Just in case you didn’t know, November is National Puerto Rican Heritage Month. In addition, you’re probably not aware that in the last election, Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. Well, actually, it’s a lot more complicated than that (a plurality didn’t vote for statehood, for example), but I won’t get into that right now. In the meantime, I offer the following in the hopes that you find it useful.
-Naaaahhh… You ain’t no Porta Reecan.
-I keep telling you: The boy is a Black man with an accent.
— Wille Perdomo (for Piri Thomas), Nigger-Reecan Blues
Growing up, I had a friend we nicknamed, “Shadow.” Shadow was a Golden Gloves champion, a Puerto Rican whose dark skin earned him the moniker. He was dark, but not as black as another childhood friend we used to call “Blue.” Blue was an African American, a cocolo, as Puerto Ricans sometimes refer to African Americans (and, yes, it was a pejorative).
The thing with Shadow was that, though he was dark-skinned, he had a sister who was very light-skinned — light-skinned as in “white” not “Creole,” or “high yellow.” In fact, they looked as if they came from different families. I have blue eyes and I am light-skinned and growing up, I was often mistaken for being white. Shadow and I used to hang out and we would be supportive of each other (as in “watching each other’s backs”) because we identified as Puerto Ricans.
Blacks and whites would often get very confused around us Puerto Ricans because we would refuse to identify as either black or white. I am not white, in the sense that I identify with whiteness as it is constructed in the U.S. Shadow didn’t identify as black as it is defined in the U.S. What we were — what we identified as first — was Puerto Ricans.
This caused many problems for Puerto Ricans. At home, we were treated equally regardless of our skin color: there was no “white Puerto Rican” vs. a “black Puerto Rican,” we were brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles. We were familia, and skin color wasn’t a determining factor for accessing love or whatever benefits our families could provide.
The same, however, wasn’t true when we were exposed the social institutions. At school, we were often separated. For example, though my darker-skinned cousin at home was just as smart as I was, he was often placed in less advanced classes than I was. And though I was never taught to identify as white (and I still don’t), I learned very quickly that I was given preferential treatment because of my Eurocentric features. We all learned this early on in our lives. In some cases, it served to makes us cling more closely together, in other instances it was a source of conflict, pain and, grief.
We were also pressured by our peers to identify according to the dominant racial paradigm. The worst insult you could pay me was to call me white. Not because I had anything against whites, but because by identifying me solely by the color of my skin, you were robbing me of my autonomy, my choice to define myself, and my choice to maintain and honor my cultural heritage. More insulting was the pressure to stop us from speaking Spanish. I remember getting in deep trouble once when I responded to one teacher asking, “Can’t you speak English?!!” by saying, “Fuck you, is that English enough for you?”
It was the same for the darker-skinned Puerto Ricans, they also would come under immense pressure to identify as black. Therefore, if there was some sort of conflict, and Shadow chose to stick with me (and I with him) we were ostracized for being “sellouts” or “nigger lovers.” Truth be told, most of the time, we didn’t really give a fuck, but it bothered all of us at some deeper level. Or perhaps we were all experiencing what some sociologists call perceptual dissonance: A tension within the field of awareness of the characteristics that constitute one’s self. Whatever the case, it wasn’t until we all read Piri Thomas’ semi-biographical account of growing up Puerto Rican in New York, Down These Mean Streets, that we found an outlet to discuss and internalize these issues.
I still hear complaints from my African American brothers and sisters, who become frustrated when Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean Latin@s insist they are not black. For African Americans, our resolve toward cultural identification amounts to a denial of our blackness, and to a degree, it is, but I don’t think that sentiment captures the the full story. When Shadow (who would eventually identify as an African American) used to say he wasn’t black, he wasn’t denying his blackness, he was attempting to assert his own identity, his culture, his Latinidad, his Puerto Ricanness. It’s the same with me when I correct people about my assumed “whiteness.” We were saying we were Puerto Rican.
To be sure, there is racism in the Caribbean; to say otherwise is, in my estimation, a racist. However, how Puerto Ricans and other Latin@s define, talk about, and conceptualize race is very different from the way it is constructed and mediated in the United States. I believe Latin@s have something to offer to the profoundly dysfunctional racial dialog (or lack thereof) in the U.S.
