Puerto Rico’s New Immigrants Raises Questions about Race and Empire

by Xavi Burgos Peña | April 1, 2014 4:45 am

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BarrioIcon-Newsletter1x1On March 28, LatinoUSA published a story about Dominican and Haitian immigration to Puerto Rico. The report raises (but doesn’t discuss thoroughly) some interesting questions about race, the island’s colonial status, and Caribbean solidarity and xenophobia.

Disrupting Race in Puerto Rico

“In 2006, only two Haitians were apprehended by Border Patrol. Last year, the number was 600.” – LatinoUSA

Puerto Rico is considered to be the “whitest of the Caribbean” due to the amount of residents (75.8 percent) who identify with a white racial identity on the U.S. Census.

One reason, including internalized racism, is because there are few options available for other categories popularly used on the island, like mulata/o, trigueña/o, etc. Another is that there are a lot of European-descended folks. Puerto Rico received nearly half a million Europeans between 1815 and 1898 due to the Real Cédula de Gracia law, which promoted their settlement. There was also a comparatively low amount of enslaved people (unlike Cuba and Jamaica, which were island-wide factories of African genocide); but there were indeed many free folks of color and cimarrones - like my family. 

I bring up this history to help us ponder some important questions. In which ways do recent immigration from a “Blacker” Caribbean disrupt current racial categories? Are they discriminated against primarily due to their (undocumented) immigrant status, accents/ language, or their blackness – or a mix of all these characteristics? What will there influence be on Puerto Rican national culture and identity in future generations? How do Haitian and Dominican immigrants engage with each other in Puerto Rico, when the latter has a history of genocide and legal exclusion of the former – is there solidarity between them as immigrants in Borinquen? In the context of a decreasing and aging population, these questions should be more actively studied, reported on, and addressed.

A Colony With No Control Over Its Borders | Nationalism Can = Solidarity

“My dream isn’t to go back to the Dominican Republic. It’s to pledge allegiance to this flag, to the United States,” she says. “Truthfully, Puerto Rico, I love you.” - LatinoUSA

According to scholar Juan Manuel Carrión, some academics claim that “What a Puerto Rican nationalist really wants, deep down, is to kill a Dominican.” He refers to an imagined perception of nationalism being acquainted with xenophobic hatred and genocide (and not the anti-colonial, liberatory form I’d argue Puerto Rican nationalism often takes). But, this past month Claridad, Puerto Rico’s oldest pro-independence newspaper, dedicated its huge annual festival to the island’s Dominican community. As a part Dominican, Boricua independentista, this makes me proud. To me, there is no disconnect between affirming one’s national identity and standing in solidarity with other oppressed people. Plus, when was the last time pro-statehood folks were called racist; wasn’t it Santini’s penepé administration that denied a permit for a Dominican festivity in San Juan? No hay peor ciego que el que no quiere ver.

However, I do understand where some of the anger – from folks of all ideologies - towards island immigrants may come from (besides issues of language and race). Borinquen is a colony and therefore with no control over its own borders. The current economic collapse only heightens such discontent. Also, there are those who are infuriated by some immigrant’s sworn fidelity to the U.S. imperial project.

There were once a Cuban family who rented an apartment from my cousins in Juncos. Although they only had been on the island for two weeks, they were more pro-statehood than Barbosa or Ferré!

Still, I’d never advocate for them to leave or take an anti-immigrant stance. My nationalism is based on solidarity, as it has been between Puerto Rican independentistas and Mexican communities in Chicago or Blacks in New York, for example. It is my belief that the island’s liberation can happen when – among many other things – new immigrants are engaged and embraced, not ignored or discarded. Thankfully, the island’s independence movement has begun to do this while the Diaspora’s movement continues this long trajectory.

Below is a video (in Spanish) on an “Antillian Solidarity” mural production in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.

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