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The Toronto Star

Puerto Ricans United By Unique Sense Of Identity

By Rosie DiManno

April 2, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Toronto Star. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN - ¡Español si, ingles no!

FOR A CENTURY, that has been the rallying cry on this largely apolitical isle, the singularly unifying issue that cuts across race and colour, ethnicity and ideology.

In the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico , everyone speaks Spanish. Sometimes Spanish and English. Sometimes the hybrid called Spanglish: an argot that includes bits of santeria brought over by slaves from west-central Africa, and remnants of diphthong-rich Arawak, the language of a long-vanished indigenous Indian people who were present on this smallest of the Greater Antilles then called Borinquen (Island of the Brave Lord) some 1,400 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493, his second voyage to the Americas. The explorer stayed for about a minute and a half but renamed the island San Juan Bautista and claimed it for Spain, along with everything else.

Lingua espanol is at the heart of the Puerto Rican sensibility. In 1991, former governor Rafael Hernandez Colon went so far as to abolish English as one of the island's two official languages, claiming Spanish was paramount because of cultural heritage.

Colon was an independentista part of that faction which has long promoted severing constitutional ties with the United States. Of course his pro- statehood successor, Governor Pedro Rossello, rescinded the Spanish-only legislation upon assuming office two years later, which is how things stand now.

Thus did Major League Baseball blunder and bully its way into this hot, hot tamale over the weekend, nearly erasing all the goodwill engendered by its historic excursion: the first regular season game to be contested in the Caribbean, the 2001 opener yesterday between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers.

The occasion was a two-part press conference on Saturday, featuring a handful of key Hispanic players from both clubs, plus managers and starting pitchers. In the first half of the media session Rangers batting the moderator from league offices in New York declared that all questioning would be conducted exclusively in English, this despite the fact most journalists present were from Puerto Rico , the Dominican Republic, other Caribbean islands, Venezuela and Mexico.

The announcement drew a stony silence first. As the session wore on, that segued into disgruntlement and full-throttle hissing.

Reporters continued to ask their questions in Spanish, then insisted that the likes of Alex Rodriguez and Pudge Rodriguez respond similarly. An attempt at bilingual due process fizzled. Afterwards, the moderator claimed it was Rodriguez who'd insisted on English-only. Hard to fathom why. The $252 million man is far too media-slick for that.

It was an interesting imbroglio to observe as an outsider, especially coming from a country where language issues and two cultural solitudes French and English have always dominated.

Puerto Ricans have a clear sense of self, even if that internal characterization is not necessarily grasped by visitors from the mainland. Colonized by Spain, repeatedly attacked by the English and the French and the Dutch before the turn of the 20th century, and property of the United States since the Spanish-American war in 1898, the island populace is a racial melange of whites, Creoles, Indians, blacks and mestizos (the progeny of a white and Indian or black), with skin tones that range from fiercely blue-black to what's known as cafe con leche, the strong local coffee mixed with lots of hot milk.

But there are Puerto Ricans who are blond and blue-eyed, Puerto Ricans who are redheads, Puerto Ricans who are black with startling green eyes. And some Carlos Delgado comes to mind who have the high cheekbone features and deep cocoa-bean eyes that are an echo of the Arawak and Carib Indians whose races were wiped out by enslavement, genocide and European disease. (The Arawak used to build their houses around a large open space that was reserved for public ceremonies and for a ball game they called batey, which the Spanish renamed pelota.)

Fact: Although Spain itself never participated in the slave trade - it relied on British and African slave traders to populate its American empire with bondage labour imported to cut sugar cane Puerto Rico received 71,700 slaves from Africa between 1761 and 1873, when slavery was abolished.

Altogether, the Caribbean took more than 4 million slaves from Africa during that time or 10 times as many as went to North America. But it's believed a further 8 million Africans may have died in "The Middle Passage," the transatlantic trip to the New World.

Since 1917, Puerto Ricans have held full American citizenship but they can't vote in presidential elections.

They have U.S. passports, which means unimpeded immigration to los estados. Between 1950 and 1954 alone, more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland looking for economic prosperity, most settling in New York whence Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Nowadays, some 2.5 million Puerto Ricans live stateside, about half of them in New York.

They're exempt from federal income tax but are subject to the U.S. army draft. Indeed, more Puerto Ricans died in Vietnam per capita than soldiers from any U.S. state. The first American casualty in Somalia, in 1993, was Puerto Rican.

They also have their own anthem, La Borinquena, which was played here yesterday afternoon, along with the American and Canadian national anthems.

Over the years, several plebiscites have been held on full-fledged statehood versus full-fledged independence, but the majority of Puerto Ricans continue to prefer the status quo: neither one nor the other; the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) of both worlds.

There was one curiosity, however, that emerged from the U.S. Census results that were released on the weekend. For the first time since 1950, Puerto Ricans were asked to identify their race.

Clearly, this island has a huge black population, perhaps as high as 35 per cent. Yet 80.5 per cent of respondents described themselves as white, while only 8 per cent said they were black.

According to some leading black Puerto Ricans, including the writer and composer Tite Curet Alonso, this response reinforces the view that many Puerto Ricans are reluctant to acknowledge their African heritage.

"That isn't right," argues Curet Alonso.

In further emerging argot, Puerto Ricans use a variety of terms to describe shades of skin colouring somewhere on the spectrum between European and African.

These sub-groupings include prieto for a darker person and trigueno for a light-skinned mixed-race person.

But in practice, and in spirit, what unifies Puerto Ricans is more significant than what sets them apart.

In the same census, 98.8 per cent described themselves as Hispanic or boricua, the Taino (Arawak) word for the island's people that encompasses black, white and shades in between.

On this issue, they all seem to speak the same language.


Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. E-mail:

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