By Grace Asiegbu
Driving down the winding roads of Piñones, cars are greeted with green leaves and bold flowers. Between barrios, roads are marked with bright, lively signs informing drivers of their current location. Soon the view shifts from natural vegetation to sights and smells of restaurants lining the strip.
People are buzzing in and out of the markets, visiting friends or buying groceries. Our vans turn into a lot, and we walk into a space lined all over with chestnut wood. The colonial Puerto Rican flag hangs next to the red, green and yellow flag of Loíza. The gaze of a vejigante mask follows us around the room, and a portrait of Puerto Rican laureate Arturo Schomberg frozen in perpetuity is framed on the wall.
Maricruz Clemente Rivera greets us with a wide smile as we walk into her space, a space that’s colorful and breezy. We are there to learn the art of bomba.
Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican style of music and dance that stretches back centuries. It’s rumored bomba was created in 1501, but the first documentation of the dance was in 1787. Like many things in Latin American countries, it emerged as a means of survival for enslaved Africans during the transatlantic slave trade. Bomba originated in Loíza, the Capital of Tradition in Puerto Rico. Bomba is a percussive style of dance largely marked by the dancer and drummer having a conversation through the steps. It is a challenge between the drummer and the dancer, in which the drummer has to follow the dancer’s steps and anticipate their next step.
Clemente teaches bomba as a means of reconnecting to Puerto Ricans’ African heritage.
“People don’t want to talk about slavery. We started with the music because it’s not as…scary,” Clemente said.
For Clemente, bomba is a symbol of African Puerto Rican history and it’s a way to celebrate a heritage some do not acknowledge. Loíza has Puerto Rico’s largest population of Black people, a number that sat around 6% in the 2010 Census. Yet according to Clemente, too many Loízans deny their Blackness.
“We found out the people here didn’t feel they are Black,” she said. “Black is other people. Like other people from Haiti or Dominican Republic but we are not Black.”
Clemente is the founder of Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI), a community-based, non-profit center that provides and develops services in the community.
“That’s why we [at COPI] started talking about identity. We started—through the bomba—taking back our power, as a way to get others to start thinking about their identity with pride.”
Denying Black or African ancestry is not unique to Loíza. According to U.S. Census data, about three-fourths of Puerto Ricans identify as white alone and just 12% identify as Black, even though history and culture would indicate that many more Puerto Ricans might be considered Black.
The “little bit of everything” some Puerto Ricans may use to describe their racial heritage includes Taíno, African and Spanish. Despite this, Black Puerto Ricans seem to suffer most from the effects of structural racism on the island. Black populations are concentrated in areas with serious environmental pollution, like Vieques and Guayama, that pose serious health risks to residents. They also disproportionately live in areas with fewer resources that are especially vulnerable to gentrification and the impacts of climate change, like Loíza. Structural and institutional racism is a serious problem in specific regions, but if people aren’t even identifying as Black, how can these issues be rectified or reconciled?
The Taíno were precolonial inhabitants of Puerto Rico, dating back to the 1400s. The Taíno were not exclusive to Puerto Rico—they lived in other Caribbean islands like Cuba, Haiti and Dominican Republic. They also inhabited parts of what is now Florida. However, through enslavement and colonization, the Taíno disappeared as a distinct ethnic group by the end of the 20th century. When conquistador Juan Ponce de León arrived on the shores of the island then known as Borikén in 1508, the Taínos and Spaniards initially had a peaceful coexistence until the Spanish took advantage of their partnership and enslaved the Taínos.
The Spanish forced the Taínos into physical labor, like working the gold mines or sugar plantations. Many Taínos died from smallpox, killed themselves or left the island after the failed Taíno revolt of 1511. After conquistador Bartololemé de las Casas successfully petitioned the Spanish court for the freedom of the Taínos in 1512, many colonizers complained about the sudden lack of free labor. In 1517, the Spanish Crown authorized the importation of enslaved Africans, which forcibly brought thousands to the island.
Slavery in Puerto Rico was not as brutal as the chattel slavery that occurred in the Southern United States. From the 1500s until the late 1800s, slavery was the primary way the island’s money was made. In 1789, El Código Negro was established. Under this law, an enslaved person could buy their freedom, in the event that their master was willing to sell and the price was right. Enslaved people were allowed to earn money during their spare time by working as shoemakers, cleaning clothes or selling the produce they grew on their own plots of land. Many of these freedmen started settlements in modern-day Santurce, Carolina, Canóvanas, Luquillo and Loíza. Nonetheless, the numbers of enslaved people continued to swell in the Caribbean and particularly in Puerto Rico.
