FOR ANYONE who then lived in Puerto Rico, or had even visited the US territory, the results of the 2000 census likely came as a surprise. That year, in response to a question about race—the first such query in more than forty years—more than 80 percent of the island’s 3.8 million people identified themselves as white, while only 8 percent identified as black or African American. These figures, which seemed to dramatically understate the number of Puerto Ricans with African heritage, were met with incredulity, confusion, and mockery, as well as genuine intellectual curiosity about the status of Afro–Puerto Rican identity.
For many years prior to 2000, relatively little accurate information had been compiled about race in Puerto Rico. During the first half of the twentieth century, the census questionnaire offered a stark choice: white or nonwhite. Following the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952, the local government requested that the question about race be eliminated. Puerto Rico’s leaders argued that the racial categories that divided US society did not translate to the territory. The authors of a recent study of the history of the census observed that Puerto Rican officials imagined a “‘Great Family,’ made up of various racial mixtures, whose racial tolerance made it distinct from the US. Accordingly, the issue of race was not considered to be a matter of public policy that needed to be documented or addressed.”1 The myth of racial harmony through the unique mix of three “roots”—Spanish, African, and Indigenous Taíno—was central to the concept of a modern Puerto Rican identity at the heart of Commonwealth ideology.
The 2000 census was the first since 1960 that asked Puerto Rican people about their race, and the results speak to the complex status of Afro–Puerto Ricans within this supposedly harmonious society.2 The fact that the 2010 census showed a significant increase in the black population exemplifies how racial self-identification can be quite fluid in Puerto Rico. Over the past decade, activists and scholars have revisited questions regarding the validity of American racial constructs in Puerto Rico while also advocating more recognition for citizens of African descent.
Last October, the University of Puerto Rico hosted the Second Congress on Afro-descendants in Puerto Rico. Founded by María Elba Torres Muñoz in 2015, the conference is an attempt to confront the challenges facing Afro–Puerto Ricans directly, including the fact that the host university does not offer an Afro–Puerto Rican studies degree. In addition to talks about how best to revise racial terminology for the census, the symposium included panel discussions on topics ranging from racism in health care to community displacement and gentrification to Afro–Puerto Ricans’ contributions to art history.
Indeed, black Puerto Rican artists are becoming increasingly visible locally and internationally, and they are connecting with the aesthetic and spiritual traditions of the broader African diaspora. Yet the history of Afro–Puerto Rican art is not widely known. A galvanizing moment for some black artists in the territory came in 1992, amid official commemorations of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the Caribbean. While myriad exhibitions celebrated Puerto Rican art past and present, the culture of black Puerto Ricans was broadly represented by traditional craft practices divorced from contemporary art. Seeking to redress this cultural split, curator Edwin Velázquez Collazo organized the 1996 exhibition “Paréntesis: ocho artistas negros contemporáneos” (Parenthesis: Eight Black Contemporary Artists). The show, at the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture in San Juan, featured work by Daniel Lind Ramos, Awilda Sterling-Duprey, Ramón Bulerín, Arleen Casanova, Eneid Routte Gómez, Gadiel Rivera, Jesús Cardona, Liz D. Amable, and Velázquez Collazo. In pointed statements offered along with their work, the participating artists asserted their identity as black Puerto Ricans and contemporary artists who rejected an inherent link between blackness, folklore, and craft.
By including the word “negros” in the Spanish title, Velázquez Collazo was indeed challenging “the absurdity of black invisibility in a mestizo society,” as one observer wrote about the show.3 Most critics, however, reacted negatively to the premise and attacked the exhibition’s title as well as the artists’ statements about race. José Antonio Torres Martinó, a prominent critic and artist, published a column refuting the artists’ claims of systemic racism. Torres Martinó accused the eight artists of being divisive and trying to import conflicts endemic to American society to Puerto Rico—a common defense against accusations of homegrown racism.4
Since 2000, only a handful of Afrocentric exhibitions have been organized in Puerto Rico, with Torres Muñoz as the common driving force behind the projects. Museo Casa Escuté in Carolina presented “Afro Caribbean Traditions: Spirituality, Art, and Resistance” (2007) and “No Permission Asked: The Afro Descendant Experience” (2015), in conjunction with related symposia. The largest and most influential show was “Afrolatinos” (2012), at the Museo de Arte de Caguas, which featured Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and African diaspora artists from outside the region, as well as other artists who identify with aspects of African spirituality and aesthetics.
