CUADERNOS DE INVESTIGACIÓN INSTITUTO DE INVESTIGACIONES INTERDISCIPLINARIAS UNIVERSIDAD DE PUERTO RICO EN CAYEY
Scripts of Blackness and the Racial Dynamics of Nationalism in Puerto Rico Dra. Isar P. Godreau
Cuaderno 6 Año 2009
En la serie Cuadernos de Investigación del Instituto de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias de la Universidad de Puerto Rico en Cayey se presentarán resultados parciales y preliminares de algunas de las investigaciones auspiciadas por el Instituto, versiones preliminares de artículos, informes técnicos emitidos por nuestras(os) investigadoras(es) así como versiones finales de publicaciones que, por su naturaleza, sean de difícil publicación por otros medios.
Los(as) autores(as) son responsables por el contenido y retienen los derechos de publicación sobre el material contenido en estos Cuadernos.
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Diseño de Portada: Prof. Harry Hernández Encargado de la serie de cuadernos: Dr. Errol L. Montes Pizarro Directora del Instituto: Dra. Isar P. Godreau Directora Auxiliar: Sra. Vionex M. Marti
Scripts of Blackness and the Racial Dynamics of Nationalism in Puerto Rico by Isar P. Godreau
Cuadernos del Instituto de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias, nĂşm. 6, Cayey, Universidad de Puerto Rico en Cayey, Puerto Rico, 2009
Scripts of Blackness and the Racial Dynamics of Nationalism in Puerto Rico
This article is a written version of a talk I presented at the University of Illinois UrbanaChampaign on April 25, 2008 sponsored by the International Forum for US Studies (IFUSS) and the Anthropology Department. The presentation aims to introduce the audience to a book project I am currently working on which is based on my dissertation research. I would like to thank Jane Desmond and Virginia Dominguez from IFUSS and the Department of Anthropology at the University of Urbana-Champaign for the invitation to offer this talk and share my ideas.
National identity, no matter how differently defined, is often constructed through claims to heritage, "roots," tradition, and descent. In the Western World, these claims, almost inevitably allude to questions of “race.” In Puerto Rico, it is the mixture of the Spanish, the Taíno Indian, and the African, which come to epitomize the racial/traditional substance out of which “the nation” is constructed, defended, and naturalized. This mixture is often represented by images, statues, murals across the island that display the three racialized representatives, as the precursors of the modern, racially mixed Puerto Rican man or woman. (See Fig. 1)
Fig. 1 A public mural in the town of San Sebastián, Puerto Rico; the caption below reads: “Tres Razas Una Cultura La Puertorriqueña (Three Races-One Culture-The Puerto Rican).
The Taíno, Spaniard and African “roots” depicted in this national imagery, represent heritage symbols. They do not stand for contemporary ethnic constituencies, such as “Afro-Puerto Ricans”, “Indo-Puerto Ricans” or “Euro-Puerto Ricans.” Rather they are commonly understood as origin groups (roots) – that mixed during the period of Spanish colonization to conform “lo Puertorriqueño” in the present. As the mural says: “Tres Razas: Una Cultura” My book- project examines the different meanings Puerto Rican people -- namely, intellectuals, politicians, government officials, and community residents -- attribute to the black component of that mixture in their on-going process of constructing a Puerto Rican national identity. Unlike the concept of mestizaje developed in many countries of mainland Latin America, blackness is not completely erased or excluded in discourses about the nation in Puerto Rico. Notions of race- mixture in Puerto Rico are more similar to those that developed in Brazil or Cuba where blackness is simultaneously excluded but also strategically included in the contemporary narrative of nation. Scholarship on race and racism in Afro-Latin America has 2
made clear that the implicit goal of this narrative of mixture is whitening or blanqueamiento. Perhaps, the most obvious evidence of the prevalence of the ideology of blanqueamiento in Puerto Rico is the 2000 census, as only 8 % of Puerto Ricans living in the Island declared themselves to be black, while an overwhelming majority of 80.5% identified themselves as white (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Elsewhere (Godreau 2008) I discuss how these results evidence popular understandings of whiteness as an inclusive, flexible, category that can encompass mixture and blackness as an undesirable category that is understood as extreme and pure, not mixed enough. In any case, the point is that -- despite the rhetorical inclusion of an African influence in nationalist discourses -- a growing body of Puerto Rican scholarship has documented how blackness is often socially marked as an inferior, ugly, dirty, unintelligent, backward identity – that is also reduced to a primitive hyper-sexuality (particularly in the case of black women), equated with disorder, superstition, servitude, danger, and heavily criminalized. Puerto Rican scholars have done important work on these different aspects and manifestations of racism and the exclusion of blackness from nationalist narratives - particularly in the late 1990’s and 2000. (c.f. Alegría and Ríos 2005; Cardona 1997; Díaz-Quiñonez 1985; Findlay 1999; Franco and Ortíz 2004; Giusti 1996; Godreau 2002a, 2002b, 2003; Guerra 1998; Rivera 2003; Rivero 2005; Santiago-Valles 1994, 1995; Santos-Febres 1993; Torres 1998; Zenón-Cruz 1975 among others). In the book, I am nevertheless concerned with the terms and ways in which blackness is valued, included – and even celebrated -- as part of the nation, particularly by the State- and government bureaucracies but also by intellectuals and everyday folk. When celebrated, representations of African Heritage come in the form of festivals, carnivals, folk-art or state-sponsored kiosks where foods, instruments, masks and other commodities associated 3
