For Gloriann Sacha Antonetty Lebrón, race consciousness began at 4 years old. That’s when her mother began treating her hair with a chemical relaxer to straighten it. Not until she was 12 years old did Antonetty Lebrón stop the straightening, opting instead to braid her hair.
“Hair is the strongest opportunity to see who we are,” says Antonetty Lebrón of Puerto Rico, who last year launched the island’s first magazine aimed at black women, titled, Revista étnica.
Antonetty Lebrón recently was a panelist at a University of Central Florida discussion on Afro-Latinidad hosted by the UCF Latin American Studies Program. She shared the dais with Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, associate professor of studio art at the UCF School of Visual Arts; Fernando Rivera, professor or sociology and director of UCF’s Puerto Rico Research Hub; and journalist Jennifer Marcial Ocasio, editor of El Sentinel.
In Puerto Rico people tiptoe around the subject of race and racism, a sure sign of a deep denial of the significance of color on the island. However, Afro-Latinos are stepping into the void in academia, literature and elsewhere to draw attention to what it means to be black in Puerto Rico – or Cuba or the Dominican Republic or in Latin America. Brazil, for example, has the largest Afro-Latino population in North or South America, a reflection of it being the largest recipient of enslaved blacks to the Americas.
“Afro-Latinidad is a very complex scheme,” explains Antonetty Lebrón. “Colorism is real. Racism is real. Yes, Puerto Rico is racist.”
Encouraged to Be White
Many Puerto Ricans may raise a loud howl to Antonetty Lebrón’s statement, preferring to see Puerto Rico as a racial melting pot. But it is also undeniable that for centuries Puerto Ricans have been encouraged to be white. First, through racial mixing to “lighten or whiten the race.”
Second, through the indoctrination of Puerto Ricans as being the “product of three races” – white or Spaniard, Taíno or native and black or African, a bromide that every primary school student in Puerto Rico can recite.
The popular construct has become part of a tortured vocabulary on matters of race that prevents Puerto Ricans from looking at Puerto Rican-brand racism in the eye and/or examine their own racial privilege.
Many conversations devolve into an embarrassing recounting of the pigmentation of family members – “my grandmother is white and my grandfather is black, and my cousins …,” and so it goes, as if it proved anything.
Fact is, in Puerto Rico the great majority of the island’s political and economic elite are white. In towns like Loíza, a municipality near San Juan that is 64 percent black, half the population lives below poverty – about 10 points higher than the island as a whole.
And, the third way Puerto Ricans have been encouraged to be white is through avoidance of racial self-identification as evidenced in the census. For decades Puerto Rico opted not to include a race question in its census questionnaire. (Yes, states can do that because governors have final say on census questions for their state.)
The 2000 Census
That changed in the 2000 census under Gov. Pedro Rosselló González. Such is the stigma of blackness in Puerto Rico that 80 percent of the population identified as white. Only 8 percent chose black. In the 2010 census the number of black Puerto Ricans inched up to nearly 11 percent.
But the verdict is still out on whether more Puerto Ricans will identify as black in the 2020 census.
“My mom was an Afro-Puerto Rican woman, although she wouldn’t have used that language,” says artist Raimundi-Ortiz, whose work often digs deep into the notion of otherness.
It’s doubtful things have changed dramatically since 2010, if the recent eruption of Puerto Rican racism after the Miss Universe beauty pageant is any indication.
Miss Universe Comments
The crown was placed on the head of Miss South Africa Zozibini Tunzi instead of runner-up Miss Puerto Rico Madison Anderson Berríos, a statuesque blonde who herself was a target of earlier criticism for not being Puerto Rican enough – she was born in Florida and speaks little Spanish.
In Puerto Rico and in Florida many Puerto Ricans unleashed anti-black statements and sentiments when Anderson Berríos lost to Miss South Africa.
“Las blancas son mucho mas preciosas. Yo no cambio una blanca con los ojos azules y pelo lacio que una prieta. Alla el que les guste las negras yo no.” White women are much more beautiful, wrote a commenter in El Nuevo Día, the island’s main newspaper, adding I wouldn’t change a white woman with blue eyes and straight hair for a black one. Then he ended by saying he didn’t like black women.
“When you write, ‘I’m not racist, but’ … I don’t want to read anymore,” says Marcial Ocasio, whose El Sentinel article on whether Puerto Ricans are racist published after the pageant generated voluminous comments, many of them negative. “You start seeing this with a different eye once you get immersed in the topic.”
The comments were no surprise to Antonetty Lebrón. “The day Madison won [the Miss Puerto Rico Universe pageant] was a terrible day for black Puerto Ricans,” she says.
She also pointed out it’s not just other Puerto Ricans who don’t accept Afro-Boricuas. African-Americans often don’t accept Afro-Latinos as black, either, creating yet another form of racial erasure.
“We’re so fragmented. We’re too Latina to be black and too black to be Latina.”
Who Am I? What Am I?
During the panel discussion Antonetty Lebrón asked audience members to raise their hands if they considered themselves black or part black. Some timid hands went up.
If you’re Puerto Rican and you don’t think you’re black, get your DNA tested. You may be in for an ancestry shocker.
Here are my results:
- 29 percent African – With 12 percent, the largest proportion, from Mali
- 14 percent Native – Taíno or Arawaks of Puerto Rico
- 52 percent white – With 22 percent of that from Great Britain, larger even than the 12 percent from the Iberian Peninsula, meaning Spain and Portugal
˜˜María Padilla, Editor