#BlackLivesMatter and Puerto Rico

The #BlackLivesMatter movement began with a simple hashtag and a statement of frustration, a reaction to a rash of highly publicized fatal altercations between African-Americans and police (and at least one private citizen acting as if he was the police). Since its inception, it has galvanized people from many different backgrounds and spawned chapters in several American cities, as well as a number of overseas offshoots. Over the past month, a photograph taken by Joaquin Medina from Humacao, Puerto Rico, has been shared all over social media which depicts a group of black Puerto Ricans raising their fists with the tagline “#BlackLivesMatter Puerto Rico.”

The photo doesn’t seem to indicate that those involved are part of a new chapter of BLM in Puerto Rico, but rather the image itself is part of a reoccurring theme in Medina’s photography work that frequently showcases Afro-Ricans as part of the African Diaspora in Puerto Rico. The caption for the version posted on his Instagram account explains that the intention of the photo was to “show solidarity and unity with the black community in the United States,” roughly translated, though the exact language he uses is interesting. Specifically, he calls the killings by the police “the abuses of the government,” which speaks very heavily towards the history of police brutality in Puerto Rico – often targeting black Puerto Ricans of both genders and all ages, and carried out by a monolithic, overbearing police force.

As I said, many people – including more than a couple of group and celebrity pages associating themselves with BLM – have shared the image across social media. The photo has come at a time when many Person-of-Color organizations made up of other ethnic groups have come out to show support for #BlackLivesMatter, especially Latinos. The narrative surrounding the efforts of Hispanics in the United States to help BLM has for the most part been one of honoring shared experiences and empathy towards the plight of African-Americans.

An acquaintance of ours wrote probably one of the best examples of an outside supporter’s perspective on the movement, which does a good job of displaying the viewpoint of a Latino who believes in BLM. However, despite our support, we at Palenque Connections have mixed feelings about how our solidarity as Latinos is being framed. Now, don’t get it twisted – this is a cause we’ve been championing since before it was an idea on everyone’s lips. Our personal interests in this, though, are exactly the reason why we don’t agree with our portrayal as being on the sidelines. Institutionalized racism against persons of African descent is all too common throughout most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere, and we’ve already pointed out that a certain town in a certain U.S. territory has historically already been the subject of much abuse by police.

The history of that abuse by the police and other state apparatuses in Puerto Rico has already been fairly well-documented. Just as with the mainland, the War on Drugs effectively legalized the criminalization of black people on the island. The difference being that in Puerto Rico, with only about 1% of the U.S. population, most phenotypically black people had congregated in a certain few communities. In addition, the only local police force on the island is the Puerto Rican Police Department, a centralized policing contingent that maintains security for every municipality in the territory. As a result, these communities are often quite literally besieged whenever there is the slightest claim of a crime.

One such incident was the “Loizazo” in 2001, when the PRPD responded to a call about a fight breaking out at a children’s birthday party in Loiza with riot gear and indiscriminate beatings. Even the officers who were actually charged with crimes for this gross misconduct eventually had their convictions overturned by the higher courts. The incident has been widely dismissed by the Puerto Rican government and public, though the American Civil Liberties Union did finally begin investigating the PRPD a few years later. They filed several scathing reports and a lawsuit that saw the Justice Department start to crack down with reforms and independent monitors of the island’s police. However, despite the oversight the PRPD is still as corrupt as ever, and the ACLU only began taking notice when the violent tactics were extended to protesting government workers and students.

The message in the aftermath of all this is one that feels all too unfamiliar in the U.S., and Puerto Rico. Black lives matter only when their suffering begins extending to others, and even then it can only be addressed when it doesn’t start rocking the boat too much. In Puerto Rico the problem is compounded by the populace’s own racial identity. There are several conflicting theories and reports on the true ethnic backgrounds of the people that populate the island today, with census results showing that the further away we get from the last large-scale European migration, the greater number of Puerto Ricans think of themselves as white.

Studies have been conducted which paint a more realistic picture, but the findings always seem to be worded in such a way that leans towards excluding or trivializing mentions of African descent. The most conclusive so far indicates the majority (around 60%) of Puerto Ricans can trace lineages to male European ancestors and female Taino (Puerto Rico natives) ancestors. However, they also found that 84% of the women in the study had genetic markers from Africa. If the sampling is reflective of the greater population, then it might hint at the majority of Puerto Ricans having some trace of African blood in their family trees. “Y tu abuela, donde esta,” indeed.

