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Obama, Bush, and R/rice



During his recent four-hour visit to Puerto Rico—the first by a U.S. president since 1961—Barack Obama mentioned several Puerto Ricans by name aside from Marc Anthony. These included Juan Castillo, currently on the verge of 101 years of age, who participated in World War II and the Korean War on behalf of the U.S. military, and Ramón Colón-López, who in more recent times acquired the U.S. Air Force Combat Action Medal when he and his team “killed or captured 12 enemy fighters” in Afghanistan.

Explained Obama:

…I tell this story because for decades, Puerto Ricans like Juan and Ramon have put themselves in harm’s way for a simple reason:  They want to protect the country that they love.  Their willingness to serve, their willingness to sacrifice, is as American as apple pie –- or as Arroz con Gandules.  (Applause.)  The aspirations and the struggles on this island mirror those across America.”

The American-ness of arroz con gandules—Puerto Rico’s traditional dish of rice and peas—is called into question by the number of times Obama referred to his notes prior to and during pronunciation. It is meanwhile not clear where the mirror idea came from, given Puerto Rico’s colonial status and the resulting improbability that its aspirations and struggles are identical to those of its colonial master.

Obama’s performance in San Juan at least highlights the extent to which he and his predecessor concur on the effectiveness of bilingual moments involving the term “rice” in currying favor among key populations. George W. Bush’s relative advantage in such pursuits became clear when he referred to his National Security Advisor as “Señorita Arroz” at the 2002 Cuban Independence Day celebration in Miami.

The online version of the White House transcript of this event comes accompanied with the warning at the top of the screen that the website is no longer updated and that “This is historical material, ‘frozen in time’”. The potentially euphemistic function of the phrase “historical material” is suggested by the fact that Bush’s address consists of proclamations such as:

[E]very time I see and here [sic] Gloria Estefan sing, it makes my heart feel better”,


I want to thank mi hermano — mi hermanito… Y el gran gobernador de este estado [my little brother, who is the great governor of this state]. Thank you, Jeb. We love you… Y mi cunada bella [And my beautiful sister-in-law]… I love being with my family. I love being with my family. There’s nothing more important than family in life, and I love my brother, Jeb, a lot.”

The most prominent difference between Bush’s Arroz speech and Obama’s arroz speech is meanwhile that the word “freedom” appears 23 times in the former and 0 in the latter. Bush’s Cuban Independence Day audience is assured, for example, that “our goal is freedom for Cuba’s people” and that “Not only today will we remind the world how much we love freedom, and long for freedom, but I also want to talk about a proposal and a challenge that will help put Cuba on the path to freedom”.

The fact that Cuba has an Independence Day in the first place, however, suggests that Cubans may already enjoy a greater degree of certain kinds of freedom than Puerto Rican citizens of the U.S. who are not allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections but are permitted disproportionate representation in the U.S. military.


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