Most Puerto Ricans Check 'White' On The Census. But Why? : Code Switch Many Puerto Ricans grow up being taught that they're a mixture of three races: black, white and indigenous. But on the U.S. census, a majority of Puerto Ricans choose "white" as their only race. On this episode, we're looking into why that is, and the group of people trying to change it.
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Puerto Rico, Island Of Racial Harmony?

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Puerto Rico, Island Of Racial Harmony?

Puerto Rico, Island Of Racial Harmony?

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  • Transcript

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH.

DEMBY: From NPR.

MERAJI: And we're here with our colleague Adrian Florido, who's now working full-time for NPR's National Desk.

DEMBY: But, I mean, you just can't stay away. I mean, you know what I mean?

MERAJI: 'Cause he loves us - what's not to love?

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hey, you two. I missed you. I miss you.

MERAJI: Hey.

FLORIDO: I miss you every day.

MERAJI: We miss you, too. But you're here, and you wanted to start this off with music.

FLORIDO: Yeah - a song by Ruth Fernandez, who was a famous Afro-Puerto Rican singer - the soul of Puerto Rico, they called her. And the lyrics are from a famous poem written in the voice of a black Puerto Rican talking to a white Puerto Rican.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TU ABUELA DONDE ESTA?")

RUTH FERNANDEZ: (Singing in non-English language).

FLORIDO: She says, "yesterday you called me black."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TU ABUELA DONDE ESTA?")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in non-English language).

MERAJI: Oh.

FLORIDO: "But today," she says, "I've got an answer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TU ABUELA DONDE ESTA?")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in non-English language).

FLORIDO: She says, "my mom, my mother, she sits in the living room."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TU ABUELA DONDE ESTA?")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in non-English language).

FLORIDO: But what about - what about your grandmother? Where is she? And the implication here in this song is that this white guy has his grandmother hidden away.

MERAJI: And she's hidden away because she'll give away the family secret.

DEMBY: So what's the family secret, that the white Puerto Rican dude's grandmother is actually not a white person?

FLORIDO: Right, that she's - that she's black.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TU ABUELA DONDE ESTA?")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in non-English language).

FLORIDO: And the lyrics are pretty famous in Puerto Rico because they get at something that isn't, you know, talked about very, very much on the island.

MERAJI: Racism - and to get even more specific, anti-blackness.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And to that point, Shereen, you know, it is census season right now.

DEMBY: Is it census season? Is it really census season?

MERAJI: It is census season...

DEMBY: Oh.

MERAJI: ...Gene, and you know this because our episodes this month are all about who we are and what it means to count in 2020...

DEMBY: True.

MERAJI: ...Because it's census season.

FLORIDO: And so I want you to guess - in Puerto Rico, what percentage of people who filled out the census form in the year 2000, what percentage of them identified as white? And, I mean, you know, white alone, like, checked only one box on the census as a race question, and that box was white. Go ahead and guess.

MERAJI: I think I may know the answer to this, so I'm going to let Gene go for it.

FLORIDO: All right.

DEMBY: All right. I feel like this is a trick question. I'm going to say something like 45%.

MERAJI: (Imitating buzzer).

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: What was that noise?

MERAJI: That was me telling you you're wrong.

DEMBY: That was a buzzer? Oh, wow.

FLORIDO: Eighty-one percent. Eighty-one percent.

DEMBY: Eighty-one percent.

FLORIDO: White alone. Yeah.

MERAJI: Whew.

DEMBY: Wow.

FLORIDO: And in the last census, in 2010, that number was only a little bit smaller. Seventy-six percent of people who answered the census said that they were white alone.

DEMBY: Seventy-six percent white only? All this time, I thought Puerto Rico was the Bronx, but it's really Utah, I mean.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: It is not Utah. There are some really pale people in Puerto Rico, though. But if you've ever been there, yes, it looks much more like the Bronx than it does Utah. The Puerto Ricans you're going to see are definitely various shades of brown.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: Right. And so that's why, you know, when those numbers came out, the activists on the island who do antiracism work, when they saw those numbers, they were floored.

