by Dorothy Bell Ferrer | February 8, 2016 8:34 pm
“Somos de tres razas! La blanca, la india, y la negra!” is a cliched response you can almost always count on hearing anytime you bring up race or racism in Puerto Rico or Puerto Rican Diaspora communities. It’s cute, easy to remember, and also a lie.
Ironically the European root, which is most often mistaken as the backbone of Puerto Rican culture, is mentioned first. The indigenous, Taíno root, which is often recognized strategically (yes, strategically) in front of blackness is named second. Oh, and the third? African or Black! Last but not least, right? I’d like to think so, but I know better.
The blending of these three races or roots in Puerto Rico are what we refer to as “mestizaje”, or mixture (1). This “mestizaje” is what causes Puerto Ricans to believe that we all are racially mixed the exact same way therefore there can be no “true” difference. While mestizaje is a part of Puerto Rican society and even exists in the heritage of many Puerto Ricans, the way in which mestizaje is recognized in Puerto Rico makes room for racism and white supremacy to flourish because it gives us a false historical analysis on race.
Where does this mestizaje narrative come from? We are all taught, whether in school or through conversation with our elders that Spaniards came to Puerto Rico, encountered Taínos, killed most of them off with diseases and weapons, subsequently brought slaves from Africa (or more accurately, African peoples who were then later enslaved), and eventually everyone got married and generations later we have what is now referred to as the Puerto Rican racial admixture of African, Taíno, and Spanish. That’s the irresponsible and also inaccurate way to tell our history. Let’s discuss what is wrong with it because our history is, of course, the foundation for our present state.
The first African encounter with Puerto Rico had nothing to do with slavery. Africans travelled to the Americas including Boriké (present-day Puerto Rico), long before Christopher Columbus and “friends.” In fact, it has been documented that many traditions, which are today considered to be that of Taíno culture can be found throughout ancient civilizations in Africa (2). Secondly, it is documented that Africans traveled with the Spanish conquistadores as free men to Boriké. One of the most recognized examples of this was a Black man by the name of Pedro Mejias who reportedly married the Taína Cacica, Yuisa (3). Thirdly, there existed African heritage among the Spanish conquistadores. While carrying with them white supremacist/ white saviour ideals, many conquistadores in fact had African heritage directly from North African countries as a result of both African immigration to Spain and the occupation of southern Spain by the Moors beginning in 711 AD (4).
The first people to become enslaved under Spanish colonialism and rule, were the Taínos. It soon proved unsuccessful as the Taínos, being indigenous to the land, were able to escape from captivity. It has also been documented that the Taínos resisted colonialism easier and arguably stronger than the Blacks who were brought years after Taíno enslavement. The Africans brought to Puerto Rico were much more easily christianized and colonized because they weren’t in a land they knew and were convinced they would be able to soon return home to their West African communities (possibly) upon “good behavior” (5).
In 1570 the Puerto Rican gold mines were depleted and the criollos, who were European, primarily Spanish descendants born and living in Latin America (in this case, Puerto Rico) relocated to other Spanish colonies like México and Perú. This hereby left Puerto Rico as a Spanish garrison and the population was mostly Black/ afro-descendant and Mulatto (6). It wasn’t until 1815, just a few years after the Haitian Revolution, that the population of Puerto Rico began to whiten, or increase in number of Europeans. That year the Spanish Crown under King Ferdinand III passed the Royal Decree of Graces, which encouraged Spaniards and Europeans from other countries to populate Puerto Rico as well as Cuba so as not to have a “Black colony” like Haiti that defeated their French colonizers. This is referred to in Spanish and by many Puerto Rican scholars and historians as “blanqueamiento” or “whitening” (7). These white settlers were provided free land, and even monetary incentives to populate Puerto Rico. This allowed for the creation and resurgence of cañaverales, and other plant producing plantations based on African slave labor, especially in coastal regions like Mayagüez, Ponce, Guayama, Loíza, Arroyo, Patillas, Salinas etc.(8)
On March 22, 1873 slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico but this didn’t necessarily “free” Blacks in Puerto Rico and make them equal to their white (or whiter) counterparts. Once freed, Blacks were forced to work under contracts (most likely doing the same work that they did as slaves) for a minimum of three years and were denied political rights for five years (9). Each municipality has it’s own history with how afro-descendants in respective regions economically developed (if at all) post slavery but over all, the post-abolition laws allowed for very little upward economic mobility, the effects of which can still be seen today. A large majority of marginalized communities in Puerto Rico are primarily of afro-descent.
Puerto Rican schoolchildren are taught that regardless of physical appearance they all individually derive from the same aforementioned roots. Regardless of whether this is true or not hasn’t eradicated in Puerto Rico structural or personal racism. Belief in mestizaje silences conversations about white supremacy and doesn’t force those with privilege to take responsibility for it. This allows white Puerto Ricans to appropriate, steal, and taint Afro-Puerto Rican traditions and exploit afro-descendant communities with no repercussions or consequences because “we are all Puerto Rican so all parts of Puerto Rican culture belong to all of us.” Not acknowledging the fact that a racial construct exists in Puerto Rico allows white privilege, white saviourism, and finally racism to flourish.
The PNP (Partido Nuevo Progresista), for example, a corrupt, pro-statehood political party with mostly white leadership, never acknowledges race or their privilege. They go into municipalities like Carolina, Loíza, and Canóvanas, with large, historically Black communities, bribing people for votes in exchange for a household appliance they may need. This behavior is “accepted” because in Puerto Rico, such privileged people are allowed to say “my ancestors were Black” or “but we are all Puerto Rican” and allow them to claim to want to eradicate marginalization and invisibility. There’s no limit to what white privilege in Puerto Rico can do when no one acknowledges that it exists. But again “if we’re all Puerto Rican, why does color matter?”
