While the 2020 Census was essential to many communities across the United States, it held a different meaning for Puerto Ricans. Battered after a decades-long economic crisis and multiple natural and political disasters, the 2020 Census represented a path for Puerto Rico’s marginalized communities to assess its needs and realities. For Black women, it presented a unique opportunity to use media to push forward an anti-racism agenda. Somehow, amid a pandemic and rampant colonialist austerity, it worked.
Led by local organizations Colectivo Ilé and Revista Étnica, 45 groups on the archipelago united and marched forward with one goal in mind: to grow the Puerto Rican population who identifies themselves as Black. “I think that the main issue in Puerto Rico is colonialism, and that’s where racism comes from,” Bárbara Abadía Rexach, a member and media coordinator of the Colectivo Ilé, told Refinery29 Somos. “And through that there’s been a chain reaction of oppression, discrimination, and dehumanization.”
Like many other countries, Blackness in Puerto Rico is a murky subject. From the time children start learning about the history of the archipelago, they’re falsely taught that every Puerto Rican is a mix of three races: Spanish, Taíno, and African. Yet, the ways each of these ancestors are presented weighs heavily on the national consciousness. Social sciences textbooks present Spanish colonizers as grandiose innovators who sought to change the world by any means necessary, while native Taínos and enslaved Africans are portrayed as docile people who’d happily subjugate to the conquistadors' mandates. Moreover, because of the myth of racial democracy, talking about race in Puerto Rico is almost taboo. While families are often content spatting phrases like “Hay que mejorar la raza,” there’s little discussion about the harmful effects of these narratives, much less to their Afro-descendant members.
Historically, Puerto Rican media has also played a significant role in how Blackness is perceived on the archipelago. Turn on any of the main broadcast channels — Telemundo, WAPA, or TeleOnce — and you’ll quickly realize Black boricuas are missing from the stories, ad campaigns, and programming. Save for hosts, like Ivonne Solla Cabrera and Julio Rivera Saniel, it’s hard to find a Black reporter on Puerto Rican television. The same can be said of magazines and newspapers, where Black editors, reporters, and executives are largely missing from mastheads. This underrepresentation behind the scenes directly impacts the way Afro-descendant communities on the archipelago are portrayed on paper.
For Gloriann Sacha Antonetty Lebrón, founder of local magazine Revista Étnica, the media’s erasure of Black people in Puerto Rico has caused irreparable damage: “If you don’t see yourself represented in TV, ads, and newspapers, of course you won’t feel comfortable identifying yourself as Black.” The subject of racism is also largely missing from local media. According to Abadía Rexach, “there’s been some moments when the conversation has been brought up, but it’s not a constant discussion.”
With this in mind, Colectivo Ilé and Revista Étnica saw the Census as a tool to transform the narratives around Blackness on the archipelago. Still, their campaign had been decades in the making. Abadía Rexach recalls that Colectivo Ilé had released a similar initiative after more than 70% of Puerto Rico’s population identified as white in the 2010 Census. While the effort couldn’t increase the amount of people who identified as Black, the campaign managed to lower the percentage of the population who identify as white from 75% to 17%. “We still can’t believe how successful this was,” Abadía Rexach said.
With the slogan “No te quedes en blanco,” the Colectivo Ilé and Revista Étnica’s 2020 Census campaign set out to simply educate people about how to fill out the race section of the survey, inciting them to move past white and into the nuanced realities of their race. For months, they visited communities across the archipelago to teach them about the options available, from choosing two or more races to simply selecting Black. Amid the pandemic, they also held virtual panels with schools, universities, and local community boards. Their work helped people put the issue in perspective. “The United States doesn’t see us as white, so why play that game,” Abadía Rexach said. “That’s what I wanted people to understand: this is a political issue.” Antonetty Lebrón and Abadía Rexach also see the media as a tool to help them carry out this educational project. Both from Revista Étnica and Colectivo Ilé’s Negras radio show, they published essays, sold T-shirts, and shared educational content on social media. They also pushed local media organizations to give them space and air time to talk about racism.
For both Antonetty Lebrón and Abadía Rexach, their efforts go beyond the Census to create media platforms that uplift Black boricuas and educate others on the issues Afro-descendants face on the archipelago. To Antonetty Lebrón, it’s also about creating platforms that let Black people see themselves as they are. She understood the power of media from a very young age. During her childhood, she’d help her grandfather, who was blind, run his sports commentary radio show from home and transcribed his opinion column for the local newspaper El Vocero as he dictated them to her. “I internalized from a young age that this is what I liked,” she said. Seeing her grandfather — a Black man — in that position in media helped her understand that representation matters. “Puerto Rico needed a publication on the level of Essence and Ebony that aimed to represent the Black and Afro-descendant communities in the island. That’s how Étnica was born,” she said. Although most of their content is published digitally, Antonetty Lebrón is constantly trying to get funding and sponsors for their print issue, released twice a year. Their latest issue, titled “Activismo Afro,” featured a wide set of Black feminist activists on the archipelago — including Colectiva Feminista en Construcción members Zoán Dávila and Shariana Ferrer — all dressed in pink-and-blue ensembles embellished with glitter, feathers, and tulle.
Meanwhile, Abadía Rexach is hoping to connect to people in one of the most traditional forms of media: radio. As the producer of Negras, a radio show led by Colectivo Ilé that airs on Radio Universidad, she’s giving a platform to Black academics, creatives, and other experts to discuss local and international issues, as well as educate their audience about the damaging myths that harm Black people on the archipelago today. By choosing the name Negras, Abadía Rexach hopes that more women feel assured in their Blackness and non-Black Puerto Ricans understand that there’s nothing derogatory about being Afro-descendant.
Still, for all the success of their Census campaign and media platforms, the Black population in Puerto Rico remains largely uncounted and marginalized. For Sacha Antonetty, there’s still a lot to be done: “We still see that shame in identifying as Black, and that’s what we want to keep working on.”