with Afro-Puerto Rican culture are presented or sold. Such authentic cultural products of blackness are often represented as deriving from specific communities, where black people and their traditions are said to have “survived” modernity and its by-product: blanqueamiento. Elsewhere (Godreau 2002a), I described some of the outcomes of such processes of official celebration as the folklorization of blackness. I argue that this kind of representation supports the ideology of blanqueamiento by containing and displacing blackness “somewhere else” to coastal communities such as San Antón in Ponce (where I did my fieldwork) or to the town of Loíza located in the northern part of the Island, thereby indirectly constructing the rest of the island as non-black ( ie. mixed). Nationalist renditions of these communities often locate them in premodern times, idealizing black people as exotic, happy and rhythmic tradition bearers who still inhabit supposedly homogeneous communities and almost-racially pure bodies: the remnants of a past-era. One can see examples of such folkloric representations of blackness in tourist brochures, but also in venues produced by people one could consider “alies” or even friends, such as antiracist activist and fellow anthropologists. Consider for instance the opening of this ethnography about religion in Loíza published in 2006 by a fellow Puerto Rican anthropologist – Samiri Hernández -- who reminisces about her first childhood visits to the town: She writes, “most people on Loíza’s streets were fairly dark skinned. I was enchanted by the local folklore, vibrant colors, loud street music, and dancers moving to the rhythm of the drums. From the open air eateries came the rich smells of frituras (fried traditional food) coconuts and fish. I will always remember my first trip to the ancón a rustic ferry that had become a symbol of the area. I remember feeling then that Loíza is both unique and yet close, familiar…”(Hernández- Hiraldo 2006: xi) 4
This “uniqueness” that Hernández refers to in her nostalgic account, is not only espoused by intellectuals or government officials, but can also be celebrated and actively fashioned by community residents themselves, in Loíza or in other communities labeled as the ‘black communities” of Puerto Rico. Thus, the celebration of such racialized “difference” is not a mere invention of elite ideologies, but often resonates with practices and histories that were marginalized from official representations of the nation. For example, the Afro-Puerto Rican musical genres of bomba and plena -- were previously deemed “uncivilized” and “primitive” by intellectual elites (especially the bomba) -- but later incorporated in the 1970’s in official and government-sponsored representations of Puerto Rican culture. This inclusion and statesponsorship was not the product of government charity but of black people’s individual and collective struggles to gain recognition of these genres as “Puerto Rican” and also a product of their widespread popularity since the 1950’s. The popular recognition of these genres happened more than 20 years before bomba and plena musicians received sponsorship from official government agencies such as the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. However, once these signs of Afro-Puerto Rican culture have been incorporated into official government- sponsored narratives about Puerto Rico, I ask: Under what terms and conditions are they valued? What makes such celebrations of blackness palatable for nation building? And what is lost, glossed over, silenced, debated, or invented by powerful others in that process? SAN ANTÓN The book addresses this question ethnographically by looking at the history and contemporary dynamics of the community of San Antón in Ponce. San Antón is a poor community, constituted by approximately 300 families, which was established during the 1800s 5
by freed slaves (libertos) in Ponce, an extremely important port during the heyday of sugar production in the island (Scarano 1992). Residents familiar with the barrio’s history link its development to the sugar plantations that flourished nearby during the late 19th century. The community, however, is best known in Ponce and in Puerto Rico for its bomba and plena, rhythms which constitute the most explicit, celebrated link to the island’s African presence (Blanco 1935, Barton 1995, and Banco Popular’s Video, Raíces 2001). Because of San Antón’s reputation as the birthplace of the plena, residents of Ponce and Puerto Rico consider the community a traditional site of Afro-Puerto Rican folklore. This folkloric status was actively sustained and promoted during the time of my fieldwork (in the mid and late1990’s) through festivals, ceremonies and commemorative events organized by a select group of community members in coordination with different government agencies in charge of managing the city’s historic and cultural development. I should point out that the time of my fieldwork (mid and late 1990’s) was a period of heightened awareness and discussion about both national identity and the question of race and racism in Puerto Rico – various conferences, panels and public debates were taking place about nation and race. Puerto Rico’s then governor, Pedro Roselló (a supporter of statehood), said that Puerto Rico was not a Nation and this provoked a great deal of public upheaval and affirmative demonstrations of Puerto Rican culture (including black Puerto Rican culture). Opposition to the US military’s intervention and exploitation of the island of Vieques also informed and kindled the debate during those years. The mayor of Ponce was a political rival of Island governor, Pedro Roselló and belonged to a different political party (the commonwealth party). Hence, Ponce also had its share of activities to affirm Puerto Rican culture and values. 6
One of these initiatives was the development of a housing project in the community of San Antón. The project was developed to answer residents, long-time pleas for better housing conditions. The wood ravaged by moths and termites, the ceilings that leaked, the fire-hazards that come with overcrowding and the lack of a sewer system, signaled poverty and —according to many residents— administrative abandonment. Residents had actively denounced such conditions since the seventies, but it wasn’t until 1996 – an election year-- that the municipal government of Ponce responded by demolishing old houses, building new ones, and redistributing land plots according to a more uniform design. The local municipal government presented this renovation of housing units in San Antón as an effort that would preserve the traditions of this barrio, marking it as a historic site. Let me explain: Before the housing project was implemented, most residents of San Anton lived in family clusters called patios. A patio can be roughly defined as a small plot of land occupied by an extended family that is communally owned – as is defined legally as a “sucesión”. (See Fig.2 and Fig.3)
Fig. 2 Example of a Family Patio in San Antón, Ponce (1996).