Even more important than the genetic signs are the cultural. Any salsero would find themselves at home in a West African party, using the same dance moves they would in the Copacabana. Musical styles like Bomba and Plena were created by enslaved and free black communities, and even the Puerto Rican lexicon is saturated by African words and colloquialisms. Puerto Rican popular culture is transparently Afro-Caribbean. This makes the struggle between black citizens, the police and the government not only a class and race conflict, but an internal cultural conflict as well. It is, as others have alluded to, a persistent and physical rejection of blackness by Puerto Rican society, even while they continue to silently participate in Afro-Boricua culture.

In many ways, this struggle perfectly mirrors the struggle between African-Americans and white America, the rejection of the physical embodiment even while defining pop culture with their influences. However, in many other ways it’s even more perverse as Puerto Ricans also reject much of their own heritage, and their own family. It’s also reflective of the anti-blackness that permeates virtually all of the former colonies of the Americas. Ultimately, #BlackLivesMatter will have to move beyond framing their fight as one isolated to the United States and African-Americans. This is a cause that affects all black people in the Western Hemisphere. A good starting point would be making “BLM Puerto Rico” more than a picture. That’s not to say that no one in PR hasn’t already been fighting the good fight. If the efforts taken by the ACLU have shown anything, it’s that the leaders of Afro-Rican enclaves like Loiza would not and have not remained silent, even if it’s taken decades to raise any outside awareness. Yet it also shows that the voice of one community is simply not enough. The problem clearly transcends the lines of nationality – our solidarity and our actions will have to as well.

A Tale of Two Countries

This was written in response to a series of events which the author details further in this writing, but can be summarized a nothing less than systemic violations of civic and human rights. This topic may now seem minute compared to the ongoing and quickly unraveling crisis in Puerto Rico, but the accounts which the author provides implies that what is referenced here was a symptom of the inevitable disaster that has been building up for over a century. Puerto Rico has been consistently mismanaged, by both the local and federal governments, and disregard for whole segments of the Puerto Rican population on both the island and the mainland have been an all too common occurrence. In writing this article, the foundation for Palenque Connections was conceived, based on the idea that active engagement and education would help heal these festering wounds. It is my personal opinion that if real change can be gradually implemented at a focal point of the divisiveness, corruption, and lack of empathy now all too rampant on the island, then it will prove that the current situation in Puerto Rico can eventually be alleviated to the benefit of all.

-Hector Bonilla, Jr.

 

Forced evictions from homes where residents have lived for centuries, including bulldozing the homes of residents who are resistant to these evictions, the construction of walls in order to separate more affluent newcomers from the traditional community and to isolate and limit movement of the longer established residents, the use of state sponsored violence to intimidate the local community to accept their subordinate status, and the implementation of racial profiling to marginalize and devalue the traditional residents in order to justify their social and political banishment from their long-established homeland. Included in this process is the imposition of restrictive policies which limit economic self-sufficiency and educational opportunities for the population under siege.

These events may have occurred to Native American populations during the Western expansion in North America, in the Warsaw Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland, or in the Transvaal in Apartheid-ruled South Africa. However, we do not have to travel so far either in time or distance to witness these events. We only have to visit Loiza, Puerto Rico, which may be the oldest free Afro-descendent population in the Western Hemisphere.

Although not officially recognized as a town until 1692, Loiza had been a population center even before the arrival of Europeans. Loiza is named after the Taino Cacica (female Chief) Yuisa, who, along with her African-born companion, Pedro Mejias, was killed by Caribe raiders in 1514. The area that became the town of Loiza became a haven for Afro-descendent immigrants who escaped from slavery from nearby non-Spanish island colonies. This free Black population settled on this coastal area because they could subsist on fishing, crabbing, and indigenous edible plants, such as coconuts and tubulars like yucca and yautia, and was not readily accessible from the outside except by small boats. The Atlantic Ocean, El Rio Grande de Loiza, and the Piñones Mangrove lagoons permitted Loiceños’ mobility via water and served as barriers to interlopers, especially slave hunters. Because of its relative isolation, Loiza has been able to preserve much of its unique cultural heritage, which is an amalgamation of African and Amerindian traditions. This is reflected in its music – especially in la Bomba – its food, and its rituals, especially in its own very specific form of religious syncretization.

The viability and importance of Loiza to Puerto Rico was most evident during the British invasion of Puerto Rico in 1797. The largest British invasion force in the history of the Southern Hemisphere, led by Sir Ralph Abercromby, landed 7,000 ground troops composed of British Regulars and Hessian Mercenaries at Boca de Cangrejos (a small bay located west of modern Loiza) and marched toward San Juan. This same force had just captured the island of Trinidad from the Spaniards. At the time of this invasion, the Spanish had only a token force of regular army units in Puerto Rico to defend the fortress of El Morro in San Juan, because most of the other Spanish forces were in Santo Domingo fighting against the Haitian rebels.

