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

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

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

RodrĂ­guez-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…

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Scripts of Blackness: Race, Cultural Nationalism, and U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, Economics, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2015-02-08 20:07Z by Steven

Scripts of Blackness: Race, Cultural Nationalism, and U.S. Colonialism in Puerto Rico

University of Illinois Press
February 2015
320 pages
6.125 x 9.25 in.
38 black & white photographs, 3 maps, 1 chart, 3 tables
Cloth ISBN: 978-0-252-03890-7
Paper ISBN: 978-0-252-08045-6

Isar P. Godreau, Researcher and Former Director
Institute for Interdisciplinary Research
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey

Ideas of blackness, whiteness, and racial mixture in a Puerto Rican barrio

The geopolitical influence of the United States informs the processes of racialization in Puerto Rico, including the construction of black places. In Scripts of Blackness, Isar P. Godreau explores how Puerto Rican national discourses about race—created to overcome U.S. colonial power—simultaneously privilege whiteness, typecast blackness, and silence charges of racism.

Based on an ethnographic study of the barrio of San AntĂłn in the city of Ponce, Scripts of Blackness examines institutional and local representations of blackness as developing from a power-laden process that is inherently selective and political, not neutral or natural. Godreau traces the presumed benevolence or triviality of slavery in Puerto Rico, the favoring of a Spanish colonial whiteness (under a hispanophile discourse), and the insistence on a harmonious race mixture as discourses that thrive on a presumed contrast with the United States that also characterize Puerto Rico as morally superior. In so doing, she outlines the debates, social hierarchies, and colonial discourses that inform the racialization of San AntĂłn and its residents as black.

Mining ethnographic materials and anthropological and historical research, Scripts of Blackness provides powerful insights into the critical political, economic, and historical context behind the strategic deployment of blackness, whiteness, and racial mixture.

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

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2013-11-28 19:12Z by Steven

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 AntĂłn, 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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“Which box am I?”: Towards a Culturally Grounded, Contextually Meaningful Method of Racial and Ethnic Categorization in Puerto Rico

Posted in Caribbean/Latin America, Census/Demographics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Reports, Social Science, United States on 2012-05-01 04:30Z by Steven

“Which box am I?”: Towards a Culturally Grounded, Contextually Meaningful Method of Racial and Ethnic Categorization in Puerto Rico

Institute of Interdisciplinary Research
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey
August 2009
59 pages

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

Carlos Vargas-Ramos, Research Associate
Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Hunter College, City University of New York

This report represents a first step in attempting to ascertain a culturally valid and efficient method of racial and ethnic categorization for Puerto Rico, which may be used to document and track discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity in employment. Research conducted for this study was developed in close collaboration with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in support of their efforts to ascertain the extent of race and ethnic discrimination in the workplace in Puerto Rico. Results outlined herein summarize the views of 33 experts on the subject on race and racial discrimination in Puerto Rico who were interviewed for these purposes. Findings are preliminary and draw on the analysis of 33 individual questionnaires and 3 focus groups coordinated by Dr. Godreau at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Research of the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey in March 2009.

Read the entire report here.

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The lessons of slavery: Discourses of slavery, mestizaje, and blanqueamiento in an elementary school in Puerto Rico

Posted in Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive, Slavery, Teaching Resources, United States on 2012-05-01 03:01Z by Steven

The lessons of slavery: Discourses of slavery, mestizaje, and blanqueamiento in an elementary school in Puerto Rico

American Ethnologist
Volume 35 Number 1 (February 2008)
pages 115-135
DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2008.00009.x

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

Mariolga Reyes Cruz
Institute of Interdisciplinary Research
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey

Mariluz Franco-Ortiz
University of Puerto Rico, RĂ­o Piedras

Sherry Cuadrado
Institute of Interdisciplinary Research
University of Puerto Rico, Cayey

On the basis of ethnographic research conducted in an elementary public school in Puerto Rico, we maintain in this article that subduing and narrowing the history of slavery is instrumental in the reproduction of national ideologies of mestizaje in Afro-Latin America. We explore how school texts and practices silence, trivialize, and simplify the history of slavery and conclude that these maneuvers distance blackness from Puerto Rican identity and silence racism while upholding racial democracy and blanqueamiento as a social value.

