The African Roots of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican Black History

Puerto Rican Black History and the African Roots of Puerto Rico are often overlooked, but their contributions into the Puerto Rican culture were significant. If you are interested in this topic and are visiting Puerto Rico, then we recommend a visit to the Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana (African Heritage Museum) located on Calle San Sebastian in Old San Juan. In addition, a visit to the town of Loiza on the northern coast, is a must, as this was the location where most Africans arrived and lived, and it’s African roots and influence can still be seen today.

This is an interesting article that gives a good overview of various aspects of Puerto Rican Black History and the African History in Puerto Rico…

African Aspects of the Puerto Rican Personality
by (the late) Dr. Robert A. Martinez, Baruch College

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The Cuban anthropologist, Don Fernando Ortiz, has stated that “Perhaps Puerto Rico was the Antillean nation least influenced today by the already distant waves of immigration of black trade, whose origin people still wish to attribute unjustly to the glorious Hispanic personality of Friar Bartolome de las Casas… But no doubt, in its music, in its vocabulary, in its psychology, the island received the affectionate and cultural imprint of the black man.1

For four centuries Puerto Rico lived under the dominant influences of Spain. Therefore, the overwhelming impact of the Spanish culture is clearly evident in all the cultural expressions of Puerto Rico. But a peculiar aspect of Puerto Rico’s development that now accounts for the ethnological and spiritual structure of the population is seen in the early mixture of Spanish and African inputs with those of the already native Indians of the island, the Tainos.

At the inception of Spanish colonization, racial attitudes (or better stated, the lack of attitudes) were such that the Spaniards freely intermarried. The marriage of Pedro Mejias, a free mulatto who accompanied Ponce in 1509 (the first year of serious settlement in Puerto Rico) to one of the Taino women chiefs, (a cacica) Luisa, is in a sense, the symbolic parenthood of a people that would be derivative of all three blood strains represented in that early union.

It is interesting to note that Mejias was not the only person of black blood to accompany the Spanish conquistadores. There were several others simply because there were a number of free blacks living in Spain long before there was an overseas empire. Ironically, the first black man to set foot on the North American continent, Juan Garrido, who also traveled with Ponce, was a free man and had been a free Spanish citizen in Seville. It was Garrido who taught the native Indians the art of growing wheat.

Clearly then, the Spaniards, unlike their northern European neighbors, did not see blacks as racially inferior. Why?

Perhaps the combination of geographic location (Spain’s nearness to Africa and her almost total isolation provided by the Pyrenees make her somewhat unique as a European country) and Spain’s very early exposure to peoples of color over the centuries account for the positive racial attitudes that were to prevail in the new world. The first blacks were brought to Spain during Arab domination by North African merchants who engaged in a huge slave commerce with the people south of the Sahara. In 1442 the Portuguese were involved in the same trade and as a result many slaves were imported to Spain fifty years before the discovery of the Americas. A section of the city of Seville was inhabited by thousands of blacks. As free men end Christians, these blacks lived fully integrated in Spanish society and their women, considered exotic, were highly sought after by Spanish males. Nature taking its due course, we see the evolution of positive attitudes in this part of the world that would then have their impact made in Latin American society. One need only listen to the songs of southern Spain, from whence most of the Spanish settlers came, and he is fully aware of the fascination and desire for dark skinned ladies. Always the cry for “la morena,” the brown skinned woman with jet black eyes. She was the symbol of beauty and the exotic.

But the impact of blacks on the culture of Puerto Rico did not come from this small number of free blacks in Spain alone. Unfortunately, the Caribbean islands were useless to the conquerors without an abundant labor supply, and to satisfy the requirements of cheap labor the greatest migration in recorded history took place; this was the Negro slave trade. With the exhaustion of gold resources and the near extinction of the Indian population in Puerto Rico, the establishment of a sugar economy there created the demand for a constant supply of cheap labor. The Spanish planters discovered that one black slave was worth four Indians. The British planters, in their turn, realized that the money it would take to buy the services of a white indentured servant for ten years would buy a Negro for life. Africa had inexhaustible human resources. Therefore, sugar in Puerto Rico meant slavery.2

