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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Racism and Identity in Puerto Rico

A version of this article was published in Spanish in:
"Censo 2000: Nacion, raza y el discurso independentista" in two parts in Claridad (Puerto Rico) January 7-13, 2000 pp. 14 & 31 and January 14-20, 2000 p. 14 & 31.

Racism and Identity in Puerto Rico

Dr. Victor M. Rodriguez Domínguez
Department of Chicano& Latino Studies
California State University, Long Beach

(Draft. Please do not quote without consulting with the author. E-Mail:

There is an increasing divergence between the mode of racial representation Puerto Ricans use in the Diaspora and Puerto Rico to describe their sense of self, their identity. After the U.S. Census of 1950, questions about race where not included in the questionnaire used in Puerto Rico. This article attempts to trace the political context which led to the decision by the colonial pro-statehood government in the late 1990s to utilize the U.S. Census racial categories which have brought this rupture to the fore of public and academic discussion. This piece also discusses the perspectives on race held by the leadership of the pro-independence movement and how its stances on race can be the Achilles heel for the movement. Finally, essay argues, that the Puerto Rican experience in the United States is increasingly becoming so differentiated from that of Puerto Ricans in the island that the long held notion of being part of the same nation has become problematic. It also suggests, a theoretical perspective about race, rooted in the anti-racist social movement that could provide the framework within which this gap can be mediated. This analysis and practice incorporates anti-racist and anti-colonial perspectives in ways that help develop a politics of liberation for Puerto Ricans in the metropolis and in the island.

Since 1950, the population decennial census questionnaire used by the U.S. Census Bureau in Puerto Rico, did not include questions about race. For the first time in 49 years, during the 2000 Census, Puerto Ricans had to self identify themselves as Black, white, Asian or Native American.

In 1999, Hermenegildo Ortiz Quiñones, former member of the Puerto Rico Planning Board, wrote an article in Claridad, a local weekly, reporting that the federal government, in response to a petition by the Puerto Rican government, would ask Puerto Ricans to fill out the same race and ethnicity questions used in the questionnaire administered decennially in the United States. While this change had been reported earlier in the island´s mainstream press, little public attention was provided to the portentous reform this bureaucratic decision was effecting on notions of racial representation in Puerto Rico. Later, in June of 1999, members of the “Puerto Rican Group on Race and Identity, ” a group of academic scholars who researched issues of race and ethnicity, called on Puerto Ricans to answer the racial items that would appear in the 2000 census in order to gather the empirical data necessary to challenge racial discrimination in Puerto Rico.

For many years, anti-racist activists in Puerto Rico had complained that the “racial paradise” image that Puerto Rico had carefully cultivated for many years, was in fact a facade that veiled a society where racial stratification limited and excluded black Puerto Ricans from full participation in civil society. With some exceptions, there is a deafening silence about the role of race in everyday life in Puerto Rico. Race is not part of the public or private discourse in the island, for this reason, anti-racist activists have not been able to muster popular support or significant public attention in the island, At least since 1950, there was no official and reliable data on the racial make up of Puerto Rico and of the social and economic experiences of the various racial groups. A dialogue on race and racism in Puerto Rico was a tabu subject, one that could lead individuals to experience ostracism and to be considered a “paranoid.” The politically correct perspective, was that racism, was an “American” problem, not a Boricua problem.

The presence or absence of questions about race in Puerto Rico was not merely a methodological problem, it was a profound question about Puerto Rican identity. But also, it was a political issue that brought into play the eternal debate about Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Juan Mari Bras, a prominent leader in the movement for Puerto Rican independence called this move by the local government: “the Rossello strategy for automatic integration.” In other words, this bureaucratic change was part of a strategy by the pro-statehood administration to gradually annex Puerto Rico into every social and institutional sphere of the United States. The local government contended, however, that this change would allow census statistics about Puerto Rico to be issued simultaneously with other regions of the United States. Since 1960, census statistics about Puerto Rico were released after all the data of the 50 states were processed.

Since 1898, Puerto Rico has experienced a process of social, economic, and cultural subordination. This process, has also included a process of racializing Puerto Ricans, just like Puerto Ricans are being racialized in the United States.

However, the consequences of both processes have had divergent results. In the United States, Puerto Ricans increasingly reject white or black racial identities choosing, instead, a hybrid racial identity, “other.” In Puerto Rico, the process of racialization has promoted a process of “blanqueamiento” (“whitening”) of the population. According to the latest data from the 2000 Census, 80.5% of Puerto Ricans chose “white” while only 8% chose Black. The data for Puerto Ricans in the United States has not been released yet ( as of October 2002) but in 1990, only 45.8% of Puerto Ricans in the Diaspora chose white in the census form, in contrast, 47.2% chose “other.” While the population of Puerto Rico is “whitening,” the mainland Boricuas are “browning.”

