Puerto Rico

Why Many African-Americans Haven’t Been Outraged By Puerto Rico’s Devastation…but Should Be.

About eight years ago, I took a trip with one of my mentors, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, to Loiza, a small town outside of San Juan in Puerto Rico. We were there for Fiesta de Santiago Apostol de Loiza. Reggaeton superstar Tego, who’s originally from there, headlined the concert.

I remember walking down the street with my dark brown skin and mini curly ‘fro. Someone driving by in a car yelled out of the window “VIVA CELIA CRUZ!” I remembered us all being so tickled. I did, after all, very much so resemble Celia Cruz during her hey day.

While Celia was not Puerto Rican (she’s one of the most well known Cuban luminaries in history outside of Fidel Castro), and I’m not Latina, I immediately connected with that passerby’s observation of the proximity of myself, an African American women from the U.S. Black South, specifically New Orleans with the Queen of Salsa.

This was one of many examples of an immediate connection that I’ve experienced over the past 20 years of my life when I’ve come in contact with the greater Diaspora. It happened initially as a student at Howard.

It continued to occur during my travels to some of the Blackest locations in the Diaspora – Haiti, Brasil, Cuba, Suriname, Curacao, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic.

During these travels and during my work, which is primarily based on the East Coast of the States and throughout Black communities internationally, I’ve also adopted and been adopted by many Diasporan communities. Some of that extended village hails from Central and Latin America.

They make up the Latino/a/x Diaspora. Their last names are Lebron, Cruz, Acevedo, Piñeda, Alba, Vega, Roman, Clemente, Cordero, Peralta and Capote. And while Spanish, or broken Spanish is their first language spoken at home, both politically and racially, we identify in similar ways. Their family trees are as nuanced and interesting as my own.

So as Harvey and then Maria ravaged the Caribbean, rather during the days following, I was deeply concerned. Initially I was fully engrossed in the 24/hour news cycle. Then I tuned out, because, to be honest – hurricanes are triggering.

Katrina traumatized me. But because people tuned into what  happened in New Orleans and subsequently poured love, resources, empathy and support for my family and hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast residents, I couldn’t turn a blind eye.

Especially because I’m directly linked to “those people.” Puerto Ricans. Caribbeans. Our people.

What I’m currently thinking is: That most of Black America is disconnected from Puerto Rico. Unless you grew up in New York or some parts of Philly or Chicago, most African Americans are detached culturally and politically from Puerto Ricans.

Yes, lots of Negroes go there on vacations, and for quick getaways (I was about to go myself for a self-care vacay), to have their weddings on its beaches, or to go on bachelorette trips. However, most folks go to hotels and resorts and then go home. Meaning they’re not necessarily engaging with the people or the culture.

So the reality is, the vast majority of people in Puerto Rico are people of African descent, creolized thanks to the good ole Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade like the rest of us, a mix of indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans and a handful of Europeans.

Puerto Rican children circa 1898.

While many of them don’t identify as “Black” or maybe even as Afro-Latino, they are still in Diasporic terms, just as black as your light skin family from Louisiana, actually darker in some cases and more phenotypically African.

I’m raising this point not to say that people’s identities should determine how we extend care and concern, but that I think it’s harder to disregard a humanitarian crisis when you are in close proximity to the people suffering from dire circumstances.

Maybe because I have a plethora of Puerto Rican extended family/friends,  it hits closer to home.  Or because I’ve spent time in places outside of San Juan, like Loiza, where there was just a huge community of Black folks, and because I have friends and godfamily who have people in P.R. that they still haven’t heard from, or that they’ve heard from and hear how they are suffering (ie: can’t keep their insulin cold enough due to the electricity situation) that I feel a responsibility to do something.

Los Pleneros, El Barrio, New York City.

Who’s kneeling and who’s not kneeling and whatever fboyPrez has to say about it is conversation worthy, and to many degrees, matter.

But so does the fact that Puerto Rico, which in political terms, and reality, is a U.S. Colony, that can’t get aid from other countries, without that aid first coming here, thanks to Jones Act (that he apparently waved earlier this morning). We can’t even fathom the extent of the devastation and probably won’t for months to come.

