Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Censuses from the 1950s have not included ethnicity and it is difficult to quantify Afro-Puerto Ricans as a percentage of the population. Estimates range from 22 per cent to 65 per cent. Afro-Puerto Ricans were among the first non-indigenous people to arrive on the shores of Puerto Rico and can therefore look back to a more that 500-year presence however long enduring prejudices still affect their lives.
An understanding of how the Afro-Puerto Rican presence is perceived can be gathered from the treatment meted out to illegal Dominican migrants. Puerto Ricans tend to represent Dominicans as being darker-skinned than themselves, and emphasize their African influenced facial features and hair texture. In Puerto Rico Dominicans often experience the intense stigmatization, stereotyping, prejudice, discrimination, and exclusion to which all people of African origin are subjected in that country.
Early colonial period
A history of slavery (abolished in 1873) and plantation agriculture has left a significant population of African descent in Puerto Rico, sometimes referred to as gente de color (people of colour).
The first individual of African origin arrived in Puerto Rico in 1509 as a free functionary in the entourage of Juan Ponce de León.
The first major input of Africans occurred with the arrival of West Africans to provide forced labour in the Spanish gold mining ventures and fledgling ginger and sugar plantations. By 1570 the mines were no longer productive ending gold mining on the island.
When mining ended the vast majority of the Spanish settlers left to find opportunity in the richer colonies leaving the island to become a Spanish garrison. African forced labour was used to construct a number of strong fortifications.
In order to populate the island and contribute to the functioning of the garrison and forts an official Spanish edict of 1664 was drawn up offering freedom and land to free Africans (maroons) wishing to migrate from non-Spanish colonies, such as Jamaica and St Dominique (Haiti).
These individuals with non-Spanish last names moved to Puerto Rico and settled on the western and southern parts of the island in areas such as Cangrejos (Santurce), Carolina, Canóvanas, and present day Loíza Aldea. They joined the local militia and fought to defend to island against attacks from rival British colonizing attempts. Today some of their descendants still have non-Spanish last names and a large percentage of the African descended population of Loiza Aldea are self-employed fishermen.
The majority of the European and African soldiers, settlers, farmers and enslaved labourers who settled on the island in the early years of the colony had arrived without women. Most of these intermarried with the remaining indigenous Taíno creating a mixture of ethnicities that become known as the ‘mestizo’s’ or ‘mulattos’.
By the time Spain reestablished commercial ties with Puerto Rico, the island had acquired a largely mixed population including a significant free Afro descendant element.
The next major influx of Africans into Puerto Rico came after the issue of the ‘Royal Decree of Graces of 1789′. This granted Spanish subjects the right to purchase slaves and to participate in the flourishing business of slave trading and transport in the Caribbean. Later that year a new slave code, also known as ‘El Codigo Negro’ (The Black code), was introduced.
The largest contingents of Africans into Puerto Rico came from the Gold Coast (today Ghana), Nigeria and Dahomey, (Guinea Coast). Many were Yoruba, Ashanti, Fon, and Igbo from Nigeria other Bantu areas on the Guinea Coast.
Furthermore as a result of the events in nearby Hispaniola, hundreds of Spanish refugees moved from that island to Puerto Rico after Spain ceded the western part Hispaniola to France, Additionally hundreds more migrated from Spain’ s colony on the Eastern side following the triumph of the Haitian revolution in 1804 and Haiti’s subsequent attempts to annex Santo Domingo (1822-1844).
These migrants included not only European land owners but the Africans they had enslaved and also people of mixed European / African ancestry. Some of these refugees settled on the other side of the Mona Passage in the western part of Puerto Rico near the cities of Mayagüez and San Germán.
It is still considered part of the oral history in the area around the city of Mayagüez that the barrio Miraflores of the town of Añasco was once populated by many indians and ‘negros cimarrones’ fleeing slavery.
Soon after Puerto Rico was opened to foreign trade, the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 was issued to encourage Spaniards and later Europeans from non-Spanish countries to settle and populate Cuba and Puerto Rico. It provided free land and encouraged the use of slave labour to revive agriculture. The new agricultural class that emigrated from Europe sought to acquire slave labour in large numbers leading to another increase in the flow of African people.
The result was that Puerto Rico (like Cuba), was one of the last territories in the Caribbean to continue importing large numbers of enslaved Africans and became the Spanish Crown’s other leading producer and exporter of sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco; all mostly produced with enslaved African labour.
