The Puerto Rican Race
A Reply to Ibrahim Abdullah Al-Boriqee
By Khalil Al-Puerto Rikani
August 02, 2009
I would like to answer your question as to my position on Puerto Ricans and race. It has been long overdue that I reply to you on Puerto Ricans and race. If you do not agree with me, then at least you can see the sources from where I am coming. At the very least, these article may help you strengthen your position. Simply stated I would say an emphatic “no” to your question regarding whether or not I see the Puerto Ricans as a “rainbow people.” Before I engage this topic, I will say from the outset that there are several positions out there regarding the topic of race and Puerto Ricans. Therefore, there is no ijma (consensus) on this topic among those scholars who have studied this topic or among the common Puerto Rican people (al-‘amm) themselves. Perhaps the first proponent for the “rainbow people” position was a New York Puerto Rican Felipe Luciano, the former chairman of the Young Lords and an original Last Poet. Interestingly enough, he also held a position of being a black Boricua (see Palante: Young Lords Party, by the Young Lords Party and Michael Abramson). There are many in Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the continental United States that reject the fact that there is a Puerto Rican race.
Race has many different meanings depending upon whom you ask. From the outset, I must say that my understanding of race is based more so upon a sociologist point of view. I hold that race is a social concept that is not based upon biology. Race itself is a topic that is an ever-evolving topic. Where does one demarcate the “us” from the “them” differs in time and place? A search at Wikipedia can give you a good introduction as to the various positions of race that has developed in time and place.
The position that there is a “Hispanic race” is a similar position to the “Puerto Rican race” concept. This concept I also do not believe in. Also, regarding that there is only one race (i.e., the human race), definitely, there is only one race in one sense of the word. However, the fact is that there is this other meaning of race out there that cannot be denied or ignored. I do not think that Blacks had been lynched in the past for anything other than being from a different race than White people. While some of my thoughts on race and Puerto Ricans are influenced by my experience as a non-White person (at least in this society I am) in the continental United States, many of my ideas are based upon a growing movement of Boricuas on the island that are challenging old concepts of Boricuas being a “Puerto Rican race,” “a rainbow race,” or a “Hispanic race.” It is also part of a Latin American movement to recognize African and indígenas cultures in Latin America. The whole concept of hispanism or latinidad is a Eurocentric concept. As far as hispanism/latinidad recognizing the non-European part of our past, it sometimes, at the very least, recognizes the so-called brown (i.e., indígenas) roots of our people. It may also extend to be inclusive of some Black African roots, but this is always conceived as something far, distant, and in the past.
One of the leading academics that put forth the position that we Puerto Rican are a “rainbow” people was the New York Puerto Rican sociologist Clara Rodriguez. She says that she did not coin the phrase, but that it came from Felipe Luciano, as mentioned earlier. Her main work on race and Puerto Ricans is her book Puerto Ricans Between Black and White. See pages 25-35. Her book is available at the following website:
http://books.google.com/books?id=A9TJVGbPUigC&pg=PA153&lpg=PA153&dq= the+rainbow+people+ricans&source=bl&ots=5-d36a5IOV&sig= 9fndy87m9pmHJGFew-mGUONn2U0&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=5&ct=result .
http://books.google.com/books?id=61widJcHLUYC&pg=PA34&lpg=PA34&dq= the+rainbow+people+ricans&source=web&ots=H-dT17OYEf&sig= 0goUzUL6QJkspRSX9aEB5HPa9dU&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result &resnum=10&ct=result#PPA25,M1 .
You can read an article from her where she defends her “rainbow people” thesis in an article entitled, “Rejoiner to Robert Rodríguez-Morazzani’s “Beyond the Rainbow: Mapping the Discourse on Puerto Ricans and ‘Race’,” by Clara E. Rodriguez, Centro Journal, Volume IX -Number 1 (Winter 1996-97). It is on the internet at: http://www.centropr.org/documents/journals/Rejoinder-ClaraRodriguez.pdf . This is article was in reply to Rodríguez-Morazzani’s “Beyond the Rainbow” thesis found in his article “Beyond the Rainbow: Discourse on Puerto Ricans and “Race,” Centro Journal, Volume VIII, Number 1 & 2 (Spring 1996). It is online at http://www.centropr.org/documents/journals/BeyondtheRainbow-RobertoRodriguez%20.pdf .
20th Century Black Puerto Rican Intellectual on Race
While Rodiguez does not deny blackness in the Puerto Rican community, one thing we cannot deny is that the whole concept of the Puerto Rican race was a concept that, for the most part, upper class, land owning, white Puerto Ricans and light-skinned mulattos conceptualized. Even upper class Afro-Boricuas like Don Pedro Albizu Campos had exposed the concept of a “Hispanic race” (not a Puerto Rican one). His reasoning for accepting such a concept was more grounded in politics then fact. He was organizing in Puerto Rico at a time when he was trying to unite Puerto Ricans of many different racial backgrounds around the concept of nationalism. We can make a comparison of him as a nationalist and President Barack H. Obama who were both trying to see their particular nation as a post-racial society. The recent controversy over Professor Henry Louis Gates shows from many angles how the United States is still no longer a post-racial. Even his mentioning that the Cambridge Police Department “acted stupidly” has raised White Americans anxieties about race.
