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


African Culture in Puerto Rico Jeff Grischow

I am writing from Puerto Rico where I’m leading a travel course for 17 students from Wilfrid Laurier University.  Our local guide Papo began the tour in Old San Juan, where our visit included the fabulous Museum of the Americas (‘Museo de las Américas’). Housed in the majestic Cuartel de Ballajá, an old Spanish infantry barracks, the museum is organized to reflect the three main cultures of the island: Indigenous (Taino), African and European.  The structure of the museums exhibits reflects a relatively recent turn towards recognizing and celebrating Puerto Rican’s threefold heritage, built problematically as it was on Spanish colonization of the Taino and the brutality of the slave trade.  This recognition of Puerto Ricans’ Taino and African roots represents a shift from the historically dominant narrative of the ‘European-ness’ of Puerto Rico compared to other Caribbean islands.  Today, prominent Puerto Rican scholars such as Fernando Pico (the author of History of Puerto Rico: A Panorama of its People – our course textbook) emphasize the importance of acknowledging the contributions of the Taino and African populations to Puerto Rican history and culture.

Our tour guide Papo recapitulates this cultural sensibility, proudly referring to his Taino and African roots alongside his European heritage.  Papo is our cultural broker and – using Meta Carstarphen’s term – our ‘transfluencer,’ someone who can both translate our experiences in Puerto Rico and ‘influentially create a more intimate kind of access’ for our students (Carstarphen, 178).  For us, as for Meta Carstarphen and Jocelyn Peterson’s students at the University of Oklahoma, this access includes a personal visit to the home of a well-known Afro-Puerto Rican artist named Samuel Lind in Loiza, not far from where we are staying.


Loiza is one of the best-known Afro-Puerto Rican cities in Puerto Rico and it has been at the centre of preserving and celebrating the island’s African heritage since the Puerto Rican archaeologist Ricardo Alegria conducted research there between 1948 and 1951.  Alegria chose Loiza because it was one of the best examples of African cultural retention in Puerto Rico.  The area had been inhabited by Taino until the Spanish arrived and developed sugar plantations there during the 1500s.  Sugar production declined shortly thereafter, but took off again in the nineteenth century and after the United States invaded in 1898.  Loiza remained a centre of sugar production after the American invasion and as a result continued to have a large black population.  Alegria’s work cemented the city as the strongest centre of African cultural on the island, and this identity survives today.

Loiza Cathedral Saint

It will be interesting to see how the students respond to visiting Loiza and Samuel Lind’s studio.  His paintings reflect a deep passion for preserving and celebrating Puerto Rico’s African cultures, as well as the island’s indigenous heritage.  But some Puerto Rican scholars point out that there is a danger in separating and reifying island’s historically repressed cultures if the dominant culture remains European.  The danger, according to Petra Rivera-Rideau, is that the safe, folkloristic image of Afro-Puerto Rican culture can reinforce current European-dominated power structures and negate more oppositional and synchronistic cultural phenomena such as reggaeton, an Afro-Puerto Rican musical form that emerged out of the urban underground.  While the folkloric images of Afro-Puerto Rican culture in Loiza is accepted by elites as a safe part of Puerto Rican culture, reggaeton is not.  Our group – as well as any tourists who move through Loiza – should keep this in mind as we encounter the way in which Afro-Puerto Rican culture is presented in the official national imagination.  Perhaps we should take a step back and ask ourselves which Afro-Puerto Rican cultures are presented as part of the national imagination, which are excluded, and why.


Petra Rivera-Rideau, “From Carolina to Loiza: race, place and Puerto Rican racial democracy,” Global Studies in Culture and Power, 20(50(2013):616-632.

Meta G. Carstarphen, “Immersion Diversity: Teaching Tourism, Travel Writing and Race from the Inside Out,” in Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms, ed. George Yancy and Maria Del Guadalupe Davidson (Routledge, 2014), pp.173-180.


A Tshepo Mandela Lecture, “Truth Justice and Reconciliation: Re-Imaging Human Rights in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding”

On the evening of February 13, the Tshepo Institute for the Study of Contemporary Africa held their third event of their Mandela Lecture series on the Brantford campus, co-sponsored by the Criminology Student Association and the Human Rights and Human Diversity Student Association.

The Dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts, Dr. Heidi Northwood introduced the Tshepo Institute, and what the Mandela lecture series stands for. Northwood explained that many people still do not understand the serious challenges faced by Africans today and what is being done locally to combat such challenges. “In other words, it’s important not to stop seeking once one has an understanding of what’s wrong, or unjust, in addition, one can push farther and use this understanding, this diagnosis of what’s wrong to work towards something better and meet something more just. Of course this was exactly what Nelson Mandela stood for,” said Northwood.

The Director of the Tshepo Institute, Dr. Akbar Saeed, explained, “At Tshepo what we try to do is shed light on the issues and promote awareness of the issues that are happening in Africa with the aim of inspiring what we call positive transformation. The word positive is very important for us because the founders of Tshepo … Felt there was a lot of negativity surrounding the African continent and we need to promote more of a positive image and talk and shed light on those positive things that are happening.”

Program Coordinator of Human Rights and Human Diversity, Dr. Andrew Robinson introduced this lecture’s speaker, Prof. Bonny Ibhawoh, who teaches History, as well as Global Human Rights and Peace Studies at McMaster University. Robinson noted that Ibhawoh has published four books with more forthcoming, almost 20 book chapters and over 20 articles in scholarly journals. While Ibhawoh’s research interest was noted as wide-ranging, they include but are not limited to: the relationship of African societies and European courts, the role of human rights in African anti-colonial movements, the role of minority rights in Nigeria, the applicability of international human rights in the African cultural context and public history of human rights. Robinson outlined Ibhawoh’s writing as “very clear, accessible and engaging.”

“I feel like I’m with friends, there’s a homeliness about this campus, it’s cozy you know? A friendly space,” Ibhawoh said in the opening of his lecture. “So I come to you as a friend, and I come to you with my presentation as a reflection.”

Ibhawoh introduced his presentation as issues in the making, many ideas he is still grappling with to date. He was notably honoured to be speaking in memory of Nelson Mandela. “Mandela represents the ultimate aspiration for leadership, for humanity, for students,” Ibhawoh said.

Ibhawoh ventured into his lecture by noting that after 27 years in prison, Mandela began to talk about something that many people did not understand at the time: the idea of truth and reconciliation. Ibhawoh admitted, “many thought the old man had lost his mind. With so much pain, and bitterness in the atrocities that the black population had endured as a minority group for over a century, how can Mandela be talking about reconciliation?”

It is with this introduction that Ibhawoh went on to dispel his ideas regarding truth justice and reconciliation in what he believes is “Re-imaging human rights in post-conflict peacebuilding.”

Ibhawoh begins his lecture at the intersections between human rights, peace building, transitional justice and national reconciliation. His talk reflects on historical tensions, and how to bridge and resolve these tensions between human rights and peacebuilding.

While on the surface, human rights and peacebuilding seem to have much in common, Ibhawoh noted there is a subtle and persistent tension between the two. Peace conflict resolvers are characterized as willing to compromise rights and ignore abuses in order to secure political agreements, and human rights advocates are seen as idealistic and uncompromising in seeking redress for violations even at the cost of prolonging conflict and human suffering.

Between the principles of human rights and the pragmatics of peacebuilding, Ibhawoh believes in certain circumstances, there can be space for truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) to work together beyond these tensions. Ibhawoh defines TRCs as a way in which to uncover the truth about past abuses and provide justice to victims in fostering their national reconciliation.

“And my question today is this, and it is a simple one but I argue, a profound one:

how have truth and reconciliation commissions sought to balance the human rights and peacebuilding mandates and show accountability for human rights but also provide a framework for peacebuilding and national reconciliation?”

Following the South African TRC, Ibhawoh explained a new restorative justice model that began to become mainstream in the second half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century. TRCs were first an area of justice particular to the developing world and transitioning societies, but despite the west’s classic retributive justice model it had begun to move into what Ibhawoh calls “the age of TRC.”

Noting the TRC of Canada as a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, Ibhawoh explained the inspiration from the South African model despite important distinctions between the two. Ibhawoh used the South African TRC as the major framework in his ideas revolving around both the downfalls, and the effectiveness of TRCs as a whole.

Ibhawoh noted that even the United Nations, that is historically inclined to retributive justice, has now acknowledged the restorative justice model as the best way to go in some communities.

“It seems there is a yearning now to deal with so many of the historical developments that have long been taken for granted,” Ibhawoh explained. “So what we have and what we see increasingly, particularly in the transitional justice sector is an emergence of a new, holistic paradigm of transitional justice.” Criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparation programs, gender justice, security systems reform and memorialization projects have been seen throughout this age of imperial reckoning. Ibhawoh explained these are parts of a new found need for a justice system that goes beyond punishment of the perpetrators, and instead works to moves society forward.