“Sugar was king; without his Negro slave, his (the Spaniard’s) kingdom would have been a desert.”3 This contribution of the Negro has failed to receive adequate recognition.” Of all their material skills, tropical farming and mining deserve a leading place in the record. In both these fields West Africans were far advanced among the peoples of the 16th century; so far advanced, indeed, that it was Africans, even though working as slaves, who later pioneered the development of tropical farming and mining in the Americas.4 If the black slave eventually became a free man at various times in Puerto Rican history, the reasons are to be found, not only in the belated, recognition of morality and Christian precepts but also in the fact that slavery, as an economic institution, had ceased to be profitable. It is for this very reason that hundreds of slaves were given their freedom and that slavery had almost died a natural death in the course of the 17th and l8th centuries. It didn’t really emerge as a vital socio-economic factor until after the economic reforms of 1815.

The idea of using blacks in place of Indian labor had been put forth by Friar Bartolomé de las Casas. De las Casas, looked upon as the champion of the Indian’s plight, had been responsible (along with Bishop Montesino of Puerto Rico) for securing a number of rights for Indians out of the famous Council of Burgos in 1512. When Spanish colonists raised their voices in protest at losing their labor force “Las Casas deduced that black slavery was the natural state for that race.”5 Thus, “when in 1517 Bishop Las Casas advocated, the encouragement of immigration to the New World by permitting Spaniards to import twelve Negroes each, the slave trade to the New World, was formally opened.”6 Spanish historians are, however, quick to point out that de las Casas repented for his propagandistic actions for black slavery before he died. He realized that to have freed the Indians and enslave the Negroes had been a grave injustice.

The slave trade was really underway by the middle of the sixteenth century. It was during this time that, “some ten million Africans were transplanted, by the horror of the Atlantic passage transports to the American, and West Indian colonies.”7 In Puerto Rico the number of slaves rose from 1,500 in 1530 to 15,000 by 1555. The trade became triangular. From West Africa in particular, cargoes of black people were sent across the Atlantic to the West Indies.

It is for this reason that the Yoruba culture of Africa seems to have made its greatest impact upon the culture of Puerto Rico. In his documented study of slavery in Puerto Rico, Luis M. Diaz Soler deduces from the known evidence that “the largest contingent of Africans came from the Gold Coast, Nigeria and Dahomey, or the region known as the area of Guineas, the Slave Coast.” He adds that “the English slave traders introduced Negroes from the region of the Congo and Senegal.”8

The Yorubas lived in a region south of Nigeria known as eastern Guinea. Since these people did not employ a written language, historical knowledge derives primarily from archeological findings, the study of languages and folklore. These avenues of study have shown that these pioneering people of the early iron age carried the knowledge of smelting iron ore into the faraway forests of the Congo Basin more than 2,000 years ago.

Also making their impact upon the culture of Puerto Rico were the Bantus, who next to the Yorubas were the most numerous. Elements of Jelofe, Mandingo, Dahomey, lbo, Baules, Fantes and Mende tribes, mostly West Africa, made their way to Puerto Rico too. It is interesting to note the Church felt that by Christianizing the slaves, it would render them with a set culture. It worked the other way around too, since the black slaves came to Puerto Rico with a rich and deep culture of their own which the indigenous Indians readily imitated, creating a common bond between them.

The fact that the Spaniard was unable to annihilate the African slave as he did the Indian slave; the fact that the African had a sense of identity; the fact that the African demonstrated resistance against the Spanish by revolting at times; the fact that they sought freedom in the rural interior and mountain sides are all a reflection of the strong and independent civilizations from which they came.

As the blacks arrived they imposed themselves numerically in many regions of the island and contributed a “vigorous cultural force,” constantly renewed with the arrival of new African slaves.

To understand how the black man contributed his cultural inputs and took a place within the Puerto Rican culture, one needs help with history to examine the very institution of slavery as it existed in Puerto Rico. It is then that one sees the natural evolution of social and ethnic forces that become incorporated into the modern Puerto Rican personality.