The question though is whether race has been resolved in Puerto Rico. I do not think it was resolved in Don Pedro’s day nor in our time. During his time, the island’s elites blamed Puerto Rico’s problems on the lower class Afro-Boricuas. In the 1970s and 1980s, the conflict between cocolos (salseros) and rockeros highlights the conflicts of race in the island. (See “Policing the ‘Whitest’ of the Antilles,” by Kelvin Santiago-Valles, Centro Journal, Volume VIII- Number 1 & 2, Spring 1996). In the 1990s and this decade, the issue of crime is seen as one of a problem originating with Black Puerto Ricans and Dominicans (another Black Hispanic peoples) of the island’s ghetto.
Many good articles shed light upon some of the intellectual Black Puerto Ricans of the early twentieth century on the issue of race. One particular article that compares two Black Caribbean men’s (i.e., Marcus Garvey and Don Pedro Albizu Campos) positions on race is the following article: “Two variants of Caribbean nationalism: Marcus Garvey and Pedro Albizu Campos,” by Juan Manuel Carrión, Centro Journal, Volume XVII – Number 1 (Spring 2005). It can retrieved at http://www.centropr.org/documents/journals/Carrion.pdf .
Another good article that compares and contrasts the concept of race between Arturo Shomburg and Jesús Colón is Winston James’ James’ “AfroPuerto Rican Radicalism i nthe US: Reflections on the Political Trajectories of Arturo Shomburg and Jesús Colón” in Centro Journal, Volume VIII – Numbers 1 & 2 (Spring 1996), http://www.centropr.org/documents/journals/AfroPuertoRicanRadicalismintheUS-WinstonJames.pdf . Arturo Shomburg is well-known in New York’s African-American community since there is the Arthur Shomburg Library dedicate to him on 135th Street in Harlem. His story is interesting since he was born and raised on the island, and when he asked a teacher in school as to Blacks contribution to Puerto Rican society, his teacher told him that there was no contribution. He then set out to research the contribution of Blacks to Puerto Rico. Again, this story shows how Puerto Rican history has been whitewashed.
One last article that I will mention is “Un Hombre (Negro) del Pueblo José Celso Barbosa and the Puerto Rican “Race” Toward Whiteness,” by Miriam J. Román, Centro Journal, Volume VIII, Numbers 1 & 2 (Spring 1996), http://www.centropr.org/documents/journals/Unhombrenegrodelpueblo-MiriamJimenez.pdf .
There are many articles discussing and examining the issue of race and Puerto Ricans. I know this can be a very controversial topic. Many Boricuas do not share the position that I have taken in this regard. My position is simply this – Puerto Ricans are a nation of people that are made up of three main racial and cultural backgrounds – Black African, Iberian Europeans, and Native Americans. All of these races and their cultures have contributed to Puerto Rican culture and society. The African element has contributed more than any other culture, and this contribution is ignored or marginalized. American culture has also contributed to Puerto Rican culture since 1898. Puerto Ricans are not one race. They range from the whitest of white to the blackest of black. Most Puerto Ricans are a mulatto people. That means that most are mixed somewhere between the White race and the Black race. Puerto Ricans that are mixed with the Black race may reach up to seventy percent. I do not like the way that Blackness is suppressed in Puerto Rican society. It is what it is. It is not something to be ashamed of, ignored, or explained away.
To sum it all up, I can say much about this topic. I hope that you will read these articles and develop your own view. You will have to establish membership at Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños before you can access most of these articles. I am not saying that I am necessarily right or wrong. Might I suggest that you start off reading the Centro Journal’s Spring 1996 issue on race and identity. You may want to first read Kelvin Santiago-Valles’ and Rodríguez-Morazzani’s articles. Another scholar that influenced my ideas the most is Raquel Rivera. You can find her book at Amazon.com. It is entitled New York Puerto Ricans from the Hip Hop Zone (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). You may access her homepage at :
Her MySpace blog is located at the following:
By the way, she was raised on the island. I mention that she is from the island you made a distinction between Puerto Ricans (and other Latin Americans) from the island and their concept of race and Stateside Puerto Ricans’ concept in your comment to my last blog entry. While I think there may be some difference on these two Puerto Rican groups’ concept of race, the position I am exposing has its roots on the island among intellectual from the island.