This “rupture” as Jorge Duany describes it, represents an important issue for the future relationship between Puerto Ricans in the island and those in the Diaspora. Particularly, since, in a few years, more persons identifying themselves as Puerto Ricans will live in the mainland of the United States than in Puerto Rico. Additionally, this issue goes to the core of Puerto Rican identity, the politics of liberation and to the anti-racist struggle in Puerto Rico and in the United States.

Census 2000: The Lies

In 1998, the colonial administration of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood political party in Puerto Rico, called for a referendum on the island´s political status. After being re-elected once, Governor Pedro Rossello felt that for the first time in that century, pro-statehood forces could defeat those favoring the status quo in a referendum. With that victory in his hands he could go to Washington, D.C. and begin a process to convince Congress that Puerto Ricans were ready for statehood. In 1996 he was re-elected, with 51.1% of the electorate, the widest majority ever for a pro-statehood party. However, in a complex election with 4 alternatives, statehood was defeated by a de facto coalition between supporters of the commonwealth, autonomists and pro-independence supporters. The alternative, “None of the Above” received the support of 50.3% of the Puerto Rican voters while statehood only received 46.5%.

The pro-statehood governor, initiated a series of policies and programs which were designed to reduce the social, cultural and political distance between Puerto Rico and the United States. While bilingual education in Puerto Rico was a process of integrating English speaking Puerto Ricans into Puerto Rican culture, new bilingual programs were created to create bi-cultural, English speaking students. Pro-independence sectors argued that asking the question of race was a way of insinuating a destructive “Trojan Horse” into Puerto Rican society in order to divide the national unity of the Puerto Rican people.

Historically, nationalist discourse discouraged raising racial issues because it was feared they would divide the nation. Two of the most prominent Puerto Rican political leaders in the early 20th century, Pedro Albizu Campos and Jose Celso Barbosa, both of African descent, for different reasons, did not raise the issue of race throughout their careers. Barbosa, leader of pro-statehood forces chose not to discuss racial issues and proclaimed: “Today, superiority is manifested not in the race, not in the more or less quantity of color in the skin but in the quantity of grey matter . . .” However, Barbosa was the victim of discrimination by the Jesuits and also in Harvard where he graduated. In fact, he did not choose an academic career because he did not think it was prudent for a man of color to aspire to that position. Pedro Albizu Campos, however, also a victim of discrimination during his student days at Harvard, did not raise the issue of race within the nationalist movement he led for many decades. Racism, was a “Yankee” phenomena, not a Puerto Rican issue.
This was not only the independentista position it was also the position taken on race by the majority of the island intellectual, cultural and political elite. This was evident during the 1930s, a period of much economic uncertainty in Puerto Rico as in most of the world. This uncertainty and a host of other factors led the island's intelligentsia to explore the meaning of "Puertoricanness." In some sense it was a way of answering the question of whether Puerto Rico was a nation of just an aggregate of people.
This exploration took place within the context of racializing policies such as the imposition of a public school system that had displaced Spanish as the medium of instruction in 1900 in order to “Americanize” Puerto Ricans. In order to accomplish this educational process white teachers were brought from the United States. These teachers and the language also introduced the Anglo-Saxon race paradigm into the island.

Like in the United States and within the Mexican economy, the process of racializing, subordinating Puerto Ricans included a dual wage system. A newspaper an article said in 1900:

“The American teachers enjoy a better salary than the Puerto Rican teachers, yet instructions are given to the School Boards in the official newspaper, La Gaceta,
that all American teachers must sign their contract for next year. No mention is made of Puerto Rican teachers, who are in more need because they earn lower salaries.”

This dual wage system taught American teachers they were superior and taught Puerto Rican teachers that they were inferior. This institutional arrangement was part of the process to socialize the Puerto Rican population into acceptance of its new inferior status vis a vis the white “Americans.”

Some of the island’s most important cultural critics, like Antonio Pedreira, in a noted essay titled "Insularismo" echoed the racist ideologies so prevalent during that era. By stating that the "African and Indian "races" were inferior to the European races and particularly the "Spanish" he places himself in a stream of Latin American thought that shared a racist ideology. Juan Flores notes that from the 19th century Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Conflictos y armonias de las razas en America (1883), José Enrique Rodó's Ariel (1900) to La raza cósmica (1925) of José Vasconcelos all assumed the inferiority of the contribution of Africans and Indians to the Europeans. For Pedreira, this confusion experienced by Puerto Ricans during this period was precisely a result of amalgamation.

