|Black history in Puerto Rico
|Notable Puerto Ricans of African Ancestry|
Black history in Puerto Rico begins with the African freeman who arrived with the Spanish Conquistadors. The Spaniards enslaved the Tainos, who were the native inhabitants of the island, and many of them died as a result of the treatment that they had received. This presented a problem for the Spanish Crown, since they depended on slavery as a means of manpower for the mines and construction of forts. Their solution was to import slaves from Africa and, as a consequence, the vast majority of the Africans who immigrated to Puerto Rico did so as a result of the slave trade from many different areas of the African continent.
When the gold mines in Puerto Rico were declared depleted, the Spanish Crown no longer held Puerto Rico as a high colonial priority, and the island became a garrison for naval vessels. Africans from British and French possessions in the Caribbean were encouraged to emigrate to Puerto Rico, thereby providing a population base to support the Puerto Rican garrison. The Spanish decree of 1789 allowed the slaves to earn or buy their freedom, however this did little to help their situation. Throughout the years there were many slave revolts in the island. Slaves, who were promised their freedom, joined the short lived uprisng against Spanish colonial rule in what is known as the "Grito de Lares". On on March 22, 1873, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico. Their contributions to music, art, language, and heritage have become instrumental to Puerto Rican culture.
When Ponce de León and the Spaniards arrived on the island of "Borinken" (Puerto Rico), they were greeted by the Cacique Agüeybaná, the supreme leader of the peaceful Taíno tribes on the island. Agüeybaná helped to maintain the peace between the Taínos and the Spaniards. According to historian Ricardo Alegria, the first free black man set foot on the island in 1509. He was Juan Garrido, a conquistador who belonged to Juan Ponce de León's entourage. Garrido was born on the West African coast, the son of an African King. In 1508, he joined Juan Ponce de Leon to explore Puerto Rico and prospect for gold, and in 1511, he fought under Ponce de Leon to repress the Caribs and the Tainos who had joined forces in Puerto Rico in a great revolt against the Spaniards. Garrido went on to join Hernan Cortes in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Another free black man who accompanied de León was Pedro Mejías. Mejías married a Taíno woman chief (a cacica) by the name of Yuisa. Yuisa was baptized Luisa (hence the name of the town of Loíza) so that she could marry Mejías.
The peace between the Spaniards and the Taínos was short-lived. The Spaniards took advantage of the Taínos' good faith and enslaved them, forcing them to work in the gold mines and in the construction of forts. Many Taínos died as a result either of the cruel treatment that they had received or of smallpox which became epidemic on the island. Other Taínos committed suicide or left the island after the failed Taíno revolt of 1511.
Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who had accompanied Ponce de León, was outraged at the treatment by the Spaniards of the Taínos and, in 1512, protested in front of the council of Burgos at the Spanish Courts. He fought for the freedom of the natives and was able to secure their rights. The Spanish colonists, fearing the loss of their labor force, also protested before the courts. They complained that they needed manpower to work in the mines, the fortifications and the thriving sugar industry. As an alternative, Las Casas suggested the importation and use of black slaves. In 1517, the Spanish Crown permitted its subjects to import twelve slaves each, thereby beginning the slave trade in their colonies.
According to historian Luis M. Diaz, the largest contingent of African slaves came from the Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Dahomey, and the region known as the area of Guineas, the Slave Coast. However, the vast majority were Yorubas and Igbos, ethnic groups from Nigeria, and Bantus from the Guineas. The number of slaves in Puerto Rico rose from 1,500 in 1530 to 15,000 by 1555. The slaves were stamped with a hot iron on the forehead, a branding which meant that they were brought to the country legally and prevented their kidnapping.
