Puerto Rican actor Amaury Nolasco says via Twitter that his line suggesting that Puerto Ricans are "great at selling drugs" on the ABC sitcom "Work It" should be seen in a comedic context and that he's always tried to "uphold the positive image of my beautiful island and our people."
"Seems like a few of you felt uncomfortable with a line my character said on #Workit," he wrote Wednesday. "I understand your feelings. The show is a comedy and is meant to be viewed in that context. Soy Boricua de pura sepa. I am proud of our culture and I've always strived to uphold the positive image of my beautiful island and our people in both my career and personal lives. Pa'lante mi gente."
When the much-maligned "Work It" aired its second episode Tuesday night, many people wondered which segment of the show's audience would turn away offended.
In its inauspicious debut a week ago, a character played by Nolasco matter-of-factly uttered the cringe-worthy line, "I'm Puerto Rican... I'd be great at selling drugs."
The supposed joke backfired, setting off a firestorm of criticism on Facebook and Twitter and even a prime-time demonstration by about two dozen people on Wednesday outside ABC studios in Manhattan.
The controversial line has prompted a bit of soul searching for an island devastated by drug-related violence. Puerto Rico's dirty little secret is neither little nor secret any more.
Still, some protesters outside ABC carried signs with the Puerto Rican flag and chanted, "I am Puerto Rican and not a drug dealer."
A pair of Puerto Rican members of Congress, Jose Serrano and Nydia Velasquez, issued statements condemning the show and demanding a network apology.
"Puerto Ricans deserve far more respect than to be portrayed in this light in prime time," Serrano said.
While ABC has not commented on the criticism, this poor attempt at humor at the expense of Puerto Ricans is also unleashing a debate among some entertainers from the island about the ravages of drug trafficking and violence.
"There are more important things to do in this country," Puerto Rican actor Noland Otero wrote on Facebook, according to Spanish-language newspaper Primera Hora. "Rather than asking fellow actor Amaury Nolasco to apologize for something that is a reality for some or many... I believe that no one is in a position to make demands when we do nothing for no one."
It is no secret that Puerto Rico's government has proven ineffective against the drug scourge. Last year was the most violent in the island's recent history with 1,136 murders. Puerto Rico, located on the busy and lucrative drug smuggling corridor from South America to the mainland United States, has a per capita murder rate almost double that of drug-plagued Mexico.
The 3,515-square-mile island has an average of three violent deaths per day. According to U.N. figures for 2008, the island averaged 20.3 murders per 100,000 residents. Mexico, by comparison, had 11.5 murders per 100,000 residents in that same year. And the documented corruption of the island's police force corruption has even lead to fears of it becoming a 'narco state.'
The reality painted by these disturbing figures should be a focus of debate among Puerto Ricans, said Mariana Vicente, Miss Universe Puerto Rico 2010, in defense of Nolasco.
"We are not in a position to demand that the media guard our reputation when in our country we don't even respect ourselves, brutally killing people, firing bullets in the air and so much violence in the home," she told Primera Hora. "Let's start out by caring for ourselves and demonstrating the contrary to the rest of the world."
Vicente added, "It seems hypocritical that we become indignant over things like this when that's exactly the situation that exists in our country."
Initially, Nolasco did not comment on the uproar.
"Trust me, when I say it gets even better," he said on Twitter, referring to the show after the first episode. "I promise!"
Stay tuned. Or maybe not.