But these ideas were also ideologically supported by a scientific discourse that was still popular among the Europeans since the later part of the 19th century. Gobineau in history, Herbert Spencer in sociology, Cesare Lombroso in criminology and Francis Galton in eugenics all articulated an ideology of scientific racism. De Diego, an ardent proponent of independence for Puerto Rico at times evidenced the influence of these ideas. In fact, even a person that was an anti-imperialist seemed to experience some self-doubt about the notion of equality of the human race.

These ideas found much support among significant sectors of the Latin American elites, including Puerto Rico's colonial elite. Specifically in Puerto Rico, these perspectives found a substratum of support among the elite because of their daily interaction with North Americans. The local elite was mostly an economic intermediary between United States business and Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. In many ways, members of the intermediary elite coped with their own racialization as junior partners in the colony by uncritically adopting the racial world view of the metropolis.

Another way of coping was by an attempt to “erase” from the collective memory the role and presence of Africans in Puerto Rican society and culture. Often these attempts took the form of minimizing the obvious African presence in Puerto Rican history. For example in 1948, Tomas Blanco, another prominent social and cultural critic said:

“Our people has an abundance of Black blood, although in general, there are no pure Blacks, and although our population of color is completely Hispanic, culturally, the African contributions to our culture are very scarce in our environment, except in our musical folklore.”

This attempt to erase Africans from the collective memory is a form of cultural genocide that is rooted in a reaction to the racialization of Puerto Ricans. Blanco was trying to “blanquear” Puerto Rican culture in order to challenge the racialization of Puerto Ricans by the United States. Puerto Ricans were not natives, were not uncivilized (African), Puerto Ricans were also European in character and culture. Antonio Pedreira who earlier had joined the effort to “whiten” the most important symbol of Puerto Rican culture and Puerto Ricans, the “Jibaro.” In 1957 he says:

“From the mixing of pure Spanish, who struggled in the island against disadvantageously against the climate, diseases, the creole was born . . . the Jibaro . . . generous, cordial, hospitable, festive has had to hide in his shrewdness to protect himself from the urban sprawl and black competition in the coast.”

This symbol of a “true Puerto Rican” began to spread through Puerto Rican popular culture during the 19th century. The opposite racial “other” were the Spanish, but in the 20th century, the “other” were U.S. whites and their process of “Americanization.”

Lillian Guerra develops Jose Luis Gonzalez’ Pais de los cuatro Pisos in 1993 analysis of how the “Jibaro” became an instrument that was used as a pivot to leverage into a whiter status within the racialized hierarchy in Puerto Rico. The myth of the “Jibaro” as representation of true “Puertoricanness” was pivoted on a ”denial of an Afro-Mestizo historical reality from which many Puerto Rican customs and world views were derived—even by creole peasants, the jibaros themselves”.
However, U.S. white colonizers were not entirely convinced:

“Brigadier General George W. Davis, one of the colonial governors of Puerto Rico, stated that ‘between the Negro and the peon there is no visible difference. Davis found it difficult to ‘believe that the pale, sallow and often emaciated beings’ were indeed ‘the descendants of the conquistadors . . . ‘”

The “civilizing” mission of the United States, utilized the Americanization efforts as a way of bringing the “native” into a close, yet unequal status with U.S. whites. The natives were constructed as violent, overly sexual beings that required domestication. In 1906 a dockyard strike in San Juan was described by colonial Governor Winthrop as a an uncivilized crowd: “August 1 saw the climax of the situation. The mob became turbulent and ungovernable . . . The police used force but the gangs retaliated in the same measure.”

These efforts to deny any role for race in Puerto Rican society, was coded in the attempts to deny the African role in the island´s culture in order to challenge the process of subordination that colonialism represented. In order not to be what white Anglo-Saxons said Puerto Ricans were, it was necessary to expunge the culture and society of any stigma and marker of blackness. Unfortunately, by denying blackness they were perpetuating a racist system that denied people of African descent not only their humanity but also confined all Puerto Ricans to live a lie. Puerto Rico was never a racial paradise and until it addressed its racial and class inequities it would never achieve the true democracy Puerto Ricans aspire.