A somewhat similar institution in the Caribbean is known as family land or yard. Not everyone in San Antón owned or lived in a patio, and not everyone who lived in a patio was necessarily part of the sucesión (about 45% of community residents were not owners- per se). However, patios are an important institution that facilitates bonding and socializing among family members and friends. Architects recognized the value of this institution and wanted to preserve it. Yet, housing regulations established that the proximity between units in these cause clustering and fire hazards. Also, the current spatial arrangement of these houses made the installment of pipes for a sewage system, Cable TV, and other infrastructure improvements difficult. In an effort to negotiate between the need for change and the promise to preserve San Antón’s traditions, municipal architects and planners attempted to re-produce the family patio through a series of blocks with internal communal areas. (See Fig. 4)
Fig. 3 Sketch of patio arrangement in San Antón, prior the housing project.
Fig. 4 Sketch of planned housing arrangement of “new” patios.
To achieve this, the government purchased land from patio residents and from absentee landlords. Then, they parceled the area into plots that could be sold to residents as individual units, at a heavily subsidized price. During a visit to San Antón, the mayor of Ponce explained his commitment to the housing project to residents this way: “Because in this soil where I am standing today, here the Africans contributed what they had to our race. And our race is nothing else than the mixture of the African, The Spaniard and the Taíno Indian and from there comes the Puerto Rican race…We somehow had to give back what San Antón has meant for the history of our country and of our city.” However, San Anton’s traditions did not mean the same thing to everybody. For some, San Antón was a black community with distinct Afro Puerto Rican cultural attributes that should be preserved. Ana Julia, a young teacher, for example, spoke of houses in patios that had never 9
been torn down because they had spiritual value for residents, because family members had buried the umbilical chords of new-born babies underneath and people said the spirit of the dead were still there. Her mother -- a practitioner of Santería -- offered consultations to outsiders who came to San Antón in search of her spiritual guidance. Guillo, however, the owner of a convenience store in the barrio, believed that those were cuentos – tales that some people have. “That house” – he said, pointing to a wooden ruin that stood in an empty plot by his store –“is simply there because the owners have not taken the time to knock it down”. He thought the government could use that plot to build new houses, next to his establishment. Other people believed that the government should improve the condition of their houses, but leave the houses where they were. Still, others argued that San Antón needed to change and modernize and be like surrounding middle-class communities called urbanizaciones which had cement houses. “Why move from one wooden house to another wooden house?” said Marta. “They say that this is an arrabal (a ghetto), but what they’re building there is just another one: a modern arrabal.” Disagreement also emerged about the patios. The main architect of the housing project – a recent immigrant from Belgium— had interpreted the extended- family living arrangement of the patio as an African heritage. A Puerto Rican master’s student of planning had also suggested this in her thesis about the community. Yet, in my interviews with San Antón residents the patios were rarely mentioned as key objects of my anthropological study, or as something I should see or take note of. They were simply there. And -- if I asked -- people rarely described them as “traditional,” or “historical” and never as African. In fact, many residents described the barrio as not really black, black but mixed. “If you really want to find black people”, said Rosa, “you should go to Loíza.” Here, as elsewhere in the island, blackness is located somewhere else. Libertad, an older woman who belonged to one of the biggest patios in San Antón said: “I'm 10
bothered by what they said on TV, that we were a "barrio of blacks" “It may be true that we are tristes de color (have a sad color), but to say that we are a barrio of blacks...that word! They could say we are a barrio of people who are trigueños, but not to be so rude.” Libertad’s self-deprecating comment about being triste de color (of a sad color) shows the prevalence of dominant interpretations of blackness that construe black people as inferior, ugly or less fortunate. The same notions that explain why 80% of the Puerto Rican Population marked themselves as “white” in the 2000 population census. (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000) (Census results for San Antón, by the way, were not that different) However, Libertad’s comment about what she heard on TV also speaks to the very real implications of being subject to the racist gaze of others. This kind of recognition was keenly voiced by a young resident during one of the community meetings. He said that one of the project’s engineers had told him that a piece of land was going to be reserved for a small plaza with benches. He told his woman friend, who was sitting nearby: Young man: So that tourists can come in the trolley; they sit there and people dance bomba and plena for them... And I don't know what bomba and plena they're going to get... What they might get is shot! Friend: So a space that can be used for us is going to be given to them? Young man: Imagine those gringos coming here to laugh at us. How ugly, what savages! Friend: They better not dare... I'll throw a rock at them. - said his woman friend I will talk more about the housing controversy later. For now, let me just say that disagreement over how the housing project should be implemented, spurred a controversy that evidenced residents and government officials discrepant expectations about the cultural practices, racial identity politics, and everyday lives of residents there. The debate also evidenced 11
