Updated on June 9, 2023, to add discussion questions on Puerto Rican identity.
I’ll go ahead and give you my answer, I’m all three.
Earlier this week I was asked if I was Spanish or Native American. This is a question that I get asked often. Hence, no one ever asks if I’m Black or African. My response is usually short: Puerto Rican. However, depending on who is asking, I go on to explain my Puerto Rican side: how the Native Americans (Indigenous Taínos), Africans (Blacks), and Spanish Europeans (Whites) intermated and began to produce a population of “mixed” peoples that we know today as Puerto Ricans; then I close my statement with, I’m also Ecuadorian. Ecuadorians are also descendants of Spanish and indigenous people, too.
It’s in the DNA!
So let’s talk about my Puerto Rican side and about my Mom’s mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA comes only from the mother and is not to be confused with nuclear DNA that comes from both parents. The mitochondrial DNA is only inherited and transferred to the child from her mother, her mother’s mother, etc. Nowadays, you can trace your maternal lineage and inheritance with commercial ancestry kits that use your mother’s mitochondrial DNA. Sorry, but for some unknown reason, the paternal mitochondrial DNA gets wiped from cells. Crazy, right?
Speaking of DNA, back in the year 2000, twenty years ago, my maternal Grandmother participated in Native American ancestry research at the University of Puerto Rico. The DNA samples they collected were from communities known historically for their strong Indigenous component, or those not living in these communities but having mothers or maternal grandmothers with physical traits such as straight, dark hair; pronounced cheekbones; almond-shaped, dark eyes; and bronzed skin and/or identified by themselves as “Indian-like.”
My late Grandmother fit the bill and she was the perfect candidate for this research.
Once the research concluded the results were brought in personally by some of the members of the research team. That day I was working and I missed it. So it was just my Mom with my late Grandmother patiently waiting for the results. I’d like to imagine it went down like an episode of Maury when he says, “The results are in and the DNA test determines that you are not Native American (Taíno)!” That’s right folks! My sweet grandmother’s mitochondrial DNA determined that her ancestors are from Africa (south of the Sahara to be exact) and not Native American as she thought she was.
The Puerto Rican Conundrum
Now, how do they react to the Maury episode when the results are revealed and the outcome is not what was expected? In complete and total denial! Yes, that’s how my late Grandmother reacted! There’s a lot of denial in our family about our African ancestry. Sadly, anti-blackness is very much alive among Puerto Ricans. My late Grandmother looked indigenous. In her mind, she was an indigenous Taína a stark contrast to what her mitochondrial DNA revealed. So even if you look indigenous, Black, or White that alone doesn’t determine your lineage.
The family line is forever imprinted in our DNA
Puerto Rican bloodlines are a mix of Spanish, African, and indigenous Taíno ancestry. Some bloodlines are more than others. Nonetheless, regardless of your physical traits or what you claim to be, we are just Puerto Ricans.
I’m a Boricua, I’m also a descendant of Africans. My African lineage comes from my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and every other maternal ancestor before them that comes from the motherland of Africa. I’m an Afro-Latina though my hair says the contrary, the melanin in my skin confirms it. I’m also Ecuadorian with indigenous and Spanish roots.
So whatever your family line is, just know that we are all intertwined with different races, cultures, and heritage. We all are connected. So we can’t possibly just be one, but all three and perhaps more!
- How does the author’s personal experience reflect the complex nature of racial and ethnic identity in Puerto Rico?
- Why do you think the author’s grandmother reacted with denial when the DNA test revealed African ancestry? What does this say about attitudes towards race and identity within their family?
- What role does DNA testing and genetic research play in understanding one’s ancestry and heritage? What are the limitations and potential pitfalls of relying solely on DNA to determine identity?
- How does the author challenge the idea of categorizing oneself as solely Indigenous, Black, or White? What alternative perspective do they offer?
- How does the author’s experience highlight the issue of anti-blackness within Puerto Rican society? What are some potential reasons for this phenomenon?
- In what ways does the author’s identification as an Afro-Latina challenge societal expectations and stereotypes regarding appearance and racial identity?
- How does the author’s mention of being Ecuadorian with indigenous and Spanish roots contribute to the discussion on identity? How might multiple ethnic or national identities intersect and shape an individual’s sense of self?
- Why do you think the author emphasizes the interconnectedness of different races, cultures, and heritage? What message do they convey through this perspective?
- Do you think the concept of being “all three” (Indigenous, Black, and White) adequately captures the complexity of the author’s identity? Why or why not?
- How can conversations about racial and ethnic identity contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation of diversity within Puerto Rican society and beyond?
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