Unlike the Indian, the Negro learned the ways of the Spaniard. Where the Indian made no effort to learn Spanish, the black man picked up the language enriching it with words of his own. Black slaves were often educated by their owners and they in turn taught their children and the master’s children as well.

Since blacks in Puerto Rico were purchased as individuals by their European masters, they were close to and more dependent on him. Although they were slaves they were often treated as superior to Indians. The Negro was often made foreman and overseer where black and Indian laborers were found working together.9 In Puerto Rico the Black man was to become a significant influence in the economic, political and cultural life of the island. This can be seen in the fact that during the 19th century struggle for the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico the free black man and mulatto was a strong political force. He was able to find leaders in his own race. Although he became a part of the general culture, he did so without ever fully relinquishing his cultural heritage and identity.

As mentioned earlier, there existed Negro slavery in Spain as early as 1442 (as well as Jewish and Moorish slaves before that) which resulted in an elaborate slave code. This code was extended to Puerto Rico as a colony later on and gave slaves certain rights. The slave was a human being under the law. He could marry and it was forbidden to separate a marriage or family under serious penalties, and he could change masters if he could find one willing to buy him. He was allowed to entertain himself on holidays and Sundays as well as religious feast days. And all the social classes took part in these diversions.10 Under this law the black man had a legal personality which enabled him to bring charges against his master for overly cruel treatment, or testify against his master in certain circumstances. Clearly he was not a piece of property as was established in North America, even long before the infamous 1857 Supreme Court Case of Dred Scott.11

The human dignity and social integration of the black man in Puerto Rico was further enhanced by the Catholic Church. Despite the many criticisms historians level against the position of the Church in Latin America, one cannot overlook its positive role with regard to the institution of slavery there. The Church insisted that Negroes were to be converted to the Catholic faith, a not so insignificant factor when one considers Catholicism as a unifying element in the Spanish speaking world. To be Spanish is to be Catholic, according to Salvador de Madariaga, one of Spain’s foremost historians.12 Thus, unlike the Anglo-American church which ostracized the Indian and black as inferior, the church of Spain took the Negro in as an equal and demanded that this basic human right be recognized by all. Catholic doctrine asserted that master and slave were equal in the sight of God and that what mattered most was the moral and religious character of men as brothers of Christ. Therefore, cruel and unusual punishment of slaves and, worse yet, killing were a violation of God’s fifth commandment. As Saint Paul wrote, “There is neither bond or free.”13

Since the slave was an equal before God he was equal before the law. His being a slave was only a social misfortune. This philosophy is deep rooted in the Greco-Roman tradition of Spanish culture as seen in the ancient code of Justinian which saw all men, regardless of social status, as equal before the law. Seneca said virtue is immune to misfortune; “A slave can be just, brave, magnanimous. Slavery only affects the body which may belong to the master, but the mind cannot be given into slavery. The soul of the slave remains free.”14

And so when the slave gained physical freedom through the many possibilities of manumission, he was wholly free. We see no attempt, as in the North American experience, to enslave his mind and break his spirit after emancipation. As Andrew Billingsley wrote in his book Black Families in White America, “While emancipated Negroes in the United States were “freedmen”, in Latin America they were for the most part simply “free-men.”15 Before legal emancipation occurred in Puerto Rico in 1873 many forms ofmanumission existed under the ancient Spanish legislation of Alfonso X – Las Siete Partidas.l6 A slave could be freed in a church or outside of it, before a judge, by testament or letter in the presence of his master; or a slave could be freed against his master’s will by denouncing a forced rape, by denouncing a maker of false money, by discovering disloyalty against the king, and by denouncing murder against his master. Any slave who received part of his master’s estate in his master’s will automatically became free. And if a slave were left as guardian to his master’s children he also became free.17 Another means of salvation was child bearing. If slave parents in Hispanic America had ten children, the whole family went free.18

Later, in 1789, it became easier for a slave to earn freedom on his own. A new slave code made it possible for blacks to buy their own freedom or that of their children. Also, he could make payments in installments and a new born child, not yet baptized, cost half the going price for a baptized child.19 One might ask, “How did the slave acquire revenue to buy his freedom?” In Puerto Rico slaves could work for pay on their free time as clay laborers, tutors, musicians, etc. or sell produce raised on the land allowed them by their masters. Slavery eventually became a mere matter of economics and by that fact it lost the degrading connotation that was attached to slavery in North America. In Puerto Rico there was no racial stigma of racial inferiority since slavery, on an individual basis, could be eliminated by a fixed purchasing price.20

