Scripts of Blackness and the Racial Dynamics of Nationalism in Puerto Rico

Scripts of Blackness and the Racial Dynamics of Nationalism in Puerto Rico

Papers of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey
Volume 6 (2009)
38 pages

Dr. Isar P. Godreau
Institute of Interdisciplinary Research
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey

National identity, no matter how differently defined, is often constructed through claims to heritage, “roots,” tradition, and descent. In the Western World, these claims, almost inevitably allude to questions of “race.” In Puerto Rico, it is the mixture of the Spanish, the Taíno Indian, and the African, which come to epitomize the racial/traditional substance out of which “the nation” is constructed, defended, and naturalized.

This mixture is often represented by images, statues, murals across the island that display the three racialized representatives, as the precursors of the modern, racially mixed Puerto Rican man or woman. (See Fig. 1).

The Taíno, Spaniard and African “roots” depicted in this national imagery, represent heritage symbols. They do not stand for contemporary ethnic constituencies, such as “Afro-Puerto Ricans”, “Indo-Puerto Ricans” or “Euro-Puerto Ricans.” Rather they are commonly understood as origin groups (roots) – that mixed during the period of Spanish colonization to conform “lo Puertorriqueño” in the present. As the mural says: “Tres Razas: Una Cultura.”

My book-project examines the different meanings Puerto Rican people—namely, intellectuals, politicians, government officials, and community residents—attribute to the black component of that mixture in their on-going process of constructing a Puerto Rican national identity.

Unlike the concept of mestizaje developed in many countries of mainland Latin America, blackness is not completely erased or excluded in discourses about the nation in Puerto Rico. Notions of race-mixture in Puerto Rico are more similar to those that developed in Brazil or Cuba where blackness is simultaneously excluded but also strategically included in the contemporary narrative of nation. Scholarship on race and racism in Afro-Latin America has made clear that the implicit goal of this narrative of mixture is whitening or blanqueamiento. Perhaps, the most obvious evidence of the prevalence of the ideology of blanqueamiento in Puerto Rico is the 2000 census, as only 8% of Puerto Ricans living in the Island declared themselves to be black, while an overwhelming majority of 80.5% identified themselves as white (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). Elsewhere (Godreau 2008) I discuss how these results evidence popular understandings of whiteness as an inclusive, flexible, category that can encompass mixture and blackness as an undesirable category that is understood as extreme and pure, not mixed enough. In any case, the point is that—despite the rhetorical inclusion of an African influence in nationalist discourses—a growing body of Puerto Rican scholarship has documented how blackness is often socially marked as an inferior, ugly, dirty, unintelligent, backward identity–that is also reduced to a primitive hyper-sexuality (particularly in the case of black women), equated with disorder, superstition, servitude, danger, and heavily criminalized. Puerto Rican scholars have done important work on these different aspects and manifestations of racism and the exclusion of blackness from nationalist narratives – particularly in the late 1990’s and 2000. (c.f. Alegría and Ríos 2005; Cardona 1997; Díaz-Quiñonez 1985; Findlay 1999; Franco and Ortíz 2004; Giusti 1996; Godreau 2002a, 2002b, 2003; Guerra 1998; Rivera 2003; Rivero 2005; Santiago-Valles 1994, 1995; Santos-Febres 1993; Torres 1998; Zenón-Cruz 1975 among others)…

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