Puerto Rican Criollos’ Legacy of Whitening and Erasure of Blackness

If Spain did something particularly well to maintain control over Puerto Rico until the American invasion of 1898, that would be widening the racial divide by spreading the fear of a racial war among the Criollos in the island.

When referring to those claiming and being accepted as descendants of Europeans in the Spanish Caribbean, I make the point of using Criollo and never translate it as Creole for these two terms have completely different meanings. In the case of Puerto Rico, elites appropriated the term “criollo” to signify those who had been born on the island and who were legally Spaniards in opposition to those Spaniards born in the peninsula, or peninsulares.

The term criollo had a pejorative origin which implied that those under this label had been contaminated by the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Americas. During the late Spanish Empire, it was more widely used to refer to the relatively economically successful, educated, and predominantly white native minority of Spanish/European lineage born in Puerto Rico.

Astrid Cubano Iguina reminds us that neither some light racial mixing nor falling on economic hard times automatically excluded criollos from this class. Moreover, there was a political factor that defined the criollos. The criollos resented political marginalization and sought to establish their position vis-à-vis the “peninsular newcomers whom they perceived as representatives of Spanish domination” and abuse.

(Astrid Cubano Iguina, Criollos ante el 98: La cambiante imagen del dominio español durante su crisis y caída en Puerto Rico, 1889-1899, (Trabajo escrito para el congreso de LASA, Guadalajara, México, 17-19 de abril de 1997), 2-3.)

But at the end of the day, being Criollo was a claim to whiteness in marked opposition to Creole which signified Blackness. The former entitled you to privilege and dominance over Black and nonwhites while the latter condemned you to submission within the caste system.

Several scholars have noted that both criollos and peninsulares had much in common and even relied on each other to hold on to power. For the purpose of this article, we do not need to delve into this debate. It will suffice to say, that political exclusion was real but that it affected a relatively small sector of the population which nonetheless still saw in Spain a warrantor of their position in the island. Though both criollos and peninsulares exploited the Puerto Rican masses the criollos were successful in presenting the peninsulares, especially the merchant class, as the main cause for the  impoverishment of the masses.  

(See for example; Laird W. Bergard, “Toward Puerto Rico’s Grito de Lares: Coffee, Social Stratification, and Class Conflicts, 1828-1868”, (The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 60, No.4 Nov., 1980, 617-642), 636, 640-642. And, Astrid Cubano Iguina argues that “Spain was indispensable for the Criollos’ survival as a dominant class. See; Cubano Iguina, Criollos ante el 98, 5-6.)

In other articles, I have listed and discussed many of the reasons why rebellion against Spanish dominance in Puerto Rico ended in defeat. In this one, I will focus on race.

Despite its brevity, el Grito de Lares of September 23, 1868, has inspired many politicians and poets. Writing for the San Juan Star in celebration of the first centenary of the revolt, Juan Antonio Corretjer (1908–85), one of Puerto Rico’s greatest poets and untamable fighter for Puerto Rico’s independence, described the revolt as the day Puerto Rico became a nation. Of course, that vision is possible in hindsight, which also allows for the reformulation of Puerto Rico’s national mythology, its stories and histories, and of Puertoricaness itself.

The failed revolt had become an obscure footnote on the island’s history until the 1930s, when the Partido Nacionalista Puertorriqueño adopted the Lares revolt as a national icon. In 1969 Luis A. Ferré, the first governor of the island presiding over a party seeking federated statehood, declared the event a national holiday.

At first glance it may look contradictory that such diametrically opposed political camps embraced the same event as part of the island’s national iconography. However, Puerto Ricans from different sides of the political spectrum understood that control of the national symbols has long played an important role in Puerto Rican politics.

As argued by Arlene Dávila, command of the national mythology and its icons and appealing to national identities and feelings wield significant political power in Puerto Rico. This point was not lost to the Spanish authorities in 1868. Just about 7 percent (39 out of 551 detainees) of the Lares rebels were born outside the island. However, foreigners occupied important positions within the rebel cells, a fact that became the basis for the Spanish colonial government’s portrayal of the revolt as being foreign-inspired and led.

The criollos leading the Lares revolt were not able to mobilize the masses to support their cause even after appealing to the national spirit of Puerto Ricans. The demographics of the island in 1868 were less than ideal for promoting a sense of national unity.

During the early nineteenth century, the island’s population had quadrupled. In her classic work on foreign immigration to Puerto Rico, Estela Cifre de Loubriel identified three distinct immigration waves, 1800–1850, 1850–80, and 1880–98.

The first stage was characterized by an influx of immigrants from Santo Domingo, as well as French elements from Haiti and political émigrés from Venezuela. Cifre de Loubriel argues that foreign immigration, triggered by the Real Cédula de Gracias of August 10, 1815, accounted for much of the immigration to Puerto Rico during this first period which she considers essential in the formation of Puerto Rico as a pueblo.

She identifies this stage as the moment when Puerto Ricans began to emerge as a distinctive people. Such appraisal ignores pervasive racial divisions on the island and the contribution of nonwhite and Black peoples to the Puerto Rican pueblo.

More recent scholarship has focused on non-European migration to Puerto Rico during the first half of the nineteenth century and challenged the assumption that the Real Cédula served to whiten Puerto Rico. Joseph C. Dorsey has shown that especially after 1815, thousands of African and Caribbean slaves came to Puerto Rico from the non-Spanish Caribbean. The influx of Black and nonwhites to Puerto Rico was not limited to slaves. Free men of color, both black and mulattoes from the non-Hispanic Caribbean, joined waves of immigrants from the Spanish American mainland and Europe.

