While Puerto Ricans are unapologetic in their pride, some tend to downplay their African ancestry. The truth is, Puerto Rico as we know it wouldn’t exist without the cultural influences of African tribes. The racialization of Puerto Rico as a Latin American/Caribbean archipelago and of Puerto Ricans as non-white should not deny the specificity of Afro-Puerto Rican difference.
The Africans that came to Puerto Rico overcame many obstacles and particularly after the Spanish-American War, their descendents helped shape the political institutions of the island. Their contributions to the music, art, language, and heritage became the foundation of Puerto Rican culture. Afrodescendientes boricuas is one such community, who are, at best – forgotten or ignored – and at worst – exoticized, feared, or even hated.
“Afro-Puerto Ricans have to look at themselves through the context of being Puerto Rican, because we are not straight up African.”
Some African slaves spoke “Bozal” Spanish, a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and the language spoken in the Congo. The African influence in the Spanish spoken in the island can be traced to the many words from African languages that have become a permanent part of Puerto Rican Spanish (and, in some cases, English). Indeed, the very existence and nature of Afro-Boricua difference and of racism among Puerto Ricans are matters of debate in Puerto Rican intellectual and political scenarios.
Puerto Ricans celebrate March 22 as ‘Abolition Day’ which is a national holiday and Puerto Rican school children are also taught at an early age about the three main ‘races’ (European, African, indigenous) which constitute the Puerto Rican population profile but the reality is that the African component is still viewed as being the most socially undesirable of the three and accorded the lowest status.
Loíza is Puerto Rico’s center for African-inspired traditions and it retains one of the largest Black populations on the island; more than 60 percent of its 30,000 residents identify as Black. Known as the “Capital of Traditions,” Loíza is the birthplace of Black Puerto Rican music and is where the dance Plena was born. Bomba music and other African-Taino infused food and traditions are commonplace here. Loíza artisans produce the colorful coconut masks displayed at festivals and make the unique Bomba drums.
Some residents report negative stereotypes about Loíza, often referred to as “that Black town,” because of its high crime rate, while others contend that race relations on the island are improving. Racism is not bad here, but they are conscious of race; some people are racists, but some are not…race is important, but they don’t care about that as much, because we are all Puerto Rican.
The Puerto Rican liberation movement of the 1960s-70s in the United States combated colonialism, capitalism and racism as entangled forms of oppression. This entailed fighting U.S. white racism against Puerto Rican colonial subjects, as well as racial discrimination of Afro- Puerto Ricans by lighter-skin Boricuas. This is also mediated by class and gender domination, especially in Puerto Rico where the colonial ruling class is mostly white males. As counterpoint, in many working-class U.S. barrios, Puerto Ricans of all colors and U.S. blacks share in a conviviality that gave rise to shared cultural productions such as hip-hop culture, and a dialectics of affinity and conflict in urban political coalition- building.
Black history in Puerto Rico initially began with the African freeman who arrived with the Spanish Conquistadors. The Spaniards enslaved the Tainos who were the native inhabitants of the island and many of them died as a result of the cruel treatment that they had received. This presented a problem for the Spanish Crown since they depended on slavery as a means of manpower to work the mines and build forts. Their solution was to import slaves from Africa and as a consequence the vast majority of the Africans who immigrated to Puerto Rico did so as a result of the slave trade. The Africans in Puerto Rico came from various points of Africa, suffered many hardships and were subject to cruel treatment.
Afro-Puerto Ricans continue to point out that their ancestors were instrumental in the development of the island’s political, economic and cultural structure from the the early years of their entry to the present and that this although not acknowledged is reflected in the island’s literature, politics and scientific institutions as well as in Puerto Rico’s art, music, cuisine, religious beliefs and everyday life.
The Young Lords, a key organization of the Puerto Rican movement of the 1960s-70s, militated against colonialism, capitalism, sexism and racism. This sort of politics—that we now call inter-sectional because it understands power as based on articulations of class, ethnic-racial, gender and sexual oppressions—shaped the political culture of Puerto Rican radicalism. The racial politics of the Young Lords were expressed with poetic justice in Felipe Luciano’s verse Jíbaro My Pretty Nigger, Jíbaro Mi Negro Lindo, in which he challenges the idea of the Puerto Rican subject as a white peasant, an image that has circulated since the 19th century and became emblematic in the 1930s.
Cultural genres such as regaetton explicitly give voice to subaltern sectors in terms of race and class. The lyrics of lead artists such as Tego Calderón and Don Omar, vindicate Afro-Boricua popular cultures from the barrios and caserios (public housing projects) using a challenging masculinist tone. These spaces of Puerto Rican-ness, racialized, marginalized and criminalized in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, tend to be identified as black, unruly and dangerous.
As in the rest of the Americas, darker-skin Puerto Ricans had historically suffered from structural racism that includes relative social marginalization, lack of political representation and denial of historical and cultural recognition, as well as everyday experiences of discrimination both in Puerto Rico and the United States. The peculiarities of anti-black racism in Puerto Rico and among Puerto Ricans are colored by the condition of long-term colonialism.