On March 22, 1873, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico through the Moret Law, but it was an abolition on conditional terms. Emancipation was granted to enslaved people over 60, those who served in the Spanish army, and children born to slaves after September 17, 1868. All other enslaved people who did not fit into those categories weren’t emancipated—they had to buy their own freedom at whatever price was set by their last masters. After gaining their freedom, formerly enslaved persons were still required by law to work an additional three years for their former masters. Slavery was finally abolished in Puerto Rico without conditions in 1886.
Puerto Rico is a case study in the nuances of imperialism. In the early eighth century, Spain was conquered by North African Moors, who brought Africans to Spain for the first time. Though Spain reconquered their land by the 13th century, Seville remained a Moorish stronghold with thousands of Africans living there. Most Africans became freemen once they converted to Catholicism, which explains how a free Black man like Juan Garrido could join Juan Ponce de León in his journeys to invade Caribbean islands like Puerto Rico. Catholicism also played a significant role in how slavery was constructed on the island.
Church doctrine dictates slave and master are both equal in the eyes of God, and Catholics consider cruel and unusual punishment a violation of the fifth commandment. Once the Spanish depleted Puerto Rico of its gold by 1570, the island became a Spanish garrison—meaning, Spain left their soldiers and other military personnel behind and moved onto other Caribbean countries (like Cuba or Mexico). Those who did stay behind were either Africans or mixed-race people. By the time the Spanish physically returned to the island in the early 1800s, there was a large multiracial population thanks to centuries of European influences.
Carlos Jorge Guilbe López, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Pedras, says race is difficult to construct in Puerto Rico for a few reasons, one being that Puerto Ricans don’t put themselves into census boxes for race.
“It’s a big issue. How the United States tends to classify race doesn’t apply to many Puerto Ricans,” López said. “We have a problem with the definition that is imposed by the United States Census Bureau.”
The United States Census Bureau defines race as a person’s self-identification with one or more social groups. The social groups they list are white, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or some other race. People are allowed to select more than one race. The census has a chart to simplify which regional origins can construct the race. A white person hails from Europe, Middle East and North Africa. Black or African American people are from Africa (excluding North). American Indian or Alaska Native is the broadest in area—Central, North and South America. Asian covers East Asia, India and Southeast Asia (think Malaysia). Finally, the list is rounded off with people with regional origins in Guam, Hawaii, Pacific Islands and Samoa—they are considered Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. Nowhere on this list are Caribbean places like Puerto Rico. As the census sees it, their identity lies in “ethnicity” and not “race.”
The Census Bureau defines ethnicity strictly through Hispanic or Latino origin and notes that any person of any race can be Hispanic or Latino. This separation, López argues, is why many Puerto Ricans are quick to select “white.”
“Hispanic and Latino is a broad concept. To us, we see that as Mexican. We are not Mexicans…we’re not Chicano,” the professor said. “We feel that Puerto Rico is not present in that classification.”
With the 2020 Census underway, questions on how to define and quantify race in Puerto Rico remain complicated. The census gathers race and ethnicity information largely to give the government population information to make funding and other policy decisions that affect educational and other opportunities. This information also helps them assess equal employment practices and ensure equal access to health care. Puerto Rico’s race dilemma makes it harder to examine whether communities receive equitable shares of funding and resources. If Puerto Ricans are giving racial descriptions that don’t accurately match their social group, how can racial inequities be fully examined or reconciled?
In Vieques, a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, the struggle to have access to basic healthcare has been dragged out over the last two years since Hurricane Maria destroyed the only hospital on the island. In January, 13-year-old Jaideliz Moreno Ventura died from complications of the flu, after what her family argues is negligence not just from the Puerto Rican government, but also the United States federal government.
The only hospital in Vieques was destroyed in Hurricane Maria, and only after Jaideliz’s death in January of this year did the Federal Emergency Management Agency approve $39.5 billion to rebuild the hospital—funds that still have not been disbursed. The average income of Viequenses sits around $12,000 per year, and roughly a third of the population is Black.
In Guayama, a low-income town on the southern coast of Puerto Rico with a 23% Black population, residents are fighting the AES Power Plant and the 300,000 tons of toxic coal ash it produces each year. The power plant has been a point of contention for those who live in Puerto Rico’s southern region for over 15 years. Between 2004 and 2011, the AES plant converted two million tons of ash into filler for construction of housing developments across Puerto Rico. Though AES was ordered to cover the coal ash prior to Hurricane Maria’s landfall, they did not. Maria’s strong winds and heavy rains carried tons of ash all over the island and contaminated the groundwater. Coal ash is a highly toxic byproduct of coal burning.
The Environmental Protection Agency has found that coal ash contains—among other things—arsenic, mercury and cadmium. The ash residue can seep into groundwater and soil, and breathing the dust can cause respiratory issues. Exposure to the radioactive coal ash has been linked to bladder, stomach, skin, lung and kidney cancers, asthma, emphysema, infertility and genetic issues.
