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Visitors can learn about the African cultural influence of Puerto Rico at El Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana" (the Museum of our African Roots).

Celebrating Puerto Rico's Black Heritage

By Alma Abreu Contributing Writer

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The average tourist visiting Puerto Rico never learns about the African history that is vivid and alive throughout the island. Too often, the Spanish and indigenous roots of Puerto Rico are highlighted to tourists while the African heritage is left unspoken. For many years, the Black history of Puerto Rico was even missing from Puerto Rico's history books. Thankfully as a new generation of conscious Puerto Ricans, both Black and mixed explore their African heritage, this erasure is ending.

"El Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana" (the Museum of our African Roots) located in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is where you can learn about the African cultural influence of Puerto Rico. This heritage is celebrated through paintings, artifacts, documents and photographs. According to the museum brochure, "one of the aims of the museum is to preserve, collect, document and spread the history and culture of Puerto Rico that grew out of the Black population's experience on the island."

The museum exhibit is arranged in a chronological order documenting the origin, background and arrival of the African slaves to Puerto Rico. On the first floor the various ethnic groups of the slaves from West and Central Africa are listed such as the Ashanti, Yoruba, Bantu and Congo. There are drawings depicting the middle passage and the brutal treatment of the slaves once on the sugar plantations. Documents and pictures from the 16th and 17th centuries paint a very real picture of the mistreatment of African slaves by the Spaniards, a fact that many Puerto Ricans have failed to acknowledge..

Other displays illustrate what life was like after slavery was abolished in 1868. Blacks had little or no opportunity for advancement and faced discrimination from Whites. A picture of Rafael Cordero tells the story of how he opened the first school for Blacks because they were not accepted into schools. He started teaching Black girls and boys in his house in the community of San German and eventually opened a school in what is now Old San Juan.

On the second floor of the museum, the modern culture derived from the Africa's encounter with the Taino Indians and the Spaniards is explored. The religion of the Yoruba, referred to on the island as Santeria, is a product of the mixing of Yoruba deities with Catholic saints. The way in which this religion manifested itself in Puerto Rico is explained through photographs and sacred religious items.

Drums used in the African derived music of Bomba called "tambors" are on display as well as the traditional dress worn by Bomba dancers. There are artifacts showing how the modern festivals, customs and cuisines trace their roots back to Africa. There is a festive display of local Afro-Puerto Rican art, such as the masks used in the music festivals of the historically Black town of Loiza. In addition there are paintings by Puerto Rican artists Samuel Lind and Antonio Broccoli which depict scenes of the music, dancers and drummers of Bomba y Plena.

The museum sits near the main tourist attraction of Puerto Rico, "El Morro" which was a military fortress built by slaves. There are many art galleries close by displaying Puerto Rican artwork. But they do not show the art of Black Puerto Rico as does "El Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana. The museum is a start for a long overdue examination of Black Puerto Rican culture on the island.

"El Museo de Nuestra Raiz Africana is located in the Plaza San Jose in Old San Juan next to the entrance of the "Morro". The museum's hours are from 8:30 – 4:00pm Tuesday through Saturday. The telephone number is: (787)724-4294.

-- February 13, 2004

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