Through this long history, Afro-Puerto Ricans confront a double colonial condition, as colonial subjects of the empire, and as racialized internal others of the nation. The efforts by both the Spanish empire and creole elites to whiten the island by conceding land and rights to European immigrants in the 19th century, in an archipelago where the plantation system was less developed that in other Caribbean spaces, resulted in Puerto Rico being perceived as the whitest of the Antilles.
The next generation, the one that produced hip-hop culture—an urban mixture of music, dance, style, art, economy and politics—spawned community cultural institutions such as Taller Boricua and Nuyorican Poets Café with an Afro-Puerto Rican aesthetics linked to the politics of Latina/o self- affirmation. In this context, Marta Moreno Vega, an Afro-Boricua woman, founded in 1976 the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), which became one of the primary global spaces for cultural, religious and political exchanges in the Africana world. The CCCADI, which organized three world congresses of Yoruba religion, launched the Global Afro-Latino and Caribbean Initiative (GALCI) that has been instrumental in weaving networks of Afro-Latina/o social movements across the Americas.
“We are working to educate people about ‘our blackness,’ but not just that we are African, but also about,” our Puerto Rican heritage.
However racial profiling and stereotyping identifies Dominicans as being overwhelmingly black and ‘mulatto’ illegal foreigners, and therefore a threat, consequently the Puerto Rican authorities often arrest Afro-Puerto Ricans who have no identification, assuming them to be illegal Dominican migrants. They are also affected by enduring anti-black racist attitudes deeply embedded within Puerto Rican society which although never acknowledged are nevertheless routinely practiced. In Puerto Rico as in other parts of Latin America it is still common for people to be referred to by their co-lour hence the prevalence of terms like Negro (a) or Negrito (a) although some argue that these are really terms of endearment devoid of animosity or conscious malicious intent.
Puerto Rico is in crisis, made unimaginably worse by Hurricane Maria, this ongoing crisis highlights the racial character of our colonial condition. President Trump, who charged that Puerto Ricans just want things to be done for them and that providing disaster relief to the island represented a problem for the U.S. budget, reveals the ugly face of imperial policy, neglecting basic aid to the devastated archipelago, while giving post-hurricane support to Texas and Florida.
When POTUS threw paper towels to an audience during his brief visit to the island after the storms Irma and Maria, his racist utterances upset international opinion just when the profound humanitarian crisis of Puerto Ricans—U.S. citizens— began to be acknowledged. White and affluent neighbors that weren’t hit as hard by the hurricane received more resources than black neighborhoods that were devastated. The catastrophe of the late modern colony in the aftermath of the hurricanes resurfaces the discontents of the double coloniality confronted by Afro-Puerto Ricans.
The combined injuries of race and class faced by Afro-Boricua subaltern sectors who circulate between the island barrios and the U.S. ghettos deepen with the world crisis of neoliberal capitalist globalization. Projecting its optimal critical potential, a cultivated double consciousness of Afro-Puerto Ricans could turn our collective historical agency into a powerful transformative force within a long and complex process of decolonization and liberation from the intertwined powers of colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy and racism, in both shores of the Atlantic pond that divides and connect the U.S. empire-nation and the archipelago of Puerto Rico.
The following Puerto Ricans of African descent have notability in their respective fields, either in Puerto Rico, the United States, and/or internationally:
*Rick Aviles – comedian and actor
*Carmelo Anthony – basketball player (mother is Puerto Rican)
*Juan Morel Campos – composer
*Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos – lawyer, Nationalist leader
*Dr. Jose Celso Barbosa – medical doctor, sociologist, and politician
*Wilfred Benitez – boxer
*Carmen Belen Richardson – actress
*Jose Campeche – painter
*Rosie Perez – actress
*Dr. Jose Ferrer Canales, educator, writer and activist
*Bobby Capo – musician, composer
*Roberto Clemente – baseball player
*Orlando “Peruchin” Cepeda – baseball player
*Rafael Cepeda – folk musician and composer
*Jesús Colón – writer and politician
*Rafael Cordero – educator
*Jose “Cheo” Cruz- baseball player
*Tite Curet Alonso – composer
*Carlos Delgado – baseball player
*Sylvia Del Villard – activist and actress
*Cheo Feliciano – salsa singer
*Ruth Fernandez – singer and actress
*Pedro Flores – composer
*Juano Hernandez – actor
*Rafael Hernandez – musician and composer
*Emilio “Millito” Navarro – baseball player
*Victor Pellot – baseball player
*Ernesto Ramos Antonini – Speaker of the House
*Arturo Alfonso Schomburg – educator and historian
*Félix Trinidad – boxer
*Juan Evangelista Venegas – boxer
*Otilio “Bizcocho” Warrington – comedian and actor
*Bernie Williams – baseball player