It happens to everyone at least once. An absent-minded click of the
mouse. The eye’s momentary inability to distinguish between “reply” and
“reply to sender and recipients.”
But not everyone makes this mistake with words that can offend well-known members of their community. Throw in a racial slur, and it can get ugly.
That’s the predicament Boston School Committee member Angel Amy Moreno found himself in recently. That is, former Boston School Committee member.
One can only imagine what went through Moreno’s head on Oct. 9 when he referred to José Massó as “el negrito del batey,” which translates loosely into “the little black yard boy.”
Moreno sent his e-mail — he says as a joke — in response to an invitation to a coffee house hosted by longtime activist Jaime Rodriguez at the St. Andrew Community Church on Amory Street to showcase talent in the local community. The e-mail was sent to a list of prominent activists in Boston’s Puerto Rican community.
Moreno says there is no literal translation for “negrito del batey,” but says it’s a term of endearment.
“The phrase doesn’t convey any racism at all,” he says, noting that the word “negrito” is used widely as a term of endearment, even among light-skinned or white Puerto Ricans. “Inside our culture, it doesn’t have any negative connotations. It’s an affective term, like if I call you ‘sweetie’ in English.”
But Massó, who was born and raised in the Puerto Rican capitol of San Juan, disagrees.
“You would think that someone enlightened enough to have a Ph.D. in history would be able to put that phrase in its historical context,” he says. “It’s not a phrase you would use in a joking manner.”
Massó was not the only one offended by the e-mail. In the ensuing storm of messages — Massó received more than 30 — Puerto Ricans from as far away as New York and Virginia blasted Moreno, expressing shock, indignation, sadness and outrage, and voicing support for Massó, the former director of the Puerto Rican Federal Affairs office and longtime host of the popular WBUR radio program “¡Con Salsa!”
Rodriguez’s e-mail list — and those who participate in his coffee house — is a cross-section of Boston’s Puerto Rican community, including community activists, academics, people who work in City Hall and people who work in the State House.
“I believe that in every member of the community, women and men, there’s poetry, short stories, songs, creativity,” Rodriguez says. “I want to explore that creativity in our community. A lot of people don’t have an outlet for that.”
In his e-mail, Moreno did not share Rodriguez’s vision for the coffee house. In his now widely read message, Moreno appeared to chafe at the idea that Massó planned to give a history of Puerto Ricans in Boston.
“ … and this negrito del batey is coming and now he’s an historian,” the e-mail reads in Spanish. “First ‘educator’ now he’s an ‘historian.’ ¡Que cojones! (what gall).”
After a passing reference to City Councilor Felix Arroyo and his fiancé, Selene Acosta, Moreno continued with “This time I pass.”
Moreno says he regrets the e-mail.
“I’m deeply sorry that this happened,” he says. “It was not my intent to hurt anyone. Those people have been my friends for a long time. What would I get from attacking them?”
He sent letters of apology to both Massó and Rodriguez, but they apparently did little to smooth things over.
“He said his style of jokes is through irony or sarcasm,” Massó says. “But the definition of sarcasm is humor that is hurtful. I find his explanation somewhat disingenuous.”
Massó sent Moreno a five-page letter.
“You are a person who wallows in the pitiful state of ‘hipocresia y falsedad,’ and now you yourself ‘te has desmarcado,’ showing your true colors,” Massó wrote, quoting classic salsa songs.
Rodriguez, too fired off an angry e-mail to Moreno.
“I was very upset,” Rodriguez says. “Angel has been part of my close group of friends. From time to time, I call him for advice. I don’t know why he did that. I don’t know what’s inside of him. He’s never said anything like that to me.”
Massó, Moreno and Rodriguez were all born in Puerto Rico. Each came to Boston in the early 1970s. All three have known each other for years. Rodriguez has worked for the rights of Puerto Rican veterans and is research coordinator for the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.
Massó has been a public figure in Boston for decades, and once wrote a column for the Banner. Moreno has taught at Roxbury Community College since 1977 and has long worked for the educational advancement of the Latino and African American student body there.
Moreno has also been widely known for his writing in the Spanish-language newspaper El Mundo and for his photography, which has chronicled more than three decades of community history.
A fissure like the one that has opened up between Moreno and Massó and Rodriguez is not easily mended.
Last week, Moreno resigned from his post on Boston’s School Committee — more than a month before his term was due to expire — after he says Mayor Thomas M. Menino got calls from people on Rodriguez’s e-mail list.
He accuses Rodriguez and Massó of working against him.
“I would like to reach out to both of them,” he says. “But what I don’t understand is why can’t they stop? Why are they questioning my integrity? My record is straightforward.”
Massó says he’s saddened by Moreno’s use of racist language, but said that Moreno, a professor of history at Roxbury Community College, may one day understand the hurtful nature of his e-mail.
“My hope for him is that somewhere down the road he’ll have an epiphany and understand that his way of doing things is not the right way and there are ways of offering criticism that make you part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Massó says.