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On Diverse Island, Blacks Still Seek Respect
By Iván Román
March 30, 2003
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The drums roared and the man the color of milk chocolate dropped to his knees on the 19th-century Tapia Theater stage. He "walked" to the poom-poom-poom beat of the drum.
Actually, the barril, or barrel-shaped drum, followed his moves, or in the parlance of Puerto Rican bomba music, talked to him. It thumped with every defiant kick, with every arm slicing through the air to strike a regal pose. It rumbled as he trembled in his white outfit like Jell-O on steroids.
Not to be outdone, the man the color of dark chocolate jumped around to a drum of a higher pitch, shaped more like a tube than a barrel. The thumping also accented his moves, made even more dazzling by the vibrant colors covering his lean, muscular frame.
The men from Puerto Rico and Senegal dancing to different rhythms were from places 3,221 miles apart, but which shared the same roots from a rich continent -- roots yearning for more than lip service in Puerto Rico, bomba flag bearer Jesús Cepeda says, roots aching for more respect.
"For us this is very important to improve the image of blacks in Puerto Rico and to start demanding the that the black race be treated better," said Cepeda, whose family has promoted Puerto Rico's African heritage through music for generations. "This country has to recognize that we are part of its history and that we have given it all in exchange for nothing."
It's often the celebration of that mixture of Spanish, indigenous Taíno and African blood -- the three main roots of Puerto Rico's population forged into a distinct identity by the late 18th century -- which has often been held up to note that racism and discrimination don't exist.
Despite recent admissions that racism needs to be dealt with, some of the centuries-old attitudes that perpetuate it live on in the island's subconscious.
As activists celebrated the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico last week, many know that just creating awareness and truly embracing the African part of who we are is the first big step.
The African presence in the people beams through not just in some ebony or caramel skin colors, but in facial features on skin tones that run the gamut. Not only do black politicians and pioneers dot the history books, but everyone lives it daily by savoring the rich and varied wayseach cooks plantains, or by reveling in the percussive heart of bomba music or the throbbing salsa tunes that pierced the quiet countryside or New York's noisy concrete barrios.
But though the indigenous Taínos are often romanticized in history and the language and customs from the "Mother Country" are revered when Spain's royal family takes a stroll along Old San Juan's cobblestone streets, the African ties often get short shrift.
People didn't even acknowledge it in themselves. In the 2000 census, 81 percent of the island's 3.8 million people said they were white, 8 percent black and 7 percent "some other race." Just how valuable these figures are in the push to attack discrimination is questionable.
But they did shine a light on the level of denial, which in turn makes it easier to negate prejudice -- a prejudice that is cloaked by the public fanfare about Puerto Rico's mixed heritage but becomes clearer when you see darker faces among the poor or in lower-paying and menial jobs.
People of all stripes now tackle the issue from many angles. Civil-rights activists claim that police officers treat black youth and adults poorly. Job-discrimination claims based on race have more than tripled since a black man was made head of the island's labor agency.
Lawyers are trying to create new law or finally flex those already on the books by filing more racial-discrimination cases in the local and federal courts. Academics focused on the issue are networking with those struggling with the same problem in Brazil, Panama and other parts of Latin America.
For Cepeda, his "Encounter With Our African Roots" show does its part by "honoring, respecting and rescuing who we are." The Cepeda group, the Sing Sing Rhythms group from Senegal and other dancers ended the show with a free-for-all, playing one another's drums and imitating one another's moves.
"People from here and from Africa are so much the same," said Assane M'Baye, 26, oneofSing Sing's drummers. "They play the drums too and have the rhythm in their blood. We have the same beat."
People here say that all the time. Now, many activists say, if they only truly understood it.