My grandmother died, not in Katrina’s floodwaters, but two years later due to health complications including having her legs amputated, after not receiving dialysis treatment for over two weeks, in its aftermath. 

Loiza, Puerto Rico, 2015. Daniel Allende.

The world’s heart broke for the people of New Orleans and the greater Gulf South post-Katrina. Much of the 9th Ward still looks like a war torn land. And we’re a part of the U.S. mainland. Imagine had New Orleans been an island.

We’re currently a few years into the International Decade of People of African Descent as declared by the U.N. Please pay attention to what’s happening outside of our walls, our Diaspora is vast.

Black folks and people of African descent suffering anywhere, is our problem, and vice versa. Black Lives Matter Globally.

VIVA PUERTO RICO, now and forever. 

– Shantrelle P. Lewis

GET INVOLVED

There are multiple ways you can donate to efforts. Also remember, it’s not just Puerto Rico but several other Caribbean islands that have been devastated including St. Martin, the US and British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Barbuda (which is uninhabitable with 100% of its residents currently evacuated) and parts of Cuba. Whatever you do PLEASE DO NOT GIVE MONEY TO THE RED CROSS.

Even if you have a co-worker who is Puerto Rican, it’s better to put money in their hands, to send to their family members than donating to huge bureaucratic organizations that won’t put aid in the hands of the people. Additionally, if you find the need to donate clothes, PLEASE do not send your worn out, raggedy, most used clothes.

During Katrina, I was horrified by some of the items people donated. Used underwear, in some classes decades old sweaters that were in the back of the closet. The islands are tropical. Only donate something you wouldn’t mind wearing yourself, definitely something for warmer climates, and if at all possible, just donate new clothes.

Here’s a list of resources with more information about how you can get involved:

Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund

Los Ambulantes/Trusted Puerto Rican Relief Organizations

Flint Family in St. Martin displaced by Irma Go Fund Me  

Defend Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund

Further Reading

USA Today For the First Time in 300 Years, There Isn’t A Single Person Living on the Island of Barbuda

NYT: Nearly Half of Americans Don’t Know that Puerto Ricans are Americans 

NYT: Puerto Ricans on Mainland Rely on Stranger to Reach Relatives

History: Puerto Rico’s Complicated History with the US

HuffPost: Living in Gentrification as a Puerto Rican in Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Listverse: 8 Atrocities Committed Against Puerto Rico by the US

12 Pieces of Advice for Hurricane Survivors

Colorlines: How to Help Residents of Puerto Rico and The U.S. Virgin Islands Recover After Hurricane Maria

24 Comments

  1. “El que no tiene dinga tiene mandinga” Puerto Rican saying. Which means everybody here got African blood running through their veins even the whitest one of us.

  2. why should i care about some puerto rican,they dont care about me, when they get with
    white man they will turn on you like a bad dog.

  3. Just one comment about one thing you said. The vast majority of people in Puerto Rico are not of African descent. You should find Dr. Juan Martinez-Cruzado’s study on genetics which was funded by The US National Science Foundation. His study revealed that 61% (which would be the vast majority as you put it) have Amerindian dna. 27% have African dna, and 12% Caucasian.

    • Thank you, and they’re the first ones to say something like that. I think this article should be geared towards islands which are predominantly black. Like the ones listed way at the end of the article.

  4. True some of them admit they were black a small percentage but most of the time Italian ,Irish , Indian is what they acknowledge.

  5. Great piece.
    Puerto Ricans are learning more about their DNA and about their blackness– and getting woke. I’ve learned about my Nigerian, Togan and West African routes through Ancestry just recently. I’m proud of that and proud of a connection I always felt with black US experience–especially in NYC and the Northeast. Thanks for this piece. Diaspora can be about coming together when our histories have long been erased and ovewritten by law enforcement, racist legislation, and those in power. Slavery and colonialism shaped PR as much as it shaped other Caribbean islands.