The Royal census of Puerto Rico in 1834 established that the island’s population as 42,000 enslaved Africans, 25,000 coloured freemen, 189,000 people who identified themselves as whites and 101,000 who were described as being of mixed ethnicity.
Roots of racism
In order to limit the possibility of a rebellion or local independence the Spanish government imposed draconian racist laws, such as ‘El Bando contra La Raza Africana’, to control the behaviour of all Puerto Ricans of African origin whether slave or free.
With European settlers having official sanction, instances of cruelty towards the African workforce were routine. This helped to establish relationships in the society such as the low regard for African ancestry and African culture in general including devaluing dark skin colour and attendant hair texture.
Plantation conditions led to a number of uprisings from the early 1820s until 1868 including El Grito de Lares of September 1868, when enslaved Africans who were promised their freedom rebelled against Spain. Although the uprisings were all quickly suppressed they helped to hasten the eventual abolition of slavery on Puerto Rico in 1873 some fifty years after it had ended almost every where else in the Caribbean.
The majority of the freed slaves continued working on the same plantations, however they did get paid for their labour This arrangement was made considerably easier for the owners who were financially compensated for the loss of their chattel labour.
Afro-Puerto Ricans and US rule
Afro-Puerto Ricans continued to be in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in Puerto Rico even after the abolition of slavery.
Puerto Rico was granted autonomy in 1897 and following the Spanish-American War (1898), the island was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris, on 10 December 1898. The United States established military rule installed a governor, appointed by the president of the United States and limited local political activity.
Local political leaders demanded participation and change. Some like the Afro-Puerto Rican Pedro Albizu Campos who initiated the nationalist movement in favour of Puerto Rican independence was accused of conspiring to overthrow the US Government and imprisoned. Campos who created The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was motivated to denounce the American imperial presence by the racism he experienced as an officer in an all black unit of the United States Army.
Likewise another Afro-Puerto Rican politician José Celso Barbosa (1857-1921) who is known as the ‘Father of the Statehood for Puerto Rico’ founded the pro-statehood Puerto Rican Republican Party in 1899.
The fact that the independence movement was deeply rooted in Afro Puerto Rican anti-slavery sentiments and the search for dignity and respect as ‘people of colour’ is exemplified in the work of the well-known Afro-Puerto Rican political thinker and advocate for the island’s independence: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938).
Schomburg became known in the United States as the ‘Father of Black History’ and his collection of historical documents and writings are housed in the New York Museum that bears his name. Among other actions, Schomburg coined the term ‘Afroborincano’ which simultaneously acknowledged the indigenous name of the country as well as the African presence.
The granting of citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917 allowed many Afro-Puerto Ricans to live in the US and move freely back and forth and especially enabled them to place their reality into a larger context. Having to confront US style segregation and racism helped put their own prejudices and self-perceptions into perspective. For some this has led to greater efforts to seek out information and promote the African part of their ancestry. This includes an increased interest in African history and efforts to establish greater linkages with other Afro descendants in the Diaspora especially in the United States and the Caribbean.
Persistent inequalities reinforce the low social status of Afro-Puerto Ricans. Sociological studies from the 1950s onwards have suggested that Afro-Puerto Ricans are disproportionately present in deprived urban neighbourhoods, low-paid informal-sector employment and youth detention centres.
They are also affected by enduring anti-black racist attitudes deeply embedded within Puerto Rican society which although never acknowledged are nevertheless routinely practised. In Puerto Rico as in other parts of Latin America it is still common for people to be referred to by their colour hence the prevalence of terms like Negro (a) or Negrito (a) although some argue that these are really terms of endearment devoid of animosity or conscious malicious intent.
However racial profiling and stereotyping identifies Dominicans as being overwhelmingly black and ‘mulatto’ illegal foreigners, and therefore a threat, consequently the Puerto Rican authorities often arrest Afro-Puerto Ricans who have no identification, assuming them to be illegal Dominican migrants.
Afro-Puerto Ricans continue to point out that their ancestors were instrumental in the development of the island’s political, economic and cultural structure from the the early years of their entry to the present and that this although not acknowledged is reflected in the island’s literature, politics and scientific institutions as well as in Puerto Rico’s art, music, cuisine, religious beliefs and everyday life.
Puerto Ricans celebrate March 22 as ‘Abolition Day’ which is a national holiday and Puerto Rican school children are also taught at an early age about the three main ‘races’ (European, African, indigenous) which constitute the Puerto Rican population profile but the reality is that the African component is still viewed as being the most socially undesirable of the three and accorded the lowest status.