Mediating Blackness: Afro Puerto Rican Women and Popular Culture

Mediating Blackness: Afro Puerto Rican Women and Popular Culture

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
145 pages

Maritza Quiñones-Rivera

A Dissertation Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Communications in the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In my dissertation I discuss how blackness, femaleness and Puerto Ricanness (national identity) is presented in commercial media in Puerto Rico. National identity, no matter how differently defined, is often constructed through claims to heritage, “roots,” tradition, and descent. In the western world, these claims, almost inevitably allude to questions of “race.” In Puerto Rico, it is the mixture of the Spanish, the Taíno Indian, and the African, which come to epitomize the racial/traditional stock out of which “the nation” is constructed, defended, and naturalized. This mixture is often represented by images, statues, murals across the island that display the three racialized representatives, as the predecessors of the modern, racially mixed Puerto Rican people. In their portrayals of black women, figures as Mama Inés (the mammy) and fritoleras (women who cook and sell codfish fritters), Caribbean Negras (Black Caribbean women) contemporary media draw upon familiar representations to make black women bodies intelligible to Puerto Rican audiences. In this dissertation I argue that black women are challenging these images as sites for mediating blackness, femaleness, and Puerto Ricanness where hegemony and resistance are dialectical. I integrate a text-based analysis of media images with an audience ethnographic study to fully explore these processes of racial and gender representation. Ultimately, my project is to detail the ways in which Black women respond to folklorized representations and mediate their Blackness by adopting the cultural identity of Trigueñidad in order to establish a respectful place for themselves within the Puerto Rican national identity. The contributions from the participants of my audience ethnography, as well as my own experiences as a Trigueña woman, demonstrate how Black women are contesting local representations and practices that have folklorized their bodies. The women who form part of this study also responded to the pressures of a nation whose official stance is that race and racism do not exist. In addition, I present global and local forces—and in particular commercial media—as means for creating contemporary Black identities that speak to a global economy. By placing media images in dialogue with the lived experiences of Black-Puerto Rican women, my research addresses the multiple ways in which Black identities are (re)constituted vis-à-vis these forces.


Media and popular culture are powerful venues in which women assert and communicate national and social identities.1 In this light, I contend that Black Puerto Rican women mediate their Blackness by challenging folklorized representations of themselves that are perpetuated in local commercial media and advertising. In the face of a society whose media presents “race” as part of the nation’s past, a fokloric identity, many women adopt a new language of Trigueñidad in order to find a place for themselves within the national landscape. Before I begin this line of research, it is vital to first review representations of race and gender in commercial television and other media in the island…

…Theoretical Framework

Overall, the process of mediating blackness in Puerto Rico is one caught in the dual tensions between the local media‘s inscriptions of black women as folklorized on the one hand, and the influences of U.S. popular culture and additional transnational media on the other. What is crucial here is the understanding that media messages and their representations do not work in a vacuum but form part of a broader social and cultural network, and that media itself is not a monolithic body that operates as a single, unified, controlling entity. Instead, media compose a complex set of production and consumption practices. In the case of Puerto Rico from 2003 to 2006, for instance, the influence of localized media began to dwindle following their purchase by American media conglomerates. A vast majority of television programming now comes from off-shore corporations (for example, telenovelas produced in Latin America) and U.S.-based, Spanish language commercial media. In spite of this narrowing of diversity, it is important to compare Black women‘s representation in one media to racial and gender representations in another. Approaching media from this standpoint allows me to critically combine elements of existing theories in order to gain a better understanding of the relationship between various media, Puerto Rican cultural identity, and black identity at the collective and individual levels. More specifically, my work is centrally interested in advertising and the way black women are represented in the Citibank advertisement mentioned above. It will be crucial not to examine advertising in insolation, however, but to also explore the representations of black women in different mass media forms, such as newspapers, television, radio, and Internet. The images of advertisements operate in a system of sign that can never work in isolation from other signs or cultural factors.

Mediating blackness is also a process that necessarily interacts with the commonly-held beliefs and daily practices of racially mixed populations in Puerto Rico and other Latin American and Caribbean countries. My dissertation thus explores the production, representation, and consumption of media by populations, and incorporates academic arguments on the shifting roles and boundaries of media in daily life. My central discussion of media accordingly draws upon several fields of academic inquiry, among them media studies, black feminism, body politics, and the study of racial blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean, though it is ultimately grounded in cultural studies approaches to media studies.

Among these common conceptions that must be addressed is the dominant notion of Puerto Rico as a culturally unified nation that has produced a racially mixed, democratic society. Representations of this unified Puerto Rican culture are presented in such institutions as museums, the government, the education system and other “official” cultural sites. In response to this collective Puerto Rican cultural identity, forming a racial identity is often a struggle for some non-white Puerto Ricans (See: my autoethnography in Chapter 3), especially when Puerto Rican blackness is represented as folklorized, and when racism is a tacit component of official culture (Warren-Colón, 2003, p.664). Scholars have given only minimal attention to this phenomenon, and to the dismissive or stereotypical treatment of black women‘s bodies through their folklorized representations in popular culture and other media…

Read the entire dissertation here.

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