MANY AFRO–PUERTO RICAN artists working today find inspiration in African and Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices. Among the most prominent is Awilda Sterling-Duprey, whose work was included in “Parenthesis” in 1996. Sterling-Duprey began her career as a painter, but became increasingly interested in movement, performance, and dance. In 1979 she became a founding member of Pisotón, the first experimental dance collective in Puerto Rico. “If they wouldn’t show my paintings, then I would work with my body,” Sterling-Duprey recalled in a recent interview. “It has been very pleasurable.”5 Informed by her study of African dance, Yoruba traditions, and Santeria, Sterling-Duprey’s work became an expression of her commitment to celebrating blackness. Through her religious practice, she aimed to pay homage to African ancestral knowledge. “It was also out of rebellion,” she said. “I was tired of Christian precepts, and I didn’t want to keep validating histories that only highlight exclusion and marginalization.”
Sterling-Duprey’s 2014 piece “Transparente desnudez” (Transparent Nudity) is representative of her attempts to be “close to tradition but not inside of it.” Curator Abdiel D. Segarra-Ríos invited the artist to intervene in “Cosas: apuntes sobre el objeto tridimensional en el arte contemporáneo puertorriqueño” (Things: Notes on the Three-Dimensional Object in Contemporary Puerto Rican Art), an exhibition of sculpture at the Museo del Arsenal de La Puntilla in San Juan. Sterling-Duprey moved through the galleries, responding to some of the works on view through dance while speaking about herself, her body, and the aging process. She was accompanied by Ivette Román, a singer who improvised vocalizations.
In one of the most powerful parts of the performance, Sterling-Duprey confronted a sculpture by artist Aaron Salabarrías. The work comprises a series of wooden slats carved to resemble “Zulu Lulu” swizzle sticks: cocktail stirrers in the form of a caricatured body of a black woman. The racist novelties, popular in the 1950s, came in sets of six, with each stick representing a woman at a different age from fifteen to forty years old. As Sterling-Duprey recalled life experiences from the different ages supposedly depicted in the sculptures, Román assisted by unwrapping the transparent garments the artist wore, revealing her naked body in a slow, ritualistic way. Sterling-Duprey concluded her engagement with the sculpture by bringing the ceremonial aspects of her performance back down to earth, saying “and now I’m 65 and on Social Security.”
Links between African spirituality and contemporary material culture are key to Michael Linares’s conceptual practice. The focal point of his multifaceted project “El Museo del Palo” (Museum of the Stick), 2013–17, is an installation of, well, lots of sticks: scores of them carefully arranged on plinths or hanging from walls in a manner evocative of an anthropology museum display. Authentic ritual implements on loan from such museums are among the sticks included in some versions of the project, which have been on view at the Bienal de São Paulo in 2016 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2017. Mixed in with traditional staffs and divination rods are more worldly items such as a store-bought cane, a backyard tiki torch, and a hat stand. (The piece also includes a video titled An Aleatory History of the Stick, 2014, as well as a related publication.) Informed by Linares’s graduate studies in anthropology, the project also sparked his interest in Afro-Caribbean religion and magic. “The history of the stick is a search for the history of humanity and the human mind beyond the remains of material culture,” he told me. “I was interested in what happened in the mind of the people who made all these things.”6
Over the past few years Linares has delved deeply into the Ifá religious practices that have survived in Puerto Rico despite the overwhelming dominance of the Catholic Church. “As a Puerto Rican, Caribbean, Antillean . . . what made the most sense was an African religion. It is the bravest, the one that hid in plain sight to preserve itself, that syncretized to survive.” In the 2017 solo “Future Exhibition” at Galería Agustina Ferreyra in San Juan, Linares created a devotional vignette. Four pillars carved from tree stumps supported stones sourced from a river he used to frequent with his family. A wall painting depicted a triskele (three contiguous Archimedean spirals), and a spindly tree root suspended from the ceiling by wires alluded to the Ouroboros symbol, usually represented by a snake swallowing its own tail.
Linares intended the stones to be oracles with specific symbolic functions: to heal heartbreak, provide sustenance, or ensure the permanence of pleasure. One particularly beautiful piece is Clitoris (2017), a stone in a woven palm-frond covering that sits on a palm wood pedestal. It looks like an exaggerated representation of a woman’s anatomical pleasure center, but also like a swaddled creature. In addition, Linares has created a series of his own shamanic instruments. These pieces range from a set of maracas covered in guinea feathers to a branch topped by a carved snake’s head to a beautifully decorated sensory deprivation hood. For Linares, any object can be a dwelling space for spirits.
Such an overt engagement with religious symbolism is not immediately apparent in Tony Cruz Pabón’s work. Instead, he focuses on how markers of Afro-Caribbean identity and religious iconography have permeated contemporary culture in subtle ways. For the installation titled Nube (Cloud), 2013–14, at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Cruz Pabón created an array of conceptually linked abstract drawings, many echoing the forms of a cloud, a treetop, and an afro. A lifelong salsa music fan, he also included drawings that feature the titles of songs that refer to rain. All the drawings hung in a cloudlike arrangement on the wall, while on the floor he placed an upside-down glass of water—a reference to a popular ritual designed to impede rain from falling.
