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Activists Shine Light On Racism
By Iván Román
October 21, 2001
SAN JUAN -- Their white clothing billowed in the sea breeze that joined them in their mourning, slamming waves against the colonial walls that protect Fort San Felipe del Morro at the tip of Old San Juan.
The women let tiny streams fall from a common bottle of mineral water, libations to Alfonsia Courtier, Maria Mercedes Reinat, Eusebia Mangual, relatives that some of them never knew, but from whom they have a lot to learn.
The water splashed in front of a replica of a wooden ship full of rag dolls, symbolizing the fateful trips in which the millions who didn't die fell to the human disgrace of slavery.
"We make this offering in the name of our ancestors, so that the light may shine upon them and their souls may be healed, and so that they may give us wisdom to keep going with this issue that we keep dragging along with us since this tragedy," said educator Maria Reinat Pumarejo, her eyes closed in prayer.
With this tribute to their African ancestors on Columbus Day -- the commemoration of the clash of two worlds -- the Puerto Rican Alliance Against Racism began its Journey Against Racism 2001, a month of events to educate people about racism that many here deny even exists.
Some would call it a seemingly impossible task -- to snap out of denial a society that intentionally or unwittingly cloaks its prejudice under the guise of extolling the indigenous, African and Spanish racial mix that molded the Caribbean.
But for this small group of activists, there is no choice but to look at the past to cure the psychological wounds of the present, and to know history to find ways to fight today's attitudes that keep people steeped in economic and spiritual poverty.
"We have to deal with this and keep educating people about the impact of racism in our lives still today," said Anna Mangual, 51, a college-bound youth counselor who traces the effects of racism in everything from the business world to domestic violence. "It's not something that's over. If we don't know who we are, we'll stay stuck in this situation."
Having 81 percent of the people in this multiracial society call themselves "white" on the 2000 U.S. census is but one signal of the level of denial. Some claim it may just be a rejection of the rigid racial categories that have shaped U.S. history and society.
But the activists think otherwise. Some joined the alliance because their own mates denied their race or heritage. Some hate that most students in Loiza, the town with the largest proportion of black people, need special academic help. The area is one of Puerto Rico's poorest, and complaints of police brutality there have skyrocketed as of late.
Isabel Feliciano remembers how her husband's adopted black children from Costa Rica's Atlantic coast were mocked when they lived in the central mountain town of Naranjito. And her own trauma surfaced about her own mother, who she's convinced was poor and abused because she was black.
"I was always told that my mother was something bad and terrible, and I have had to come to terms with that and try to heal myself," Feliciano said, wiping away tears.
The ceremony over, the women carried the wooden ship through colonial streets before quizzical and knowing stares. Bomba music, created by African descendants, streamed out of the Museum of Our African Roots as they carried it in and raised it before thumping drums and singing about the deadly journey.
"When I came in I got emotional," Mangual told the musicians, "because I felt they were alive and here with us."