African slaves were sent to work in the gold mines to replace the lost Taino manpower, or to work in the fields in the island's ginger and sugar industry. They were allowed to live with their families in a bohio (hut) on the master's land, and were given a patch of land where they could plant and grow vegetables and fruits. Blacks had little or no opportunity for advancement and faced discrimination from the Spaniards. Slaves were educated by their masters and soon learned to speak the master's language, educating their own children in the new language. They enriched the "Puerto Rican Spanish" language by adding words of their own. The Spaniards considered the blacks superior to the Taínos, since the Taínos were unwilling to assimilate. The slaves, in contrast, had no choice but to convert to Christianity; they were baptized by the Catholic Church and assumed the surnames of their masters. Many slaves were subject to harsh treatment, at times including rape. The majority of the Conquistadors and farmers who settled the island had arrived without women, and many of them intermarried with the blacks or Tainos. This mixture formed the basis of the early Puerto Rican population.
In 1527, the first major slave rebellion occurred in Puerto Rico as dozen of slaves fought against the colonist in a brief revolt. The few slaves who escaped retreated to the mountains where they resided as maroons with surviving Tainos. By 1873, over twenty slave revolts had been carried out, including some of great political importance such as the Ponce and Vega Baja conspiracies .
By 1570, the gold mines were declared depleted of the precious metal. After gold mining came to an end on the island, the Spanish Crown bypassed Puerto Rico by moving the western shipping routes to the north. The island became primarily a garrison for those ships that would pass on their way to or from richer colonies. A Spanish edict of 1664 offered freedom and land to African people from non-Spanish colonies, such as Jamaica and St. Dominique (Haiti), who immigrated to Puerto Rico and provided a population base to support the Puerto Rican garrison and its forts. Those freeman who settled the western and southern parts of the island soon adopted the ways and customs of the Spaniards. Some joined the local militia which fought against the British in the many Briish attempts to invade the island. The escaped slaves and the freedman who emigrated from the West Indies kept their former masters surnames, which were normally either English or French. Even today it is not uncommon for Puerto Ricans of African ancestry to have non-Spanish surnames.
After 1784, the method of hot branding the slaves forehead was suspended and they were permitted to obtain their freedom under the following circumstances:
In 1789, the Spanish Crown issued the "Royal Decree of Graces of 1789", which set new rules pertaining to the commercialization of slaves and added restrictions to the granting of freeman status. The decree granted its subjects the right to purchase slaves and to participate in the flourishing business of slave trading in the Caribbean. Later that year a new slave code, also known as "El Código Negro" (The Black code), was introduced.
In accordance to "El Código Negro" the slave could buy his freedom, in the event that his master was willing to sell, by paying the price sought. Slaves were allowed to earn money during their spare time by working as shoemakers, by cleaning clothes, or by selling the produce they were allowed to grow in the small patch of land given to them by their masters. Slaves were able to pay for their freedom by installments. They could make payments in installments for a new born child, not yet baptized, at a cost of half the going price for a baptized child. Many of these freeman started settlements in the areas which became known as Cangrejos (Santurce), Carolina, Canóvanas, Loíza, Loíza Aldea, and Luquillo and some became slave owners themselves. The native-born Puerto Ricans (criollos) who wanted to serve in the regular Spanish army petitioned the Spanish Crown to this effect. In 1741, the Spanish government established the Regimiento Fijo de Puerto Rico. Many of the former slaves, now freeman, either joined the Fijo or the local civil militia. Puerto Ricans of African ancestry played an instrumental role in the defeat of Sir Ralph Abercromby in the British invasion of Puerto Rico in 1797.
Rafael Cordero (1790–1868), was a freeman born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He became known as "The Father of Public Education in Puerto Rico". Cordero was a self-educated Puerto Rican who provided free schooling to children regardless of their race. Among the distinguished alumni who attended Cordero's school were future abolitionists Román Baldorioty de Castro, Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, and José Julián Acosta. Cordero proved that racial and economic integration could be possible and accepted in Puerto Rico. In 2004, the Roman Catholic Church, upon the request of San Juan Archbishop Roberto González Nieves, began the process of Cordero's beatification.
