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The Americas 63.4 (2007) 551-586

Rescued from their Invisibility:
The Afro-Puerto Ricans of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century San Mateo de Cangrejos, Puerto Rico
David M. Stark
Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan

The black "root" has been systematically "uprooted" from the main "trunk" of the Puerto Rican nation.1

Jorge Duany

Scholars who study Puerto Rico's past have struggled with the question of how to define the island's national identity. Is the essence of Puerto Rican identity rooted in Spain, does it have its origins in Africa, in the legacy of the native Tainos, or is it a product of two or all three of these? This polemical question has yet to be resolved and remains a subject of much debate.2 The island's black past is often overlooked, and what has [End Page 551] been written tends to focus on the enslaved labor force and its ties to the nineteenth-century plantation economy.3 Few works are specifically devoted to the study of the island's seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Afro-Puerto Rican population.4 Recent scholarship has begun to address this oversight. For example, the efforts of fugitive slaves and free black West Indian migrants making their way to Puerto Rico have been well documented.5 Yet, little is known about the number or identity of these runaways. How many slaves made their way to freedom in Puerto Rico, who were they, and where did they come from? Perhaps more importantly, what about their new lives on the island? How were they able to create a sense of belonging, both as individuals and as part of a community within the island's existing population and society? What follows strives to answer these questions by taking a closer look first at the number and identity of these fugitives, and second at how new arrivals were assimilated into their new surroundings through marriage and family formation while their integration was facilitated by participation in the local economy. Through their religious and civic activity Afro-Puerto Ricans were able to create a niche for themselves in San Juan and eventually a community of their own in Cangrejos. In doing so, they helped shape the island's national identity.

Four slaves fleeing from the French-controlled island of Saint Croix arrived in San Juan, the capital of Spanish-controlled Puerto Rico, seeking asylum during the summer of 1664. Saint Croix had experienced a drought in 1661, which was followed by heavy rains—events that probably destroyed provision grounds on the island and precipitated the flight of the [End Page 552] runaways.6 Puerto Rico's governor Juan Pérez de Guzmán had to decide their fate: should the fugitives be re-enslaved as had been the custom in the past, repatriated to their former owners, or granted freedom and permission to settle on the island? Pérez de Guzmán decreed that the fugitives were to be set free if they converted to Catholicism and pledged their loyalty to the Spanish crown.7 While we do not know what happened to the fugitives once they obtained their freedom, the governor's actions established a precedent for the eventual adoption of a policy granting religious sanctuary to runaway slaves seeking asylum in Spanish dominions.8 Over the next century a growing number of runaways made their way to Puerto Rico, "buscando el bautismo," in search of freedom through baptism and subsequent conversion to Catholicism. Many settled just outside the city walls of San Juan at a site known as Cangrejos—literally meaning crabs, where a community of freedmen and women slowly took shape.9 The community's inhabitants dedicated themselves to the cultivation of foodstuffs and raising livestock. As the years passed, a militia company was created and an ermita, or chapel, was established. In 1773, the local militia commander—a freedman named Pedro Cortijo, acting in the interests of 55 vecinos, or heads of household—successfully petitioned to have...


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