Africa and Puerto Rico: Reflections on Loiza and Hacienda La Esperanza By Heather Smith, Wilfrid Laurier University

On June 2 and 4, the students in my travel course ‘Themes in Puerto Rican History’ visited two field sites with deep historical connections to Africa: Loiza, one of the most prominent Afro-Puerto Rican cities (chronicled in my previous blog entry), and Hacienda La Esperanza, a 19th century sugar plantation.  Here are the reflections of one of the student, Heather Smith, who is majoring in History, Medieval Studies and Music.

Jeff Grischow, Tshepo Institute, Wilfrid Laurier University

Loíza: June 2, 2017

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see a diversity of sites in Loíza. From a cathedral with a prominently featured St. Patrick, to the house of Samuel Lind, to learning to dance the bomba—it was a fascinating experience which is quite possibly my favorite day thus far. In terms of my overall impressions of the day’s events, one of the most significant aspects of the Puerto Rican narrative I noticed today was the difference in the depiction of the Taino origins. Samuel Lind himself emphasized the idea that the goddess after which the town is named – Loíza, or Yoisa, was present in the lands and could be felt in the caves. To this point, Lind’s depiction of the Loíza in clay looked very different from depictions we have seen in earlier days, and appeared much more “African” and less stereotypically Spanish. This was fascinating to see. Lind brings business and tourism to Loíza through his work, as our visit exemplified. Thus, the narratives which he both speaks and depicts through his art carry weight in terms of public perception. As such, he can be viewed as a cultural intermediary of sorts, communicating Loíza’s story to those who visit him and purchase his work. A cursory view of his facebook page reveals again, this emphasis upon Puerto Rico’s African roots and his mission to bringing awareness to that vision, as well as how this aligns with his view of the Taino culture as perhaps implicitly being connected to this African heritage. At the cave was a circle of stones with “Taino” drawings and symbols. This, alongside the drummers playing off to the side implicitly connected African culture and the site, with the Taino narrative.


Samuel Lind’s Studio, Loíza

What struck me the most across all of the cultural sites was the regional pride of Loíza. In contrast to our previous visit to Caguas which emphasized the Taino roots of Puerto Rican culture in conjunction with Spanish and African cultures, this Loíza vision very much deemphasized the Spanish: there was no mention of colonialism in all of our tours and events, except in association with slavery and Smith the bomba as an escape from oppressive day-to-day conditions. Altogether, the colours of Loíza, the patron St. Patrick (whom Lind depicts as African, and refers to as ‘our boss’ on his facebook page), and the sense of triumph over slavery, combine to create the sense that Loíza is perhaps a microcosm of still another vision of Puerto Rican nationalism. This might more aptly be referred to as “regionalism” if such a term could be coined. I am very interested to further diversify this Puerto Rican idea of “African” through our tours in the coming days.

Hacienda la Esperanza: June 4, 2017

On June 4, I our Laurier group visited Haceinda La Esperanza.  Our guide delved very deeply into the history of slavery at the site (much more than the guide the coffee plantation Hacienda Buena Vista, which we visited the day before) and was willing to answer virtually any question. Representing the slaves’ voices, as well as social classes using a collection of knives was an innovative approach as this provided a tangible and tactile way of conveying the concept of social class and slavery through material culture. Our guide explained how the knives with ornate handles would have belonged to wealthy citizens, while the most basic and unornamented belonged to the slaves. It was also fascinating to have the story of the slave Cecilio, whom we read about in an article by Astrid Cubano Iquina’s article,* recounted by our tour guide in the physical location where these events occurred.

McInnis Esperanza 2

Sugar Mill Steam Engine, Hacienda La Esperanza

One interesting aspect of the site which more closely resembled the approach at Hacienda Buena Vista, was the emphasis on technology by the slave owners. Of all of the questions asked, our tour guide bristled somewhat at the question surrounding the legalities of importing the machinery to build the steam mill engine machine. Afterward Papo revisited this by mentioning that as this machinery was illegal, it was not discovered by the U.S. during the Second World War. Thus, it appears that the curators of the site may have specifically omitted this fact in the attempts to keep the focus on promoting the technological innovations of the past. Overall, the site was more balanced in its focus upon both the history and the conservation elements of the site than Hacienda Buena Vista. Still, the overarching focus was on the technology and the processes used at both sites. Thus, it is somewhat a missed opportunity to tell more of the stories of the slaves, as Iquina’s article did admirably.

*Cubano Iguina, Astrid, “Freedom in the making: the slaves of hacienda La Esperanza, Manatı´, Puerto Rico, on the eve of abolition, 1868–76,” Social History 36(3)(2011): 280-293

A Laurier student’s experience at the Refugee Law Project in Kampala, Uganda

The Refugee Law Project (RLP) is a stand alone project that works with the School of Law at the University of Mekerere to address the legal, psychosocial and gender issues of forced migrants in Uganda. Forced migrants are described as those who have been forcibly removed from their homes to flee psychological, physically and emotional prosecution. RLP employs a diverse team of lawyers, social workers, psychologists and videographers to help ensure refugees, asylum-seekers, deportees and internally displaced persons enjoy their fundamental rights, as outlined in international laws and the Constitution of Uganda. RLP pursues a multi-disciplinary approach to peace promotion directly through the provision of legal and psychosocial assistance; and indirectly through research and advocacy, as well as education and training programmes. The agency is divided into four departments; the Mental Health and Psychosocial Well-being (MHPW) Programme provides individual, group and family counselling, community outreach, capacity building initiatives and conducts research and advocacy on emerging psychosocial and mental health issues; the Gender and Sexuality (GS) Program works to address practical and policy implications that deal with gender issues, such as sexual gender based violence, gender identities, and sexual reproduction; the Access to Justice (AJ) program provides free legal assistance to forced migrants, training on human rights to community stakeholders and conducts research to find solutions to national policy gaps; and the Conflict, Governance and Justice (CGJ) program is a combination of action-oriented research, policy advocacy and early warning interventions. All these programs work together to promote the dignity and well-being of forced migrants.

Currently, RLP is suspended from providing any direct service to forced migrants due to a government imposed suspension. This suspension was put in place last March, shortly after the Anti- Homosexuality Bill was passed in parliament. Sadly, the government has alleged that RLP has been promoting same-sex relationships and has used the legislation to prevent RLP from working with forced migrants. However, the bill has been annulled since not enough lawmakers were present to vote in August and now the agency is working with the government to lift the suspension. In the meantime, RLP has been working to conduct research and advocacy on current issues but this has been severely limited as the voices of those affected can not been fully heard.

Presently, I’m working with the MHPW and CGJ to conduct a program evaluation of a suicide survivor support group and the livelihood program they have initiated. I hope to examine the connection between mental health and the capacity-building aspects of these survivors. Specifically, I would like to explore the process of empowerment and community capacity-building that enable individuals to lead healthy and sustainable lifestyles. The key idea is exploring how the psychological wellbeing of the person is necessary for the individual to have the ability to meaningfully contribute to society, whether it be socially or economically. Another project that I will be working with is called Conflict Watch which engages multiple layers of stakeholders in the pursuit of disseminating information of potential conflicts in Northern Uganda to the public. The project will be to critically analyze current trends in policy towards IDP’s, local/regional/national conflict drivers, and to create a newsletter article to create awareness on the issues. The conflict watch allows for an inclusive dialogue with community stakeholders that incorporate the voices of internally displaced persons.


Ahmed Ali is a second-year student in the Masters of Social Work program at Laurier Kitchener. He is in the Community, Policy, Planning and Organization stream and is completing his second practicum placement in Uganda as part of the International Practicum Program.