By Wanda Benvenutti
Race in the United States has never been a black and white issue because the U.S. has never been just a black and white nation. There are many Americas. The shared history of Puerto Rico and the United States reflects this fluidity of ethnicity and race in the 21st century.
The island of Puerto Rico is located 1,090 miles Southeast of Key West, Florida and is approximately the size of the state of Connecticut. When Puerto Rico was officially ceded to the U.S. at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, so were the Philippines. As a Filipino-Puerto Rican, race and culture in America are two things Ray Cabatit now thinks about. “I knew I was Asian, I knew that for a fact, but I didn’t know how much Spanish I had in me.”
Puerto Ricans: The Future of Culture in America
For the first time in the history there are more people of Puerto Rican descent living in the mainland United States (4.7 million) than on the island of Puerto Rico (3.4 million). Yet Puerto Rican people and their culture have never fit into the rigid perceptions of race in North America; history shows us exactly why.
The island was inhabited by the indigenous population of Taino people as ships from Europe arrived with slaves from Africa. It is no surprise that multi-racial families are part of everyday life in Puerto Rican culture. Spain’s loss of its last colonial outpost in the New World had deeper consequences than the mere transfer of land. It jump-started a complex history that defies traditional notions of race and nationalism.
After Ray’s wife traced her family tree back to 1610, she grew curious about his Filipino side and insisted he have his DNA analyzed. His genetic makeup was not something Ray had thought about.
Then the test results arrived.
He was happily surprised. “When it said South European, that’s Spain, Portugal, Italy. That makes sense, with my Mom [being] Spanish. And it said West African, okay, that makes sense. South America and Africa, I’m thinking the slave trade. I’m 51% Asian, 34% South European, 6% West African, 6% Latin American, and there’s another certain percentage 4-5% that’s quite . . . it’s not ‘known.’ They don’t know what it is exactly. It just said ‘unknown.’ I don’t know what unknown means . . . there’s a little mystery there,” Ray said grinning. “That is cool. I’m excited.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, he helped his Mother Josephina cook dinner in her Kent, Washington apartment. She smiled at the mention of what she passionately described as “My island.” She is an 86-year-old widow from Gurabo, Puerto Rico. Ray’s late Father, Ramundo Cabatit, was a dapper WWII Air Force veteran from San Marcelino, Philippines. Ramundo arrived in San Francisco, California as a 17-year-old.
New World Citizens
Both Puerto Rico and the Philippines were ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1898. For 30 years the Philippines remained a U.S. territory, becoming independent in 1946. Six years later, Josefina met Ramundo in the Yakima Valley.
Josefina’s love of Washington State was instant. The friendly people and pristine rural countryside of the Yakima Valley reminded her of Puerto Rico. Not even her sister, who flew out to visit her, could convince her to move back where they had first settled: Bridgeport, Connecticut. Josefina would not be moved, declaring, “Winter never ends in Connecticut!” Her sister flew back without her, and she married Ramundo in Wapato, Washington in 1952.
Ramundo experienced institutionalized racism firsthand after the end of WWII in California. Ray remembered what it was like for his father. “The reason he left was they had legalized discrimination here for Asians. So it didn’t matter if you were an attorney or a doctor, you were never going to get a job. There was no way you were going to have that job.” After seeing a biochemist and an attorney cousin each barred from their professions in 1945, Ramundo decided to start his family in the farming community of Wapato for a better life.
There were several practical reasons he raised his Filipino-Puerto Rican family there including a surprising lack of racial animosity during an otherwise very racist era. “He noticed in Wapato, in the Yakima Valley, there wasn’t that hatred because there were Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans,” Ray said. “There was a very nice mix, so we settled in the Yakima Valley because we felt safe there.”
Ray and his brother visited Puerto Rico for the first time as adults in 2012. The trip felt both familiar and entirely new: he saw himself in family members that are black. He said he truly feels like a citizen of the world.
“I think it’s really interesting that I am made up of parts from all over the world. Talk about immigration! Seriously,” Ray said. “My daughter, she has a Pacific Islander look, but when we were in Puerto Rico, she looked Puerto Rican! People would see her and assume she was Puerto Rican and start talking Spanish to her. And so what does Asian look like? I guess for me it’s really obvious, the cheekbones, just the general features: Asian. When I saw my cousins in Puerto Rico: Black. But when I noticed Asian features I thought, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. I shouldn’t be surprised!’”
To hear Ray Cabatit describe his father Ramundo’s migration from San Marcelino,
the Philippines, through San Francisco, California, to the Yakima Valley
of Washington State, visit www.americanboricua.com/2013/05/american-boricua-is-under-my-skin-at-the-wing-luke-museum/.
About the Author: Wanda Benvenutti is a Seattle-based photojournalist who has been recognized by the National Press Photographers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. In 2008 she was named a Seattle City Artist. The current focus of her work, American Boricua, is a modern visual history of Puerto Rican culture throughout all 50 U.S. states. Learn more at www.americanboricua.com.