You remember when these census numbers came out?

MARILUZ FRANCO: Oh, definitely. I remember when it came out, and it was shocking.

FLORIDO: This is Mariluz Franco. She's a psychologist and a longtime activist in Puerto Rico. Back in January, before this coronavirus pandemic shut the island down, shut the world down, I had lunch with her at a little family restaurant in San Juan.

FRANCO: And I think that if we look into our families, if we look into, you know, the diversity of color, of skins and into our history above all, it's definitely shocking.

FLORIDO: She said that aside from, you know, just looking at that history, looking at the skin tones of people on the island, it was also so shocking because of how Puerto Ricans, you know, from a really early age, are taught to understand their identity.

FRANCO: One of the mantras that we receive in our education here in Puerto Rico is that we're a mixture of three races - black, white and Indian, Tainos. And although we have that mantra, when it came about to answer the census, as you well know, 81% identify themselves as white only here in Puerto Rico and 8% as black only here in Puerto Rico.

MERAJI: Eight percent as black only. That does not seem right.

FLORIDO: Right. And so for her and for other antiracism activists in Puerto Rico, these numbers, they were just, like, not acceptable. You know, they wanted to change them because what they realized was that it was actually making the work that they were trying to do to target racial inequities on the island - it made it even harder.

MERAJI: Yeah. 'Cause if you're going to try and change policy, you need proof. You need some sort of data that shows there are inequities in Puerto Rico based on race.

FLORIDO: Right.

DEMBY: But according to census data, black people hardly exist, which makes it hard to argue that they're underrepresented.

MERAJI: Exactly.

FLORIDO: Yeah.

DEMBY: And this is one of things that keeps popping up in the episodes we've been doing this month. Like, what the census data looks like when it comes to race is often very different from what people's lives look like when it comes to race.

FLORIDO: And so in Puerto Rico, you know, the reasons for that disconnect right there are really complicated. There's a long history there.

MERAJI: And we're going to get into that history to try and answer this question - why do an overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans check white on the U.S. Census?

YARIMAR BONILLA: Folks are just not used to being asked straight-up, what are you? What's your race? It's just not something that Puerto Ricans ever talk about.

ISAR GODREAU: Since it's not something that is talked about, those who don't suffer the racism think that it never happens.

GLORIANN SACHA ANTONETTY: We are not white. So for us, it's very important that we have a political answer to this question in the census.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: That's after the break. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: All right, Adrian, you brought the census form with you, right?

FLORIDO: Yeah, I got it right here.

MERAJI: OK. I think I know it by heart, but I don't have it in front of me, so we'll do this together. There are definitely two questions that ask about identity...

FLORIDO: Right.

MERAJI: ...In the census. There's question No. 8, which asks if you're Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin...

FLORIDO: Right.

DEMBY: OK.

MERAJI: ...Of Spanish origin, I believe. And then you can get specific about whether you're Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban. Is there anything else?

FLORIDO: So that - yeah. Then there's Other. In Puerto Rico, you know, that's a pretty easy question. Most people choose, yes, Puerto Rican.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: But then there's question No. 9, what is your race?

MERAJI: Aha. And this is where things can get a little bit more confusing...

FLORIDO: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Because you've got white, you've got black or African American, American Indian, Alaska Native, I believe. There's a bunch of different Asian identities, including Chinese, Filipino - I think Vietnamese is on there - and a few more. And then there's a box for some other race...

FLORIDO: Right.

MERAJI: ...Which is, you know, my box of choice because I'm Persia Rican, but it's not about me.

DEMBY: But if you're Puerto Rican, what would you pick? Like, I'm confused.

FLORIDO: Right. And that question is actually tricky for a lot of Latinos, not just Puerto Ricans - right? - but all Latinos no matter where they're from because, you know, Latin Americans come in all races.