José Campeche (1751–1809), was another Puerto Rican of African ancestry who contributed greatly to the island's culture. Campeche's father Tomás Campeche, was a freed slave born in Puerto Rico, and María Jordán Marqués, his mother, came from the Canary Islands. Because of this mixed descent, he was identified as a mulatto, a common term during his time. Campeche is the first known Puerto Rican artist and is considered by many as one of its best. He distinguished himself with his paintings related to religious themes and of governors and other important personalities.
Capt. Miguel Henriquez (c. 1680–17??), was a former pirate who became Puerto Rico's first black military hero when he organized an expeditionary force which fought and defeated the British in the island of Vieques. Capt. Henriques was received as a national hero when he returned the island of Vieques back to the Spanish Empire and to the governorship of Puerto Rico. He was awarded "La Medalla de Oro de la Real Efigie" and the Spanish Crown named him "Captain of the Seas" awarding him a letter of marque and reprisal which granted him the privileges of a privateer.
The Royal Decree of Graces of 1815 was a legal order approved by the Spanish Crown in the early half of the 19th century to encourage Spaniards and later Europeans of non-Spanish origin to settle and populate the colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico. The decree encouraged slave labor to revive agriculture and attract new settlers. The new agricultural class now immigrating from other countries of Europe sought slave labor in large numbers and cruelty became the order of the day. It is for this reason that a series of slave uprisings occurred on the island, from the early 1820s until 1868 in what is known as the Grito de Lares. The 1834 Royal census of Puerto Rico established that 11% of the population were slaves, 35% were colored freemen and 54% were white.
Rose Clemente, a black Puerto Rican columnist, wrote "Until 1846, Blacks on the island had to carry a notebook (Libreta system) to move around the island, like the passbook system in apartheid South Africa."
During the mid-19th century, a committee of abolitionists was formed in Puerto Rico that included many prominent Puerto Ricans. Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances (1827–1898), whose parents were wealthy landowners, believed in the abolition of slavery, and together with fellow Puerto Rican abolitionist Segundo Ruiz Belvis (1829–1867) founded a clandestine organization called "The Secret Abolitionist Society". The objective of the society was to free slave children by the sacrament of baptism. The event, which was also known as "aguas de libertad" (waters of liberty), was carried out at the Catheral of Mayagüez. When the child was baptized, Betances would give money to the parents which they in turn used to buy the child's freedom from his master.
José Julián Acosta (1827–1891) was a member of a Puerto Rican commission, which included Ramón Emeterio Betances, Segundo Ruiz Belvis, and Francisco Mariano Quiñones (1830–1908). The commission participated in the "Overseas Information Committee" which met in Madrid, Spain. There, Acosta presented the argument for the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico. On November 19, 1872, Román Baldorioty de Castro (1822–1889) together with Luis Padial (1832–1879), Julio Vizcarrondo (1830–1889) and the Spanish Minister of Overseas Affairs, Segismundo Moret (1833–1913), presented a proposal for the abolition of slavery. On March 22, 1873, the Spanish government approved the proposal which became known as the Moret Law. This edict granted freedom to slaves over 60 years of age, those belonging to the state, and children born to slaves after September 17, 1868. Most importantly for genealogy purposes, the Moret Law established the Central Slave Registrar which in 1872 began gathering the following data on the island's slave population: name, country of origin, present residence, names of parents, sex, marital status, trade, age, physical description, and master's name.
The Spanish government had lost most of its possessions in the America's by 1850. After the successful slave rebellion against the French in St Dominique (Haiti) in 1803, the Spanish Crown became fearful that the "Criollos" (native born) of Puerto Rico and Cuba, her last two remaining possessions, may follow suit. Therefore, the Spanish government issued the Royal Decree of Graces of 1815, attracting European immigrants from non-Spanish countries to populate the island believing that these new immigrants would be more loyal to Spain. However, they did not expect the new immigrants to racially intermarry as they did and identify themselves completely with their new homeland. On May 31, 1848, the Governor of Puerto Rico Juan Prim, in fear of an independence or slavery revolt imposed draconian laws, "El Bando contra La Raza Africana", to control the behavior of all Black Puerto Ricans, slave or free. On September 23, 1868, slaves, who were promised their freedom, participated in the short failed revolt against Spain which became known in the history books as "El Grito de Lares" or "The Cry of Lares". Many of the participants were imprisoned or executed.
