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Puerto Ricans Confront Race Issue

By Iván Román

March 31, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- For the first time in 50 years, residents of Puerto Rico have identified themselves racially in the U.S. census -- a milestone that civil-rights activists hope will spark public debate about discrimination on the island.

The census figures released Friday showed an 8 percent increase in overall population since 1990, much less than the double-digit growth in the 1970s and ‘80s. The slowdown is cause for concern because it is further evidence of Puerto Rico’s struggling economy and aging population.

But it’s the race question that’s new to most Puerto Ricans -- and the one activists promise to seize upon.

According to the census, 81 percent of the island’s 3,808,610 people identified themselves as being white, while 8 percent considered themselves black and 7 percent checked "some other race."

In a society where widespread racial mixing dates to the 16th century, however, only 4 percent consider themselves multiracial, according to the census.

"Everybody’s mixed here, so what is one going to put down?" said Miguel Torres, a 40-year-old postal clerk who checked white but has both white and black ancestry. "I guess you go with skin color, but what is it good for? Everyone already knows we’re Hispanic."

The numbers are not surprising to those who understand Puerto Rican society. People on the island see themselves as Puerto Ricans first -- with a distinct heritage that is a mixture of Spanish, African and Taino Indian influences. Any racial distinction between black and white is secondary.

A new awareness

But that’s precisely the thinking some activists want to change. And they’re hoping the census figures will create enough awareness to combat society’s general denial that discrimination exists.

Very few racial-discrimination cases have gotten to local and federal courts, and even fewer have succeeded. A new project trained about 60 attorneys in Puerto Rico last year on how to bring racial-discrimination cases, and information gleaned from the census can bolster their cases.

Recent activism by black Puerto Ricans pushing their cases in the courts and media already has started the ball rolling. Marcos A. Rivera, a criminal lawyer who has filed discrimination lawsuits against insurance companies and nightclubs, says census figures must be used first to force local politicians, judges and society to acknowledge the problem.

"More new cases are definitely getting to my offices," said Rivera, author of Black Justice: Cases and Comments. "Before, blacks just kept it all in. Now they are learning that they don’t have to do that."

Now comes the census, which identifies 8 percent of Puerto Ricans as being black, giving them a distinct voice.

"In the [U.S.] South, you had the one-drop rule -- that as long as you had one drop of black blood, you were black," said William Ramirez, a lawyer specializing in discrimination cases. "Here it’s the other way around. As long as you have one drop of white blood, you’re white."

When he went to register his daughter in government offices recently, the clerk, when confronting the race question, told him, "Unless they are really, really black, I put everyone down as white because that helps them later in life."

Ramirez added, "That sums it up right there."

Some Puerto Ricans, though, think rigid race classifications are just an imposition of a flawed U.S. view that has resulted in racial tension.

But for Ramirez and others, the question itself creates awareness and the first step toward solving a problem.

"Racism exists in Puerto Rico, and we should use this opportunity to discuss it and solve it, and it can be healthy to air this out," said Samuel Betances, a renowned sociologist and workforce-diversity consultant born in Puerto Rico and based in Chicago. "As long as we never forget we are, above all else, human beings and Puerto Ricans, racial categorizations like this can enrich us and force us not to live a lie."

Civil-rights activists hope to use Friday’s figures and detailed information coming out this summer to find a correlation between race and poverty. They are searching for what kinds of institutions or mechanisms can be put in place to guarantee that, unlike in the past, those who feel wronged have a place to go.

"This is the opportunity to bring the civil-rights movement to Puerto Rico," said Angelo Falcon, a senior policy executive with the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund who worked closely on promoting the census among Puerto Ricans. "It’s going to generate a real debate, and it’s going to be controversial."

Slowing growth

The census figures also give Puerto Ricans cause for concern about population, which has gone from 18 percent growth in the 1970s to only 8 percent in the 1990s.

Government officials concerned about federal aid lambasted planning expert Elias Gutierrez in 1975 when he predicted the island’s population would not hit 4 million by 2000. Besides the constant migration of people seeking better jobs and following relatives to the U.S. mainland, his forecast that Puerto Rico’s people would age and fertility rates would drop have come true.

"History has proven me right," Gutierrez said. "That means the population growth rate is less than 1 percent per year, and we are getting older. We’ve gone from being like a developing country with a population explosion to a model that’s more like the United States."

Iván Román can be reached at or 787 729-9071.

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