Afro-Boricua Agency: Against the Myth of the Whitest of the Antilles

By Agustín Laó-Montes

A rally at Boston’s Villa Victoria prominently displays the Puerto Rican flag.
A rally at Boston’s Villa Victoria prominently displays the Puerto Rican flag.

 

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 he 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.

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 collapse of the colonial state was triggered by its fiscal fall leaving it with a $74 billion debt to speculators from Big Finance Capital, and governed de facto by a Financial Control Board capable of suppressing basic labor and citizens rights to pursue the primary goal of milking money from the ill insular economy. After the hurricane Puerto Rico definitely became a failed state without the ability and practical will to solve basic needs like supplying electricity and fresh water. As we write, close to 200,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated to the United States. Afro-Boricuas remained overrepresented among those who have suffered the most from the crisis, before and after the storms.

The racialization of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans is a complex matter that requires investigation. In U.S. imperial imaginary and discourse, Puerto Ricans as a people-nation tend to be racialized as non-white and therefore as allegedly inferior to the authentic citizens of the American White Republic. This attitude can be traced to three factors 1) the civilizational/racial divide between Anglos and Latinos which premised the hemispheric dialectic between the two Americas, the one that Jose Martí called Our America in contrast to Anglo-America in the British Protestant tradition; 2) the U.S. imperial labeling of the Caribbean as its backyard with Puerto Rico as its prime colonial playground and laboratory (as evidenced by sugar cane plantations and mass sterilization of a colonized population) and 3) the location of Puerto Ricans living in the United States as colonial migrants who in spite of formally holding U.S. citizenship, are de facto second class citizens. They face ethnic-racial discrimination as non-white subjects (regardless of their skin color), with subordinate inscription in U.S. economy, polity and society in what Kelvin Santiago-Valles has characterized as a colonized labor force.

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. 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. 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.

Nevertheless, Afro-Puerto Ricans have excelled providing meaningful leadership in both the Puerto Rican and African diasporas at least since the 19th century. For example, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, an Afro-Boricua born in the island, became active in New York in the movement for independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico. A key figure in the African diaspora’s intellectual and political life, he founded the first and still most important archive of Africana studies in the world, now hosted in a branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. Given that a large percentage of Puerto Rican migrants to New York City since the late 19th century was black, the cultural, intellectual and political leadership of the Boricua community in the city has historically been Afrodescendant. In the generation after Schomburg, we can highlight librarian Pura Beltré and socialist journalist Jesus Colón. One generation later, Antonia Pantojas promoted the emergence of a network of Puerto Rican institutions such as Aspira that educated and inspired the youth who championed the Boricua movements of the 1960s-70s.

The Puerto Rican liberation movement of the 1960s-70s in the United States combatted 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.

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 intersectional 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.

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.

Afro-Puerto Ricans on the island also participate in the web of activism that placed Afro-Latin American social movements at the forefront of worldwide movements against racism and for racial justice. Afro-Boricuas provided leadership in the 2001 Third World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, conceiving there the Decade of Afrodescendance. The First Congress of Afrodescendants in Puerto Rico in November 2015 convened more than a thousand activists, intellectuals and cultural agents at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. At the inauguration, then-University Chancellor Carlos Severino, an Afro-Puerto Rican himself, denounced the racist history of the prime institution of higher education in the island, advocating for a new era in which Black Studies would become an integral part of the university’s agenda. Maria Elba Torres, its main organizer, is now leading efforts toward the Second Congress of Afrodescendance in Puerto Rico.

The contested terrain of racial politics clearly came to public light in Puerto Rico when television actress Angela Meyer recently tried to revive a blackface character from the 1970s called Chianita. After protest from Puerto Rico’s anti-racist and black movement, television networks decided not to broadcast the character. Anti-racist poets and performance artists organize a public burial of Chianita, a theatrical happening that motivated a debate about racism in the media and the meaning of blackface. Chianita fans accused her critics of using arguments similar to those used by terrorists against Charlie Hebdo.

mask

Another arena of racial politics in Puerto Rico is the census. More than 80% of Puerto Ricans from the archipelago were recorded as white in the 2000 census— provoking alarm and debate. The history and visible human landscape of Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island with strong African ancestry, reveal these numbers as counterintuitive. A combination of the relative success of a whitening ideology, displacement of blackness to U.S. blacks—given that we are using U.S. census categories, and lack of educational campaigns to enhance black self-af rmation—account for the dramatic increase in the population identified as white. Colectivo Ilé’s subsequent campaign for people to acknowledge African descent seems to in uenced a decrease of white demographics in the 2010 Puerto Rican census to 75%. The growing visibility of a movement ghting racism and advocating Afro-Puerto Rican identity, culture and politics, will likely change the equation more.

The roles and significance of Afro-Boricuas in Puerto Rico itself and in its situation as a translocal nation, as well as in the African diaspora, are mediated by class and gender. 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 evidenced in the scholarship of Afro-Boricua sociologists Kelvin Santiago-Valles and Zaire Dinzey. They are also places where Afro-Puerto Rican identities flourish and aesthetic genres emerge that highlight Afro-Boricua cultural components.

The dissemination of Bomba music and dance, perceived as been from supposedly subaltern black territories such as Loiza and San Anton, into youth and activist spaces, also show a sort of blackening of Puerto Rican public cultures. In the public sphere, matched with academic recognition, Afro-Puerto Rican writers like Mayra Santos Febres, Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and Ivonne Denis represent and cultivate the values of Afro-Boricua histories and cultures through their literature, while performing a critique of the intersections of racial, class, gender and sexual domination that compose and configure the colonial condition of Puerto Rico and 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. In the Caribbean context that means, as Maurice Bishop said, that when the empire catches a cold, we get pneumonia. 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.

 

Agustín Laó-Montes is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He has several publications primarily in the elds
of historical sociology, social movements, decolonial critique, and Africana studies. His forthcoming book is titled
Diasporic Counterpoints: Political Constellations of Our Afroamerica.