the salience of certain “scripts” about Afro-Puerto Rican traditions and cultural nationalism that, although not completely hegemonic, prevailed during the controversy, compelling people to speak to, for, or against them. *** The book aims to examine in detail, some of the key national discourses that informed the debates about the representation of this community, particularly during the housing project controversy. The goal, therefore, is not to document the black traditions of San Antón, but rather to outline the various and shifting discursive boundaries that informed this selective process and the contested construction of the community as a “black site”. *** Now, when I speak of the “nationalist discourses” that set standards and expectations about what gets to be recognized, celebrated or sponsored as black and Puerto Rican, I am not referring to a uniform coherent body of knowledge, but to inherently contradictory and internally fractured narratives about Puerto Rican identity. The picture is rendered even more complicated when we consider, not only that “blackness ” is a far from stable, but that the concept of “nation” itself is not AT ALL self- evident for Puerto Rico
PUERTO RICO AND THE US As you may know, Puerto Rico is not a sovereign nation but is a commonwealth, a nonincorporated territory of the US. First a colony of Spain until 1898, Puerto Rico was occupied by the US that same year during the course of the Cuban -Spanish -American war. The US acquisition of Puerto Rico from Spain, marked an era in which the US emerged as an imperial 12
power in the world stage, drawing into its orbit other communities (Philipines, Guam, American Samoa, the US Virigin Islands) that posed complex, legal economic and social challenges (Rivera 2001:5). Puerto Ricans have been US citizens since 1917 and can be drafted, yet Island dwellers cannot vote in the US presidential elections. We have our own elections every four years, where we can elect our own governor and other representatives, including a resident commissioner, who has voice but no vote in the U.S. Congress. Puerto Ricans have authority over some internal affairs, but currency, defense, external relations, communications, the postal service, social security and interstate commerce are within the jurisdiction of the Federal government. Both Spanish and English are recognized as official languages, but Spanish is without a doubt the dominant spoken language. In spite of the conflicted nature of this relationship, more than a century after the US invasion, an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans wish to preserve their ties– on some level or other—to the United States (Grossfoguel 2003). The three political alternatives traditionally considered in local elections have been statehood, some version of the present commonwealth status and political independence, but the pro-statehood party and the commonwealth party have always drawn, by far, the most voters. At the same time, academic, political and popular opinions overwhelmingly indicate that Puerto Ricans view themselves as a distinct national group with a common history, culture and heritage (racial heritage) So…Why Puerto Rico? Why study the racialized dynamics of nation in a context where there is no national sovereignty, no Nation-State, and no national citizenship? Scholarship on nationalism has emphasized that despite the certainty with which certain historians speak of the rational “origins” of nations, the nation is an imagined, highly ambivalent, and inherently polemical construct everywhere (Anderson1989; Bhabha, Homi 1990; Chatterjee 13
1986). Partha Chatterjee has pointed out that in the colonial world: “The polemic is not a mere stylistic device which a dispassionate analyst can calmly separate out of a pure doctrine. It is part of the ideological content of nationalism, which takes as its adversary a contrary discourse —the discourse of colonialism. Pitting itself against the reality of colonial rule —which appears before it as an existent almost palpable, historical truth— nationalism seeks to assert the feasibility of entirely new political possibilities” (Chatterjee 1986: 40). According to Chatterjee, this polemical process of formulating political possibilities is precisely what allows nationalist discourses to come into existence in the colonial world. Puerto Rico’s long colonial trajectory —first with Spain then with the US—has made the practice of formulating political possibilities a formative, passionate, never ending force that propels the nation into existence. According to some researchers, the resilience of a collective identity among Puerto Ricans after more than five hundred years of colonial rule suggests that contrary to commonly held assumptions, colonial pressure can strengthen national identity rather than diminish it (Morris 1995: 8). As mentioned previously, this sentiment of nationalist pride and search for new political possibilities is not necessarily tantamount to the desire for establishing an independent nation-State in Puerto Rico (Morris 1995: 12).” For instance Puerto Ricans have organized marches and public demonstrations over human rights issues, affirming their national identity and using the flag as an emblem in demonstrations. However, demonstrators can be either for or against US intervention in Island’s affairs. For example, in June 2001, Puerto Ricans demanded the retreat of the US Navy from Vieques, PR against charges that military practices conducted there represented a violation of Puerto Rican people’s human rights. (See Fig. 5) Yet in November 2007, Puerto Ricans in the United States demand US federal intervention in the Island against charges that the government in Puerto Rico is 14
corrupt and is not using federal funds for HIV patients properly. (See Fig. 6) Both groups used the Puerto Rican flag as an emblem of their national identity.
Fig. 5 Puerto Ricans demanding retreat of US Navy from the Island of Vieques.
Fig. 6 Puerto Ricans demanding U.S. intervention.