  6. Tego Canderon who is from Loiza Puerto, a black town in Puerto Rico said that that racism in the worst way exists in Puerto Rico. I kind of disagree with his statement although it does exist, but not in the matter that he is suggesting. if you look at the culture of the island, you will see that all Puerto Ricans share the same interest in food, the same music and speak in the same manner with the same accent. Not so in the U.S. where Blacks and Whites couldn’t be more different in every aspect of the word. Different taste in music, and food. They speak differently and basically have nothing in common between the two races. Puerto Rican fans embraced their local heroes despite their color for example, Roberto Clemente is considered a national hero and he passed on about 45 years ago. Felix Trinidad is celebrated and adored in the Puerto Rico. Black men marry white woman and vice verse. They congregate together without assuming that they are superior to the darker person. with that said, there are certain levels of racism such as government jobs and TV employees. There are no hate crimes in Puerto Rico, only crimes involving drugs and robberies but never does it occur a crime of hate where one kills another simply for the color of his/her skin. I just don’t buy I into the fact that the blacks from loiza are left dry from the rest of the island. if I am wrong, someone please prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I am wrong by proving that the impoverished part of Puerto Rico has severe issues with race.

  7. As a black woman growing up in the U.S. I have encountered dark skinned Puerto Ricans in elementary school who did not self identify as black. I attended a predominately white school and would be so excited to meet another dark skinned child. However, when I approached the young girl who looked at me and asked about her family. She proudly exclaimed that she was Puerto Rican followed by an defensive remark that she was NOT black. I am now a college graduate and have returned to school to further my studies on the Spanish language. I am at a crossroads where I have a profound love for the language and shared African ancestry with many Spanish speakers who prefer to not identify as black and distance themselves away from blackness.

    I care deeply about the black disapora, but how should I show solidarity with a people who are offended to share an African ancestry with me and actively seek to distance themselves from Blacks?

    • Duly noted Carla.
      However, there are two things that I wanted to say about your post.

      First, the one thing that we have to remember (and this is by no means excusing ppl) but colorism is big throughout Latin America. Just like we struggle with this issue, people in Latin America struggle with a more so and worse because they do not have a lot of the historical and cultural research to help them to combat this ill. Some individuals like Dr. Marta Moreno are fortunate because they can fall back on the African influence that is present on the island for support.

      Second, we (ADOS) have been influenced by American politics and consequently, we think that everyone shares our views on culture and race. The term Black in the US is touted in general as a race, and culture. This is not people in the Caribbean who have strong lineage to their ancestral roots view this. So, I have found that sometimes when people from the Caribbean say they are not Black. They are referring to the fact that they are not a US Black. A similar situation existed in the DR where many were saying they were not Black but it was to indicate that they were not Haitian.

      It is a big mess that white American politics has created. You know?

  8. Many Africans have been enslaved in Puerto Rico especially in places like Guayama and Loiza. Some of them do identify as black because some of them acknowledge that we are descendants of African culture. But the reason why some Caribbeans prefer to be called dark skin instead of “black” is because some do not want to be associated with Black”Africans”. Perhaps maybe some see that as black is dangerous or maybe some do not want to be treated as such? This which is sad. I have heard this many times. There is nothing wrong with identifying being black. There are “Black Dominicans” there are “Black Puerto Ricans”. My father identifies as a Black Puerto Rican and has also experienced harsh racism thrown at him in his youth and sadly till this day. I believe there should be teaching of the beauty of that is the mother of all “Africa” to more places in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. The flag in Guayama has 3 colors red, black, and yellow. Black represents the enslaved Africans brought to Guayama , yellow meant sugar cane plantations and also red meant for the Taino’s that shed blood. Honestly I have my other Caribbean brothers and sisters and we enjoy talking about that of the mother “Africa” on where we came from. All of our culture has been derived from Africa.

  9. SimplySomooth 1. Agin only %12.4 of peurto rico is black thats a small percentage of people. 2. Majority of peurto rico is white %65 of peurto rico’s population is white. 3. Those who don’t identify as black aren’t black they don’t identify as black because they aren’t black to begin with npit has nothing to do with africa or that nonsense of oh maybe they see black as being dangerous thats all dumb and its not true and you know it.