Freeing of slaves was also associated with holidays and special events. Favorite wet nurses were often freed, while other slaves were liberated on holidays and Church feast days or on special occasions in the family such as a wedding or a birthday. Excuses and occasions were many.21

Given the legal status of black slaves in Puerto Rico one might erroneously conclude that slavery was merely a lowly social status and not all that bad. On the contrary, one finds there were many incidents of cruel and inhuman treatment in general. Fray Inigo Abbad y LaSierra, Puerto Rico’s first historian in the l8th century, describes the situation of blacks in general under the slave system as follows:

Some of the blacks on this island were brought from the African coasts. Others are Creoles, descendants of the former, without any racial mixture; the first are all sold as slaves; in the second group there are many free men; when all is said and done, there is nothing more ignominious on this island than to be a black or one of their descendants. …Some masters treat them with despicable harshness, getting pleasure out of keeping the tyrant’s rod always raised and thereby causing disloyalty, desertion and suicide; others regard them with excessive esteem and affection, making them tools of luxury and vanity, employing them only in domestic service. …22

Yet treatment of the slave in Puerto Rico was nowhere as unjust as that of the English and French colonies in the Caribbean. Diaz Soler states that, “Many of the chroniclers, as well as slave owners and. abolitionists, agreed that the black slave (in Puerto Rico) received far better treatment than the slaves in English and French colonies in the Caribbean sea.”23 That would also mean better than the plight of slaves in Anglo-America.

In many ways the slave in Puerto Rico was better off than the free worker since he was guaranteed all necessities of life from his master. In the event that his master would loose his fortunes, the slave was either transported or sold to someone else, whereas the obrero (free worker) who had received a miserable salary was now to remain jobless. One might note here that the land owner (el hacendado), as a slave owner, had to also hire free laborers. This was due to a shortage of black slaves in Puerto Rico and can be seen as a favorable factor in the development of positive relationships between black and white, slave and free men on the island. Solar points out that as a result of this labor relationship “the island has not been the scene of racial struggles and never has fixed in its earth a collective prejudice of one race against another.”24

The daily labor of the slave in Puerto Rico was conducted in such a way as to remind one of the European peasantry. However, there is one marked difference. The slave worked much less the peasant and had fewer cares to press on his mind at the hour of rest. Slaves were sent to the field, after the sun rose and they generally had coffee before they set out. They were supervised by a driver, a well behaved slave selected for that purpose. They worked, until 8:30 or 9 and then assembled for breakfast which was prepared by the women domestics. After an hour was spent for breakfast they resumed work until noon when they then stopped for dinner. This entailed another hour for eating, relaxing and social intercourse. They stopped work before sunset and retired to their respective homes.

Given this typical day, the slave worked 9 hours out of twenty four (far less than free workers in the factories of industrial North America!). To imagine the slave being “driven” to labor is a mistake. They went on slowly and at ease. Sundays, holidays and Holy days meant rest except in time of harvest. And in the Spanish colonies this meant a lot of days to rest since there were approximately 30 religious feast days alone. “Masters were not permitted to work their slaves on Sunday and on certain feast days. On feast days the slaves could enjoy moderate amusements provided that there was no excessive eating and drinking, that the sexes were kept apart, and the slaves were in their respective places by nightfall.”25

As in other areas where slavery existed, the Negro in Spanish America was primarily an agricultural worker. Unlike other areas, however, all the slaves on the estates in Puerto Rico had land allowed them by their masters which they cultivated for themselves. This tended to attach the slaves to the country; it made them take a deeper interest in the preservation of their master’s property and it formed a happy arid useful coalition of interests between them. Even with respect to the land, the slaves of this fertile island had a decided advantage over the slaves of the small French, English, and Danish islands in which there was scarcely any spare land.