DEMBY: Right, right. But in Puerto Rico, though, you were saying that people learn that they're a mix of three different heritages - right? - white, black, Indigenous Taino.

FLORIDO: Right.

DEMBY: That's probably, like, a gross oversimplification of everything. But you can check more than one box on the census.

FLORIDO: Yeah. But it - you know, if only it were that simple, Gene. If only it were that simple. So here. Let me introduce you to Yarimar Bonilla.

BONILLA: Well, welcome to my world. I've been trying to understand race in Puerto Rico for about half a decade now.

FLORIDO: She's a professor at Hunter College in New York. And a few years ago, she did a survey in Puerto Rico, as part of which she asked people a simple question that seemed - a seemingly simple question, which was, what is your racial identity?

BONILLA: I decided, for fun, to, instead of giving people boxes, to just leave it open to see what would people say.

MERAJI: I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that survey.

DEMBY: Me, too.

MERAJI: What did people say?

BONILLA: And so when we would ask them about their racial identity, a lot of people were just absolutely stunned. And we had to create a whole separate codification for marking down all the nonverbal responses that we got to the racial question. And the first one was silence. There was these long pauses. And so I instructed - I had a team of students that I was working with, and I instructed them to just wait. And the other one that we had was people - we would say, what's your racial identity? And they would ask, well, I don't know. Well, what do you mean? What does that question mean? And - or they would say, what do you think I am? What should I put down? What do you have on there? They would want to see the boxes. And we're like, oh, no, we don't have any boxes.

FLORIDO: And so she said, you know, that in Puerto Rico, that question, the race question, is just - it's just not very common.

BONILLA: So whereas in the United States, all the time, you have to identify racially on every single form, you know, this is this constant ritual of identification that cements the idea that you are that little box that you're checking off, in Puerto Rico, people don't check boxes. You don't check them off in schools. You don't check them off in - even in government in forms and interactions.

FLORIDO: And, in fact, she said, you know, one of the only times that people in Puerto Rico do confront this question of race is on federal forms like the census.

BONILLA: That means that a lot of people have never thought about their racial identity outside of filling out a federal form. And so folks are just not used to being asked straight-up, what are you? What's your race? It's just not something that Puerto Ricans ever talk about.

DEMBY: I'm just imagining, like, never having had to think about your racial identity in any way.

MERAJI: Well, Puerto Ricans talk around race all the time. They just don't use the same terminology that we do here in the United States.

FLORIDO: Right.

DEMBY: Right, right.

MERAJI: There's a lot of referring to people by the color of their skin.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: We'll say, she's blanca. Her over there, she's triguena. You know, negra is used as a term of endearment in Puerto Rico, but it also can be used to shit-talk someone who may have darker skin than you. So, yeah, it's complicated the way we talk around race, but we definitely talk around race.

FLORIDO: Yeah. And that's something that, you know, Yarimar Bonilla brought up, too.

BONILLA: Like, racial identity is never straightforward anywhere. You know, it's not like we're born thinking, oh, I'm this. I'm that. You know, racial identity is something that is learned through rituals, through social interactions. And so the way in which racial identity has been inculcated here in Puerto Rico is complicated, as is everything else in Puerto Rico.

FLORIDO: So, you know, the fact that people in Puerto Rico don't check boxes, you know, don't really talk about race the same way it's talked about in the U.S. in the states, this is not an accident. And if you look back, historically, it's actually how Puerto Rico's government wanted it. This was by design. So let's go back to the late 1940s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Puerto Rico, strategic Caribbean island, climaxes half a century as an American territory with the inauguration of the first governor elected by the people of Puerto Rico.

MERAJI: That's Luis Munoz Marin.

FLORIDO: Right.

DEMBY: Going forward, though, y'all, we should always refer to Puerto Rico as Puerto Rico, strategic Caribbean island.

