By Carmen Bardeguez-Brown
The Beautiful Faces of My Black People
Las caras lindas de mi gente negra
(An excerpt from the poem Rican Issues from the book Dreaming rhythms:
Despertando el Silencio)
That I don’t look What ?
Oh , I guess I don’t look cafe con leche
mancha de platano
By the way
I did not know that there was a puertorican look.
And what exactly is that?
That I just look more what?
Well, Y Tu abuela donde Esta?
I should said abuela, tio, Tia, y to el barrio
Let me tell you something
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Most Ricans are a mix of Africans, Spaniards and Native Americans called Tainos
By the way no one has seen a Taino in the last 500 years.
Sooooo exactly…you know what that means.
We are historical creatures and my story starts with the history of my ancestors, and as such I will start with my parents.
Both of my parents migrated to the United States in the 1950s. My father went to study engineering at Howard University and my mother was sent to live with a lady that somehow my grandfather knew and could help her find work for the Federal Government. According to Mami, it was her way of forgetting a love affair gone sour.
My parents had a serendipity encounter in a public bus in Washington, DC. She was on her way to work and my father entered the bus wearing his military uniform with a few of the soldiers from his division. One of the men in the group made a comment about how beautiful my mom was and she responded in Spanish. They were all surprised at the novelty of finding a Puerto Rican who spoke Spanish in a public bus in DC. They talked and exchanged numbers and on the next day, my father went to her place with flowers. Like they say, the rest is history.
My parents said they both liked the US capital. Upon graduation, my father served as Captain in the United States army. I believe that he served one or two duties in the Korean war. After a romantic courtship, he and my mom got married in a civil ceremony in New York and celebrated the event with a few relatives that were living in the Bronx.
They both had serious experiences of discrimination while living in the United States. At the time when they were in DC, members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, namely, Lolita Lebron, Andres Figueroa Cordero, Irving Flores Rodriguez, and Rafael Cancel Miranda entered the gallery of the US House of Representatives and open fired after the session on March 1, 1954. Five congressmen were seriously injured in the act which was a political act to call attention to the abuses and injustices perpetrated to the people of Puerto Rico.
Mami said that before the shooting inside the halls of Congress happened, she was reminded constantly that she was a “different kind of black, but she was black.” But after the attack, she experienced rejection for being Puerto Rican. Speaking Spanish became a serious threat to the Americans that she dealt with on a daily basis.
Dad only shared with me and my older sister one of his many experiences on discrimination. He said that one of his early experiences occurred after an arduous military training. He went out to eat with two of his friends at a local diner. He said that they were starving. They were all wearing their uniforms. As they entered the diner, they sat down and the waitress showed them the sign that said that they did not serve color people.
Dad said that they all felt humiliated and disrespected. He could not believe that they did not even honor that they were soldiers. I could still remember his restrained anger as he related the story to us.
In spite of the discrimination that they both experienced, my parents considered settling in DC as my father received several job offers after his graduation. The salary of the job offers was high and he knew that he will never earn that kind of money in Puerto Rico.
But they eventually moved back to Puerto Rico in 1955. My dad told us that he refused to raise his family in a country that legalized racism and discriminated against black people.
So my parents, then newlyweds, embarked on a new life back in Puerto Rico. They will have three beautiful girls. My older sister Arlene, who will later become a medical doctor and medical professor at Rutgers University, then me, a long-life poet and educator who dabble in social and political activism, and my young sister Debbie who studied agriculture in Mayaguez and worked for the USDA.
I know my family had a unique experience as black Puerto Ricans. It was a constant reminder when we participated in social events sponsored by the coveted Sociedad de Ingenieros de Puerto Rico. There were only two black families that participated in those events: the Walters and us, the Bardeguezes.
