematic by the absence of a humble dialogue, on her part, regarding the implications of opening her business in such a community. Instead, Levine arrogantly laments the negative affect the community apparently has on Tipsy Cake: “Bucktown…as opposed to Humboldt Park…could get any client in [t]here not feeling nervous….” Like many “yuppies,” she eventually became upset that her investment in the community’s decimation and sterile “revitalization” is developing too slow. The question arises: why open a business here? Because, like the settlers from the Mayflower who saw economic potential in ravaging the lands of millions of indigenous peoples, the native residents of Humboldt Park are faceless and meaningless to yuppies.
Oftentimes we forget or stay silent to the fact that gentrification is a process guided not by the invisible hand of capitalist economics but by actors and protagonists with agency and intentionality, justifying their actions with racist and classist worldviews. Levine nor any representative from her business has yet to publicly apologize and community critiques have been deleted from Tipsy Cake’s Facebook page.
Lastly, the reactions to the comments were phenomenal and visceral. Many Puerto Ricans and allies yelled “without hair on their tongues” from the mountain tops, voicing their anger. In doing so, they defended their people and community. Many of those same people recognize that Humboldt Park has its share of social ills, but are frustrated at the continual onslaught of negative media attention given to us while our efforts to construct a vibrant cultural and economic epicenter is belied and ignored. The Humboldt Park she failed to mention is a place of hope and activism, with rooftop gardens, affordable housing drapped in Caribbean façades, and youth programs that groom our future leaders.
However, Levine and Tipsy Cake alone are not the problem – they are symptomatic of a greater issue which is gentrification, manifested in a variety of ways. We thus must move beyond momentary urgency to daily vigilance. We may protest today, but we must all also contribute to the well-established efforts to build a community of possibilities.
Originally published at Gozamos.com on Feb. 22, 2012. The version presented here include light edits from the writer.