Cruz Pabón’s curiosity about the metaphors and symbols in salsa and Afro-Caribbean music in general brought him to investigate the cult-like following of late salsa legend Ismael Rivera, who was revered as the Black Christ in the Panamanian town of Portobelo. Cruz Pabón noticed that the album covers for ostensibly secular popular recordings often featured allusions to Santeria and other traditional religious practices. “Those covers helped me understand the construction of images,” he said in an interview, “they are part of my upbringing. Even when my work is mostly drawing lines, my understanding of images was shaped by those record covers.”7 So far, the results of his research have included an installation of salsa and Afro-Caribbean music LPs, a public conference on the subject, a playlist, a video, and an as yet unpublished book that explores the visual culture around salsa and Santeria, linking it to art history.
WHILE AFRICAN spirituality is a major source of inspiration for many Afro–Puerto Rican artists, others directly address the history of radicalism spurred by dispossession and struggle in the Caribbean. One of the eight artists who participated in “Parenthesis,” Daniel Lind Ramos understands the pervasiveness of racism in Puerto Rico, even if it is obscured by official appeals to Hispanic history. “El que no tiene dinga, tiene mandinga,” he told me.8 The colloquialism implies that everyone has at least some black in them—a slogan often used to invalidate claims of racism. Lind Ramos was raised in Loíza, a center of Afro–Puerto Rican culture. “Surrounded by black people,” he recounted in an interview, “my primary education was full of joy, with traditions, culinary and artistic expressions stemming from an economy based on the coconut palm tree.”
In his work, Lind Ramos often explores the links between Loíza and the African diaspora throughout the Antilles as experienced through carnival characters. Trained as a painter and draughtsman, he began incorporating three-dimensional objects into his canvases in the late 1990s and now creates mostly large-scale installations, assemblages, and videos. The materials he uses, including dried coconuts and palm tree refuse, can be found in the area around his studio in Loíza. His assemblage sculptures often honor construction workers, musicians, cooks, and artisans through the inclusion of their tools, some of which also happen to be important symbols in Afro-Caribbean religions and traditions.
The artist’s 2014 solo exhibition “De Pie” (Standing) at the Museo de las Americas in San Juan featured assemblages that evoke proud and defiant figures from throughout Afro–Puerto Rican history. The imposing piece 1797 features a version of the carnival character El Viejo (Old Man), signified by a metal mask and hat. The abstract figure is surrounded by other masks made of palm tree refuse that are positioned on the wall above an array of knives. Coconut husks are piled on the floor below, some painted with crude versions of the Union Jack. The work is an allusion to militia of Afro–Puerto Ricans who defended the island from a British invasion led by lieutenant-general Ralph Abercromby. The piece also manifests a fierce desire to live in and protect ancestral land.
Land, community, sustainability, and food independence are concepts central to the work and life of sisters Lydela and Michel Nonó, who go by Las Nietas de Nonó. Encompassing theater, performance, dance, activism, and education, their practice is grounded in their experiences growing up in the Manuel A. Pérez public housing project in Río Piedras and the San Antón neighborhood in Carolina during the “mano dura” regime of the 1990s, a period in which tough-on-crime policies resulted in high rates of incarceration. The sisters are vocal in their criticism of institutions like jails and schools, as well as the medical and food industries, which they view as power centers in an oppressive system that perpetuates poverty. “The analysis is Foucauldian,” Michel explained, “but from a really personal perspective. We focus on microstories and insert them into the broader history of the country, of black people, of expropriation.”9
Manual del Bestiario Doméstico (Manual of the Domestic Bestiary), 2014, is a theater piece based on their memories of weekly trips to visit incarcerated uncles, cousins, and neighbors. “We were trying to outline a story from a place of our own voices that would reference how institutions have limited the possibilities of those Puerto Ricans who live at the margins of society,” Michel said. Around the time they were developing that piece, the sisters established Patio Taller, a workshop and community education center in San Antón where they present performances, host resident artists, raise animals, and grow food on a plot of land that belonged to their paternal grandparents, Don Nonó (a farmer) and Doña Manuela (a curandera, or healer).