These efforts to acquire legitimacy in the eyes of the racializing forces, also found their counterparts and supporters in the institutions of the colonial government. In 1958, then Governor Luis Muñoz Marin reached an agreement with the Department of Commerce (where the U.S. Bureau of the Census is administratively located) to assure the participation of Puerto Rico in determining what type of questionnaire will be used in the island. This agreement made sense for supporters of the commonwealth since they believed in some degree of autonomy from the United States. This would allow its own local planners to determine which items would appear in the questionnaire so that it would reflect Puerto Rican realities. In reality, some questions in the form used in the United States did not make sense in terms of the climate and culture of Puerto Rico. The plan was to form an interagency committee that would be responsible for choosing which items were necessary to gather the information that would guide short and long term planning. The first items to go where the items using racial classifications. The argument was that they did not reflect Puerto Rico´s reality. However, the interagency committee never reached an agreement to develop racial items on the basis of Puerto Rico´s racial system.

Race in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, contrary to the polarized and bifurcated white-non/white racial system in the United States, has a system of racial classification based on phenotypical characteristics where color is a major variable. Because of the amalgamation of the island's population, phenotypical traits were clustered in a number of categories that were points along a gradual, continuum. The phenotypically constructed categories still had "whites" as their reference point, but also were influenced by the class position of the labeled individuals. For example, references to a person's color were used less often than references to their class position.

" the Iberian areas...the overt references to one's economic circumstances ("nosotros los pobres") might be more frequent than one's color. The term "blanquitos," by which certain sectors of the dominant classes are referred to, has a "racial" connotation spiced by the suggestion of a racial mixture..."

As the quote suggests, even in the use of "racial" designations there is a questioning of them because of the high degree of amalgamation. Also, since class was more important than race, people of "mixed" race could legally have their "racial status" changed if they had the economic means to finance it. They obviously could not change the physical traits but they could "buy" a higher racial status. In societies where dichotomized racial characters exist, the only practical means of leaving behind a stigmatized racial category is by "passing" but not by a legally accepted process. "Passing" is the only informal way open for people with lighter complexion to escape stigmatized racial categories. In societies that make distinctions based on color and other phenotypical traits society validates (since the categories are not discrete) means of "upward mobility."

This is a system that Vadi calls "highly elastic system of racial classification." One important feature of it is the "mulatto escape hatch." Rather than the system being based on some mystical lack of mixture of black and white genes (unscientific) it is the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: wealth, class, education, gender, etc. The composite combination of all of these factors places one within the stratification system.

Because of the larger number of factors involved in placing people within social strata, you end up with a system that has a larger number of gradations, that are less sharply defined as in a system of either/or. All of these gradations serve as buffers that alleviate stress in the system being the "mulatto escape hatch" probably being the most interesting. Since it is more dynamic it allows for greater movement between strata. Charles Degler believes that the mulatto for example is like a bridge that spans racial categories that dulls the sharpness of the racial distinctions.

"The existence of the mulatto, for example, makes most difficult if not impossible, the kind of segregation patterns that have been so characteristic in the United States. With many shades of skin color, segregating people on the basis of color would incur both enormous expenses and inconvenience...Furthermore, in a society in which distinctions are made among a variety of colors, rather than race as in the United States, families would be split by the color line...Moreover, in a society in which the mulatto has a special place, a racist defense of slavery or of Negro inferiority cannot easily develop, for how can one think consistently of a "white" race or a "Negro" race when the lines are blurred by the mulatto? The search for purity of race is thus frustrated before it begins..."

However, one consequence of the existence of a population that straddles the categories is that it tends to deny the role of race in social life. The “mulatto, at times, because he or she can “pass” as white will not feel the need to raise issue of racism and discrimination. As a result of this refusal to engage in an anti-racist struggle the basis of support for the system of racism is widened by the unconscious support of those who benefit by not having to be Black. As follows from this brief description of the historical roots of Puerto Rico's system of assigning social identities, Puerto Ricans developed an emerging sense of national identity where race occupies a less significant influence as in the historical formation of United States national identity. Being "American" in the minds of most residents of the United States is being "white." This is also true for foreign perceptions of United States national identity. This despite the obvious fact of the multiracial and multi cultural roots of the United States. In Puerto Rico, in some sense, for many years, being Puerto Rican is not being, “non-white.” Recent self-definitions as white in the 2000 census may indicate some transition in how “Puertoricaness” is defined in terms of race. While in the minds of white American Puerto Ricans are non-white, increasingly Puerto Ricans see themselves as white in this utopic perspective on race.

