Puerto Rico’s Puzzle: Race, Politics and Imperial Primaries

It was fascinating to read the assortment of analysis about the recent (6/1) imperial primaries in Puerto Rico. On one hand, it is a confusing event given that Puerto Ricans, as residents of a colony of the United States, cannot vote for the president of the United States. However, Puerto Rico’s political elite, through a gradual process created an ambiguous political space where Puerto Rico, at least for a few days, was in the limelight of American politics. They created these virtual parties the “Democrat Party of Puerto Rico” and the “Republican Party of Puerto Rico” that through lobbying and financial contributions are now able to send delegates to the national conventions. But the real forces behind these fictitious political structures are the two main political parties in the island, the pro-statehood New Progressive and the pro-commonwealth Popular Democratic Party, both organized around platforms to solve the island’s colonial status. These last few weeks are so unusual given the invisibility of this 4 million nation in the American political imagination. However, most of the political analysts who offered American readers with some way to make sense of the primaries used frameworks that may work well in the social and cultural reality of the United States, but fail miserably in understanding the puzzle of Puerto Rico.

The application of United States frameworks and perspectives to understand Puerto Rican politics and society always derive distorted results. To apply the same lenses we use in the United States to understand political dynamics in Puerto Rico will lead to failure. The historical record is full of examples of how misinterpretation of local social dynamics derived from the frames used to interpret them.

The United States Bureau of the Census learned this when the 2000 decennial census staff was preparing to develop items for the questionnaire to be used in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, since 1958, as a result of former Governor Luis Muñoz Marin’s negotiations with the U.S. Department of Commerce determined a process to develop the survey instrument to be used in the island. The process would consist of an inter-agency committee, led by the Puerto Rico Planning Board, that would include “consumers” of census data and would determine which kinds of survey items are needed in Puerto Rico. One of their decisions was that the question of race, would not be included in the survey instrument to be utilized in the 1960s census. Since the 1950s the question of race has not been included in the Puerto Rican census.

In 1980, the Legal Services Corporation (legal advocacy group) requested that in order to ascertain the level of racial discrimination in the island some data gathering about race was needed. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico eventually decided there was no need for the gathering of such data in Puerto Rico. The climate for considering questions about race changed dramatically after the 1992 election of Governor Pedro Rossello, of the New Progressive Party (NPP) and a supporter for statehood for the island. In the years previous to the 2000 decennial census, the Inter-Agency committee, chaired by Lillian Torres, director for the social and economic planning for census activities with the Puerto Rico Planning Board discussed the need for data on race but decided not to use the items in the United States Census. They proposed to develop items more in line with the social reality of the island. Their decision was rejected and Governor Rossello himself made the decision to use the entire U.S. census survey instrument without any modification in tune with the social, economic and political reality of Puerto Rico. The outcome, in an island with a strong African and Taino cultural and phenotypical influence, resulted in 80.5% of the population self-identifying as white. Therefore, Puerto Rico is “whiter” than the United States.

The bureaucratic decision of former Governor Rossello basically enabled a “whitening” process that was accelerated by Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Since the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico, while it has not experienced a dramatically large black emigration (or received white immigrants to the island in large numbers) however, Puerto Rico’s “white” population has grown from 48.5% (1802) to 80.5% in 2000.

The colonial experience has also been a racializing experience that has internalized even more the ideas that white is better (the colonial power is white). Also, the system of race is more fluid and elastic. In contrast with the polarized binary nature of the United States system of racial classification, between white and nonwhite, like in most of Latin America the system is more like a continuum where color gradations and other factors create a larger number of racial categories. While the system still is constructed along the two poles of white/black, the system, in sorting people, works quite differently than in the United States. The “one drop rule,” which guides racial classification in the United States, does not operate in the same way in the island. In the United States, for example, at one point in the state of Louisiana, a person who had 1/32 African ancestry would be considered “colored” regarded of his/her physical appearance. This makes African ancestry a very powerful factor in determining the racial classification of a person. The United States’ system adds to the nonwhite side of the racial ledger. In contrast, in Puerto Rico, the complex combination of color, type of hair, socioeconomic status, and gender give European ancestry more weight in the racial classification. A person of high socioeconomic status, high education, whose skin is not extremely dark would be considered white and his peers would consider him white too. “Whiteness” is a very elastic category in Puerto Rico as part of a system that adds to the white side of the racial ledger.