The strategic error that Abercromby made was that he ignored the free Black population that was located at the rear of his forces. Loiza had a militia composed of 200 men, some of whom may have been veterans of the Spanish forces who fought in the American War of Independence. Those two hundred militia fought a withering guerilla campaign against the invaders, and captured or killed hundreds of those European soldiers. Eventually, hundreds of Puerto Rican militia from the central and southern areas of the island arrived to the battle scene and forced the British forces to flee. Sir Abercromby would go on to find better success in future military campaigns in Ireland, the Netherlands and eventually against Napoleon’s forces in Egypt.

The Spanish authorities underplayed the importance of not only the Loiceños, but of all the Puerto Rican militia in this military victory. But the reality was that the greater part of this two-week battle occurred outside of San Juan, and Spanish forces rarely ventured outside of the safety of El Morro. The only Spanish references to the capture of British and Hessian POWs were attributed to “los negros de Loiza”.

Although Loiza played a key role in providing food to San Juan, it still remained a marginalized community during the next century of Spanish rule of Puerto Rico. After the American military invasion, things worsened for Loiza. It lost its status as a municipality and was placed under the authority of the new municipality of Canovanas, a former rural section of Loiza. During the 1930’s, the Isla Verde section of Loiza was wrested away and assigned to Carolina, where they built a resort area and what today as known as Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport. However, Luis Ferre, the first member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP, which believes in statehood for Puerto Rico) to be elected Governor of Puerto Rico fulfilled a campaign promise and re-assigned municipality status to Loiza. Consequently, voters of Loiza have overwhelmingly supported this party in all subsequent elections.

None of Ferre’s successors as Governor – including those of his own party – have been as considerate of Loiza. There have been innumerable attempts to extend the hotel and luxury apartment strip in Isla Verde to the Piñones section of Loiza. Environmentalists from in and out of Loiza struggled mightily against these efforts, and eventually Piñones was designated as a Natural Preserve. But the island’s government’s intervention came at a cost. Until the 1980’s, there was no bridge connecting Piñones to the rest of Loiza. Even automobiles had to be rafted across El Rio Grande de Loiza. Constructing a new bridge connecting Piñones to the town of Loiza and the rest of the island came at a price: a sewage treatment plant was constructed next to the new bridge. This sewage treatment facility handles the waste from San Juan and the surrounding suburbs (but not Loiza), which it then expels into the nearby ocean water, which of course the residents of Loiza rely on for subsistence AND has been left open to outside tourism the entire time the plant has been active.

The residents of Piñones have a long history of providing traditional fare to day trippers from San Juan. Food stands (known as kioscos) dot the area and serve traditional fritters, many of which are indigenous to Loiza. The government began to regulate and license these food stands and impose rules that ostensibly imposed hygienic standards, but in reality forced the food vendors to use non-traditional methods in food preparation. The new rules raised costs, and made this long-standing industry unprofitable for many of the food stand operators. These spaces have been increasingly bought out by people from outside Loiza with the resources available to comply with the new government regulations. Many of these new food stand owners invariably hired immigrant labor, not Loiceños, to operate these food stands. Ironically, Loiza, which has the highest unemployment rate in Puerto Rico, has a number of residents who can’t find work in an industry that they created, which is located in the neighborhood in which they have always lived.

Because of the resistance in Piñones, developers leapfrogged this area and started to build luxury apartments and vacation home developments in the traditional fishing communities on the Loiza coast. Even though some of these neighborhoods have been populated for almost half a millennia, not all of its residents have documented proof of ownership. Unscrupulous speculators, with access to government officials and connected attorneys, used money and coercion to extricate residents from long-established communities.

When these tactics did not bear fruit, whole communities were walled off, removing access not only to the beach, but even to access roads. Police forces were used as an “occupation army,” entering homes indiscriminately, and operating “road blocks” throughout the town. The rationale used for this excessive police presence was to quell drug violence; however, the courts went on to decide against the police in several cases involving accusations of police brutality in Loiza. There are still many more accusations of police brutality and police home invasions which are working their way through the court system. There are also allegations that the police, none of whom are native to Loiza, have been duplicitous in cases of violence committed by others against some of the more recalcitrant opposition to the forced development of Loiza. In one case of a Loiza woman named Adolfina Villanueva, who refused to be cowed by the developers, police or government, was killed in 1980 by these very same police officers. No one has been prosecuted for her death.

