Puerto Rico reflects on race amid startling census results
The number of people in Puerto Rico who identified as ‘white’ in the last census has dropped nearly 80%, sparking a conversation about identity on an island at odds with a past where race was not tracked and rarely discussed in public.
The drastic decline has taken many by surprise and theories abound as the 3.3 million residents of the US homeland begin to factor in racial identity.
“Puerto Ricans themselves understand that their whiteness comes with an asterisk,” said Yarimar Bonilla, political anthropologist and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. “They know they’re not white by American standards, but they’re not black by Puerto Rican standards.”
Nearly 50% of people represented in the 2020 census – 1.6 million out of 3.29 million – identified with “two or more races”, a jump of 3% – or some 122,200 out of 3.72 million – who chose this option in the 2010 census. Most of them chose “white and another race”.
Meanwhile, more than 838,000 people identified as “another race alone,” a nearly 190% jump from some 289,900 people a decade ago, although Bonilla said Census Bureau officials n hadn’t yet published the races they had chosen. Experts think people probably wrote “Puerto Rican,” “Hispanic,” or “Latino,” even though federal policy defines those categories as ethnicity, not race.
Among those who changed their response to race was Tamara Texidor, 45, who selected “other” in 2010 and this time chose to identify as “Afrodescendent”. She said she made the decision after talking to her brother, who was a census worker, and told him that the people he met when he went house to house often had problems with the question about the race.
Texidor began to reflect on her ancestry and wanted to honor her since she was descended from slaves on her father’s side.
“I’m not going to select ‘other’,” she recalls thinking as she filled out the census form. “I feel that I am something.”
Experts are still debating what triggered the significant changes in the 2020 census. Some believe several factors are at play, including wording changes and a change in how the Census Bureau processes and codes responses.
Bonilla also thinks a growing awareness of racial identity in Puerto Rico played a role, saying “extra intense racialization” over the past decade may have contributed. She and other anthropologists argue the shift stems from anger over what many see as a botched federal response to a US territory struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria and a crippling economic crisis.
“They have finally understood that they are treated like second-class citizens,” Bárbara Abadía-Rexach, a sociocultural anthropologist, said of Puerto Ricans.
Another critical change in the 2020 census is that just over 228,700 people identified solely as black or African American, a drop of nearly 50% from the more than 461,000 who did so. ten years ago. The decline came even as grassroots organizations in Puerto Rico launched campaigns to urge people to embrace their African heritage and raise awareness of racial disparities, though they said they were encouraged by the category’s rise. two or more races.
Bonilla noted that Puerto Rico currently has no reliable data to determine whether such disparities have occurred during the pandemic, noting that there is no racial data on coronavirus testing, hospitalizations or deaths. .
The island’s government also does not collect racial data on populations, including those who are homeless or incarcerated, Abadía-Rexach added.
“The denial of the existence of racism renders invisible, criminalizes and dehumanizes many black people in Puerto Rico,” she said.
The absence of such data could be rooted in the history of Puerto Rico. From 1960 to 2000, the island conducted its own census and never asked about race.
“We were meant to be all mixed and all equal, and race was meant to be an American thing,” Bonilla said.
Some argued at the time that Puerto Rico should track racial data while others saw it as a divisive move that would enforce or harden racial differences, a view widely held in France, which does not collect data. officials on race or ethnicity.
For Isar Godreau, anthropologist and professor at the University of Puerto Rico, this type of data is crucial.
“Skin color is an important marker that makes people vulnerable to more or less racial discrimination,” she said.
Data helps people fight for racial justice and determine resource allocation, Godreau said.
The major shift in the 2020 census — specifically that only 560,592 people identified as white compared to more than 2.8 million in 2010 — comes amid growing interest in racial identity in Puerto Rico, where even recent surveys of race have elicited responses such as “members of mankind”. race”, “normal” and “I get along well with everyone”. Informally, islanders use a wide range of words to describe someone’s skin color, including “coffee with milk”.
That interest is largely fueled by a younger generation: They’ve signed up for lessons in bomba and plena — centuries-old musical traditions fueled by percussion — as well as workshops on how to make or wear headgear.
More hair salons are specializing in curly hair, eschewing the blow-dry results that have long dominated professional circles on the island. Some lawmakers have submitted a bill that cites 2020 census results that, if approved, would make it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their hairstyle. Several US states already have similar laws.
As the debate continues over what sparked so much change in the 2020 census, Bonilla said an important question is what the 2030 census results will look like. “Will we see an intensification of this pattern? , or will 2020 have been some kind of lightning moment?”