In Loíza, residents are battling with coastal erosion, a byproduct of climate change and climate disasters like Hurricane Maria. FEMA aid is slow to come, if at all. Due to federal restrictions, the Community Development Block Grant program prohibits homeowners from using aid to rebuild their homes in a flood zone (Loíza is a flood zone under updated flood maps the government released last year) unless their homes are compliant with flood-protection standards. That rule on its face closes off access to rebuilding aid for the majority of Loíza’s population since the average income is a little under $21,000 a year, and most cannot afford to make those changes in homes that have been passed down for generations.
In Parcelas Suárez, Loíza, there’s a community center that just a few years ago was a school. In the years since Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the compounding issues of debt, governmental corruption and climate-related disasters have negatively impacted the welfare of Puerto Ricans on the island. One of the biggest victims: education. The Department of Education permanently closed roughly 300 schools in June 2018. Centro Comunitario Gregorio in Parcelas Suárez is one of the casualties of that mass closure.
Alexis Correa Allende is the head of Centro Comunitario Gregorio, the school turned community center. In Spanish, Alexis classifies his community and himself as “mixed,” despite having a dark brown skin color and Afro-centric facial features.
“The community is mixed,” he says in Spanish. “Somos trigueños.”
Trigueño is a colloquial word that describes skin color. Saying that someone is trigueño or trigueña is to say they are darker in complexion. It can be used as an insult depending on the context, but it is usually not. This is a subjective feeling because “darker” is relative in each context, but it is generally understood in Puerto Rico as a darker-skinned person. However, there seems to be a clear distinction between being a person of darker complexion and being Black. Despite the prolonged existence of Black people in Puerto Rico, UPR professor Carlos Jorge Guilbe López says to be Puerto Rican is not to be Black.
“Black people are from the other islands—Dominican Republic or Haiti or Cuba,” he said. “We’ll tell people, ‘Oh you’re not Black, you’re trigueño.’ I know people who are my skin color in Martinique but they are Black. Not trigueño like me. That’s how Puerto Ricans see it.”
Understanding race in Puerto Rico is a tricky subject to tackle for anyone, but especially for Puerto Ricans themselves. With an ethnic heritage that has been miscegenated through centuries of imperialism, enslavement, colonialism and a cultural perspective of Blackness as the “other,” Puerto Ricans are left unsure just where they fit in and what box to check, even if they are phenotypically Black. This struggle can exist for Puerto Ricans in the mainland U.S. as well.
Aliana Roman is a Chicago born and raised Puerto Rican, and she’s thought a lot about identity in her diasporic community. Especially in the mainland U.S., some of her family members who live in Puerto Rico would likely be seen as Black, while others have blonde hair and blue eyes. While she doesn’t personally identify as white, she feels it is the only descriptor that paints a close enough portrait of her identity.
“I have a hard time when it comes to filling out paperwork. When they ask if you’re Hispanic or Latino, obviously I say yes,” she said. “I don’t consider myself white, but I don’t look Black. But it’s also something you can’t leave empty either. And I think that’s something we all kind of struggle with. I put white because logistically, it just makes the most sense.”
The struggle, according to Roman, isn’t solely rooted in a logistical way to classify race; Puerto Ricans’ difficulty in reconciling Blackness stems back to the island’s history with slavery.
“It was the basis for all of the stigmas and stereotypes we have today, so there’s a [negative] connotation with Black history. And they’re afraid to be a part of it. Identifying as white is kind of easier because it comes with more privilege,” she said.
The yearning towards privilege is what Roman says makes identity complicated and fluid for Puerto Ricans not just on the island, but in Chicago too. As a fellow Chicagoan, I know the city has a very complex and torturous relationship with race, and I have seen just how insidious and deeply embedded Chicago’s structural racism is. As in most of the mainland U.S., racial identities in Chicago are a very fixed thing, and it’s visible depending on which streets you’re standing at. The inequities are visible when examining which neighborhoods have accessible grocery stores, which schools have adequate facilities, where the violence is concentrated and who is going to jail. In Puerto Rico, identity is more fluid and flexible than, say, in Chicago. But the structural problems are the same. It’s a dissonance that followed me throughout the duration of my time on the island.
In Maricruz Clemente’s bomba class, the heavy air caused sweat to drip down our faces as we participated in the cultural exchange. The movement of the skirts in the air while Clemente’s daughter, Cruzmari, also an instructor, shouted the Spanish phrase “Wepa!” as we danced to the subidor. We danced and laughed and celebrated Blackness through the music Puerto Rico’s Black ancestors created. The question of how to identify is one that is deeply personal and can be complicated for people that hail from ethnically mixed places like Puerto Rico. What’s the right answer? There may not be one.