Race, National Identity and Politics in Puerto Rico Today

There is a resurgence in studies of Puerto Rican culture and identity. Sponsored Identities by Arlene Davila in 1997, Nancy Morris’ Puerto Rico, Culture, Politics and Identity in 1998, Juan Otero Garabi’s Nacion y Ritmo in 2000 and more recently Carlos Pabon’s Nacion Postmortem in 2002. Only two recent studies, one by Lillian Guerra and Jorge Duany have attempted to insert race within a discussion about Puerto Rican culture and/or identity. Clara Rodriguez, who as a sociologist has done significant research on race, has mostly focused her extensive work on the race paradigm within the United States. This absence is richly meaningful of the silence about race in Puerto Rican society and culture. This silence is even more deafening among progressive sectors in the island.

Both in Puerto Rico and in the Diaspora, we have seen a powerful expression of national unity in the political struggles around Puerto Rico’s political prisoners, the struggle for peace in Vieques. The continued fragmentation of every day life in Puerto Rico, the ubiquitousness of United States cultural symbols and ideologies, the expansion and deepening of a consumer and values, the continued return migration of Puerto Ricans from the Diaspora and the phenomenal growth of an informal economy have wrought dramatic changes to the architecture of Puerto Rican life. These changes have laid out the foundation for a new, emerging society whose features still seem fuzzy and unknowable. To Pabon the nation seems “undead” while for Jorge Duany “Puerto Rico” has become a “translocal” entity with deep cultural continuities bridged by circular migration.

In some sense, being a Puerto Rican today in an internet connected world means in many ways living across cultures and geographic boundaries. However, this connectedness does not erases the social and cultural consequences of face to face interaction in Puerto Rico and the Diaspora. While we can feel immersed in Puerto Rican daily life by reading Puerto Rican papers, hearing videos and CD’s the experience is still vicarious. While the connections exist between the two wings where the “Trans-Rican” lives, these lives are lived within specific and contextual social spaces which shape those experiences in powerful ways. The presence of Wal-Mart, or being able to see CNN news in Puerto Rican cable companies can not reproduce the social experience of living in the Bronx, or Irvine, California for that matter.

Particularly in Puerto Rico today, civil society has acquired marked characteristics that create a different society from a decade ago. The changes Puerto Rico has experienced has changed the relationships between “the people” and the island’s most basic institutions. These changes are evident in the relationship between Puerto Ricans and “their” political institutions. In many ways, political parties don’t seem to exact the same kind of blind loyalty they did in the previous decades. A recent poll by the local daily, El Nuevo Dia, indicates that all political parties have lost a significant measure of legitimacy, in the eyes of most people all political parties are responsible of corruption. However, this does not mean the complete demise of political parties, it means a different relationship with other sectors of civil society. Pro-independence forces and political organizations have, for many years been the leading edge of progressive politics in many areas, with the exception of the struggle against racism.

During the last decades, the major struggles that have mobilized thousands of Puerto Ricans, both in the Diaspora and in Puerto Rico were rooted in cultural nationalism. While initially these struggles were led and energized by pro-independence sectors and forces, eventually their own success in tapping into the sense of nationalism of Puerto Ricans, extended the movements beyond the control and hegemony of the political nationalists. This success was of such a magnitude that the largest public gatherings of people achieved by any social movement in recent history were achieved in support, for example, of the efforts by the people of Vieques to stop naval bombardment of their island and recuperate the territory expropriated by the U.S. navy. These efforts, were not only the result of the independentistas it was also an accomplishment of a coalition of religious, labor, political, professional and other segments of the island’s civil society. Included in these sectors were supporters of all of the three status alternatives that have divided Puerto Ricans for 104 years.
Unfortunately, this incredible resurgence of cultural nationalism has not been able to re-energize the social and political infrastructure of the pro-independence movement. Th reason for this, seems to be the lack of a strategic vision that includes in visible and concrete ways a struggle against the divisions that exists within the Puerto Rican nation. The often cited Benedict Anderson in his classic Imagined Communities (1991) sees nations as a cultural artifact that create a sense of community based on “deep, horizontal comradeship.”

