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El Morro fort in Old San Juan

African culture in Puerto Rico

May 31, 2017

By: Jeff Grischow

I am writing from Puerto Rico where I’m leading a travel course for 17 students from Wilfrid Laurier University. Our local guide Papo began the tour in Old San Juan, where our visit included the fabulous Museum of the Americas (‘Museo de las Américas’). Housed in the majestic Cuartel de Ballajá, an old Spanish infantry barracks, the museum is organized to reflect the three main cultures of the island: Indigenous (Taino), African and European. The structure of the museums exhibits reflects a relatively recent turn towards recognizing and celebrating Puerto Rican’s threefold heritage, built problematically as it was on Spanish colonization of the Taino and the brutality of the slave trade. This recognition of Puerto Ricans’ Taino and African roots represents a shift from the historically dominant narrative of the ‘European-ness’ of Puerto Rico compared to other Caribbean islands. Today, prominent Puerto Rican scholars such as Fernando Pico (the author of History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of its People – our course textbook) emphasize the importance of acknowledging the contributions of the Taino and African populations to Puerto Rican history and culture.

Our tour guide Papo recapitulates this cultural sensibility, proudly referring to his Taino and African roots alongside his European heritage. Papo is our cultural broker and – using Meta Carstarphen’s term – our ‘transfluencer,’ someone who can both translate our experiences in Puerto Rico and ‘influentially create a more intimate kind of access’ for our students (Carstarphen, 178). For us, as for Meta Carstarphen and Jocelyn Peterson’s students at the University of Oklahoma, this access includes a personal visit to the home of a well-known Afro-Puerto Rican artist named Samuel Lind in Loiza, not far from where we are staying.

Loiza is one of the best-known Afro-Puerto Rican cities in Puerto Rico and it has been at the centre of preserving and celebrating the island’s African heritage since the Puerto Rican archaeologist Ricardo Alegria conducted research there between 1948 and 1951. Alegria chose Loiza because it was one of the best examples of African cultural retention in Puerto Rico. The area had been inhabited by Taino until the Spanish arrived and developed sugar plantations there during the 1500s. Sugar production declined shortly thereafter, but took off again in the nineteenth century and after the United States invaded in 1898. Loiza remained a centre of sugar production after the American invasion and as a result continued to have a large black population. Alegria’s work cemented the city as the strongest centre of African cultural on the island, and this identity survives today.

It will be interesting to see how the students respond to visiting Loiza and Samuel Lind’s studio. His paintings reflect a deep passion for preserving and celebrating Puerto Rico’s African cultures, as well as the island’s indigenous heritage. But some Puerto Rican scholars point out that there is a danger in separating and reifying island’s historically repressed cultures if the dominant culture remains European. The danger, according to Petra Rivera-Rideau, is that the safe, folkloristic image of Afro-Puerto Rican culture can reinforce current European-dominated power structures and negate more oppositional and synchronistic cultural phenomena such as reggaeton, an Afro-Puerto Rican musical form that emerged out of the urban underground. While the folkloric images of Afro-Puerto Rican culture in Loiza is accepted by elites as a safe part of Puerto Rican culture, reggaeton is not. Our group – as well as any tourists who move through Loiza – should keep this in mind as we encounter the way in which Afro-Puerto Rican culture is presented in the official national imagination. Perhaps we should take a step back and ask ourselves which Afro-Puerto Rican cultures are presented as part of the national imagination, which are excluded, and why.


Petra Rivera-Rideau, “From Carolina to Loiza: race, place and Puerto Rican racial democracy,” Global Studies in Culture and Power, 20(50(2013):616-632.

Meta G. Carstarphen, “Immersion Diversity: Teaching Tourism, Travel Writing and Race from the Inside Out,” in Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms, ed. George Yancy and Maria Del Guadalupe Davidson (Routledge, 2014), pp.173-180.

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