The widespread adherence to North American presence in Puerto Rico, thus, undermines and complicates traditional liberal premises of nationalist thought that equate “the nation” with the universal search for “independence”, “liberty,” “democracy,” “progress,” and legitimacy through the State. US presence does not, however, undermine the power of the nationalist imagination that creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society even when accepting, and even encouraging, certain aspects of metropolitan intervention (Chatergee 1986). In this process, like in other projects of nation-making, notions of blood and “race” as a carrier of culture become fundamental. As an important idiom of nation-building, I will argue these signs also operate in the not so post-colonial context of Puerto Rico as a constitutive element in the creation of what Chatergee calls the “domain of sovereignty.” To return to the question posed previously, then, the reason why studying racialized dynamics of nation makes sense in a context like Puerto Rico is because it can reveal how race becomes instrumental for the nationalist imagination constructed in opposition (or at least in conversation) to colonial power. Chatergee qualifies this process of constructing a national sense of “difference” as one that operates in two different, albeit related, domains: the material and the spiritual. He states: “The material is the domain of the ‘outside’, of the economy and of statecraft, of science and technology, a domain where the West had proved its superiority and the East had succumbed. In this domain, the, Western superiority had to be acknowledged and its accomplishments carefully studied and replicated. The spiritual, on the other hand, is an ‘inner’ domain bearing the ‘essential’ marks of cultural identity. The greater one’s success in imitating Western skills in the material domain, therefore, the greater the need to preserve the distinctness of one’s spiritual culture. (Chatterjee 2004 : 407)
Chaterjee mentions language, performative practices in drama, the novel, and the family as some of the areas that have fallen within this spiritual domain and that nationalism transforms in the course of its journey. The ultimate goal, according to the author, is to fashion a “modern” national culture that is nevertheless not Western. The project is, I think, also relevant for Puerto Rico and has direct bearing on the way in which race has also been imagined as part of this inner, spiritual domain. In fact, the distinctiveness of Puerto Rican culture is often said to emanate from the qualities afforded by the mixture of its three different racial components. In the process of nationalizing the African element of this mixture, Puerto Ricans have also tried to fashion a “modern” national culture that is nevertheless not North American (US). Puerto Rico’s colonial situation fuels this understanding and the ideological distinction between a racially mixed seemingly harmonious Puerto Rican “us” and a deeply segregated “US Other”. Academically, the effects of this antagonist posture make themselves evident in a general tendency among scholars to assume that race and color are “foreign”, irrelevant, if not divisive topics of analysis. Puerto Rico’s colonial situation fosters these silences and the understanding that race can divide, disintegrate or weaken the struggle for self-government. Puerto Rican scholars who have argued otherwise have thus often been accused of imposing US notions upon the Puerto Rican context or of partaking in intellectual imperialism. Of course, this ideological deployment of a local mixed reality versus a supposedly foreign US racist one is not unique to Puerto Rico. Similar dichotomies have been drawn to support nationbuilding projects and corresponding racial discourses across Latin America and the Caribbean. The case of Brazil is particularly significant. Brazil’s principal ideologue of racial nationalism Gilberto Freyre, developed the ideology of racial democracy on an explicit 17
comparison with the US and even while studying in the US under the mentorship of Franz Boas (Healey 2003: 101). His notion of Brazil as a racial democracy was in turn consolidated by US activists, writers and intellectuals who saw in Brazil an alternative to the racist oppression they experienced in the US (Fry 2000:90). Besides Freyre, other ideologues of racial democracy in the Americas like Martí in Cuba and Muñoz Marín in Puerto Rico also construed their corresponding versions of racial democracy and racial mixture in explicit comparison with the US and in diasporic dialogue with US institutions and thinkers. Recent scholarship has questioned the generally established distinction portrayed since, between the US and the continuum model of race mixture that Brazil stands for. They highlight the prevalence of racist dynamics that respond much more to a binary rationale of exclusion -often associated with the US -- than to the fluid logic of racial mixture and upward mobility often attributed to Brazil and to Latin American race relations (see Goldstein 1999 Sheriff 2001, Vargas-Ramos 2005; Hanchard 1994; for a similar argument in Cuba see Helg 1997 and for Puerto Rico see Dinzey 2005). In conversation with this literature, I argue that nationalist ideologies in Puerto Rico and the various “scripts” of blackness they promote do not operate discretely from the US. Rather, they are reinforced by the politics of nation-building that have been historically fostered by Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the US. In fact, I argue that contemporary renderings of harmonious race relations in Puerto Rico depend upon the ideological influence of the US to operate effectively. Now, the US is not the only important interlocutor. There are other nations that also partake in this dialogue. Haiti, for example, was the first American nation to abolish slavery and to establish itself as a black republic (in1804). Its black-liberation agenda and threat to European and US slaveholding and expansionist interests triggered what scholars have called the “Haitian 18
Fear” throughout the Americas, influencing European and US policy towards the region long throughout the nineteenth century and even today. Haiti was also instrumental for the development of a nationalist discourse in neighboring Dominican Republic (they share the island) which established Dominicans as the non-black antithesis of Haiti through discourses of negrophobia and indigenismo that depict Haitians as barbaric, savage and violent. (Ginetta Candelario’s book “Black behind the ears” offers an excellent analysis of this process of nationbuilding which also enlisted the support of US interest (Candelario 2007) . Also, the increasing migration of Dominicans to Puerto Rico, has fueled similar constructions of Dominicans in Puerto Rico that racialize them as “the blacks” in xenophobic discourses, relating blackness to foreign, illegal migration, disadvantaged socioeconomic status, and a “different” accent (Duany et al.,1995, López-Carrasquillo 1999, Martínez-San Miguel 1998). Thus, while Haitians are exploited, persecuted and construed as “the blacks” in the Dominican Republic, Dominicans are discriminated and construed as “the blacks” in Puerto Rico (see Duany 2006). Thus, besides the US -- there are other important geo-political referents operating in the region that are not always mentioned explicitly in Puerto Rican discourses about the nation. However, I would argue that -in the case of government-sponsored celebratory constructions of Puerto Rican blackness -- the US remains the most explicit counter-interlocutor. Taking this into consideration, I examine the multiplicity of ways in which Puerto Ricans deal with race to tackle the challenges posed by both colonialism and by nationalist ideologies (see also Grossfoguel 2003). *** The question, then, is how does this happen? In the book I identify and explore three important narratives about the Puerto Rican nation, which I believe have played a key role in mapping this terrain of racial 19