Las Nietas’s work often emphasizes the efficient use of resources and the role of domestic labor in economic development. For the sisters, kombucha, a low-alcohol fermented tea-like beverage, is a symbol of these concerns. In addition to incorporating kombucha into their diet, they have experimented with the bacteria and yeast “mother” that is both a driver of the fermentation process and a byproduct. The material, which they equate with “vegetable leather,” featured in their installation Ilustraciones de la mecánica (Illustrations of the Mechanical), 2016–18, at the Berlin Biennale, where they used it to create curtains, masks, and various slimy female body parts. “Behind the use of kombucha is a philosophy,” Michel told me, describing how bacteria can be understood as a metaphorical foil to colonization. “The colony of bacteria self-organizes, whereas in the geopolitical colony the exact opposite happens.”
A more literal expression of the sisters’ desire for independence is Foodtopia: Manifestaciones en período de caza (Foodtopia: Demonstrations During Hunting Season), an ongoing project for which the artists hunt and trap green iguanas in the wild. This invasive species was introduced to the island in the 1970s, and with no natural predator it has become a scourge. “The only viable way of controlling the plague is hunting them and getting involved in the food chain,” Michel said, “while also getting a material (the skins) that can be used aesthetically.” The hunts, which the sisters document with photos and video, are performative and ritualistic events. The green iguana is not a traditional component of the Puerto Rican diet, but the sisters argue that perhaps it should be now. The iguana ribs they cook with honey mustard sauce in one video could be a locally sourced delicacy and a step toward correcting Puerto Rico’s dependency on food imports.
WHILE THESE ARTISTS are addressing blackness in the content of their works, there remains the challenge of creating inclusive spaces within the art world. Cruz Pabón, who cofounded the nonprofit Beta-Local in 2009, is aware of the “whiteness” that permeates many art spaces in Puerto Rico—most people who attend them are not evidently black. The phrase “evidently black” is being increasingly used to distinguish a life lived while black from a more general Afro-descendant heritage. As Michel Nonó described, “it’s very important to create the work in the place where we live. There is a lot of prejudice against people who come from the projects. There is a latent class war.” She views her art and community outreach initiatives as part of a struggle against those prejudiced perceptions. For Sterling-Duprey, the conversation about being black in Puerto Rico is evolving as a byproduct of the mass migration to the US mainland, where our local definition of whiteness doesn’t apply. As Puerto Ricans enter the US as migrants, they are deemed “people of color,” presenting them with the challenge of experiencing life in a new, marginalized way, but also influencing how they look back at the country they left.
The ties between Afro descendent communities in Puerto Rico, US-based Puerto Ricans, and the greater African diaspora are the focus of the Afro Corridor, a new project based in Loíza. Founders Marta Moreno Vega, director of the Creative Justice Initiative, and Maricruz Rivera Clemente, director of Corporación Piñones Se Integra, aim to create a network of cultural spaces across the country to help build a more viable and equitable local economy. Casa Afro, the Corridor’s cultural center, is located in a two-story house in Loíza and had a preliminary opening last February with an exhibition, talks, art workshops, and storytelling for kids. In the words of Moreno Vega, the “displacement of black people is happening everywhere around the world. So, the idea of this Corridor is to establish the places of historical importance in Loíza from an Afro-centered point of view, to determine our own narrative and imagery.”10 Many of the people involved in making the Corridor a reality have been working for decades to make space for other black Puerto Ricans. Whether it’s art, life, or the next census, it’s about time people are represented on their own terms.
1. Isar P. Godreau, Hilda Lloréns, and Carlos Vargas-Ramos, “Colonial Incongruence at Work: Employing US Census Racial Categories in Puerto Rico,” Anthropology News, May 2010, pp. 11–12.
2. Following the 1992 electoral victory of a pro-statehood government, the question of race was reinstated in the census at their request. This wasn’t so much about representation or inclusion of black Puerto Ricans in the national narrative, but rather about eliminating a bureaucratic difference between the territory and the rest of the US.
3. Eneid Routte Gómez, “The Artistic Substance of Color,” San Juan Star, May 6, 1996, pp. 27–28.
4. José Antonio Torres Martinó, “Artes plásticas y racismo,” El Nuevo Día, May 16, 1996, pp. 94–95.
5. All quotes by Awilda Sterling-Duprey from an interview with the author, San Juan, Jan. 27, 2019.
6. All quotes by Michael Linares from an interview with the author, San Juan, Jan. 28, 2019.
7. All quotes by Tony Cruz Pabón from an interview with the author, San Juan, Jan. 24, 2019.
8. All quotes by Daniel Lind Ramos from an interview with the author, San Juan, Jan. 24, 2019.
9. All quotes by Michel Nonó from an interview with the author, San Juan, Jan. 29, 2019.
10. Marta Moreno Vega quoted in Cyndi Suárez, “The Hidden Narrative of Racial Inequity in Puerto Rico,” Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly, Oct. 29, 2018, nonprofitquarterly.org.