On the whole, considering the state of slavery in Puerto Rico, it may be asserted, that with respect to food lodging, and human treatment, the Spanish slaves were in a far better and more fortunate condition than those in English, French, Dutch, and Danish colonies. When slaves were sick in Puerto Rico they were carefully attended to and those employed in domestic service, when ill, were treated like children of the family. As a result the mortality rate of slaves in Puerto Rico was far lower than that of other European colonies.

By the I9th century slavery was slowly coming to an end. But as a result of the agricultural reforms listed in the Real Cedula de Gracias of 1815 (Royal Decree of Graces) slave labor was encouraged to revive agriculture and attract new settlers. The new agricultural class now immigrating from other countries of Europe sought slave labor in large numbers and cruelty became the order of the day. It is for this reason that we see a series of slave uprisings in the island, from the early 1820’s until 1868 when blacks, free and slave, participated in the open struggle for independence known as El Grito de Lares. To escape the cruel plight of I9th century slavery, many blacks either committed suicide or crimes that were punishable by death.

By 1835 the actual importation of slaves ceased. By 1860 or so, the struggle for emancipation began. This struggle went hand in hand with the struggle for political independence as the free native population, black and white, became more and more aware of an identity which was no longer Spanish, but Puerto Rican. Thus political liberals like Julio Vizcarrondo founded the Abolitionist Society in 1864, while Roman Emeterio Betances, most famous as the father of Puerto Rican nationalism, also aided in the struggle. His actions of buying infant slaves their freedom as their parents entered church were typical of how most people felt about slavery at this time. By 1866 petitions by Puerto Rican representatives were before the Spanish Cortes or parliament to abolish slavery. In 1870 Remon Baldorioty de Castro, another leading Puerto Rican patriot, introduced a bill that would be passed in 1873 as the Ley Moret and which finally abolished slavery in Puerto Rico.

It is significant to note, however, that when emancipation finally came it was somewhat anti-climatic. Dependence on slave labor was short lived again. Agriculture in Puerto Rico by the mid 19th century was no longer dependent on slave labor. It did not mean economic ruin as it did for the southern United States. Consequently when slavery ended, there were no hard feelings toward the ex-slave. And no one even approached the question of compensating ex-slave owners until fourteen years after emancipation! We see no Jim Crow laws appear in Puerto Rico. In fact, many ex-slaves chose to stay in the employ of their former masters. Sixty-five per cent of those who were domestics and forty five percent of the field workers stayed on as free (paid) laborers.

By the time emancipation came, blacks had lived in Puerto Rico for over 350 years. During such a lengthy period, and given the more humane circumstances discussed, which allowed him to become part of the everyday mainstream of life, one can’t negate the impact of their ethnos and culture in the Puerto Rican personality. “The contribution of the black to Puerto Rican culture dates back from the moment of his appearance on the Antillean shores. With him there were brought to these lands the mysterious and sensual rhythms of his music, …traditions and. customs.”26 The black man also made contributions in the area of polities, literature, science, and education.

One of the principal areas of Puerto Rican culture where the influence of the black man is more evident is in religion. The Bantu, for example, brought with him to Puerto Rico all the superstitious elements of his religion. The strangest superstitions related to ancestor worship still persist. Necromancy, or black magic communications with the dead, which is derived from the West African cultures, also exists in many parts of the island. Guayama, a city in southern Puerto Rico, is known as “The town of sorcerers.”27 Blacks and mulattoes in this area have passed down from generation to generation a host of legends dealing with the supernatural. They also have the reputation of being experts in the preparation of brews and potions to incur evil or good. Hence, there is the need for amulets to protect children from the evil eye and forces of these sorcerers. Even today Puerto Rican mothers resort to hanging la cabeza negra or the black head, an amulet made of jet stone, on a baby’s carriage or person to ward off evil forces.

Although the slave yielded to the vigorous Christianizing of the Catholic Church, he nevertheless continued to worship his ancestral gods and perform his witchcraft and magic. Free blacks living in the rural country side imported their beliefs to the poor whites, mulattoes and mestizos there. It is no wonder that even today when one goes into a typical Puerto Rican home he will see along with statues of Christian saints and the Virgin, a chango or black African god to whom, in many cases, offerings of fruit, wine or other items are present. Although Puerto Ricans today are classified as 85% Roman Catholic, it is not the institutionalized Catholicism per se of Europe. Rather it is home oriented with a rich folkloric tradition derived primarily from the African influence.

