Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico by Ileana Rodríguez-Silva (review)

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, United States on 2015-12-23 00:58Z by Steven

Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico by Ileana Rodríguez-Silva (review)

The Americas
Volume 72, Number 4, October 2015
pages 655-657

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

Rodríguez-Silva, Ileana M., Silencing Race: Disentangling Blackness, Colonialism, and National Identities in Puerto Rico (London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

In Silencing Race, Ileana Rodríguez offers a much-needed historical exploration of the silences about “race” embedded in political and public discourses about Puerto Rico. The book is divided in two parts that cover the years from 1870 to 1910. The first part is dedicated to the later years of the Spanish colonial regime, the second to the first years under US colonial rule. Rodríguez-Silva demonstrates how different class and political interests during both these periods converged to subordinate the issue of racial inequality to issues of class and national identity. She argues that class, not race, became the key category through which demands for rights and political participation were made and recognizes the varying perspectives of creole elites, former slaves, union organizers, politicians, and US labor unions. The author also explains the historical conditions that supported such silencing of racial issues and demonstrates why voicing a racialized sense of self or denouncing racism had complex and multifaceted political consequences. On the one hand, politicians sought to gain the electoral support of the predominantly black and expanding labor movement. Aware as they were of the close relationship between race and class, they often accused political rivals of being racist for not attending to workers, needs for economic uplift and equity. On the other hand, blackness and associated popular expressions of poor working-class folk were considered backward by the criollo leadership, who also limited participation of black males in party decisions.

Rodríguez-Silva argues further that a politicized black identity was associated with unrest and the anticolonial movements that had taken place in Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean, including Cuba with its 1912 race war and massacre against the black members of the Partido Independiente de Color. Explicit debates about racism were also inconvenient for political elites who wanted to project themselves to metropolitan authorities as illustrious men in charge of a multiracial society free of racial conflict. During the years of Spanish colonialism, evading the issue of racism and making claims to racial harmony proved Puerto Ricans’ capacity to renegotiate the relationship with Spain as equals (not as separatists).

Undermining racial conflict was also important for maintaining key political alliances between white criollos, artisans, and the working class. As a US colony, making claims to racial harmony proved the local elite’s capacity to negotiate the colonial relationship with the racially segregated United States. An explicit racialized discourse also stood at odds with US colonial representatives with whom annexationists, socialists, and labor union leaders were trying to negotiate better wages, employment opportunities, legal protection, and US citizenship. Hence, Rodríguez-Silva shows how, despite major ideological and class differences, politicians, intellectuals, and labor organizers sought to deracialize their politics. The book explores the silence around issues of race and racial inequality across various geographical areas, but offers the most substantive material on Ponce, its political parties, artisans’ associations, regional publications, and other aspects of public life.

The book’s introduction provides a sophisticated analysis of the role of silence in these processes. The author theorizes silence as the attempt to shape or prevent racial talk as a strategy and tool of oppression, but also as a strategy of the oppressed for survival. She persuasively argues that silence also communicates. However, defining what exactly is being silenced in the historical sources analyzed or defining her expectations for “noise” could have improved the analysis. For Rodríguez-Silva, “noise” (or the opposite of silence) seems to mean the explicit discourses that condemn racism, draw attention to Puerto Rican blackness, or call for organizing around a racialized subjectivity. Yet “race” can also encompass whiteness, whitening, racial harmony, racial mixture, or euphemisms such as “de color.”

These terms do not necessarily represent a silencing of race, but they do imply a silencing of some specific formulations of race, for example, black identity. As such, they can be understood as a deployment of race to silence other specific formulations of race. This unspoken notion of “race talk” or “racial noise” makes the overall theoretical argument about silencing less focused than one would like. It also presents what is being suppressed as an inherently “natural” thing that exists out…

Read the entire review here.

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

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Monographs, United States on 2012-12-31 02:03Z by Steven

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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