On March 22, 1873, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico. Slave owners were to free their slaves in exchange of a monetary compensation. The majority of the freed slaves continued to work for their former masters with the difference that they were now freeman and received what was considered a just pay for their labor.
The freed slaves were able to fully integrate themselves into Puerto Rico's society. It cannot be denied that racism has existed in Puerto Rico since racism is something that may exist in anyone's heart; it is impossible to know. However, racism in Puerto Rico did not exist to the extent of other places in the New World, possibly because of the following factors:
The racism that did exist and which Black Puerto Ricans were subject to was exposed by two Puerto Rican writers; Abelardo Diaz Alfaro (1916–1999) and Luis Palés Matos (1898–1959) who was credited with creating the poetry genre known as Afro-Antillano.
After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States by way of the Treaty of Paris of 1898. The United States took over control of the island's institutions and political participation by the natives was restricted. One Puerto Rican politician of African descent who distinguished himself during this period was José Celso Barbosa (1857–1921). On July 4, 1899, he founded the pro-statehood Puerto Rican Republican Party and became known as the "Father of the Statehood for Puerto Rico" movement. Another distinguished Puerto Rican of African descent, who in this case was an advocate of Puerto Rico's independence was Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874–1938). He is considered by some to be the "Father of Black History" in the United States and he coined the phrase "Afroborincano" meaning African-Puerto Rican.
After the United States Congress approved the Jones Act of 1917, every Puerto Rican became a citizen of the United States. As citizens Puerto Ricans were eligible for the military draft and as such many were drafted into the armed forces of the United States, which at that time was segregated. Puerto Ricans of African descent were subject to the discrimination which was rampant in the U.S.
Black Puerto Ricans residing in the mainland United States were assigned to all-black units. Rafael Hernández (1892–1965) and his brother Jesus along with 16 more Puerto Ricans were recruited by Jazz bandleader James Reese Europe to join the United States Army's Orchestra Europe. They were assigned to the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African-American regiment which gained fame during World War I and was nicknamed "The Harlem Hell Fighters" by the Germans.
The United States also implemented the policy of military segragated units in Puerto Rico. Pedro Albizu Campos (1891–1965), who later became the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, held the rank of lieutenant. He founded the "Home Guard" unit of Ponce and was later assigned to the 375th Infantry Regiment, an all black Puerto Rican regiment, which was stationed in Puerto Rico and never saw combat action. According to Campos, the discrimination which he witnessed in the Armed Forces, influenced his political beliefs.
Puerto Ricans of African descent were not only subject to the racial discrimination that was common in the military and in everyday life in the U.S., but were also discriminated against in field of sports as well. Puerto Ricans who were dark skinned and wanted to play Major League Baseball in the United States, were not allowed to do so because of the so-called codification of baseball's color line of 1892, barring not only African American players, but any player from any country who was dark skinned. This, however did not keep Puerto Ricans of African descent from participating in the sport. In 1928, Emilio "Millito" Navarro traveled to New York City and became the first Puerto Rican to play baseball in the Negro Leagues when he joined the Cuban Stars. He was later followed by others such as Francisco Coimbre who also played for the Cuban Stars. The persistence of these men paved the way for the likes of Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda who played in the Major Leagues after the colorline was broken by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and eventually were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Black Puerto Ricans also participated in other sports as international contestants. In 1917, Nero Chen became the first Puerto Rican boxer to gain international recognition when he fought against (Panama) Joe Gan at the "Palace Casino" in New York. In the 1948 Summer Olympics )the XIV Olympics), celebrated in London, Juan Evangelista Venegas made Puerto Rican sports history by becoming Puerto Rico's first Olympic medal winner when he beat Belgium's representative, Callenboat, on points for a unanimous decision. He won the bronze medal in boxing in the Bantamweight division, falling short of the silver medal to Giovanni Zuddas. The event was also historical because it was the first time that the island participated as a nation in an international sporting event. It was common for impoverished Puerto Rican to seek boxing as a way to earn an income and it would not be long before a Puerto Rican of African descent would become a world champion. On March 30, 1965, José "Chegui" Torres defeated Willie Pastrano by technical knockout and won the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association light heavyweight championships. He became the third Puerto Rican and the first one of African descent to win a professional world championship.