So what does all this have to do with us as Muslims? I think that my position is more pluralistic than the “rainbow people” thesis, even though the “rainbow people” thesis is more pluralistic than many other theses out there, including some that see Puerto Ricans as a white population. I say that because the concept I hold is accepting of various aspects of Puerto Ricans culture, both African and otherwise. There is no one Puerto Rican culture or background, such as there is no one American culture or background. If Puerto Ricans can accept this, I think that they can, at the very least, accept Muslims that are Puerto Ricans. Right now there are those that think that if you are not a Christian that you cannot be a Puerto Rican. On an even higher level, perhaps my perspective on Puerto Ricans can help Boricuas to exam the religion of some of their ancestors, whether it be by way of Spain or Africa. The Muslim contribution to Puerto Rico is great and deep. We just need to scratch the surface and then we can open to topic to the most important topic of tawheed. It does not matter what path one may comes to Islam. I hope that Allah guide all the misguided Puerto Ricans (and all non-Muslims) to accept Al-Islam, Amin.
Ibrahim Abdullah Al Boriqee said…
As salaamu alaikum,
As always you deliver your statements extremely well written. Yet, at the risk of sounding like an “elitist”, I must say that none of your sources have the perspective of someone from Puerto Rico. Just as any ethnic group that has been raised outside of the country or region where they originated from, you and those who have never been spent long time among those from Puerto Rico see things from the perspective of the society in which you were born and raised to. I was raised both in Puerto Rico and the US. I have been to La Perla, Joraines Torres, Canales, and many other ghettos and projects that would make any American who has been raised the American ghettos tremble with fear (this is not something that I am proud of). You are wrong that the majority of Puerto Rican blacks live in these places. The majority are mulatos and whites. It is obvious you have never spent much time there. As for contributions not being given by blacks in Puerto Rico that is a big lie. Blacks as well as all ethnicities that have formed part of the Puerto Rican spectrum have contributed economically, politically, artistically, gastronomically, religiously, culturally, etc. I can say all this just by using my family tree. You who know my mother ask her, who is from the Island, about the contributions of blacks in the Island. I find it funny that you and those like you state that Puerto Ricans deny there “blackness’. You Puerto Ricans who are from Puerto Rican say they are Puerto Rican. They never say they are white, black or anything else. That is the major difference between Puerto Ricans from Puerto Ricans from the US. So I guess you can say that they also deny their “whiteness” too. Here is my conclusion. During the time I have spent in the US and have met the Puerto Ricans who were born and raised there I have found that they are the first to be “super” Puerto Ricans. Yet most do not know the history of Puerto Rico and worse cannot speak the language and refuse that their children learn the language. I find this to be a hipocrasy of sorts. It is no different that the Irish, Scots, and other diaspora in the US. Yes, the Spanish language is an important part of the Puerto Rican culture. That is why Puerto Rico refuses to get rid of the Spanish as the Official Language. Akhi, I suggest that you go to Puerto Rico and live among the people so you can form your opinion as mine is not formed by the opinions of others but by the fact that I lived among them and still go when ever I have the chance. Infact that is why after some years here when I have gotten the knowledge necassary to give benificial Dawa I will go back home to Puerto Rico for a few years. Ofcourse I made Hijrah so I will only stay there a few years. My point is that I am know my people, the good and the bad parts, so I am not afraid to go there. You see, I am Muslim who is Puerto Rican by ethnicity, and a citizen of the United States of America. Exactly in that order. What I am about to say will offend you. I do not do it out of spite or anger but I do it. Many people speak oout of ignorance when it come to Puerto Rico and socalled race issues. To quote Khalid Yasin (with whom I do not agree on many issues) when asked about women and Hijab. He said, “Ask my wife, ask my mother, don’t ask Barbara Walters.” If you want to know about Puerto Rico, ask my mother, my father, my uncle and aunts. Don’t ask a North Puerto Rican who in many cases has never even been to the Island nor speaks the language. It is the same way in Islam. If you have a question then you should ask a Scholar who knows the affair of the people. What Puerto Ricans have gone and go through is very different than what North Puerto Ricans have. Then you have those like me who have experienced both. I will make this my parting statement. Insha Allah, if and when I marry and have children, they will learn Spanish and Arabic first and they will learn about the history of both ancestries.
Khalil Al-Puerto Rikani said…
Let me know if I am getting your argument correctly. From what I gather, you are promoting the “rainbow people” thesis. Yes or no? Also, the crux of your argument (despite it overtly bias toward stateside Puerto Ricans) is that Puerto Ricans do not view their identity in racial terms but in national terms. That is that they consider themselves Puerto Ricans first and Black, White, or Mulato second. Am I right in summarizing your argument? You in particular consider your identity first as a Muslim then as a Puerto Rican.
Please let me know if I have summarized your perspective correctly so that I can answer this.
May Allah reward you in making hijrah. Might I say that coming to Puerto Rico would be a great thing; however being that your made hijrah, you cannot come to Puerto Rico (or any country in Darul-kufr) for any considerable amount of time. Please check with the ‘ulama about the term of visiting.