Colorblindness is convenient for people when it comes to remembering that we are one and can unite over traditions, but it’s the easy way out of the “race talk”, especially when you factor in the fact that some of us have hermanos or primos or even parents and grandparents that are totally different “races” (for lack of better terms we can say color here) than ourselves. It seems easy. A Puerto Rican is a Puerto Rican (yes) but colorblindness doesn’t resolve anything. It simply suggests that Puerto Ricans as a whole live in a magical utopia (colony, mind you) of fairness, equality, and justice. Poverty in Puerto Rico isn’t colorblind, invisibility in Puerto Rico isn’t colorblind, and racial discrimination in Puerto Rico isn’t colorblind, so if you choose to not see color you are responsible for not acknowledging the marginalization and struggle of others, possibly your own struggles. I wouldn’t blame any single Puerto Rican or single out a group of Puerto Ricans for the existence of white supremacy because it began during the times of Spanish colonialism but I do dare say that anyone who uses the mestizaje “somos de tres razas, somos iguales” narrative as a way to silence conversations on deconstructing white supremacy and racism in Puerto Rico, is an avid supporter and fan of it, regardless of color. They may even have an obsession with white supremacy.
Acknowledging that white supremacy is deeply ingrained in Puerto Rican society is not to say that we shouldn’t strive for equality, but equality is deeper than how you personally see others. There is a difference between your indiscriminate kindness (bless your heart), and the system’s “kindness”. Al pan pan y al vino vino, we must call the problems in Puerto Rican society what they are. A large amount of socioeconomic inequality is a result of white supremacy that has existed in Puerto Rico since before Puerto Rico became a United States colony. This inequality throughout Puerto Rico is an intersection between both race and class, with race unfortunately being the largest determining factor. Colorblindness may be the way in which you prefer to see things in Puerto Rico, and again I say, colorblind folks are avid supporters of white supremacy, but it doesn’t recognize intermittent problems that exist within Puerto Rican society, those problems being racially charged. If true colorblindness existed, race would not exist. Well, it does.
To be clear, race is a social construct that originates in the Columbian era in the Americas. Race separates people based on physical appearance (keyword physical), mostly by skin color. Unfortunately due to the way that our societies have developed and white supremacy has controlled most of the world, race matters and we are forced to deal with it whether we admit to it or not, whether it is convenient or not. But just to be clear, your race doesn’t necessarily define what roots you carry (though it may), rather your race defines how the white supremacist system treats you, how the system sees you. Some Puerto Ricans are racially identified as Black and some are not identified as Black, regardless of what one may mark when it comes to the census. This does not mean you cannot have blonde hair, green eyes, and white skin and have African ancestry and it certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t have kinky curly hair and darker skin and have white ancestry. You can but regardless of what roots you truly have, society treats you according to what they see. You can identify as you please but society will treat you according to what you look like. Racial identification is difficult to understand in a country with mestizaje so deeply entrenched and when you add in mulatto representation, it becomes even more confusing and we therefore have to factor in the “tragic mulatto syndrome”, but it matters. The tragic mulatto syndrome refer to when people really don’t know what to call themselves or understand how the white supremacist society will treat them. Even if I am half white or even 75% white, I am physically an afro-descendant with kinky curly hair and piel de canela, and will be treated (or mistreated) as such regardless of what I decide to call myself or mark on a census survey.
If the advocation for “mestizaje” throughout Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican communities was successful in its effort to make it seem as though racism in Puerto Rico does not exist, I am sure there wouldn’t be terms in everyday vocabulary like “pelo malo”. I am sure travel agencies wouldn’t tell African Americans who want to see and tour historically Black communities in Puerto Rico like Loíza to stay away because of violence, and I am absolutely sure Blacks and other historically Black communities would be more proportionally represented in the Puerto Rican senate and other governmental organizations, but it’s not like that and that is an uncomfortable truth that we must understand.
Being intentionally conscious about race in Puerto Rico, and denying the mestizaje “somos de tres razas…” nonsense isn’t about having a US American separatist mentality. It is about recognizing the ills which exist in our society and using our own effort to get rid of them. Talks about racism and articles like this one may seem inconvenient, even uncomfortable, but imagine how inconvenient racism is especially for Black people living in Puerto Rico. One cannot pretend that there is enough water and life is great because they are not thirsty and can happily ignore the fact that there is a group of people who are dehydrated and also trying to fix the leak because it doesn’t affect them. One also can’t believe that those of us working to fix the leak have to listen to anyone who refuses to even look at the leak because they are drinking perfectly fine.
Vamos a ponernos claros, El boricua es boricua hasta el más blanco y el más negro but to ignore the implications and effects of white supremacy in Puerto Rican society especially through concepts like colorblindness would be inconsiderate and irresponsible of any Puerto Rican who wishes for Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican communities to thrive to be the very best that they can be. The mestizaje “somos de tres razas” silences work to deconstruct racism in Puerto Rico, pretends that white privilege does not exist in Puerto Rico, pretends that everyone is visible, it interrupts movements against anti-Blackness, silences conversations about racial discrimination, removes acknowledgement of white privilege in Puerto Rico hereby allowing for racism, the main component of white supremacy, to flourish.
If you want to understand why advocates for racial equality, like myself, seemingly single out specific groups as Black ask not us but the marginalization via white supremacy that has done so.
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