More recently, a community activist named Maria Mercado was run over by the Mercedes-Benz Sedan operated by a developer, who was convicted of this crime and served a total of three hours in jail as his punishment. Ironically, this developer went bankrupt and he has abandoned his project. There are several other unfinished developments like that, dotting the coastal communities of Loiza, monuments to the greed of developers and the rapacious thugs who run the government of Puerto Rico.

Maria is but one of several members of this community who are fighting for its survival, and refused to be moved, brutalized and disrespected. Although they all have “grass roots” constituents who they are fighting for, Loiza remains a geographically and politically isolated community.

Ultimately, the struggle that is occurring within Loiza is about race. Discussion of race is still the most pervasive taboo among Puerto Ricans. Notwithstanding, the inane responses of many island residents to the question of racial classification in the 2000 Census, identifiably Afro-descent people in Puerto Rico are at the bottom of every social and political indicator on the island. A community like Loiza which revels in its “African-ness” openly has always engendered derision and outright hostility by the members of the “hispanofilo” elements of Puerto Rico’s elite castes.

This belief system was brought home to me rather abjectly by a traffic police officer, dressed like a SWAT member, who was evidently stopping and harassing motorists with families for simply wanting to drive through Loiza. The police officer warned me, as part of the reasoning for the stop, that someone was murdered in Bayamon the night before. Since Bayamon is approximately 25 miles from Loiza, I asked him, “Why were the police setting up road blocks in Loiza?” Among the things he admonished me with, before he let me go he gave me a warning that I might get shot by one of “esos negritos” (those black boys), in Loiza. I then witnessed another automobile, a white Toyota Avalon driven by a gentleman with his female companion in the front passenger seat and a child in a safety seat secured in the rear seat of the car, being pulled over by the same police officer as they entered Loiza. As I drove through Loiza on the way to Luquillo Beach, I saw a slew of police cars in front of the high school parking lot, and another road block as I passed through Loiza towards Rio Grande, just before the Berwind Golf Course and the new Donald Trump Resort.

Two days before this incident, at the behest of renowned Puerto Rican artist, Samuel Lind, I had met with several Loiza educational and community activists who are working to defend this community under siege, promote educational and employment opportunities in their community, and to develop sustainable and equitable community redevelopment initiatives. In addition to the aforementioned Lind and Maria Mercado, present at this meeting were Ebenecer López Ruyal, an attorney and author of several works about Afro-Puerto Ricans, Miguel Rivera Rivera, a youth organizer and advocate against police brutality directed at Loiceño youth, and Mari Cruz Clemente, who leads an organization named COPI (Corporación Piñones se Integra), whose goal is to develop an ecotourism industry in Piñones operated by residents of that community.

What was quickly evident to me is that they are intelligent, competent, committed, and courageous people. There was nothing I could hope to teach them about “grass roots” organizing. They have a legacy of resisting all sorts of invasions that goes back at least 400 years. After all, remember the attempted incursion by British armed forces in 1797? It should come as no surprise that Puerto Rico’s leading scholarly savant and most respected defender of the island’s historical legacy, Dr. Ricardo Alegria, and the organizer extraordinaire, Dr. Antonia Pantoja, founder of ASPIRA, the Puerto Rican Forum, Boricua University, PRODUCIR, et al, were both raised in Loiza.

But they need help and support, none of which is forthcoming from the Puerto Rican government or the American federal government. It is clear that many have made up their minds that the identifiable Black communities in Puerto Rico should be forgotten, or eliminated. This present administration has been engaged in a systematic scheme to displace the populations of Caño Martin Peña, San Mateo de Cangrejos, La Cantera in San Juan, and the Black residents of Vieques, and is involved in a ferocious assault on Loiza. Federal resources do not seem to find their way into Loiza and other programs that identify Loiza as an Afro-descendent community are either diverted or rejected outright by government officials.

Loiza needs the same kind of public outrage and outcry that was organized around the United States Navy’s occupation of Vieques. They also need technical assistance in community development, and they need you to visit Loiza.  When you visit, don’t just eat the alcapurrias or pionones and then race back to San Juan before it gets dark. They are real people in Loiza, not the demonized savages that the Puerto Rican elite have created to validate their own internalized racism and assuage their own mediocrity. Loiza is Puerto Rico. It is the one place that all of the ethnic elements that comprise the Puerto Rican identity first came together. Therefore, on behalf of the people of Loiza, who after all are Puerto Ricans, I ask for your assistance in helping Loiceños protect and improve their community, which is really our community.

 

Respectfully,

Hector Bonilla Agosto