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What Does the Music of Puerto Rico Teach Us About Racism?


A Different Sort of Racism

As a result of the colonial conquest and migratory patterns, Puerto Rico evolved with a notion of race and racism that is quite unlike those notions in the United States. Racial composition in Puerto Rico is more differentiated than is the case in the United States. But as in the United States, non-whites are generally limited to the middle and lower classes, while the upper class reserved for the whites.

Agricultural production by free peasants expanded significantly after the abolition of slavery. Freed slaves bought abandoned or bankrupt estates throughout Puerto Rico, where land was generally available outside the coastal sugar zones. Blacks entered commerce, the professions, and government and villages of freed were not an uncommon part of life in Puerto Rico.

Interestingly, and in stark contrast to race relations later in the United States, Puerto Rico experienced a weak adherence to caste law and resulted in widespread intermarriage between whites and blacks. In fact, this difference could be said to be the primary qualitative differentiator between racism in Puerto Rico and the United States.

Where racism in the United States is rooted in a biological or anthropological distiction between "us" and "them" -- black versus white, racism in Puerto Rico reflects a dichotomy based largely on social class. Some would argue that the class distinction is merely a smoke screen that evolved out of the very same anthropological bias but in either case, racism was and is today expressed in different terms.

Economics and anthropology aside, and despite the efforts of the politically dominant white minority to control them, Blacks in Puerto Rico had considerable control over their daily lives. This small measure of control extended to all facets of life for non-white Puerto Ricans, including music.

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