Among those who exposed the racism and discrimination which Puerto Ricans, especially Black Puerto Ricans were subject to, in the United States was Jesús Colón. Colón, who is considered by many as the "Father of the Nuyorican movement", told about his experiences in New York as a Black Puerto Rican in his book Lo que el pueblo me dice--: crónicas de la colonia puertorriqueña en Nueva York (What the people tell me---: Chronicles of the Puerto Rican colony in New York).
The descendants of the former African slaves became instrumental in the development of Puerto Rico's political, economic and cultural structure. They overcame many obstacles and have made their presence felt with their contributions to the island's entertainment, sports, literature and scientific institutions. Their contributions and heritage can still be felt today in Puerto Rico's art, music, cuisine, and religious beliefs in everyday life. In Puerto Rico, March 22 is known as "Abolition Day" and it is a holiday celebrated by those who live in the island.
Some African slaves spoke "Bozal" Spanish, a mixture of Portuguese, Spanish, and the language spoken in the Congo. The African influence in the Spanish spoken in the island can be traced to the many words from African languages that have become a permanent part of Puerto Rican Spanish.
Puerto Rican musical instruments such as la clave (also known as par de palos or "two sticks"), drums with stretched animal skin such as bongos or congas, and Puerto Rican music-dance forms such as la bomba or la plena are likewise rooted in Africa. The Bomba represents the strong African influence in Puerto Rico. Bomba is a music, rhythm and dance that was brought by West African slaves to the island of Puerto Rico.
The Plena is another form of folkloric music of Puerto Rico of African origin. The Plena was brought to Ponce by blacks who immigrated north from the English-speaking islands south of Puerto Rico. The Plena is a rhythm that is clearly African and very similar to Calypso, Soca and Dance hall music from Trinidad and Jamaica.
The Bomba and Plena were played during the festival of Santiago (St. James), since slaves were not allowed to worship their own gods. The Bomba and Plena evolved into countless styles based on the kind of dance intended to be used. At the same time, these included leró, yubá, cunyá, babú and belén. The slaves celebrated baptisms, weddings, and births with the "bailes de bomba". Slaveowners, for fear of a rebellion, allowed the dances on Sundays. The women dancers would mimic and poke fun at the slave owners. Masks were and still are worn to ward off evil spirits and pirates. One of the most popular masked characters is the "Vejigante" (vey-hee-GANT-eh). The Vejigante is a mischievous character and the main character in the Carnivals of Puerto Rico.
Until 1953, the Bomba and Plena were virtually unknown outside of Puerto Rico until Puerto Rican musicians Rafael Cortijo (1928–1982), Ismael Rivera (1931–1987) and the El Conjunto Monterrey orchestra introduced the Bomba and Plena to the rest of the world. What Rafael Cortijo did with his orchestra was to modernize the Puerto Rican folkloric rhythms with the use of piano, bass, saxophones, trumpets, and other percussion instruments such as timbales, bongos, and replacing the typical barriles (skin covered barrels) with congas.