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

MERAJI: (Laughter) Let's not.

FLORIDO: Good luck keeping...

DEMBY: I will do it.

FLORIDO: Good luck keeping your Puerto Rican friends if you do that, Gene - just a warning.

MERAJI: Yeah.

FLORIDO: Anyway, you know, by the 1940s, there was a lot of international pressure for the U.S. and other world powers to get rid of their colonies. Puerto Rico had been a U.S. colony for almost 50 years at this point since it had taken Puerto Rico from Spain. So what the U.S. Congress did amid all this international pressure was, you know, not give Puerto Rico its independence. It decided to keep its control over Puerto Rico. But it did allow Puerto Ricans to elect their own governor. And that was, as you said, Shereen, Luis Munoz Marin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LUIS MUNOZ MARIN: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

FLORIDO: So Luis Munoz Marin was this burly, charismatic politician who, earlier in life, had wanted Puerto Rican independence. But as governor, he championed its territorial status, this commonwealth status, because he thought that, as a territory, Puerto Rico, you know, could have some control over its own affairs but still access federal money, attract U.S. investors, you know, modernize with all that money and that it could do all of that, you know, without having to become a U.S. state, which would probably mean losing a lot of Puerto Rico's cultural identity.

I GODREAU: Our identity as Puerto Ricans was different from the identity of the U.S.

FLORIDO: This is Isar Godreau, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico in the town of Cayey. And she says one very important difference that Munoz Marin saw between Puerto Rico and the U.S. was its relationship with race.

I GODREAU: It was that thing that made us different.

FLORIDO: Better.

I GODREAU: Better because we wouldn't - we didn't have the problems, those problems that there were in the U.S.

DEMBY: When she says problems, she means racism, right?

FLORIDO: Exactly. That was the view, right? Because Puerto Rico is a largely, you know, mixed-race society, and so Munoz Marin saw it kind of as raceless. And, in fact, in his push to attract U.S. investors to help modernize the island, he often sold Puerto Rico as this kind of racial utopia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNOZ MARIN: We are living in a time in which all prejudice of race or of frontier or of culture or of language should be - must be - relegated to the background if mankind is going to continue in its upward surge.

(APPLAUSE)

FLORIDO: This is Munoz Marin giving a speech in New York in 1949, the year he became governor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUNOZ MARIN: The people of Puerto Rico are perhaps one of the clearest symbols of this absence of prejudice or of false pride or of false hatred of some human beings as against other human beings.

MERAJI: You know, that is a wonderful sentiment.

FLORIDO: It is.

MERAJI: I wish it was true.

DEMBY: And people often, you know, talk about mixed identity in the way he's talking about it - right? - like, as a bridge to some harmonious beige future, you know what I mean?

FLORIDO: Yeah. And, you know, for Munoz Marin and his new government, this idea was sort of, you know, fundamental to, like, notions of Puerto Rican identity. And it wasn't only something he talked about. His government, like, felt so strongly that race was irrelevant that - guess what it did?

MERAJI: What?

FLORIDO: It just stopped asking people their race on the census.

MERAJI: How can Puerto Rico do that? The census is a federal form.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And it is a colony of the United States - oh, I'm sorry, commonwealth.

FLORIDO: Yeah.

DEMBY: Freudian slip.

FLORIDO: Topic of perpetual conversation in Puerto Rico, importantly so. Well, you know, the reason it could do that - the reason it did that - was because in the '50s, Puerto Rico actually got permission from the federal government to conduct its own census. It called it el censo criollo (ph), and it just eliminated the race question. It just deleted it. Yeah. So Isar Godreau says this decision reflected a deeper philosophy in Munoz Marin's government.

I GODREAU: That we did not need to document how many white people or how many black people because that ran counter to the idea of us being a mixed group of people. And if racism was not an issue, you didn't need to document, you know, in which way were black people disenfranchised vis-a-vis lighter-skinned people or not. So they - for 50 years, they didn't include the question of race in the censo criollo.