The African influence is no less evident in Puerto Rico’s music. The Negro is by instinct and experience a music-maker. If one examines the African cultures carefully we find that some tribes had full orchestras with rather sophisticated instruments. Since the Spanish gentlemen considered it beneath their dignity to play a musical instrument, blacks in Puerto Rico not only became their musical performers, but also the teachers and composers.

During the festivities of feast days and holidays, the slaves would sing their old songs which were rich in folklore and African rhythms. Their rhythms were worked into typical European musical forms and gave rise to a style that is now uniquely Puerto Rican. One need only listen to examples of la danza or la plena to be aware of the heavy African influence in Puerto Rican music as well as to know the instruments employed; i.e., bongos, timbales, and marimbas, all African in origin. The black man’s music accompanied his dances which have always been described as very sensual and lively. They include the mariyanda, the candungue and the more popularly known baile de bomba which is still part of the July festival to Saint James in Loiza Aldea, perhaps Puerto Rico’s largest Afro-Hispanic community.

The Puerto Rican personality is also influenced by the African’s imprint on the language. Words like name, chango, bernbe, mango, rumba etc. are part of the Puerto Rican’s everyday speech. The up and down speech intonations in Puerto Rican Spanish are typically African as well as the grammatical practice of cutting endings (para nada becomes pa’na), transforming or dropping consonants and various phonetic implications in the vernacular. The Puerto Rican’s diet is also heavily influenced by the black man and dishes like mofongo (green bananas with meat), gandinga (stewed or marinated pork livers with vinegar and garlic), funche (mushed cornmeal), guanimos (cornmeal croquettes), sambumbia (an elaborate salad) are all part of la comida criolla or the native cuisine.

If one looks carefully into all aspects of modern Puerto Rican culture (the arts, politics, education etc.) he will find those influencing factors derived from the African tradition in Puerto Rico. A no less important factor of the Puerto Rican personality is the concern and consciousness the Puerto Rican has about physical traits. It is not uncommon to hear one speak of the profile of a person as being perfilado or silhouetted with fine features as a sign of whiteness as opposed, to the broad, flat features of a black person. Straight hair is linked to whiteness while pelo malo (bad hair) or grifo (kinky) indicate kinky hair from blacks. Other terms like trigueno or morena denote skin coloring. Joseph Fitzpatrick, in his book The Puerto Rican Americans, spends a whole chapter on racial terms which denote very fine distinctions of coloring and attitudes among Puerto Ricans today.28 Yet, “In spite of all the racist manifestations expressed in the language, the feeling of brotherhood between blacks and whites in Puerto Rico has always existed, even in times of slavery.”29

Tumin and Feidman, in the sociological study, Social Class and Social Change in Puerto Rico, found that no racial discrimination or prejudice existed in most social areas such as education, entertainment and public facilities. They did find some in areas of employment and this they attributed in some ways to American business practices of hiring and the overall corporate bureaucracy. They also found that most individuals interviewed, when asked to classify themselves racially, were either not sure or not in agreement with the interviewers classification and usually responded by saying they were Puerto Rican.30 This perhaps sums it all up. Only in the United States (and some anglo oriented African countries) does one have a color or racial label put on him. In Puerto Rico, despite one’s racial ancestry, one is a Puerto Rican first, and as a Puerto Rican he willingly and proudly cites the many facets of his unique personality.

The late Dr. Robert Martinez was chairman of the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Baruch College.

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One thought on “The African Roots of Puerto Rico

  1. Captain Tim says:

    We recently received this comment from a customer and wanted to add to this blog post as an avenue for further study…
    However, there is some information that is incorrect on the website. The first Africans were not brought to Spain by Arab enslavers. Africans conquered Spain far before Arab invasion of Africa. Please take some time to read about Moor conquest of Europe. It’s quite fascinating and another part of history that is often overlooked.

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