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Mostly Black Town In Puerto Rico Sees Its Own Past In The Death Of George Floyd

LOIZA — As evening fell over Puerto Rico, hundreds gathered at a vigil for George Floyd recently in Loíza, a coastal town home to one of the island’s largest Black communities.

Crowds congregated at el Ancón, a pier named after the retired barge it once housed, which crossed loiceños and their cars over the Rio Grande de Loíza and into San Juan. Loíza residents and others stood at the riverbanks to defend and affirm the right of Black people to live freely.

“When he cried ‘Mama,’ it wasn’t only to his own mom, but to all black mothers in the United States, in the Caribbean and across the world, ” Maria Reinat-Pumarejo said of Floyd, who died after a police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes. Reinat-Pumarejo is a founding member of Colectivo Ilé. The anti-racism group was involved in planning the event along with Revista Étnica, the first magazine and multimedia platform from Puerto Rico for Afro-Latino communities.

The death of George Floyd has unearthed painful wounds for Black Puerto Ricans, bringing back memories of their own experiences with police brutality. It has also sparked debate about colorism and racism on the island, with Afro-Puerto Ricans speaking up on social media and other public forums.

At the vigil, Bomba musicians beat their drums. Plena Combativa, a feminist plenera group, sang, “¿Cuánto más vamos a aguantar?” How much more will we have to endure? Protesters surrounding them held up hand-painted posters. The scent of incense and aromatic wood wafted through the air.

An altar to Floyd and victims of police brutality in the U.S. and Puerto Rico was erected and decorated. The shrine was set on top of African cloths with kente and mud patterns. Candles surrounded a framed picture of Floyd. Lush gingers flowers, madonna lilies and orchids adorned the backdrop.

Cages used by local fishermen to capture land crabs and blue crabs had been placed by the flowers. A traditional Loíza vejigante mask, carved out from a coconut shell and painted in black, was hung by Floyd’s photo — the color, the artist said, embodying fight and resistance, not mourning. An apple dripping in honey and a brown cigar were placed as offerings near a hand-written Yoruba invocation to ancestors.

Next to Floyd’s picture was a sepia image of Adolfina Villanueva-Osorio with one of her children in her arms. The 34-year-old Black loiceña was killed by Puerto Rican police in 1980. The crowds had come to the vigil to pay their respects to her too.

Police brutality

Loíza was one of the first places in Latin America to hold a demonstration in Floyd’s memory, along with other Puerto Rican municipalities like Ponce, Arroyo, Vieques and San Juan.

The town is located on a low-lying strip of land that borders the Atlantic Ocean and is divided by the Rio Grande de Loíza. Filled with mangroves and isolated by nature, Loíza was an ideal home for cimarrones, fugitives from slavery from Puerto Rico and the West Indies who settled there in the 1600s and onwards.

That heritage is evident today: Nearly 65 percent of Loíza‘s residents identified as Black in the 2010 Census. Known as “the capital of tradition,” its music, food, and art bear signs of its African roots.

It is also a poor municipality, especially compared to nearby cities like San Juan and Carolina. Almost a third of households make under $10,000 a year and its poverty rate, at 50.8 percent, is 7.7 points higher than Puerto Rico’s overall rate.

“We have always been marginalized for being a very small town where Black people predominate,’‘ said Rafael Rivera-Rivera, a leader from the Villa Cañona neighborhood in Loíza.

Residents of Loíza interviewed by the Miami Herald described police abuse in their communities. Some of these cases were documented in a 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, which also found that the Puerto Rican Police Department assigned tactical units that used “excessive force as a substitute for community policing” in low-income and Black areas. Neighborhoods with many Dominicans, of which there are an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 in Puerto Rico, are also targets.

A September 2011 investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Puerto Rican Police Department had “engaged in patterns of misconduct that violate the Constitution and federal law.” It concluded that there was a pattern of excessive and deadly force, a routine of illegal search and seizures and that tactical unit officers entered low-income neighborhoods with “high caliber rifles drawn amid children, seniors, and other bystanders.”

Rivera-Rivera said that Villa Cañona was the site of a lot of police brutality in the mid-to-late 2000s and that these patterns of abuse spanned back years.

There was the 2007 case of Edgar Pizarro-Rivera, a 27-year-old Black man with a developmental disability. As he rode his bicycle, officers beat him with nightsticks and pepper-sprayed him as they hurled racial slurs. Pizarro-Rivera’s mom told the ACLU that this had occurred multiple times between 2007 and 2008, as well as in 2011. She also mentioned that she filed three complaints about these incidents to the police, but received no response to the first two and just a letter that acknowledged receipt and archival of the third. Her son, who has the mental capacity of a 5-year-old, became “terrified to play outside,” according to the ACLU report.

