Academic journal article Centro Journal

Slipping and Sliding: The Many Meanings of Race in Life Histories of New York Puerto Rican Return Migrants in San Juan

Academic journal article Centro Journal

Slipping and Sliding: The Many Meanings of Race in Life Histories of New York Puerto Rican Return Migrants in San Juan

Article excerpt


This essay analyzes the workings of race and ethnicity in the life stories of fifteen New York-born Puerto Ricans who have lived in the San Juan metropolitan area for several decades. I argue that discussions of race and ethnicity played an important symbolic and structural role in these memory accounts. The narrators used such conversations to distinguish themselves from islander Puerto Ricans, to assert their legitimacy as true Puerto Ricans, and to critique the United States. These memories confirmed scholars' observations that Puerto Ricans have historically experienced a homogenizing, oppressive racialization upon emigration to the U.S. Finally, the narratives also expose multiple, changing, emotion-laden meanings of race, particularly of blackness. Ultimately, I argue that the meaning of race not only shifts according to the historical context, but that in narratives spun by New York Puerto Ricans, multiple interpretations of race can exist simultaneously. Thus, these narratives demonstrate that a single interpretive framework for analyzing race, even when carefully contextualized, can offer us only a partial understanding of the complex workings of race for Puerto Ricans.

[Key words: New York, diaspora, return migration, race, memory, racialization]

"Researchers should explore the discarded and overlooked areas manifested in the subtleties ... of utterances ... as well as in the archive of people's bodies and patchwork memory(ies). It is in these archives that the stories of 'the people' are etched, stories too often missed or ignored by 'official' historical accounts."

-LLORÉNS (2005)

IN RECENT YEARS, SCHOLARS HAVE BEGUN A RICH CONVERSATION ON THE ROLE OF RACE IN THE EXPERIENCE OF PUERTO RICANS AND THEIR MIGRATION TO THE UNITED STATES. They have delineated how Puerto Ricans in the U.S. not only struggle against poverty but have been persistently racialized, regardless of their phenotype, as inherently inferior to those ethnic groups deemed "fully white." Puerto Ricans' own racial diversity, which renders any claim to whiteness suspicious at best, their frequent resistance of the dominant U.S. white-black racial binary, their linguistic and other cultural differences from mainstream U.S. society, and their homeland's longstanding colonial subjection by the U.S. have created enduring patterns of discrimination against them. Encountering this racism upon arrival in the U.S., scholars have noted, often produces a new racialized identity among Puerto Ricans, somewhere in the nebulous ideological and political terrain between white and black-even Puerto Ricans who on the island were considered white are assigned to a position of "racial other" in the U.S. (Aranda 2007; Ayala and Bernabe 2007; Duany 2002; Cobas, Duany and Feagin 2009; Grosfoguel 2003; Grosfoguel and Georas 2000; Negrón-Muntaner 2007; Negrón-Muntaner and Grosfoguel 1997; Rodríguez 1994, 2008). This "inbetween," "non-white" identity, while imposed upon Puerto Ricans, has also often been actively claimed by migrants from the island and their descendants, as they have insisted on the integrity of Puerto Ricans as a whole, and as they have grappled with the racism which they encountered in the U.S. (Aranda 2007; Duany 2002; Rodríguez 1994; Rumbaut 2009). Several authors have also noted that this new racial identity and consciousness have frequently fostered solidarity and creative collaboration with other marginalized, racialized groups, particularly with migrants from Latin America and other parts of the Caribbean, as well as with African Americans (Flores 1993, 2009; Rivera 2007; Rodríguez 1994, 2009; Rumbaut 2009).

Scholars noting this hegemonic system of racialization in the U.S. differ, however, in the attention they give to the racial dynamics among Puerto Ricans themselves. Many assume or assert that Puerto Ricans by and large have been united by the discrimination they face in the U.S. A few, though, insist that racial difference is one of the primary internal fault lines of Puerto Rican collective identity. …

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