nationalism that is crafted in relationship to the US: 1) Benevolent /trivial Slavery; 2) Hispanophilia and 3) Race-mixture. The book will dedicate a chapter to each one of these national narratives. It will explore how the ideas they engendered about “race” produced effects and debates that people draw on in the ethnographic present, to complicate, challenge or reproduce official representations of Afro-Puerto Rican culture in San Antón and elsewhere in Puerto Rico. I am going to do a gross – over simplification of them very briefly here and also try to give you an idea of the kinds of specific effects these discourses had for San Antón. NATION- BUIDLING DISCOURSES Discourses about benevolent or trivial slavery became popular in scholarly writings of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, primarily developed by historians, who claimed that the slavery that developed in the colonies of Catholic Spain (namely Puerto Rico & Cuba) was a “soft brand” compared to the type of slavery that developed in the colonies of Protestant powers such as in the English Caribbean or in the US. By “soft” brand they meant, not only that the treatment of slaves was more humanitarian -- but that there were greater opportunities for the manumission of slaves and for the inter- mixture of blacks and whites in the Spanish colonies. In the case of Puerto Rico the term “soft” also meant that slavery had not been very important for the economy and that the slave population was very small. All these attributes of slavery – scholars argued -- fostered social harmony and promoted the cultural assimilation of blacks into Hispanic Culture. This trajectory was, of course, compared to the more brutal slavery regime and racial segregation laws that prevailed in the US. In addition, Blackness was equated to slavery in the writings of these Puerto Rican historians. Thus, to say that there had been few slaves in PR also meant to say “there were never 20
many blacks in the Island”. Yet, Puerto Ricans classified as “free blacks” or mulattos comprised around 40 percent of the Island total population throughout the 19th century! This sector was not, however, represented as “black” in the historiography, but rather as mixed or mulatto. Of course, Historians questioned the thesis of “soft” slavery in the 70”s and have continued to do so. Yet, ideas about the inconsequentiality of slavery continue to influence the ways in which blackness –and particularly black agency -- is represented. (for the effects of this maneuver in the realm of public education see Godreau et al. 2008). In this chapter, I look at how such ideas about slavery impact the representation of San Antón history. For example, official renditions of the community ignore the prevalence of a large population of free people of color who lived in San Anton during the period of slavery and who settled in the community along with a number of other people who were labeled “white” in census records. Folkloric renditions of San Antón history, however, mention that the community was settled by slaves who moved there after they had been emancipated to occupy land they received from their white exowners. Of course residents challenge those interpretations. Yet their lack of adherence to this story is often interpreted by intellectuals and enlightened government officials as a denial of their slave origins. Thus while notions of race mixture and blanqueamiento are emphasized for Puerto Rico, and slavery is declared unimportant for the rest of the Island, San Antón historical antecedents can only be about slavery. • Discourses of Hispanophilia privilege the influence of Spain in Puerto Rican culture and construct its influence as a national marker of whiteness. These discourses became particularly prevalent during the 1930’s among a group of educated men and public figures who sough to counter US political hegemony over the island. The 1930’s were particularly critical years characterized by economic depression, political instability and discontent. To the extent 21
that nationalism was linked to Europe, many Puerto Rican intellectuals upheld whiteness as a necessary component for self-government at that time (Rodríguez 2004). Anchoring the origins of the Puerto Rican “the nation” in European heritage, the Catholic religion, and particularly in the use of the Spanish language, also became an important strategic discourse, not only to differentiate Puerto Rico from the US but to declare it “morally superior” to the US. Africa, on the other hand (and particularly Haití), was construed as a destabilizing disturbance, an influence that had been, and should continue to be subdued, whitened, assimilated, etc. A different version of Hispanidad re-surfaced in the late 1980 in Puerto Rico, in the politics of governor and commonwealth supporter Rafael Hernández-Colón. Hernández Colón made unprecedented efforts to promote commercial activities and cultural exchanges between Spain and Puerto Rico and also between Puerto Rico and Latin America. Now, these efforts were not – like the ones of the 1930’ -- meant to question Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the US, nor did they seek to weaken Puerto Rico’s status as a US commonwealth. Rather, they were part of a strategy of “national” affirmation that sought to undermine the opposing party’s project of statehood for Puerto Rico and its expected outcome of cultural assimilation. Although statehood leaders argue that Puerto Rico’s “cultural difference” vis à vis the US does not present a problem for their goal of annexation (estadidad jibara), commonwealth leaders are aware that this issue of cultural sovereignty unsettles the statehood project. However, ex-governor Hernández Colón “enthusiasm” with Spanish heritage went a bit too far when he said – during one of his many visits to Spain that the Indigenous and African influences in Puerto Rican culture were practically inconsequential. When those statements reached Puerto Rican borders they provoked a great deal of controversy. Leaders of the opposing political parties promptly, accused the governor of being arrogant, racist, and irreverent 22
regarding the valuable contributions that blacks have made to Puerto Rican culture. In the midst of that controversy, San Antón emerged as a symbol of what was being ignored when Antonio Martorell, a renowned plastic artist, criticized the governor on TV during San Antón’s 11th Fiestas de Bomba and Plena. I pay attention to Hernández Colón politics in this chapter, not only because of this particular controversy, but also because he had a profound impact on the city of Ponce during his two terms as governor (1984-1992) . He played a key role in establishing urban policies, related to zoning and the conservation of historic sites and buildings -- many of which belonged to the European -creole bourgeoisie of Ponce. Those policies later had a concrete impact in San Antón, when the mayor -- also a commonwealth supporter (and very good friend of Hernández Colón) tried to implement them in the restoration of this barrio, which felt outside the zoning limits of what had been designated as the “historic area of Ponce”. This chapter looks at those concrete implications of hispanophilia in terms of zoning and public policies, but also at the different ways in which Spain as a marker of a whiteness --- that is a non-US whiteness -- is marshaled and interpreted by different actors in San Antón and elsewhere in these efforts to define the nation-- in the early 20th century as in the late 1990’s.