And in September 2010, José Ayala-Rivera, a 22-year-old Black man was shot in the head by police as he returned home from a party with his brother. Ayala-Rivera survived, but the incident left him in a wheelchair. Ayala’s brother, Luis Ayala-Rivera, told the ACLU the family had been awarded $90,000 in a civil suit they filed against the police, but that no criminal charges were brought against the officer who incapacitated his brother.

Villa Cañona’s residents publicly denounced cases of police brutality. They took their grievances to Puerto Rican media and reached out to the Puerto Rican Commission of Civil Rights and the island’s chapter of the ACLU. In June 2008, they shared their testimonies with Doudou Diène, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, at a public hearing in the neighborhood’s community center. Diène presented his findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council as part of a 2009 report on racial injustice in the United States.

Rivera-Rivera said that the police sometimes seemed to retaliate when they spoke up. On one occasion, on the same day that Rivera-Rivera and other Villa Cañona residents publicly denounced police abuse, over a hundred police officers occupied the neighborhood. They said the incursion was a way to guarantee public safety, but the timing left loiceños skeptical.

As Floyd’s death ignited global protests, Loíza community leaders and residents have discussed the town’s fraught relationship with police. They see parallels between the police brutality and racism Black Americans experience and their history. One case in particular still inhabits the collective memory of loiceños and other Puerto Ricans, decades later: the death of Adolfina Villanueva-Osorio, one of the most infamous police killings in Loíza’s history.

An eviction turns violent

On the morning of Feb. 6, 1980, Villanueva-Osorio and her husband, Agustín Carrasquillo-Pinet, were at home in the Tocones sector of Loíza, one of the town’s poorest areas.

The Black couple had been married for 17 years and had six children. That day, Villanueva-Osorio was at home with three of them: their oldest, 12-year-old Agustín, and their youngest, toddlers César and Betsaida. Carrasquillo-Pinet, a fisherman who usually went to Dorado and Toa Baja to catch crabs, stayed back home. Dark and stormy clouds loomed over their house by the sea.

A 1985 story in El Nuevo Dia recounted that Carrasquillo-Pinet was sitting on the porch with his wife, who was chopping coconuts for the kids. At around 9 a.m., police and bulldozers came to evict the family and demolish the property.

Veremundo Quiñones, a wealthy landowner, had claimed ownership in court of the plot of land, though Villanueva-Osorio’s family had lived there for over 100 years. The Archbishop of San Juan, Cardinal Luis Aponte Martínez, wanted to purchase the land from Quiñones to build a summer home.

El Nuevo Día also reported that a battalion of at least 16 police officers from the tactical operations unit and eviction officers attempted to oust the family. Carrasquillo-Pinet, now 75-years-old, and other witnesses say that the judge who had signed the eviction order and Quiñones was also there.

When Carrasquillo-Pinet asked why they had come, a police commander said: “Los vamos a sacar vivos o muertos.” We will remove you, alive or dead.

The family had been in litigation for years. Carrasquillo-Pinet told police he and his family weren’t going to leave because they hadn’t been called to court that day, and they were supposed to have a court hearing in two weeks.

According to Carrasquillo-Pinet, police surrounded the house, knocked down the gate, threw smoke bombs, and started shooting at the home. The children, who were in the residence, started screaming in fear.

Villanueva-Osorio went to grab César and Betsaida, Carrasquillo-Pinet said in a recent interview with Primera Hora, a local newspaper. Police claimed she launched a can full of kerosene at Sgt. Víctor M. Estrella, although the police’s forensic chemist later said there was no evidence of this. There were also reports that she was armed with a rusty machete, which Carrasquillo-Pinet and family have denied.

The El Nuevo Día story from 1985 said that Adolfina was shot 16 times in front of her husband and children. The bullets shattered one lung and her liver. Villanueva-Osorio was lying by the pigs’ pen when they shot Carrasquillo-Pinet in the thigh as he came to her aid. They were taken to the hospital, and Carrasquillo-Pinet only found out later that his wife had died.

The small house made of zinc and wood was demolished hours after Villanueva-Osorio’s death.

Carrasquillo-Pinet told el Horizonte, a shuttered local newspaper, that a bulldozer would have killed the children who were still inside the residence had his mother not come to retrieve them. According to El Nuevo Día, one neighbor told the family, shortly after the incident, that police had tried to shoot at the eldest son because he was a witness.