Jorge Luis Chinea has shown how these Black and nonwhite immigrants were instrumental in providing labor, capital, and the technical skills that nurtured the incipient cash-crop economy on the island, and by the middle of the nineteenth century a third of landowners in Puerto Rico were free men of color.

Black and nonwhite immigration was tolerated because of the island’s economic needs, but it was not welcome, and both slaves and free people of color were actively policed and suppressed.

After the sugar crisis of 1848, the colonial administration virtually closed Black immigration to Puerto Rico while encouraging white migration.

This policy of whitening was appreciated by the Criollos because of their own racism and because they fully bought into the ghost of Haiti narrative and the myth of an impending racial war.

Because of the massive and varied immigration, several European and African languages and their creolized versions could be heard in Puerto Rican barrios. Slaves and freedmen from the Dutch, Danish, and French Caribbean, Corsicans, Italians, French, Germans, and others had settled in and created small enclaves virtually isolated from the rest of the island. With few roads connecting the different towns, and with no common experience or common education to share beyond their immediate community, it was difficult if not impossible to appeal to national identity feelings.

Further, racial division was a big obstacle for the emergence of a strong national spirit that could fuel the anticolonial struggle in Puerto Rico.

The population in 1860 was almost equally divided between whites and blacks. The colonial authorities and their conservative allies used the ever-present fears of racial war after the Haitian Revolution to instill fear in liberals and separatists alike.

As late as 1872, conservatives argued that upon becoming independent, Puerto Rico would lose close to 100,000 whites, which would make the nonwhite population the majority.

According to the Spanish colonial administration and their conservative allies, this Black and nonwhite population would then try to take control of the government by any means, including racial war against the white population.

Conservatives based their claims on the number of free people of color and slaves who joined the Lares uprising and on the fact that many rebels were known abolitionists. They also still referred to Haiti.

This colonial narrative, which had worked for the Spaniards in Cuba to end the Ten Years’ War and the “Little War” of 1879–80, was intended to deny the existence and viability of a Cuban and a Puerto Rican nation. On both islands the colonial narratives of racial war served to impede the emergence of strong separatist movements by dividing blacks, mulattoes, and whites. In Cuba, however, the rebels found an effective counternarrative by the 1890s. (See, José Martí, My Race, 1893).

Puerto Rico was another story and as l late as 1898, local leaders (with the exception of exiled separatists and radicals) still clung to Spain as a protector and as the madre patria that gave them culture and civilization, and the right to command Black and nonwhites.

Some of them were outright conservatives and unconditional supporters of a Spanish Puerto Rico. Others were more on the center and opted for autonomismo (and still do to this day). Both sides clung to their status as elite which overall was based on their racial claim, on their whiteness, and all that came with being criollos.

In 1898, when a new imperial master took the reins, the Puerto Rican criollos were eager to demonstrate Puerto Rico’s unique status as an almost fully white island in a sea of Blackness (pun intended).

Cayetano Coll y Toste, a Puerto Rican historian, writer, and patriarch of a prominent family of politicians and writers, became Civil Secretary to the American Military Governor in 1898. Reporting on Puerto Rico’s population to 1897, he concluded with an estimation and a not so-nuanced recommendation for racial cleansing, a continuation of the Whitening of the island initiated under Spain.  He stated that:

“By prohibiting the immigration of negroes from the neighboring Islands, and estimating the annual loss, to that race, through absorption by the white and mixed races, at 3%, those 75,824 negroes that remain in the Island would have disappeared in a period of 300 years. – This is a very interesting anthropological study, because on the event of this happening, the Island of Porto [sic] would be the only one of the West Indies were the White race would prevail numerically.”  May 27, 1899.

Cayetano Coll Y Toste was not an exception, he was the norm. Puerto Rican criollos believed in the whitening, in whiteness as a civilizational project of modernization.

To them, the majority of the Puerto Rican population were rustic people who needed to be cleansed under the leadership of the white Criollos and under the sponsorship of the United States, the new imperial master.

Luckily, the racial cleansing did not happen. But attempts at cultural “cleansing” took, and continue to take place. After 1898, Puerto Rican elites relegated Blackness to folklore (and hence to the past) for decades. Worse yet, when the reformed colony (the ELA) designed a sponsored identity for the Puerto Ricans, it engaged in even more erasure of Blackness relegating it to a Black man with broken chains, presumably freed by the criollos, the descendants of the Conquistadors ultimately righting their ancestors’ many wrongs. But nonetheless, still at the top of the archipelagos’ socio-economic structures.

Thus, is no surprise that to this day a majority of Puerto Ricans identify with whiteness and in many ways continue the racial cleansing both culturally and ethnically. This is the criollo legacy, which in many ways have been hidden with a nationalist claim “I’m neither white or Black, I’m the mix of Taino, Black, and Spaniard. And that makes me Puerto Rican.” This is, sadly, another erasure of Blackness in Puerto Rico.

And even to this very same day, those who proudly claim being Afro-Boricuas or Afro-Puerto Ricans, or Black Puerto Ricans are ridiculed and accused of not being fully Puerto Rican or buying, ironically, into academic production imported from the United States’ academia and using terms that don’t apply to Puerto Rico.

The denial continues and so does the attempts at erasing Blackness.

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