• Discourses about racial mixture (the third set of debates I look at) were institutionalized in the 1950’s with the creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. The mission of the Institute, as stated in the law, is to “preserve, be custodian, and enrich the cultural values of Puerto Rico so that there may be a greater knowledge of the historical and cultural heritage of our people”. From its inception in 1955, the creation of the ICP was conceived as a political strategy of the commonwealth party. However, political leaders of all 23
parties later decided that the Institute should act as an “autonomous institution” directed by people of “reputable intellectual standing” who would be able to educate others about the “true” content of our national identity. The compromise, according to Puerto Rican scholar Margarita Flores, not only reveals “the faith” these men placed upon the objective guiding role of the intellectual, as a reveler of national essences. It also shows that the institutionalization of a homogeneous conflict-free notion of our national identity served the hegemonic aspirations of the three parties involved (commonwealth-supporters, pro-statehooders, and independentistas). Overtime, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture developed a narrative about the cultural attributes of each one of the three foundational ethnic roots of Puerto Rican culture that continues to have island-wide acceptance among different sectors of the population. This narrative depends upon a selective interpretation of heritage that, as Arlene Dávila, has shown simplifies and equates each root with certain cultural practices and artifacts. In the making of that selection, Hispanic traditions are elevated to constitute the historic core of Puerto Rican values. As Dávila and Lillian Guerra have pointed out, this notion is embodied in the national symbol of the jíbaro peasant, who lives in the countryside and supposedly follows the customs of his Spanish predecessors. Indigenous influences come second in order, for although --or maybe because -- Taínos were practically exterminated, Indians are often romanticized as noble warriors whose spirits guard over the island’s natural resources (Dávila 1997, Guerra1998). In the context of colonial occupation, the Indian is also essential for establishing Puerto Rico’s national myth of origin and for endowing that myth with an “authentic” territory. The African or “Third” Root— as it is often called -- is not endowed with such autochthonous attributes. African influences are relegated to the realm of music, rhythm, mysticism, and eroticism. These traits are believed to be acquired naturally, through blood– not through learned behavior, intellectual 24
effort, or prolonged contact with the land. In order to exalt the natural connection of black people to a territory, “black things” are therefore sometimes often re-written as “Indian” things. Let me tell you how this played out in San Antón’s- one of the ethnographic components of this chapter. The controversy over the housing project had as much to do with black culture as it did with land. The project certainly benefited those residents who did not own a house or land previously because it allowed them to do so. Those families who already owned land as members of a sucesión, however, had to sell their property to the government, divide the money among patio members who could claim right to ownership, and then use the amount they received to buy their new house from the government. For them, the housing project was not such a good deal. During the controversy, a group of residents formed the Comité Pro-Defensa the San Antón and called TV and Radio reporters. —What is your principal objection to the restoration project?—asked the reporter We are owners of the land that we live on,' answered the president of the Comité. 'They intend to expropriate the land that we live on and the homes, businesses won't work either, to then make us... because it's been done arbitrarily and unilaterally, to make us contract an unwanted debt... He continued. What's happening here is that due to a lack of information, uncertainty reigns. The people of San Antón were promised one thing and what they made, were pigsties (unas porquerías), like it were, just like North Americans did with the Indians... They're trying to corner us into little houses. During the controversy, the Comité repeatedly mentioned that the government was treating San Antón, like an Indian reservation. In an act of community affirmation Jaime, the 25
vice-president of the Comité also appealed to Indian things, in a letter he wrote to Ponce’s Mayor. The letter was never mailed, but he distributed among his family members and neighbors, and shared it with me after the controversy subsided. The letter head read as follows: Letter to the White Man in the Municipality of Ponce. From: The Indio Antón. Address: Fields and Patios of Barrio San Antón Jaime’s letter begins by posing the following question to the Mayor: How can you buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the land? This idea is foreign to me since we do not possess the freshness of each day or the brilliance of the waters. How can I explain this? Each piece of land is sacred to the people of my barrio; each shinning tree branch, the penumbra, the dense vegetation, each clearing, and the whispers of the insects are sacred in the memory and experience of my barrio’s people and of my ancestors. If this letter sounds familiar is because it is inspired in the frequently reproduced letter that Native American chief Seattle is said to have written to President Franklin Pierce in 1854 when the president proposed to buy a vast piece of Native American territory in what is now the state of Washington. Over the last 30 years, Chief Seattle has become a sort of environmental hero, appearing in pamphlets and web sites all across Europe and the Americas. Jaime drew from the Native American experience of land expropriation to garner support for their claims about land in San Antón and their resistance to sell it. This does not mean that people in San Anton identify as Indian. In fact, census results for San Anton reveal that not even 1% of residents identifies as such. More than a personal identity display, I think evoking Indians things ( in all cases, in the TV, radio appearances and letter ) functioned as a rhetorical strategy 26