But that deep sense of equality cannot be based on a fiction or on a lie, it needs to be based on the trust that rises from a deep commitment to justice and democratic ideals. This can only take place within a movement that struggles against classism, racism, sexism and heterosexism. Since the demise of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, most political organizations in the pro-independence movement (with the exception of the smaller Frente Socialista) do not have comprehensive strategy or program to combat any of these ills, even less a mode of initiating a conversation among race in Puerto Rico.
In informal conversations I held with some leaders of the pro-independence movement during the summer of 2000, most agreed that the race issue is not raised in any significant form within the movement. Some leaders even argued that there is no relationship between the national question and the racial question in Puerto Rico. The recent response by Puerto Ricans in the census form validates the concern that race has become a pivot around which Puerto Ricans organize their sense of self. It is not the product of dialogue and conversation but the outcome of a process of 104 years of racialization in Puerto Rico. White supremacy has established a beach hold in Puerto Rico, the census responses speak loud about the racial content of “la puertorriqueñidad.” Being Puerto Rican is imagined as being white, in performing this exorcism, Puerto Ricans imagine a “deep, horizontal comradeship,” but this is a castle built on sand, a castle who walls will begin to crumble. This opting for “whiteness” is intensified by the changing demography of Puerto Rico and the arrival of Dominicans and Haitians who have become the “other” in the racialization process today. On one extreme, Anglo-Saxons represent the white pole, and on the other extreme darker Dominicans and Haitians become the unwanted others. As Duany, Hernandez and Rey (1995) have clearly shown, Puerto Ricans do not want to be black, and the most concrete symbol of blackness are the ne immigrants who occupy the lowest rungs of Puerto Rican society. In many ways, the racial system in the United States is being reproduced in the island.

This process of racialization, both in the diaspora and in Puerto Rico is challenging the notion of the national unity of Puerto Ricans in the United States and Puerto Rico. In the 1970s, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party argued that the diaspora and the island were part of the nation. While this was not implemented and deconstructed to all its implications it was an acknowledgment of the bonds between “los de aqui y los de alla.” What these recent census reports indicate is that this rupture is probably the most important sign that the two communities are moving apart.

It remains to be seen how Puerto Ricans in the United States identified themselves in the Census 2000 (SF 4 files still pending) but if the trend is continued, they will increasingly reject white or black and chose the racialized “other” as evidence of the fluidity of their process of self-identification. This category does not necessarily means a rejection of the system of race, it could quite well mean an accommodation, like Jorge Duany argues or a way of coping with a society that is increasingly racializing people of Latin American origin.

While Boricuas in the diaspora increasingly see themselves as “others” as part of a “browning” process, Puerto Ricans in the island take a u-turn and chose to imagine themselves as white. This process began immediately after the arrival of the United States in 1898 and reflected in each census until 1950 when the last racial items were dropped from the questionnaire. However, despite the prodding by the census the process of “whitening” continued unabated until this last census when an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans saw themselves as white. In fact, Puerto Rico is even “whiter” than the United States where only 75.1% of Puerto Ricans identified themselves as white. Unfortunately, both processes do not represent a frontal challenge to white supremacy, but at least choosing “other” represents son awareness that the system of race is a fiction that kills. As David Hollinger said in his 1995 book, PostEthnic America, “Race is a myth, Racism is not.”


The racialization of Puerto Rican ethnicity has important implications for both the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans residing in the United States and those 3.8 million residing in the island of Puerto Rico. It also has implication for political alliances in the United States between Latinos, Latinos and other groups and between people of color/and language and progressive whites in a movement to search for justice for all people. It also has long term implications for the future of an anti-racist movement that will contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy in the United States.

The decision to be “white” chosen by 80.5% of Puerto Ricans moves Puerto Rico closer to the United States system of race. The closer Puerto Rican culture approximates the United States system of bi-polar racialized categories wide-ranging political alliances will become less possible. The potential of building a "common ground" both in the United States and in the island become more elusive as Puerto Rican ethnic identity becomes “cleavaged” by racially polarized racial distinctions. This phenomena has already taken place throughout United States history and has precluded it from developing a broad based movement of social justice. The "racial wedge" issues, "racial politics" has served to separate constituencies that could benefit from such a broad alliance.
While racial politics are not as prevalent in Puerto Rico as yet we already have some glimpses of it in recent years. During one internal primary squabble inside of one of the colonialist parties, a dark-skinned Puerto Rican was considered as a candidate for mayor of San Juan, the island major city. This candidate had to retire from the competition and it was widely assumed that the issue was his color although the debate was codified in terms of his being a forced candidate of the party's ruling guard.