In Puerto Rico, everyone is mixed. You could “look” white but your father or mother or brother or sister or grandmother or grandfather is black. We come in the black-brown-white spectrum. The problem is that hardly anyone or a very small percentage of the population and the mainstream culture in general refuses to acknowledge their African heritage and accept themselves as a black or mestizo culture. As with many countries that were part of the African diaspora experience, we had institutional slavery until it was abolished in 1873.
Yes, my friends, there was slavery in Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Cuba.
That indian/trigueno look is more a consequence of the black mestizaje than Taino mestizaje. Remember that the Tainos were killed 50 years after the Spanish invasion while the Africans have been living in the island for over 400 years.
The Tainos no longer existed. They were massacred by the Spaniards. Many Puerto Ricans have difficulty accepting this reality and prefer to dwell in the myth of a modern Taino nation.
We all have Taino ancestry in our DNA and our culture, but ours is historically a culture that is predominantly of African descent.
I believe that our failure to accept this fact is part of the vestiges of slavery and a problem that affects our cultural understanding of who we are as people. This lack of self-knowledge influences how we understand political and cultural struggles that have the potential to support radical change in our communities.
Like the famous Puerto Rican saying goes: “Y tu abuela donde esta?”
Higher Education is still a problem of class and race. There are not too many “Black Puerto Ricans with professional degrees.”
The Black Puerto Rican experience has yet to be written and understood. My intention is not to document the history of all Black Puerto Ricans. Iam just going to share one my story.
I love my country but my appreciation and love for my black heritage was born from a combination of looking up to the African American experience and the love my parents instill in us of the many accomplished Black Puerto Ricans.
Afro-Boricuas like Ramon Emeterio Betances, Pedro Albizu Campos, Francisco Oller, Sylvia Del Villar, Juan Morel Campos, Rafael Hernandez, Ruth Hernandez, Arturo Schomburg, Jose Campeche, Juan Boria, Dr. Jose Ferrer Canales, Rafael Cepeda, Pedro Flores, Rafael Cortijo, Ismael Rivera, Rafael Cordero, Roberto Clemente. I remembered how people mentioned their names and celebrated their contributions to the Puerto Rican culture.
There is a different kind of racism in the United States and in Puerto Rico. The most important fact is that we did not have to legalize racism like Segregation or “Jim Crow” and rampant decades of lynching. There was no KKK and rampant police brutality that was race-based.
In Puerto Rico, cultural discrimination is ingrained in the language that undermined any acceptance of blackness as beautiful. For example, this thought is revealed by a few of the common sayings or “dichos” such as:
Casate con una blanquita para mejorar la raza.
Ay pero que linda en su tipo.
Ay es negrito pero con facciones finas.
Ay nena esa nariz Africana.
The media perpetuates the misconception of the “Puerto Rican look.” There was once a commercial sanctioned by the Tourism department of Puerto Rico that had 3 light skinned Puerto Rican kids with blond hair and blue eyes wearing a Vejigante mask from Loiza. Everyone knows that Loiza is one of the most African-centered Puerto Rican towns in the island.
My parents were proud Ricans who knew and embraced their culture but they also experienced the Puerto Rican brand of racism which was very different from the one they experienced in the United States. They also loved and embraced the history and culture of the African Americans. They blended the best of both worlds and as such, raised us to be conscious of our place in Puerto Rico and prepared us for what will be our future reality of Black Puerto Ricans who migrated to the United States.
A few days before my father passed away, I shared my desire and plans to go and live in New York and crashed with my sister that was doing her medical residency in Queens. I will never forget his words. “Acuerdate, Carmin que tienes que ser mejor que ellos para que puedas echar para lante. Sea aqui o alla.” Wise words from my beloved father.
(About the author: Carmen Bardequez-Brown is a poet and teacher living in Hartsdale. Born and raised in Puerto Rico and educated in the US and Puerto Rico , she tackles the complexity and nuances of being a creature in both cultures of the East and West, the colonized and the colonizer, in her blog. The birth of this blog is brought about by Carmen’s desire to write and publish which is ushered in by the Aspiring Writers Mentoring Program of 2018. This is her second issue.)