Rafael Cepeda (1910–1996), also known as "The Patriarch of the Bomba and the Plena", was the patriarch of the Cepeda Family. The family is one of the most famous exponents of Puerto Rican folk music, with generations of musicians working to preserve the African heritage in Puerto Rican music. The family is well known for their performances of the bomba and plena folkloric music and are considered by many to be the keepers of those traditional genres.
Sylvia del Villard (1928–1990), was a member of the Afro-Borcua Ballet and participated in the following Afro-Puerto Rican productions, Palesiana y Aquelarre and Palesianisima. In 1968, she founded the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater, which was recognized by the Panamerican Association of the New World Festival as the most important authority of Black Puerto Rican culture. The Theater group were given a contract which permitted them to present their act in other countries and in various universities in the United States. In 1981, she became the first and only director of the office of the Afro-Puerto Rican affairs of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture. She was known to be an outspoken activist who fought for the equal rights of the Black Puerto Rican artist.
Listen to a "Potpourri of Plenas" interpreted by Rene Ramos Here
According to Nydia Rios de Colon, a contributor to the Smithsonian Folklife Cookbook who offers culinary seminars through the Puerto Rican Cultural Institute, she stated in Arts Publications the following:
"Puerto Rican cuisine also has a strong African influence. The melange of flavors that make up the typical Puerto Rican cuisine counts with the African touch. Pasteles, small bundles of meat stuffed into a dough made of grated green banana (sometimes combined with pumpkin, potatoes, plantains, or yautía) and wrapped in plantain leaves, were devised by African women on the island and based upon food products that originated in Africa."
"The salmorejo, a local land crab creation, resembles Southern cooking in the United States with its spicing. The mofongo, one of the island's best-known dishes, is a ball of fried mashed plantain stuffed with pork crackling, crab, lobster, shrimp, or a combination of all of them. Puerto Rico's cuisine embraces its African roots, weaving them into its Indian and Spanish influences."
In 1478, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, established an ecclesiastical tribunal known as the Spanish Inquisition. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms.
The Inquisition maintained no rota or religious court in Puerto Rico. However, heretics were written up and if necessary remanded to regional Inquisitional tribunals in Spain or elsewhere in the western hemisphere. As a result Africans were not allowed to practice their native religious beliefs and therefore no single organized African religion survived intact from the times of slavery to the present in Puerto Rico. However, there is a plethora of spiritual beliefs that can be identified as being definitively African. Santeria, more organized in Cuba, and Palo Mayombe, a Taino-Kongo syncretic mix, are also practiced in Puerto Rico, the latter having arrived there at a much earlier time.
Palo Mayombe, or Congolese traditions, existed for several centuries before Santeria came into existence (19th Century). While many like to believe that this originally came out of Cuba, the reality is that it was only organized in Cuba. Yoruba lived in many other places in the Caribbean and Latin America, and so, they took with them their traditions which were allowed to exist in many different forms and guises in other places like Puerto Rico or Trinidad where Christianity was dominant. Even though they were converted to Christianity, the captured Africans did not abandon their African religious practices altogether. Santeria is a religion created between the diverse images drawn from the Catholic Church and the representational deities of the African Yoruba ethnic group of Nigeria. This religious system formed in Cuba, and had sister traditions that emerged in their own peculiar ways on many of the smaller islands.
In Santería there are many deities who respond to one "top" or "head" God. These deities, which are said to have descended from heaven to help and console their followers, are known as "Orishas." According to Santeria the Orishas are the ones who chooses the person whom it will watch over.
Unlike other religions where the a worshiper is closely identified with his sect (such as Christianity) the worshiper is not always a "Santero". Santeros are the priests and the only official practitioners ("Santeros" are not to be confused with Puerto Rico's craftsmen who carve and create religious statues from wood and are also called Santeros). A person becomes a Santero if he passes certain tests and has been chosen by the Orishas.
The following is a list of Puerto Ricans of African descent born in the island who have reached notability in their respective fields, either in Puerto Rico, the United States, and/or internationally:
Redirecting to Black history in Puerto Rico