La Respuesta magazine is dedicated to both resurrecting lost history and highlighting marginalized communities within our “gran familia puertorriqueña“. Afrodescendientes boricuas is one such community, who are, at best – forgotten or ignored – and at worst – exoticized, feared, or even hated. So, with pride and determination, we humbly compiled a list of 10 “Black Boricuas” we think have impacted our history and identities.
Of course, there are many, many more. You can find some Afro-Boricuas in our list “20 Puerto Rican Women Everyone Should Know” (we did not reproduce them here so as to give room to name others). For the sake of space and capacity, we can only give you a taste – but let’s start a dialogue. Please, share with us the names of other Afro-Puerto Ricans you may know! ¡Qué Viva Puerto Rico Negro!
Dominga Cruz Becerril (1909-circa 1970s)
Born in Ponce and died in exile in Cuba, Cruz Becerril is known as the “One Who Picked-up the Flag” for her heroic act of “rescuing” the Puerto Rican flag that was left on the ground during the Ponce Massacre of 1937. A former lectora in a tobacco factory, she was inspired by her reading of Latin America freedom movements to join the Nationalist Party in the 1930s. She is credited with giving the party’s leader, Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, his moniker – “El Maestro”. Cruz Becerril also transformed the women’s wing of the movement into a trained fighting force. Read more about Cruz Becerril, here
Pedro Albizu Campos, JD (1891-1965)
One of Puerto Rico’s most celebrated leaders for independence, he was the first Boricua to attend Harvard University. He also led the Nationalist Party and struggled for his homeland’s sovereignty all of his life. He died after suffering years of radiation experiments in U.S. prisons. Read more about Albizu Campos, here.
Lillian Comas-Díaz, PhD (circa 1948-Present)
A clinical psychologist, Comas-Díaz employs a critical, feminist, and antiracist lens in her writing and community work. Born in Chicago, but raised mostly in Puerto Rico, Comas-Díaz came to age at the height of the second wave of feminism and the resurgence of the independence movement. She is credited with coining the term “LatinNegra/o” as a way of offering a more intersectional and holistic identity for afrodescendientes Latina/os. Comas-Díaz is currently a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The George Washington University.
Celestina Cordero (1787-1862) and Rafael Cordero (1790-1868)
These siblings should be considered “the parents” of public education in Puerto Rico, although Rafael is usually credited solely with this achievement. Rafael and Celestina were the children of “freemen” or former enslaved peoples who bought their freedom. In San Juan they established free schools where education was a right regardless of race or social class; their classrooms were thus mixed with pupils from both the elite and marginalized. Celestina founded the first school for girls in 1820. Rafael is currently on the path towards official Sainthood in the Catholic Church.
Nilita Vientos Gastón, JD (1903-1989)
A lawyer, journalist, and literary critic. She was the first woman to work for Puerto Rico’s Department of Justice and the first woman President of the Ateneo Puertorriqueño (the nation’s oldest remaining cultural institution). She was also a founding member of the Puerto Rican Academy of the Spanish Language.
Jose Campeche y Jordán (1751-1809)
Considered Puerto Rico’s first major, “homegrown” visual artist, Campeche was a mulatto whose father purchased his freedom from slavery. He was a self-taught painter who is known for his portraits of the island’s elite and paintings of religious iconography.
Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro (1970-Present)
A novelist, playwright, and essayist, Arroyo Pizarro is one of Puerto Rico’s most well-known contemporary writers. She won her country’s National Prize for literature for her short story collection Ojos de Luna in 2008 and was chosen as one of Latin America’s 39 best writers under 39-years-old at Bogota39 in 2007. She is also the author of “Negras: Stories of Puerto Rican Slave Women”. Arroyo Pizarro works and writes extensively on the LGBTQ movement in Puerto Rico.
Ismael Rivera (1931-1987)
Known as “El Sonero Mayor”, he was a renowned composer and singer who popularized bomba y plena music during the 1950s and ‘60s. His songs promoted Black pride in Puerto Rico and Latin America, such as “Las caras lindas” and “El Nazareno.”
Arturo Schomburg (1874-1938)
An intellectual leader in the Harlem Renaissance and activist for Puerto Rican independence, he dedicated his entire life to chronicling the contributions of afrodescendientes around the globe. His archives, which include slave narratives, literature, art, and other historical artifacts led to the creation of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art, later the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
Marta Moreno Vega, PhD (1942-Present)
A cultural activist, institution-builder, filmmaker, and author. She was born and raised in El Barrio, New York and heads the Caribbean Cultural Center-African Diaspora Institute. She is the director and producer of the upcoming film “When the Spirits Call” about espiritismo and santería in Puerto Rico and the author of a memoir “When the Spirits Dance Mambo.” Read our interview with her, here.