But Ibhawoh questioned, “are they useful? Are the necessary? Do they do their job?”

While presenting an idealistic view of TRC Ibhawoh believes they are, however, he notes there are problems. Ibhawoh asks “Whose truth? Whose forgiveness? Is the truth balanced?”

Ibhawoh said that critiques of truth commissions claim the success is predicate on the participation of all relevant partners. But in the case of South Africa, it was thought to be flawed by the fact that many relevant partners refused to partake in the hearings.

Ibhawoh also posed to question what kind of truth these commissions should be portraying: an objective historical truth based on cold facts and factual records, or a more watered down truth that makes everybody happy.

“In dealing with conflicts and wide spread human rights violations countries who have opted for the TRC model continue to grapple with the questions of historical truth,” said Ibhawoh. “They also continue to grapple with trying to balance justice for victims and reconciling victims with perpetrators.” Such as how the Rwandan TRC both put leading perpetrators to trial, while also pursuing traditional reconciliation processes as this retributive paradigm took place.

Bringing us back to the South African TRC, Ibhawoh talked about the unique power of this TRC to grant amnesty to perpetrators that confessed crimes truthfully to the commission. This was said to raise questions of whose justice had been dispensed, and resulted in some victims refusing to forgive perpetrators. Many had argued that this encouraged impunity and did not achieve any form of justice. But later on in his lecture, Ibhawoh noted that only approximately 800 of the over 5,000 applicants were granted amnesty from South Africa’s TRC.

What Ibhawoh argued was wrongly criticized, was Mandela’s appointing of a religious leader that knew very little of the law instead of the typical judicial body used in other TRCs around the world. This was both a strength and a weakness: it created very open, public hearings where people felt free from the technicalities of the judicial process, but then the South African TRC was labeled as a “kleenex commission.” Rather than holding up justice and accountability of human rights violations, some argued the commission had more to do with nation building and feeling good about oneself again.

“Although I acknowledge that the South African TRC had many limitations, I disagree with that notion, on the specific case of South Africa and argue that it has quite valued the human rights language of serving the greater good,” said Ibhawoh.

Since the South African TRC, there has been at least 32 TRCs established in over 20 countries across the world. Because the South African TRC brought such global attention to this form of justice, Ibhawoh believes it deserves a little bit more attention.

The South African TRC was created on the traditional African value system that believes humanity is interconnected; the notion that we are all in this together. Therefore, Ibhawoh argued, this TRC was not formed by any external influence that would push systems of nation building, but the reflection of an indigenous culture.

“My imagination of peace, and human rights is that there can be a happy middle where truth and reconciliation can serve the costs of human rights, and human rights can also serve the costs of reconciliation,” Ibhawoh suggested.

While Ibhawoh acknowledged detaching human rights from the legal foundations of its justice roots risks obscuring accountability and the promotion of rule of law, he sees a way of bridging these two. Ibhawoh argued for a pragmatic peacebuilding approach in which retributive justice and restorative justice work together.

Ibhawoh outlined the great possibilities that came from the creation of the International Criminal Court, which had the potential to balance the principles of human rights and pragmatics of peacebuilding but failed to do so. “For the first few years, it did a wonderful job. But as I speak to you today, the countries of the African union have discussed how African states will withdraw their support from the ICC.”

But Ibhawoh still has faith in an integrative approach, in which peacebuilders should be finding ways of peacebuilding that ultimately promote human right standards, and human rights workers need to realize conflict management skills to communicate effectively the relevance of human rights to the parties in conflict. By collaboratively infusing human rights advocacy with peacebuilding and conflict resolution work, Ibhawoh argued that human rights can function as a broad framework to carry out peace work.

However, Ibhawoh said, “let me make it clear that my argument is not that human rights principles and legal accountability of human rights should take a back seat to impose the national reconciliation of peacebuilding. That is not my argument here, and I feel a strong need to emphasize that.” Ibhawoh recognized that abandoning the traditional retributive justice model is not the way to go, but that TRCs have the ability to integrate both peacebuilding and human rights models.

Ibhawoh concluded in recognizing that sometimes achievement is best through retributive paradigms, and sometimes through restorative justice paradigms, but sometimes, the both work best together.