MERAJI: Wow.

DEMBY: Fifty years - so we're talking about from the '50s to, like, 2000 or so.

FLORIDO: Yeah. You know, by the 1990s, Governor Munoz Marin was long gone.

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: The political party in power at that time was Puerto Rico's pro-statehood party, and its strategy is often, you know, to make Puerto Rico look like as much as a state as possible in the hopes that someday Congress will just decide to grant it admission into the union. And so in the '90s, the government decided to readopt the federal form that it had gotten rid of, you know, 50 years earlier and to readopt it starting in the 2000 census. And so when people got their form in the mail that year, there it was. There was this new question - right? - the race question.

I GODREAU: And so what happened was, first, people were very surprised at this question. And many took the question as offensive, right? Because in a country where the ideology of harmony has been, you know (laughter), drilled down your brain, then you think the question is nonsensical.

FLORIDO: And yet there it was, asking people to pick a box or multiple boxes. And you already know what happened.

MERAJI: Eighty-one percent of people on the island checked white as their race - just white, no other boxes.

FLORIDO: Right.

I GODREAU: This didn't make sense for a Caribbean island. In fact, the white population in the United States was 76%. So in a way, we were, you know, even whiter than the gringos (laughter).

FLORIDO: So Godreau says that on the radio, on TV at that time, commentators were asking, like, what are these numbers telling us? What do they say about us?

I GODREAU: So when I saw those numbers, I thought, OK, so this is what happens when you have an imperial power impose their questions on its territory.

MERAJI: Yeah. Because maybe if the census had terms like mulatta or triguena, negra and blanca, maybe people would say, oh, you know, I see myself there...

DEMBY: Right.

FLORIDO: Right.

MERAJI: ...And check those boxes.

I GODREAU: But I also thought it was telling of the fact that we, in this society, even though we have a discourse of mixture, people know that what is valued is whiteness.

MERAJI: Thank you. I was hoping that she was going to say that because I've been listening to this, and the entire time, I've been thinking, I'm not sure if Puerto Ricans check white because they don't know what else to check 'cause they've been taught that they're a mix of all these different things or if they check white because they fully understand that that's who counts in society. It counted under Spanish colonial rule, and, you know, that hasn't changed under U.S. colonial rule.

FLORIDO: Right. And for Godreau, this isn't just political. It's also personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLORIDO: We were sitting on the patio of her house in the town of Cayey. And she went inside, and she brought out a picture of her father, her daughter and herself. Godreau's father is black. She is light-skinned with blue eyes. But her daughter Amanda is dark-skinned. And Godreau says that Amanda was often bullied in school because of that.

I GODREAU: And me having to go to the school to talk about it to the teachers, and they had no clue. They - you know, their face went blank. Since it's not something that is talked about, it's not part of the, you know, discourse, those who don't suffer the racism think that it never happens.

FLORIDO: So a couple of years ago, her daughter left Puerto Rico for college in the U.S. And Godreau told me that the racism she experienced in Puerto Rico is one of the reasons that her daughter Amanda doesn't ever see herself moving back to the island.

Hola.

AMANDA GODREAU: Hola.

FLORIDO: Como estas?

So I went to visit Godreau's daughter at her college in this small town in Florida. It's an arts college. She's studying to do graphics and animation for movies and TV. And we sat at a table on a quad at the center of campus.

A GODREAU: Yeah. No, it's really nice. And it's really small.

FLORIDO: It's a really small campus, yeah.

A GODREAU: It's really small. Like, you can't walk across it without seeing someone. I think you saw me with someone. I had just run into them. I was like, oh, hey. How's it going?

FLORIDO: It's like Puerto Rico.

A GODREAU: Yeah. It's like, hey (laughter). It's very much like Puerto Rico.

FLORIDO: And Amanda told me - she said, yeah, as a kid at an art school in a small town in Puerto Rico, things were tough. Kids would tease her for being black. A boy cut off a chunk of one of her braids once.