Finally, Puerto Rico's more than centenary struggle for independence depends on a broad, inclusive multi-class alliance if it is to succeed. The adding of another cleavage to these liberation politics makes the achievement of this goal not impossible but more complex. This is particularly more challenging since we do not even have a language to begin a conversation about the intersection of race, class, gender and other isms in Puerto Rico. This becomes a greater challenge since in the nationalist discourse that pervades the pro-independence movement issues of race and color are still considered anathema and subject to marginalization. Ironically, if the racialization of Puerto Rican ethnicity continues not to acknowledge it will become the movement's Achilles heel.

During the United States early colonial administration race was used to divide Puerto Ricans. Race and other factors partially led a significant group of Puerto Ricans including the pro-statehood leader Jose Celso Barbosa to become advocates of the United States. The popular support for statehood today among Puerto Ricans of clearly visible African heritage is relatively high. This heritage seems to be rooted in the intersection of race and class during the early years of United States domination, another chapter of this history that deserves closer scrutiny. In the meantime, there is a need for a broad based effort to initiate a discussion on race in Puerto Rico. One that begins to define the issue in terms that allow people in different experiential places to be able to imagine themselves in the experiences of people of African descent in Puerto Rico, a group, that includes a higher percentage than the 8% Census 2000 would have us believe.

. Claridad April 2-8, 1999, 8.
. Since January of 1999, local newspapers had reported that Puerto Rico was to be included in studies and reports conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. See Leonor Mulero, “Ingresa la Isla a las estadisticas del censo federal” January 9, 1999; “P.R. to be part of U.S. census stats” San Juan Star January 9, 1999.
. “Racialization is the social and historical process of assigning individuals and groups a socially constructed racial identity and status.” Victor M. Rodriguez “Internalized Racist Oppression” (manuscript).
. See Victor M. Rodriguez “The Racialization of Puerto Rican Ethnicity in the United States” in Juan Manuel Carrion, Ed. Ethnicity, Race and Nationality in the Caribbean. San Juan: Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, 1997.
. “Neither White Nor Black: The Representation of Racial Identity on the Island and in the U.S. Mainland,” in Puerto Rican Nation On the Move: Identities on the Island and in the United States. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
. Some of this material was published before in "Censo 2000: Nacion, raza y el discurso independentista" in two parts in Claridad January 7-13, 2000 pp. 14 % 31 and January 14-20, 2000 p. 14 & 31.
. Unless specifically noted, translations are my own. This quote is from Martin Sagrera, Racismo y Politica en Puerto Rico. Rio Piedras: Editorial Edil, 1973, p. 25. This interesting book has received scarce attention by scholars despite the paucity of books addressing the issue of race and racism in Puerto Rico. This is an example of the silence about race in the island.
. Sagrera, 25.
. In Aida Negron de Montilla. Americanization in Puerto Rico and the Public School System: 1900-1930. Rio Piedras: Editorial Edil, 1971, p. 55.
.. See Juan Flores' excellent analysis of Pedreira, his Insularismo e ideología burguesa. La Habana, Cuba: Editorial Casa Las Americas, 1979.
.See Flores (1979).
. According to Juan Flores' essay "National Culture and Migration" in Divided Borders Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1993, DeDiego, citing his readings of Lombroso describes North Americans as "the superhuman of the modern age" and "descendant as they are from one of the superior races of Europe."
. Sagrera 22.
. Antonio Pedreira, Insularismo. San Juan: Biblioteca de Autores Puertorriqueños, 1957, p. 27.
. In her book Lillian Guerra. Popular Expression and National Identity in Puerto Rico: The Struggle for Self, Community and Nation. Gainsville,FL: Florida State University Press, 1998 she explores the role of race in the formation of a multi valenced Jibaro symbol.
. Guerra 55
. In Kelvin A Santiago-Valles."Subject People" and Colonial Discourses: Economic Transformation and Social Disorder in Puerto Rico: 1898-1947. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994,
P. 45.