that defied dominant expectations about “black authenticity” - at the same time that it allowed the Comité to criticize the mayor and his administration for being racist, like the US. Likewise, Jaime’s rendition of the “Indio Antón” served to underscore the sentimental and symbolic significance that family land had for some residents. His adaptation of Chief Seattle’s letter spoke of the continuity of kin, the spirit of ancestors and their connection to the land, the guaraguao , [which is an indigenous falcon of Puerto Rico], and all the birds, and dogs of the barrio. Now, I should point out that Jaime’s letter is only one among a variety of responses that emerged during and after the completion of the housing project. My tracing of the discursive strategies of those who wanted a return to the communal patio is not meant to romanticize “communal land” or to propose it as more representative criteria for blackness. Rather, my point is to highlight how certain national scripts grant social “currency” to particular claims and not to others. Government officials celebrated the housing project as one that would preserve the patios of this historic barrio, yet the implementation eliminated the institution of communal land – ownership. (By the way it also prohibited keeping live animals - like chickens, ducks or goats in the internal yards). This erasure of land ownership and land use from the cultural repertoire of blackness is partly facilitated by nationalist scripts that privilege the Taíno or the jíbaro -- who is usually portrayed as a light skin male -- as the “authentic” dweller of the Puerto Rican cultural landscape. The issue of land-ownership was further de-emphasize in this case by the portrayal of the patio as a mere site of entertainment. Ponce’s mayor, for example declared in the newspaper that the project would preserve the patios and the trees “where residents gathered and still gathered to 27
dance the “bomba and plena.” However, I never saw residents dancing bomba and plena beneath the shade of trees. Rather, it is the rhythm of salsa, merengue and rap that are most popular. Bomba and plena are mostly reserved for performances in which the "outside" community is the main audience. It is also with this “outside community” in mind that Jaime adapted Chief Seattle’s letter, recasting “black things” as Indian in order to garner support for their plight. Of course one could argue that the letter is also an example of how blackness is erased via its Indianization. Yet, consider this -- according to various historians, Chief Seattle’s letter was never written by Chief Seattle. The text is in fact the creation of a white man named Smith who claims to have taken notes of Seattle’s speech and who published his own translation 33 years later – a version whose anachronisms and inconsistencies seem to be more attributable to Dr. Smith than to Chief Seattle. So… who is to blame Jaime for impersonating an Indian? Furthermore, this move of adopting “indigenous models” to launch claims about property and rights to land is not unique to Puerto Rico. Similar movements of Afro-Latino populations in Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua are appealing to indigenous categories and adopting indigenous legal strategies to claim communal titles to land. – Now, there are important differences between Puerto Rico and these experiences -- However, my point is that, this case in Puerto Rico, resonates with a more global situation in which indigenousness is being deployed as a model to claim ethnic territoriality. At the more local level, the point I’ve tried to make is that one of the reasons why such claims are increasingly difficult to sustain on the basis of a black identity in Puerto Rico is because of folkloric reading of blackness that erase black people’s spiritual and productive relationship with the land.
*** This is just one example among others ethnographic instances in which I try to show how these three nation-building ideologies about slavery, hispanophilia, and racial mixture, mediate powerful “scripts,” set limits, and dynamics for what gets to be celebrated as “black” in Puerto Rico. All three narratives of nation, I argue, are formulated in explicit dialogue with the US, carving this “inner domain of sovereignty” that Chatergee talks about, where problematic renditions of race are often deploy to position Puerto Rico as a “morally superiority” nation vis a vis the US. My critique of blanqueamiento, and harmonious mixture is also targeted at strategies that present the nation as a homogenous unit with specific desires, political destinies, and superior modes of racial comportment that make political goals vis a vis the US seem more viable -- no matter which ones.
CONCLUSION By privileging the tensions that crack and blemish anti-colonial, pro-colonial and prostatehood constructions of Puerto Rico this book’s project is in dialogue with a rich body of scholarship on race and racism that also seeks to challenges homogenous constructions of the nation in Afro-Latin America. Scholarship on anti-racist social movements and the politization of black identities in Afro- Latin America has documented and theorized black people’s struggles to gain empowerment as citizens, resist assimilation, and attain social recognition for their cultural difference (land rights). Because such affirmations of racial difference often run counter to ideologies of mestizaje which tend to erase blackness and homogenize, some scholars have argued that these racialized manifestations in Latin America -- including Puerto Rico -- are anti-nationalistic (Whitten and Torres 1998). Unlike this understanding, my project considers the 29
possibility that racialized conceptions of “black places” can sometimes, in fact, be sustained by and accommodating to nationalist ideologies. In Puerto Rico, celebrations and essentialized exaltations of Puerto Rico’s black heritage can serve national elites’ interests especially when they bound blackness to a place, rob communities like San Antón of their complexity, and fail to value resident’s practices as contemporary phenomena. This book project, then, is partly motivated by the conviction that the nationalist scripts of blackness operating within this “inner domain of sovereignty” can often veil racist practices while precluding overt protest from those adversely affected. With this understanding in mind, I also hope to show that “race” is an important arena of national contestation, through which people construct heterogeneous and multidimensional forms of national belonging that operate outside of government sponsorship. Ultimately, rather than describing the lives of black people, the book seeks to helps to elucidate how people actively debate over the meanings of “race” as they define and re-define lo puertorriqueño in their everyday lives.
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