MERAJI: What?

FLORIDO: Even her teachers, she says, in school plays, you know, when they'd cast her, it was usually in token roles.

A GODREAU: And that really affected me because I never knew if I was good enough for things or if it was just the way I looked.

FLORIDO: But she said that the most maddening thing was feeling like, you know, she was the only person who saw the racism in all these experiences.

A GODREAU: There's this saying that they drill into us. Like, I don't know why, honestly. I don't know why they drill it into us, but they always drill into us (speaking Spanish), which is, like, don't bother him or don't bother her. We're all the same. But that in itself is, you know, toxic itself because we're not the same. We're all very different. And not having that conversation about race, not having a right or wrong way of addressing someone with a different hair color, skin color, hair texture creates in itself subtly racist behavior that's never addressed and never seen as wrong. And when you yourself address it as someone who's being impacted by it, you're labeled as too sensitive.

DEMBY: Yeah. Those dynamics will probably sound real familiar to a lot of people listening right now, I bet.

MERAJI: Yup.

FLORIDO: Right. And she said this is not the only reason. The main one is the career that she wants to build as a motion designer. But it is one of the reasons that she can't ever see herself moving back home, as painful as that is for her. She loves Puerto Rico.

A GODREAU: I would definitely move back there as an adult if it was just me. But I do want kids eventually, and I don't think - as long as race isn't being addressed and it's not seen as an issue in schools, when it is brought up, it's handled the same way that it was handled with me, I can't see myself willingly doing that to my child.

DEMBY: OK, Adrian, but she moved to the mainland United States and is expecting, like, this stuff to be different than it happened with her when it comes to race in schools. Like, she's in the South. She's in Florida - Florida.

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: Trayvon Martin, Claude Neal, voter suppression-ass Florida.

FLORIDO: Oh, yeah. And, you know, Amanda said, no, of course. Like, she was very clear about that. She told me, look; I know that in a lot of ways, the racism here in the South is more dangerous. You know, it's violent racism. You've got white nationalists with guns. But also, here in the states, there is a broad recognition that racism exists, right? You can have that conversation. You can talk about that.

MERAJI: Right. I mean, that's what we do for a living. And I hear that. I do. I also wonder if she'll feel the same way after spending a few more years in Florida.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And also, Adrian, didn't you tell us earlier that there are at least some people in Puerto Rico that are trying to have these conversations about race?

FLORIDO: Yeah. I mean, it is a small community of activists, but it is growing. A lot of them are black women who've had a lifetime of experiences just like Amanda's. And they're trying to bring these conversations about race up to the surface.

(CROSSTALK)

FLORIDO: In Puerto Rico, there's really one main group doing anti-racism work. It's called the Colectivo Ile. And I went to one of their meetings back in February before this pandemic struck. And the woman standing at the front of the room was Gloriann Sacha Antonetty.

ANTONETTY: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: This was an important day for the Colectivo Ile because they were planning a big campaign that they were going to launch this spring, which I'll tell you about in a second. And this was a meeting they'd called to give other socially minded organizations on the island a heads-up about the campaign and recruit them to help spread the word.

ANTONETTY: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: A couple of days before this, I had sat down with Antonetty. She was wearing this big smile and a brightly colored head wrap, which is something that you're seeing a lot more women adopting on the island in the last couple of years to, you know, show pride in their black heritage.

ANTONETTY: A lot of people here in Puerto Rico have trouble saying (speaking Spanish). She's a black woman. She's a negra. A lot of people don't do that because they think that that's offensive. So basically, we grew up in a society that, when you say negro or negra, they think that they are telling you a bad thing.

FLORIDO: Like they're insulting you.

ANTONETTY: They're insulting you. But that's not right. It's like, I'm a black woman.

FLORIDO: Antonetty and her organization Colectivo Ile - they've spent years giving anti-racist workshops at schools and at government agencies across the island. And this month, they've got this campaign, and they are targeting the census.