Sgt. Estrella was charged with murder, but a jury acquitted him. Still, the trial revealed gruesome details about what happened on that day, including that the ammunition cartridges police used at the eviction were for deer and buffalo hunting. No one else who was at the scene that day has ever been prosecuted for the death of Adolfina Villanueva-Osorio. No charges were ever filed for the injuries caused to Carrasquillo-Pinet.

El Nuevo Día reported that Estrella’s lawyers said at trial that Adolfina Villanueva-Osorio’s death had been an “unfortunate accident” and that the officer’s shotgun had accidentally discharged. Marta Villanueva-Osorio, her sister, disagrees.

Forty years later, the former plot that housed Villanueva-Osorio’s home stands empty. When the Pulitzer Center interviewed Loíza artist Samuel Lind, he said that, “when the building of the [Archbishop of San Juan’s] house began… people would come at night and dismantle the work the builders had done that day … every night, until eventually the builders gave up.”

The legacy

For Marta Villanueva-Osorio, the death of George Floyd on May 25 was like reliving the 1980 killing of her sister.

“I cried for three days,” she said. “Because if you defend yourself, they kill you. That impotence that my father felt, it’s the impotence that George Floyd’s family must have felt.”

For many in Loíza, Villanueva-Osorio is a symbol of strength and bravery. She was a Black woman and a mother who fought for her land and her home. Many of the issues she faced — poverty, housing instability, racism — continue to affect loiceños today.

‘The murder of Adolfina Villanueva is a clear racist act against a family from Loíza. They have killed us because we are black and they view us as having no value or humanity.” said Maricruz Rivera-Clemente, a Loíza community leader from Piñones, a beachfront neighborhood.

“We have to live with racism every day. It is one oppression that causes so many other oppressions: violence in the community, between our communities, amongst our young people, violence by the police,” she told the Herald. “But we resist with dignity.”

Rivera-Clemente is the founder of Corporación Piñones Se Integra, a local organization that fosters cultural initiatives to combat racism, like bomba classes that honor Puerto Rico’s Black heritage. The group is also focused on protecting Piñones, the only undeveloped coastline near the San Juan airport. Businessmen have wanted to build in the area for many years, but the organization and others have successfully fought against these plans.

Alicia Carrasquillo-Ortiz is a community leader in Tocones, the sector of Loíza where Villanueva-Osorio used to live. When the Herald called to interview, Carrasquillo-Ortiz was in the process of dropping off lunch to children, which she has done since the pandemic began.

“We have never been able to forget…Every day, we are targets of racism, and the community, the people, say, look at what happened with [Floyd.] The same happened to Doña Adolfina. Will they do it to us too?” said Carrasquillo-Ortiz.

Race and Racism in Puerto Rico

Researchers have widely documented racial discrimination against Black Puerto Ricans in “national ideologies… employment, the criminal justice system, education, housing patterns, the media… to name just a few,” according to a 2017 study on perceptions of racism on the island.

But it’s still challenging to quantify racial issues in Puerto Rico. The local government does not methodically compile statistics about race, nor is it required by law to provide this data. U.S. Census data does not always account for how Puerto Ricans view themselves, which can lead Puerto Ricans of color to identify as white and other races.

“There is a denial to reclaim Black identity and African heritage in Puerto Rico.” said Dr. Bárbara Abadía-Rexach, a social anthropologist who studies Puerto Rican music and race. “The lighter you are in skin, the more access [you have.] The darker, the less access.”

Puerto Rican scholars have had to develop new ways of measuring the socioeconomic and race-related outcomes of Black Puerto Ricans. For example, some have taken to asking people to identify their skin color on their own terms. \

That same 2017 report found that people who described themselves as Black said they experienced significantly more racism. Among other statistics: Black people in Puerto Rico are less likely to have health insurance and experience higher levels of unemployment than lighter-skinned Puerto Ricans.

“Racism might manifest differently [than in the United States,] based on the different context,” said Abadía-Rexach. “But that doesn’t make it less violent, and it doesn’t stop it from experiencing it in our daily lives as Black people in Puerto Rico.”

The protests in Puerto Rico for Floyd have been historic, according to Dr. Hilda Lloréns, who has studied race in Puerto Rico for over two decades. But while public events for Black Lives Matter of this scope are new, anti-racism resistance and community organizing are not.

That’s evident in the efforts of community leaders like Rafael Rivera-Rivera, who has put a national spotlight on police brutality in Villa Cañona. Or that of Maricruz Rivera-Clemente, who cleans Loíza’s waterways while completing her doctoral dissertation on how the town has used cultural traditions to combat racism. Or that of Mayra Cirino-Carrasquillo, who advocates for Colobó residents to the town mayor.

—THE MIAMI HERALD

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