  10. I don’t see why Puerto Ricans are so ashamed of being African. African Americans have contributed way more to the U.S then any other ethnic group and were treated like s&%t and were not handed welfare their whole lives. Puerto Ricans need to realize the only reason they speak Spanish is because of the trans Atlantic slave trade

    • Listen my BROTHER I know the deal I am a Brown Rican my Father is a Black. P.Rican and my mother is a white P.Rican And I love all my PEOPLE OF COLOR THAT MEANS BLACK AMERICANS TOO U FEEL ME.

  11. We all get along black , light or white PuertoRican we are one.
    I am a Black BORICUA and one time my black friend said 2 me that I was trying 2 be black , Is crazy because I am Black.

  12. I have heard the same thing from my Black friends when growing up. I have straight hair and tan very easy because my father was a black puerto rican and my mother was a white puerto rican. my mother once told me that if I had a child that was black not to worry about it because my father was black. I notice that american blacks don’t think of puerto rican blacks as some one to relate to, as one of our heroes Tito Trinidad was black but not liked by many of my black friends because he spoke spanish.

  13. The systems, and institutions, in Puerto Rico, as in all colonized, and former slavocracies, are controlled by the oppressor. You won’t find contributions by people of Afrikan descent in the school system of Puerto Rico. You won’t get accurate information on Afrikan or Taino culture, religion, beliefs, etc. The Spanish, and then Euro-American, oppressors, have forced “their” culture, traditions, religions, Gods, etc., on the rest of us. We must study, analyze, read, and think for ourselves. Most people in Puerto Rico have Afrikan and Taino genetics, but act and think they are white. When they encounter “real whites”, the racist from amerikkka mainland, and espana whites, they will find out quickly, that because you speak Spanish or English, (both european languages), it doesn’t make you white. I retired from the mainland to Puerto Rico 3 years ago. People stare at me like I’m an oddity. Why? There are plenty of Black people here. The ignorance, colorism, and racism, is ridiculous here.

  14. The people commenting on this post arguing against the fact that the majority of Puerto Ricans are Afro descendants clearly don’t know the difference bewteen being black and being an Afro descendant, don’t know how to read and comprehend the sources they are using referring to DNA/ancestry of Puerto Ricans, and lack a very basic understanding of Puerto Rican history.

    The reason why ~75% of Puerto Ricans on the island of Puerto Rico identify as “White” has more to do with laws that were created under Spanish rule that told Puerto Ricans that if you can prove you are a descendant of a Spanish citizen you can identify as “white”, also this has a lot to do with social colorism. All though Puerto Rican historians and genealogists constantly mention that most Puerto Ricans are the product of generational mixing between Sothern/Western Europeans, West/Central/North Africans, and Taino-Arawak Native Americans, most Puerto Ricans do not take this simple, evidential information in consideration when talking about their racial identity or filling out census information regarding their racial identity.

    Here are some facts regarding race:
    * Race is a social, non-biological construct.
    * MOST Puerto Ricans are not white, and are in fact too mixed to fall under the “white” label as most non mixed Europeans and their descendants would not consider them to be “white”. (Take history for example and racial issues of today.)
    *Genealogists have proven through DNA testing that only ~25% of Puerto Ricans in PR have little to no non European ancestry. Therefore making the “white” population of PR closer to 25% and not ~75%.
    * The majority of Puerto Ricans may not be “black” but the majority of Puerto Ricans are in fact Afro descendants when including both Multiracial Puerto Ricans and self-identifying Black/Afro Puerto Ricans (at least ~60-65% of PR’s living in the island.)
    *The average Puerto Rican is NOT ~60% Native American, as genealogists have said that at least ~60% of Puerto Ricans share mitochondrial DNA from Taino FEMALE lineage as the nearly the entire Taino MALE population was NEARLY DECIMATED by Spanish conquistadors.
    *The majority of Puerto Ricans are predominantly, but NOT entirely European and/or African ancestry as Puerto Ricans share ancestry from Europe and Africa in both maternal and paternal lineages.
    *The average Puerto Rican ranges about ~50-60% European more or less, ~20-30% African, and ~10-20% Native American more or less.
    *The majority of Loiza self identifies as Black/Afro Puerto Rican (~65% of 30,000 people), but the majority of Black/Afro Puerto Ricans (12.4% of 3.2 million people) are not from Loiza.

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