Black History in Puerto Rico

From Academic Kids


Main article: History of Puerto Rico

The Black History of Puerto Rico begins with the colonization of the key Caribbean island of Puerto Rico by the Spanish Empire. Spanish planters purchased slaves from Africa to work their land. Black Puerto Ricans intermarried extensively with European and indigenous persons, so modern Puerto Rico does not recognize such distinct racial divisions as in the continental United States, and today there remains a rich black culture in Puerto Rico.


Colonial Era

Before Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico during his second voyage, Taíno Indians were the island's main inhabitants. Puerto Rico became a Spanish territory soon after Columbus's discovery.

Pre-Columbian contact

Some historians speculate that Africans of the Sahel region, including the energetic Mali Empire, may have had contact with Caribbean and Brazilian indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans in the New World. Perceived linguistic similarities between West African groups and the Taíno, paired with the theoretical ability of the West Africans to cross the Atlantic, suggest the possibility of African cultural influences that long predate European contact. The paths that hurricanes tend to follow across the Atlantic (known as "Hurricane Alley") may have also been a natural push for these early African voyagers. Compelling archaeological evidence of such contact, much less mutual trade and cultural exchange, remains to be presented.


Soon after Christopher Columbus brought European culture to Puerto Rico (and the rest of Latin America), the Europeans began to sell slaves to rich farmers or landowners who came from Spain to Latin America. Many of the slaves who came to Puerto Rico were from Congo (Mayombe religions such as "Palo Monte" were an intrinsic part of Puerto Rico's early spiritualist history before Allan Kardec ), others were members of the Ashanti tribe. In all, 31 known African tribes were brought to the island from Central and West Africa through the slave trade. It is believed that many slaves entered Puerto Rico through the island's east side, hence the large population of blacks from San Juan to Vieques. Ponce and Mayaguez have large populations that came from Cuba, Haiti, and Colombia. During the years of indigenous and African slavery, miscegenation was rampant. Tainos were believed to have been raped by Spaniards, and they also intermarried with the incoming Africans.

In Puerto Rico, as in many other countries, slave owners would insult black workers and make them labor under poor working conditions for little or no money. They also abused them physically, sometimes injuring or killing them. Some slave owners would also rape black women and girls, including the wives of the male slaves. These types of abuses, of which most Puerto Ricans born during the 20th century had little knowledge, were exposed in many of Abelardo Diaz Alfaro's books written during the 1940s. Diaz Alfaro opposed racism and his writing reflected those sentiments.

As in most countries where slaves were brought over from Africa, in Puerto Rico slaves were assigned new last names. Slaves usually took their owners' Spanish names, passing the adopted last names to their children, and so on. Many slaves worked in sugarcane fields, others in manufacturing or other types of jobs.


By the 19th century the abolitionist movement attracted many Spanish creoles, mestizos, and freed "people of color" who developed a social conscience with regard to slavery. Among them were Ramon Emeterio Betances, Segundo Ruiz Belvis, Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, and Lola Rodríguez de Tió. Betances even formed a secret society which helped many slaves gain their freedom. On September 23, 1868, many slaves participated in the failed uprising against Spain, headed by Manuel Rojas and known as "El Grito de Lares", with the promise that they would be freed.

On March 22, 1873, a law proclaiming the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico was passed.

Modern society

The term Negro(a) or Negrito(a), which means small black person, originated during the African slave trade and was used to describe a person of visible African descent (i.e., Negro Jose or Negra Maria). Today the word has lost its negative connotations and is often applied to another as a term of endearment regardless of his or her background. In 2003, several major DNA studies done at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez discovered that 61%, 27%, and 12% of Puerto Ricans have Taino, African, and European ancestry, respectively, through matrilineal lines. This was due to the fact that the Spanish Conquest was mostly male and the Spanish and Moorish men who accompanied Christopher Columbus came into the Caribbean's "New World" to take their share of gold and "exotic" native women. The Spaniards also abused the enslaved African women. While some had consented marriages, the majority did not. "Race" could no longer be defined clearly as the various populations became blended to the point of social obscurity. The Spanish culture dominated all aspects of island life. Taino culture disappeared into the conquering culture as did African culture. They were overshadowed and relegated to the "back burners" of Puerto Rican society until the present day. As Puerto Rican culture moves toward a better understanding of itself and what it means to be Puerto Rican, more confidence and pride than ever before are shown in its roots.

Today, racism has not really taken a foothold among the populace as it has in the U.S., though the American influence has brought a greater awareness of skin tones. Given the historical awareness Puerto Ricans have of their own nation, the "cultural guards" will always remain up. Children in Puerto Rican schools are taught about the three main "races" of which they are composed from the time they enter kindergarten, and most public residential areas feature statues and murals of Taino, African, and Spanish celebrities. Neighborhoods in Puerto Rico are often populated by groups of people who become united as they get to know each other, and it is not uncommon to see blacks, brown-skinned mestizos, and even Chinese talking together or sharing in neighborhood parties.

Most Puerto Ricans enjoy Salsa music, a musical blend of African and Caribbean rhythms developed by Cubans and Puerto Ricans who grew up together in the streets of New York. Salsa was imported back into Puerto Rico and Cuba as "popular" music in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. On the island of Puerto Rico, Bomba (from Loiza, Mayaguez, and Ponce), which has origins in Ghana, West Africa, has always been one of the major forms of music enjoyed by all Puerto Ricans. The Taino-Spanish influence (also included in Salsa and evidenced by the use of the clave and maracas as integral musical instruments) comes from the mountain regions where the last vestiges of Taino culture held out the longest. Plena (which many say came from Barrio San Anton in Ponce) is another major form which probably came from the English-speaking African immigrants who arrived from the British Caribbean islands through the island's southern ports at the beginning of the 20th Century. "Reggaeton", a form of music that blends Puerto Rican Bomba with Jamaican Reggae rhythms, has also entered the popular Puerto Rican musical arena.

Although many black Puerto Ricans live in poor residential areas, many others have progressed and are able to live comfortably. Still, at least two-thirds of all Puerto Ricans live on public assistance.

Among the towns with the largest black populations in Puerto Rico, apart from San Juan and Vieques, are Loíza, Canovanas, Carolina, Fajardo, Ponce, and Mayaguez. Other cities, such as Caguas and Bayamon, also have significant numbers of black residents.

To many Puerto Ricans a person is not considered black because his or her ancestors were black, as in the United States, but by the color of the skin. So, for example, if someone has a grandparent or other ancestor who was black, if he or she looks white, he or she is considered white by a Puerto Rican.

List of Important Black Puerto Ricans

See also


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