Let me start with a rather controversial issue. In the 2000 census, the residents of the island of Puerto Rico (effectively a colony of the USA), claimed itself to be 81% percent white. This is in stark contrast to Mainland Puerto Ricans in the United States, where only 46% identified as white (as an aside, when I was last incarcerated, I identified as black). This finding caused a shitload of controversy with people from all over the ideological map making claims ranging from it being proof of Puerto Ricans’ denial of their African heritage, to countless other assumptions. What also was not lost was the fact that Puerto Rico was whiter than the U.S., where 75% identified as white. And of course, part of the reason for this is that some Puerto Ricans feel a need to dis-identify from American blacks – a marginalized group unjustly burdened with stereotypes. This is a hard truth, but it isn’t the full truth. I think we need to contextualize these numbers properly. Culture and context, my friends, is everything.
First, let’s take note that there is a racial ambivalence in Puerto Rico that doesn’t exist in America. In Puerto Rico, racial identification is less important than cultural identification. This is why I can identify as black, but if you looked at me from an American perspective, you would find that silly (which goes to show, on the other hand, that the full breadth and scope of black physical expression is seriously skewed in this society). One study showed that some dark-skinned Puerto Ricans will identify as “white” while some light-skinned Puerto Ricans will identify as “black.” We just don’t think of race in the same way Americans do and we are, strictly speaking, a demographer’s nightmare. In the U.S., the opposite is true: racial identification largely, determines cultural identification. Therefore, as I have demonstrated earlier, when asked the all-too divisive question, “What are you?” Puerto Ricans of all colors and ancestry usually answer, “Puerto Rican.” In contrast, most New Yorkers will likely answer, black or white (or maybe even Jewish or “of Italian descent”). I am not saying that Puerto Ricans feel no racial identification, but rather that cultural identification is more important.
Another important factor is that Puerto Ricans’ perceptions of race are based more on phenotypic and social definitions of what is a person than on genotypic knowledge about an individual. Put simply, physical and social appearance, instead of biological classification, is used to define race. In the U.S., the legal definition of white meant that the biological offspring of a mixed race union would be considered black (i.e., the “one drop” rule). In that way, the children of a white slave owner and a black slave would still be considered slaves. This legal definition did not exist in Puerto Rico (and other Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands). The progeny of slave and master were considered free.
For Puerto Ricans, a white appearing offspring of an interracial couple could be considered white. On the other hand, an obviously dark-skinned person may not be considered as black (as defined by Americans), especially if there are other mitigating factors, class being a prime consideration.
Another aspect of racial classification for Puerto Ricans is that racial categories are based on a mixture of skin color, class, facial features, and the texture of hair. This is quite different to the mostly color-based, white, black, yellow, and brown U.S. racial paradigm. This makes for a fuller spectrum of racial perspectives for Puerto Ricans. For us, there are blanco/as (the equivalent of U.S. whites); indio/as (the equivalent to the U.S. conception of East Indians — dark-skinned and straight-haired); moreno/as are dark-skinned with a variety of features — black and white; negro/as are black as conceptualized in the U.S. Interestingly, this latter term is also used as a term of endearment, equivalent to the English “honey” or “sweetie” and having no racial connotation. It was not uncommon to hear my parents, both of whom were light-skinned with blue eyes, affectionately call each other, “negrito/a.” Finally, there is the term, trigueño/a, I often use, which can be applied to what is considered brunettes in the U.S. or to negro/as who have high social status. For me, trigueño/a is a racial catch-all term. It can be applied to both white-looking and black-looking Puerto Ricans.
I will finish this already too-long post by emphasizing the importance of the contrast between a multiracial, multiethnic society versus a homogenous society. While in the U.S., racial/ ethnic minorities have been segregated, the same doesn’t hold true for Puerto Rico. In this way, blacks in Puerto Rico were not a distinguishable ethnic group. This is not to say that blacks are evenly distributed throughout the social spectrum. Race and class still intersect in ways that serve to marginalize, but they intersect in ways vastly different from the way they intersect in the U.S. But in terms of housing, institutional treatment, political rights, government policy, and cultural identification, Puerto Ricans of all colors are not different. In addition, Puerto Ricans on the Island of any skin color do not perceive race as an issue. In stark contrast to mainland Puerto Ricans, who identified deeply with black power politics, Island Puerto Ricans, perhaps because they haven’t been confronted with U.S. racism, do not identify as much.
In a very real sense, Latin@s in general, and Puerto Ricans in particular, have approximated the largely unrealized ideal of the Melting Pot. One manifestation of Puerto Ricans’ racial perspectives is that there isn’t the same taboo on racial intermarriage that exists in the U.S. Puerto Ricans have intermarried and continue to intermarry at a higher rate than the U.S. In addition, the emphasis on strong extended family ties makes the world of most Puerto Rican children one that is inhabited by people of many different colors and these colors are not associated with a racial caste system. This intermingled rainbow of colors taken for granted by Puerto Ricans is foreign to most children in the U.S.
I leave it here for now.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…