. Santiago Valles 107.
. Interestingly, in a phone conversation with Lillian Torres Aguirre, who was then chair of the interagency group that framed items for the local census and director the social and economic planning office of the census in Puerto Rico, she said that it was not until 1980 that the Supreme Court and the federal district court decided that racial items were not necessary in Puerto Rico. But according to a letter sent to Jorge Duany on January 21, 2000 she said that “the race question was dropped because the local government is not required by law to collect racial statistics in order to provide social services.” (Duany 252). However, the racial items in the local census were dropped in 1960, previous to the court’s decisions.
.. Jose Vadi (1989) mentions this quote from Harry Hoetink's "Africa and the Caribbean: The Cultural Links" in M. Crahan and F. Knight Africa and the Caribbean: Legacies of a Link. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1979.
. In 1783, King Carlos III issued a decree in which a person of mixed, Spanish and African heritage could receive a “cedula de gracias al sacar” This “cedula” would grant the status of “white” to the recipient (Guerra 215).
. Jose Vadi (1989) p. 3
. Charles Degler. Neither Black Nor White. New York: MacMillan, 1971.
.. Charles Degler. Neither Black Nor White New York: MacMillan, 1971, p. 225. I appreciate the suggestion of this reference by Jose Vadi (1989).
. There is a growing body of literature that is exploring the construction of "whiteness" as a privileged category in the United States. Recent examples include Theodore W. Allen's The Invention of the White Race Verso, 1994 and How the Irish Became White 1995. In addition to the role of the state in establishing greater social distance between whites and Blacks through legal means, the notion that "one drop of Black blood" made a person Black reinforces ideologically even today a polarized system of racial classification.
. Her most recent book Changing Race: Latinos, The Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States . New York: NYU Press, 2000 is probably the most thorough contemporary treatment of racial and ethnic Latino identity from a social science perspective.
. In 1975 Isabelo Zenon Cruz wrote his path breaking two volume Narciso Descubre su Trasero (Humacao, P.R. : Furidi) where he breaks the silence for some time. Despite some focus on his courageous critique of racism at all levels of society, in a few months, silence became the norm. More recently a number of essays and books, (the most noteworthy is La mujer negra en la literatura puertorriqueña Rio Piedras: Editorial Universidad de Puerto Rico who in 1999 came out with a social analysis of short stories and their treatment of women of African descent in Puerto Rico), have tried to break the silence.
. Puerto Ricans identity is becoming a “Trans-Rican” identity that bridges the gap between the two geographic spaces where Puerto Ricans live, to use Juan Flores terminology in From Bomba To Hip Hop 2000.
. See “Todos los partidos son responsables: La Corrupción” Tuesday April 30 2002.

. It must also be noted that a large percentage of the leadership in civil society organizations involved int these movements are independentistas,
. Benedict Anderson Imagined CommunitiesReflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism . London: Verso, 1991.
. Jorge Duany, Luisa Hernandez Angueira, Cesar Rey. El Barrio Gnadul: Economia Subterranea y migracion indocumentada en Puerto Rico. Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 1995.
. In a manuscript by Victor M. Rodriguez, “The Racialization of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, 1890-1950" it is argued that that the process of racialization of Latinos has significantly increased post-1965.


  1. Dear Partner,


    I invite you to join the non-violent protest to demand that the United States (US) decolonize Puerto Rico (PR) immediately. It will be on Monday, June 17, 2013 from 8 AM to 5 PM outside the United Nations (UN) visitor’s entrance located on 46th Street and First Avenue in New York City.

    The UN has determined that colonialism is a crime against humanity in 1960 under Resolution 1514 (XV). That’s why the UN celebrates every year a hearing about Puerto Rico decolonization. Every year the UN puts forth a resolution asking the US to decolonize PR. Despite 30 of these resolutions, PR is still the oldest and most populated colony in the world! It is obvious by now that the US is not going to decolonize PR just because the UN asks.

    Through education, we must create a domestic and international solidarity with this cause to pressure the US to do what historically she has refused to do. This is why we need everyone who also believes that colonialism is a crime against humanity to join the protest to demand compliance to international law!

    Puerto Rico has been a colony of the US for 114 years. The US’ intention is to keep PR a colony forever unless we do something about it. It is important to note that: democracy isn’t what a government does. Democracy is what people do!

    President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” These ideas, of course, are the reasons why the United Nations was created after World War II.

    It is up to us to defend the fundamental human rights that promote world peace. The tragedy of doing nothing is that we will have the kind of government that we deserve!


    José M. López Sierra

    For more information:
    Compañeros Unidos para la Descolonización de Puerto Rico

  2. Saludos,

    Tenemos que trabajar juntos para descolonizar a Puerto Rico y excarcelar a Oscar Lopez Rivera.

    Habra una protesta pacifica en las afueras de la ONU este 17 de junio 2013. Te esperamos!

    Un abrazo,


  3. Greetings Partner,

    We will have a peaceful protest on Saturday, November 23rd in Puerto Rico for the liberation of our patriot and political prisoner Oscar López Rivera. Click on the link below for more information.

    Un abrazo,

  4. Todos estamos desacuerdo que la isla debera descolonizarse. Entre las opciones de descolonización eata la ESTADIDAD y la INDEPENDENCIA.

    Dejemos que los residentes de Puerto Rico decidan lo que quieren.