Shortly after 2:00 p.m. on an average school day, one of us (Isar) walked into the small air-conditioned social worker’s office at the Luisa Rodrıíguez Elementary School in Cayey, Puerto Rico. A young, uniform-clad teenage girl sat at the desk, talking in flirtatious tones on the school’s phone. Isar greeted the social worker as she stood next to her commandeered desk, and they began to discuss an upcoming conference about the history of slavery in Cayey. “There were slaves in Cayey?” the social worker asked, “Really!?” Before Isar could answer, she heard the young girl telling her phone interlocutor in a high-pitched voice: “I am not prieta!” (prieta is a popular synonym for black) “I am not prieta!” The social worker turned to Isar and said, “You see? That is related to what you study.” The girl looked up to ask what theywere talking about. Isar explained she was conducting a study about racism in schools. “I am not racist,” she said, “but this guy is calling me prieta and I am not prieta!”

These two events—a young girl’s rejection of a black identity and a school official’s unawareness of the history of slavery in her community—might seem apparently unrelated. However, this article maintains that the silencing of slavery and the distancing of individuals from blackness are, in fact, key interdependent manifestations of the ideology of race mixture (mestizaje) in Afro-Latin America.

Researchers of national ideologies of mestizaje in Latin America and the Caribbean have underscored how notions of race mixture operate within very specific structures of power that often exclude blacks, deny racism, and invalidate demands for social justice against discrimination (cf. Burdick 1992; Hale 1999; Helg 1995; Price 1999; Whitten and Torres 1998; Wright 1990). Scholars have pointed out, for example, that the celebration of racial mixture through an ideology of mestizaje serves to distance Afro-Latinos from blackness through the process of blanqueamiento, or “whitening.” They have also highlighted the ways in which the idea of mestizaje is mobilized as evidence for national ideologies of racial democracy that claim that because the majority of the population is mixed, “race” and racism are almost nonexistent in these societies (cf. Betances 1972; Hanchard 1994; Sawyer 2006; Telles 2004; Wade 1997). This article contributes to this literature by arguing that one important, albeit underexplored, area of inquiry for understanding the social reproduction of such national ideologies in Afro-Latin America is the “containment” or “taming” of the history of slavery. Specifically,we maintain that national ideologies of mestizaje in Latin America, and particularly in the Hispanic Caribbean, are sustained by dominant politics of public representation that silence, trivialize, and simplify the history of slavery and its contemporary effects.

Slavery is a thorny, problematic topic for nation building projects. Although ideas of slavery, “race,” modernity, colonialism, capitalism, and nationalism are historically and conceptually bound (see Anibal Quijano in Santiago-Valles  2003:218), Western narratives about the past produce their legitimacy precisely by silencing those connections (Trouillot 1995). National discourses of mestizaje in Afro-LatinAmerica are no exception. Thus,we argue that one important mechanism through which discourses of mestizaje deny legitimacy to experiences of racism and to the affirmation of black identities is by silencing the historical connections between slavery and contemporary racial disparities.

Depending on how the history of this period is told, slavery can destabilize nationalist representations that celebrate mixture and the so-called whitening of the nation from various standpoints. To evoke slavery is to recognize that one racial segment of the population used “race” to exploit and dehumanize another sector of the population for more than 300 years in the Americas. Racial mixture did take place during this time, but mostly through violent means, such as rape, which provide little motive for celebrating mestizaje. Furthermore, the history—not just of men and women in bondage but also of the large and vibrant communities that were formed by free people of color during the slave period—challenges nationalist renditions of history that belittle the impact of African heritage in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Finally, an awareness of the socioeconomic legacies of the system of slavery on contemporary society can serve to challenge “colorblind” arguments that characterize black people’s failures in the socioeconomic order as the result of a lack of individual achievement, and not as the product of historical–structural inequalities.Understanding the history of slavery, its long-termeconomic and ideological repercussions repercussions, elucidates the roots of contemporary racial inequalities and related racial identities. Addressing the ideological effects of slavery can thus challenge nationalist premises of celebrated mixture, desired blanqueamiento, and declared colorblindness by bringing to the fore the tensions, cracks, and dissonances of nations that are not as harmonious, whitened, or democratic as discourses of mestizaje would suggest…

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