Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico

Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico

Palgrave Macmillan
October 2012
330 pages
DOI: 10.1057/9781137263223
ebook ISBN: 9781137263223
Paperback ISBN: 9781137263216
Hardback ISBN: 9781137263230

Ileana M. Rodríguez-Silva, Associate Professor of Latin American and Caribbean History
University of Washington

In their quest for greater political participation within shifting imperial fields—from Spanish (1850s–1898) to US rule (1898-)—Puerto Ricans struggled to shape and contain conversations about race. In so doing, they crafted, negotiated, and imposed on others multiple forms of silences while reproducing the idea of a unified, racially mixed, harmonious nation. Hence, both upper and working classes participated, although with different agendas, in the construction of a wide array of silences that together have prevented serious debate about racialized domination. This book explores the ongoing, constant racialization of Puerto Rican workers to explore the ‘class-making’ of race.


  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Racial (Dis)Harmony in Puerto Rico
  • I. Slavery and the Multiracial, Racially Mixed Laboring Classes
    • 1. Becoming a Free Worker in Post-Emancipation Puerto Rico
    • 2. Liberal Elites’ Writings: The Racial Dissection of the Puerto Rican Specimen
    • 3. Race and the Modernization of Ponce after Slavery
  • II. Changing Empires
    • 4. US Rule and the Volatile Topic of Race in the Public Political Sphere
    • 5. Racial Silencing and the Organizing of Puerto Rican Labor
    • 6. Deflecting Puerto Rico’s Blackness
  • Conlusion: The Heavy Weight of Silence
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

INTRODUCTION: Racial (Dis)Harmony in Puerto Rico

It is a theory with no foundation. She does not know what bomba is. Our bomba is a fusion of many races and cultures: Indigenous, Spanish or European, and African. This is the only authentic one. Everything else is just an invention.
—Puerto Rican performer Modesto Cepeda, April 13, 2005

After my first semester in the United States, I was desperate to leave the mainland and return to my home at the urban core of the northern city of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. My family and friends welcomed me with many gatherings, some in the San Juan area and others in my family’s hometown of Yaucoin the southern part of the island. Everyone peppered me with questions about life away from home. On one of these occasions, a relative asked me if I had become friends with other Puerto Ricans. I answered that I had become very close to a Puerto Rican black woman. I did not realize that I had spoken openly about blackness, instead of the customary muffled modalities that many islanders often employ, until my relative responded, “Then she is not Puerto Rican! Only the americanos would make reference to a person’s skin color.” My relative’s response was surprising to me because in our extended family, antiblack racism had been at the heart of many conflicts, despite (or because of) our racially mixed heritage.

After years of archival research on racial struggles in Puerto Rico, I find myself repeatedly recalling this one exchange, one of many others that have a similar pattern. Perhaps I recall it because of the array of important questions my relative’s response elicits about Puerto Rican immigration, US colonialism, national identities, constructions of whiteness/blackness/racial mixture, and gender (all of which I will explore in the pages of this book). But, most probably, this moment is fixed in my mind because I was struck by the quick and effective way in which my cousin silenced me when I acknowledged my friend’s cherished sense of self as a black Puerto Rican woman. There was no better strategy to shut down a possible conversation about the historical and contemporary realities of racialized marginalization than (a) to deem race, racialization, and racism as foreign matters, specifically as US phenomena, and (b) to question one’s commitment and love to the Puerto Rican nation. My own commitment was already in question; I too was quickly becoming an outsider. Given this oft deployed silencing device, this book is particularly attentive not to reify a Latin American paradigm of race relations or a US model. Instead, Puerto Rico’s move from Spanish to US rule provides a unique opportunity to flesh out some of the sociocultural and political processes that made necessary the organization of knowledge about racialized marginalization along the lines of opposite racial paradigms. To do so, it is imperative to look at silencing and racialization practices historically, as well as investigate the many struggles that elicited these practices. In the following pages, I explore a few key historical moments between the 1870s and 1910s when silencing became especially urgent in politics. It is worth noting that the reasons for and the modes of containing race talk have continued to shift and change after the period under scrutiny in this study…

…I aim to uncover the ways in which the history of slavery, the processes of emancipation, and the nature of colonialisms in Puerto Rico contributed to the contradictory construction of national and racial discourses at different historical moments since the late nineteenth century. For more than a century after emancipation in 1873– 76, government institutions, academic studies, and cultural organizations have reproduced the idea that Puerto Rico is a unified nation—despite its colonial relation to Spain and later the United States—whose people originated from a mélange of three cultural roots: the indigenous Taínos, Africans, and Spaniards. This national discourse holds that because these races mixed harmoniously to create the Puerto Rican race/nation, racial conflict has never existed on the island. In fact, the lack of racial conflict defines Puerto Ricanness. Therefore, to address issues of racialized exclusion or to express/embrace a racialized sense of self is understood by most Puerto Ricans as antinational. Paradoxically, the Puerto Rican dominant classes have persistently underscored the white, Hispanic experience as the main thread that provides coherence to the history of the Puerto Rican people. In this discourse of the nation, the presumptively racially mixed, harmonious society ensures the unity of all social classes. Yet that discourse also preserves the rights of white Creole men as political and social superiors, and consequently, the struggles and aspirations of those deemed or self identified as black continue to be systematically marginalized.

The attempts to silence discussions about racialized domination (especially the persistent denial of racism) and the corollary suppressions regarding individual and communal racialized histories coexist with Puerto Ricans’ everyday antiblack racist practices and racialized talk. Most Puerto Ricans, however, do not recognize their everyday references to racialized markers of difference— mostly derogatory remarks about blackness— as a product of and form sustaining racialized domination. To explore this tension I have chosen the analytics of silence, where silence means something other than total absence. I am here interested in both the attempts to shape or prevent talk and the partial and fragile silences produced through such endeavors. Hence, as I explain later in this introduction, silence is communicative in nature, comprising a wide array of practices that were, in fact, generative of more talk.12 The many disruptions of silences and the other idioms elaborated to advance mobilization for social justice also fostered talk on race. As such, the practices of censorship shaped (creating gaps, voids, misrecognition, and euphemisms, among others) but did not impede the talk of race. Conversely, efforts at repressing the talk of race have indeed prevented sustained conversations about racialized domination because these could crystallize into projects for sociopolitical transformation. This book seeks to track both the fraught processes through which silences are constantly reconstituted and the overall effect of a plurality of silences, intended and unintended, which have prevented open discussions about racialized domination…

Read the entire Introduction here.

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