3 Unsung Afro-Puerto Rican Heroes

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A report by Andrew Martínez for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

In honor of Black History Month, I felt compelled to highlight Black Puerto Ricans. Anti-blackness not only exists within White communities, but is pervasive and prevalent in Puerto Rican and other Latinx cultures.

To eliminate anti-blackness in any culture, it is necessary to highlight the brave and honorable people whose actions are well documented but rarely spoken about. Isolated because of the color of their skin, these people promoted equity for all.

Unfortunately, I did not learn about these people in the classroom or from anyone in my family. I had to seek out this information after having conversations with colleagues about Puerto Rico and Black History Month. This led me to the question: Are there ethnic studies programs or classes in other disciplines that specifically cover the historical and contemporary contributions of Afro-Latinx people? Here are three Black Puerto Ricans I chose to highlight:.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

One of the more popular Afro-Latinx figures in history, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (also known as Arthur Schomburg) was born Jan. 24, 1874 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. His mother was a freeborn midwife from St. Croix and his dad was a German merchant in Puerto Rico. According to NPR, his mission to learn and uncover the contributions of Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Americans emerged in grade school when he was told by a teacher that Blacks had no heroes or contributions to history.

He went on to study Negro Literature at St. Thomas College in the Virgin Islands when it was ruled by Denmark. After college, Arturo immigrated to Harlem, where he continued to study African history in the Americas. Experiencing racism and discrimination in the United States, he began to identify as Afroborinqueño to claim his Black Puerto Rican identity. He was involved in the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico to advocate for the island’s independence from Spain.

Schomburg held different jobs while in New York to support his family, but he always remained dedicated to spreading the contributions of Black culture.  He taught Spanish, was a messenger and clerk at a law firm and worked at a bank all while researching a writing about Caribbean and African-American history.

In 1911, Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research to promote the exploration of Black history and culture. He later became the president of the American Negro Academy. Involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement, Schomburg was co-editor of the 1912 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Colored Race.

Schomburg’s popular 1925 essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past” details the importance of highlighting Black contributions in art and history. Because of his contributions to exposing the rich history and influence of Black culture, in 1926 the New York Public Library purchased a collection of Black literature and art and appointed Schomburg as the curator for the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art (renamed the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture) at their library branch in Harlem. His efforts to bring attention to the contributions of Afro-Latin Americans laid the foundation to understanding the history of Black culture within Caribbean and Latin America.

Pedro Albizu Campos

Born Sept. 12, 1891 in Ponce, Puerto Rico to parents of Spanish, African and Taino ancestry, Pedro Albizu Campos is mostly known for his leadership in the Puerto Rican Independence Movement with his involvement in the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. After high school, Campos started college at the University of Vermont, pursuing engineering on a scholarship and transferring after one year to Harvard University.

Campos volunteered to serve in the Army during WWI, and his experiences with racism in the military changed his views on the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. He saw Puerto Rican men who were visibly of African ancestry segregated into ill-treated, all-black units.

After being honorably discharged from the army, he returned to Harvard to pursue a law degree. Having the highest GPA in his law class, Campos was denied the opportunity to give the valedictorian speech because one of his professors delayed his chance to take a final exam so that a Puerto Rican was not the valedictorian.

After his return to Puerto Rico, Campos took the necessary exam to earn his degree, passed the bar in Puerto Rico and eventually became the president of the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. According to his biography, prior leaders left the party because they did not want to accept a Black man as a leader of their party.

Notorious for giving powerful speeches, he was known as El Maestro (“the teacher”) and used his skill to educate people on the island about the United States’ colonialism toward Puerto Rico. He was arrested several times for involvement in riots. His health began declining while in prison, and he was pardoned of his arrest shortly before his death in 1964. He is remembered as one of the most visionary leaders of Puerto Rico for his resistance of colonial rule.

Sylvia del Villard

An activist for Black Puerto Rican artists, Sylvia del Villard was born Feb. 29, 1928 in Santurce, Puerto Rico. She excelled in school and was awarded a scholarship from the Puerto Rican Government to attend Fisk University, an HBCU in Nashville, Tenn. At Fisk, Sylvia studied anthropology and sociology.

However, due to the mistreatment of Blacks in the south, Sylvia returned to the island and attended the University of Puerto Rico. After graduating, she enrolled in the College of the City of New York (CCNY), where she began to explore her African heritage and traced her ancestry to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. At CCNY, she joined the “Africa House” ballet group and began getting voice lessons from the Metropolitan Opera.

After CCNY, del Villard’s career in acting bloomed in Puerto Rico. She starred in several theater and ballet productions and founded the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater in 1968, which was known as the authority of Black Puerto Rican Culture. She established a theater school in San Juan in 1970 and named it after her favorite poet, Luis Palés Matos.

When she returned to New York, she founded a theater group name Sininke and held several presentations at the Museum of Natural History. Throughout the 1970’s, she was known to speak out against discrimination toward Black Puerto Rican artists. She called for the end of racist casting practices in television and the ongoing use of blackface.

These are just three of many Black Puerto Ricans who championed the recognition and contributions of African heritage in Puerto Rico. If you are interested in learning more about Afro-Latinidad, check out Mariam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores edited volume, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States.

One thought on “3 Unsung Afro-Puerto Rican Heroes

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    ‘ I did not learn about these people in the classroom or from anyone in my family. I had to seek out this information after having conversations with colleagues about Puerto Rico and Black History Month.’
    … I didn’t learn about them in school either. One has to ‘dig; this information on your own!!
    Puerto Rican Pride!!

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