Changing Space, Making Race: Distance, Nostalgia, and the Folklorization of Blackness in Puerto Rico

Changing Space, Making Race: Distance, Nostalgia, and the Folklorization of Blackness in Puerto Rico

Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power
Volume 9,  Issue 3, 2002
pages 281-304
DOI: 10.1080/10702890213969

Isar Godreau
Institute of Interdisciplinary Research
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey

In this article, I critique some of the discursive terms in which blackness is folklorized and celebrated institutionally as part of the nation in Puerto Rico. I examine a government-sponsored housing project that meant to revitalize and stylize the community of San Antón, in Ponce, as a historic black site. Although government officials tried to preserve what they considered to be traditional aspects of this community, conflict arose because not all residents agreed with this preservationist agenda. I document the controversy, linking the government’s approach to racial discourses that represent blackness as a vanishing and distant component of Puerto Rico. I argue that this inclusion and celebration complements ideologies of blanqueamiento (whitening) and race-mixture that distance blackness to the margins of the nation and romanticize black communities as remnants of a past era. I link these dynamics to modernizing State agendas and discourses of authenticity that fuel cultural nationalism worldwide.

In March 1995, The San Juan Star, one of Puerto Rico’s leading newspapers, announced that “Puerto Ricans will ‘bleach away’ many of the physical traces of its African past by the year 2200, with the rest of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean following a few centuries later” (Bliss 1995:30). The article, which was written to commemorate the 122nd year anniversary of the abolition of slavery on the island, also seemed to be commemorating the future “abolition” of blackness itself, “in two centuries.” said one of the experts interviewed, “there will hardly be any blacks in Puerto Rico” (historian, Luis Diaz Soler, in Bliss 1995: 30).

This racial forecast and concomitant claims to the gradual disappearance of black cultural manifestations reinforces ideologies of blanqueamiento well known and thoroughly documented in Latin America (Burdick 1992; de la Fuente 2001; Lancaster 1991; Martinez-Echazabal 1999; Skidmore 1974; Stephan 1991; Wade 1993,1997; and Whitten and Torres 1992. among others). Scholars and activists have demonstrated that such notions of whitening often go hand in hand with…

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