For example, to assume that “ugly racial fissures”1 can be read from CNN exit polls in Puerto Rico is reading too much on data that is not very reliable. The only thing we can glean from this last election is that we are not quite sure about the role of race unless we do much focused research into what happened. Also, given that racial dynamics in Puerto Rico are so different from Latinos in the United States (even among mainland Puerto Ricans) comparisons or extrapolations run the risk of being unanchored in any empirical certainty.

For example, the turnout for this primary is one of the weakest in recent Puerto Rican political history. Only 16 per cent of the registered voters participated in the primaries despite all the hoopla around the local visits by Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama. In the 2000 and the 2004 general elections, 82.4% and 81.7% of Puerto Ricans voted, a much higher rate than in the electoral process those years in the United States which were 51.2% and 56.7% respectively.2

Also, a majority of those who voted were overwhelming pro-statehood (and conservative). 59% of voters identified as favoring statehood supported Sen. Clinton by 81% while those who favored Commonwealth divided themselves among both candidates. Sen. Clinton also received widespread support across age, income and education groups. However, many union activists and left of center voters (which could have potentially supported Obama) were involved in a march that Sunday against the primaries (including some left of center members of the local governing party and a new environmentalist party). Many activists felt that it was ludicrous to participate in an electoral contest without having the right to vote in the final electoral process.

Ironically, as Matt Barreto, a political scientist from the University of Washington discussed in a recent posting of the Latino Section of the American Political Science list serve, those who said race was an issue were more likely to vote for Obama (63% Clinton and 37% for Obama) On the contrary, those who said race was not an issue were less likely to vote for Obama (71% Clinton and 29% for Obama). This is contrary to the experience in the United States where those that responded that race was an issue had much higher percentages of support for Sen. Clinton. Another problem with the CNN exit poll is that it does not ask people to identify themselves on the basis of race (as in the U.S. exit polls), so we cannot ascertain what racial dynamics might be behind these numbers.

But the main ideological factor that clouds any understanding of race and politics in Puerto Rico is the pervasiveness of a color-blind ideology in the island. Until we understand what sustains this denial of race and racism in Puerto Rico, and until we do not apply external paradigms that are not rooted in the Puerto Rican social formation we will reach the wrong conclusions.

  1. Nikolas Kozloff, “The Puerto Rico Primary: Obama’s Latino Problem Getting Worse,” Counterpunch, June 2, 2008. []
  2. See Manuel Alvarez Rivera, Electoral Panorama, 2008. []

Victor M. Rodriguez is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University of Long Beach. Among his published works is Latino Politics in the United States: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience in the United States (Kendall-Hunt, 2012). He can be reached at: vodrig5@csulb.edu. Read other articles by Victor, or visit Victor's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lloyd Rowsey said on June 8th, 2008 at 5:29am #

    Gracias por esto, Senor Dominguez. I hope to find your most recent book at Amazon.com, because understanding Puerto Rican politics in the United States precedes even an understanding of Cuban politics here.

  2. Michael Hureaux said on June 8th, 2008 at 1:23pm #

    It seems to me that the vote in Puerto Rico, tainted though it is by imperial politics, broke down along some classic lines, with the remnants of new deal style Munoz Marinism supporting Clinton and the remains of Albizu-ism and indedepentistas swinging towards Obama. Am I mistaken in this perception?

  3. Victor M. Rodriguez said on June 9th, 2008 at 7:28am #

    Michael, in some sense you are right, ideology was more important than race in these elections. However, the split was a bit more complicated, most independentistas did not vote and joined the 10,000 marchers through San Juan against the primaries. Jose Rivera, Bronx assemblyman and chair of the Bronx Democratic Party campaigned with Sen. Clinton on Saturday and marched in San Juan on Sunday. He is an independentista.

  4. Victor Ramirez said on June 9th, 2008 at 10:08pm #

    I had to smile when CNN said on that Sunday something in the neighborhood of “In terms of race, PR voters might be drawn to Obama because he looks like them.”
    What’s amazing to me is that segregation in the US has been so severe as to create a schism where blacks and whites living within the same towns may even have sharply different accents. This type of segregation is an anomaly in the Americas and the historical drive for the wierd system of racial classification in the US, a system that has identity and race as the same thing.

  5. Victor Ramirez said on June 10th, 2008 at 10:27am #

    Traditionally in PR, the closest thing to racial classification is the system of complexion types that are still used in drivers’ licenses and police reports:

    Blanca = White
    Negra = Black
    Marrón = Brown
    Clara = Darker than white, possibly olive
    Medio Marrón = Midpoint brown
    Sonrosada = Reddish
    Roja Clara = Pinkish
    Amarilla = Yellow