MERAJI: Ooh. What does that mean exactly? What are they doing?

FLORIDO: Well, they're making a big ask of people on the island. They are asking them to - when they fill out the census form, when they answer that race question, they want them to check the box for black.

ANTONETTY: And then our call to action is (speaking Spanish). Don't let the census erase you because one of the things that has been happening with the black community here in Puerto Rico and the African descendant community is that we are very invisible-ized. We don't have data about inequalities for black people or dark-skinned people. We don't have...

FLORIDO: And she said this lack of data has become painfully evident in the last few years, as...

MERAJI: Oh, yeah.

FLORIDO: ...You know, Puerto Rico has gone through all of these recent crises it's been through. There was the economic crisis, Hurricane Maria, earthquakes. And now we've got, you know, the coronavirus. And they want to know, like, are black Puerto Ricans more affected than other Puerto Ricans? You know, probably. They think so. But because there is no data, they can't know for sure.

ANTONETTY: And we are betting, too, that this campaign will help us increase the number of African descendants maybe 10% in this census. And then maybe we can continue to increase that number.

DEMBY: So how high do they want that number to get?

FLORIDO: Well, as high as they can get it, because here's the interesting thing. They're not only asking dark-skinned Puerto Ricans to check the box for black.

ANTONETTY: We are also encouraging people that are maybe light-skinned to reclaim their Afro descendance (ph). That's why...

DEMBY: So they want, like, light, bright, damn-near-white Puerto Ricans to check the box for black, too?

FLORIDO: Yeah. They want everyone. They want all Puerto Ricans on the island to check at least that box for black.

DEMBY: But why, though?

MERAJI: If you know Puerto Ricans, the light, bright, almost-white ones will never do that (laughter), first of all. But anyway...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: ...I do feel like having everybody check the box for black might skew the data in a way that may not work in the way that they want it to.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Right? Like, if they're hoping to use this data to pinpoint racial inequities, how's that going to happen if everybody now on the island is black?

FLORIDO: Well, there are a couple of things at play here, right? I mean, this is about data and collecting good data. But Antonetty says that it's also about making a point - right? - about Puerto Rico's relationship with the U.S. She said just, you know, just look at how President Trump treated Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

ANTONETTY: People are not treated in Puerto Rico as white people - not here, not when they go to the United States. We are not white. So for us, it's very important that we have people that have a political answer to this question in the census.

FLORIDO: And she also says, look; the census is an imperfect tool to capture the nuances of racial identity.

MERAJI: Totally. And that's something we've said a number of times on CODE SWITCH in our various census episodes.

DEMBY: Right, absolutely.

FLORIDO: But Antonetty says it's the tool we've got. And so if Puerto Rico is a mixed-race society, then, you know, let's embrace that.

DEMBY: Invite your blackness into the living room and out of the kitchen.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TU ABUELA DONDE ESTA?")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in non-English language).

MERAJI: "Y Tu Abuela Donde Esta?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y TU ABUELA DONDE ESTA?")

FERNANDEZ: (Singing in non-English language).

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. You can follow us on Twitter at @NPRCodeSwitch and subscribe to our newsletter at newsletters.npr.org/codeswitch.

MERAJI: And in case you missed it, earlier this week, we talked about the importance of racial data when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This episode was produced by Leah Donnella and Jess Kung. It was edited by Alison MacAdam.

FLORIDO: Special thanks to WNYC's Alana Casanova-Burgess and Andy Lanset and to the New York City Municipal Archives for some of that archival tape. Special thanks also to Cristian Arroyo-Santiago.

DEMBY: And we will be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Natalie Escobar, Steve Drummond, Kumari Devarajan, LA Johnson. Our interns are Isabella Rosario and Dianne Lugo. Thank you for swinging by, Adrian. Appreciate you.

FLORIDO: Thank you.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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