Wellesley Professor Explains Reggaeton’s Relationship to the African Diaspora in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic

A male performer sings on stage.
Photo provided by Omar Vega/LatinContent via Getty Images
July 17, 2019

In his 2012 music video for the song “Robin Hood,” the Afro-Puerto Rican reggaeton artist and actor Tego Calderón opens with a scene of a group of undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic who have come to Puerto Rico by boat. Once they are ashore, Calderón offers them directions and assistance.

Petra Rivera-Rideau, assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley, has written an essay about Calderon’s video narrative for which she won the Latin American Studies Association’s inaugural Blanca G. Silvestrini Award for outstanding article in Puerto Rican studies. In “‘If I Were You’: Tego Calderón’s Diasporic Interventions,” she focuses on how Calderón depicts the relationship between Puerto Ricans and Dominicans of African descent and highlights an overlooked connection between black people who live in those countries and are members of the African diaspora.

“There is absolutely anti-black racism in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” said Rivera-Rideau, author of Remixing Reggaeton: The Cultural Politics of Race in Puerto Rico, in an interview. “But it is a mistake to assume that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans do not identify with blackness. Many do, and it’s important to point out that the depictions of Puerto Rico as the ‘whitest of the Antilles’ comes from dominant ideology created by white or elite Puerto Ricans who wanted to align themselves with the powerful segments of the United States and Europe. To focus on these elites alone is to miss the mark on the ways that many Puerto Ricans and Dominicans see themselves as black and part of the larger African diaspora.”

Rivera-Rideau says Dominicans, the largest immigrant group in Puerto Rico, are often the target of xenophobic stereotypes that present them as criminal, lazy deviants. The two communities are also typically depicted as adversaries. But in his video, she wrote in the essay, Calderón presents “alternative ways of imagining the place of Afro-Latinos within the Spanish Caribbean and the African diaspora more broadly.”

Most contemporary theories of the African diaspora do not present a complete picture of the history of collaboration between black communities across the Spanish Caribbean, particularly in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, according to Rivera-Rideau. As a result, she said, the two countries “have often been left out of conceptualizations of the African diaspora despite the presence of substantial African-descended populations, histories of black resistance, and African-based cultural practices there.”

Rivera-Rideau wrote that segments of both countries “downplay or even erase any connection to blackness in their societies.” People in both countries tend to stress their ties to Spain and whitening through interracial marrying or “valorization of whiteness” as they practice anti-black racism. Puerto Rican society, in particular, “upholds Spanish heritage and culture while reducing African and indigenous cultures to stereotypical tropes presumed to have little influence.”

Rivera-Rideau notes that Calderón is one of several artists who use reggaeton to address racism and express pride in Puerto Rican blackness.

Photo: Tego Calderón (right) performs in Dallas, Texas, during his 2017 tour.