Somos Puertoriqueños: A Response to Colorism Among Puerto Ricans
“It’s because you look like them,” my mother retorted to my mentioning of being one of my tío’s favorites. In my youth, I did not comprehend that her response to my father’s side of the family’s favor for me had to do with the color of my skin. Since both sides of my family are Puerto Rican, born and raised, I had no cognition that my light skin, not my personality or temperament, would be the primary reason my father’s light skinned parents and siblings preferred me over my darker skinned sisters.
Soy una Boricua, a Puerto Rican. Growing up, I only knew myself and my whole family as such. Regardless of the dichotomous pale, Spanish skin of my father’s family and the dark, African skin of my mother’s, somos Puertorriqueños; one category in my mind, one people group. However, my youth and sheltered upbringing hid the truth of colorism within my family and Puerto Rican culture. Despite the fact that my mother birthed and, alongside my father, raised three powerful Puerto Rican womxn, my father’s family treated her as lesser than them because of her complexion.
Heterogeneity Among Puerto Ricans
Colorism is defined as “a practice of discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin.” Colorism is rooted in racism and white supremacy, but since Puerto Ricans share the same ethnicity (the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has shared ancestry, language, and traditions) the term “colorism” is used when describing prejudice and discrimination between Puerto Ricans, rather than racism, because in the U.S. context, Puerto Ricans are regarded (incorrectly) as if we are all a part of the same racial group. Even white/white-passing Puerto Ricans do not have the same access to white privilege in the U.S. as non-Latinx white Americans. To understand this, one must first understand the history of race in Puerto Rico; to understand the history of race requires an understanding of colonial history on the island.
The Taíno peoples, our ancestors, were the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and modern day Florida. They were an Arawak subgroup and were the first people Columbus encountered when he traveled to Hispaniola. In 1493, Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico (Yale). A well-known tale of colonial powers stealing land, forcing servitude upon natural inhabitants, and raping indigenous womxn occurred in Puerto Rico, known then by Taínos as Borikén. Since Spanish colonizers did not bring wives with them on their original expedition, Taíno womxn were forced to be their common law wives, which resulted in mestizo, or mixed, children. Much of the Taíno population was wiped out due to the spread of diseases, miscegenation, and murder at the hands of Spanish colonizers. Due to the Taíno population drop and the persistent desire for labor, Spanish powers turned to Africa for people to purchase for slavery. African slaves were introduced to the island in 1513 (Yale). As with the Taíno people, Spanish colonizers forced themselves upon African womxn, resulting in more mestizo children.
Due to Puerto Rico’s history of racial mixing, today some Puerto Ricans may self-identify their race as white, as Black or Afro-Latinx, or as mixed-race or multi-racial. However, while many Puerto Ricans identify themselves and their family as “Puerto Rican,” there “is substantial heterogeneity in ancestry among Puerto Ricans, as many carry a contribution of genes from all three (Taíno, African, and Spanish) ancestral populations.
In Group Solidarity
Despite the varying colors among Boricuas, many of us carry Taíno, African, and Spanish blood. We have a shared, eclectic ancestry; a shared, beautiful culture; and a shared lineage from the Caribbean sea. Yet, we carry prejudice towards each other and discriminate against our own people. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a Black man from the Virgin Islands, he was married to my great-grandmother who was a white-passing Puerto Rican womxn. Because of their marriage, my great-grandmother was disowned by her family. In a video titled “What Afro-Latinos Want You to Know,” Latina Lori Flores states that she had a co-worker who called her a monkey behind her back; Lori said the saddest part was that co-worker was Latina, too. In addition to micro-level, individual experiences of discrimination, macro-level discrimination persists. For example, ancestry among Puerto Ricans is correlated with socioeconomic status. Those with higher European genetic ancestry are more often wealthier and healthier than those with higher African ancestry (Latinx populations). While my family was not torn apart due to colorism, my mother continues to feel the tension of prejudice.
In “What Afro-Latinos Want You to Know,” interviewee Antonio Curtis noted that we “want a world where we say Latinos are united, but at the same time, we have to end discrimination among Latinos.” Antonio is right. Without solidarity among Puerto Ricans and Latinx people in general, we are unable to excel or unite. In Puerto Rico, negative effects of Hurricane Maria persist, the Puerto Rican education system is failing, the divide among Puerto Ricans on whether Puerto Rico should become a state or be independent from the U.S., and, recently, the eventual resignation of their existing governor. With existing divisions in the political and economic realm of Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans must join in solidarity and equality in order to seek justice for each other. If we remembered and cherished our shared ancestry, we might find that we are not so different. Despite our varied complexions, we could unite and seek justice for our island.
Each of us belong to an island the U.S. simultaneously exploits and ignores. Each of us are oppressed by systems and people in America that view us as other. We are one people group, as poet and author, Elizabeth Acevedo, preaches:
Read our lifeline,
birth of intertwine,
We are every
North Star navigates
have been bridges.
We are the sons
el destino de mi gente,
Despite the discrimination my great-grandparents and grandparents experienced or dealt, my parents found love on their island. Together they salsaed to Victor Manuelle, visited la playa, Cerro Gordo en Vega Alta, and indulged asopao and chuletas de cerdo. Together they raised my sisters and me. My family, although colorful, is a Puerto Rican family. There is nothing more beautiful than the varying complexions of Puerto Ricans. The blend of Taíno, African, and Spanish blood Puerto Ricans share is a blessing. We have one another. We can be powerful, together.
About the author: Andrea Isabel Diaz-Fournier is a third-year student at Seattle Pacific University studying Criminal Justice and Women’s Studies. She is the Education Programmer of SPU’s Intercultural Initiatives Committee, Catalyst, and the co-president of SPU’s campus club, Latinx Unidos.