“Where are we going, Baba?” asked Nia.
On our second day in Rincón, I drove into the heart of Mayagüez, one of Puerto Rico’s largest cities, which is located only ten miles away.
“Oh, I thought we’d go have a look at the Mayagüez Cathedral. It’s always nice to go look at the cathedral. Every old town in Puerto Rico has a lovely plaza, where on one end you’ll find the mayor’s house, and on the other end, the cathe—"
Truth be told, I had other reasons to go see this particular cathedral.
We drove into the congested city center and slotted our tiny Mitsubishi Mirage into an overstuffed paid parking lot. Then we walked up the hill in the warm morning, towards the spire.
I stood in the plaza, faced the cathedral, and closed my eyes. I didn’t need to go into the cathedral, not yet. I knew I would not get to see the baptismal font anyway. I knew the famous font had been bought by some local businessman and relocated to his house.
When I re-opened my eyes, it was 1865. It was a Sunday.
In my imagination, the baptismal font was placed out in front of the cathedral. The minister stood next to it. To the right huddled a group of men, led by a distinctive bearded gentleman who held a bag of money.
Then a wealthy-looking man, likely a local planter, approached the font accompanied by a family of his slaves. A female slave carried a baby in her arms.
Just before this mother brought her child forth to the baptismal font, the bearded gentleman stepped forward and gave her 25 pesos. She turned and handed the 25 pesos over to her owner.
The child was baptized a free person.
Ramón Emeterio Betances, also known as “Father of the Puerto Rican Nation” and “Father of the Poor,” was born in 1827 in the nearby town of Cabo Rojo.
Another good name for him would have been “Father of the Abolition.” And not just Puerto Rican abolition: Spanish
abolition as well.
Betances was anything but poor. Born to a prominent family, he was sent at age 10 to study in Toulouse, France. He went on to become a medical doctor, surgeon, poet, and prolific novelist, in addition to everything else.
Betances came from a family described as “mixed race,” although his father owned some slaves who toiled alongside his free workers. A significant event seems to have occurred in Betances’s psyche while he was away in Paris studying medicine in the late 1840s. This was when his father successfully sought to have the family reclassified to “white” in order to obtain further legal and property rights as well as to enable one of his daughters to marry a Caucasian.
This action seems to have disgusted Betances, who considered his family “not whitish but blackish.”
When Betances returned to Puerto Rico from France in 1856, one of his many social activities was to start a secret abolition society. Herein he helped to draft the “Ten Commandments of Free Men.” At this time, Puerto Rico had a population of approximately 600,000 people, of which about 50% were classified as “white,” 40% were mulattos and free blacks, and about 10% were slaves. This differed markedly from nearby Cuba, where one in three people were slaves (and where abolition came later and after much more of a struggle).
If you were a slave in a Spanish colony at this time, you had three ways by which you could become legally free:
*Step on a land of free Spain, i.e. a Spanish territory where slavery did not happen to exist;
*Be given your freedom by the free will of your owner;
*Pay your owner a specified amount of money to buy your freedom.
Earlier, in the 1840s, Betances had worked to get an article passed whereby a newborn was free if a sum of 25 pesos was paid at baptism. This price went up to 50 pesos, post-baptism.
In the years that followed, Betances and his colleagues stood, Sunday after Sunday, at the baptismal font at the Cathedral de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria in Mayagüez and waited for slaveowners to approach with newborns. In this manner they freed, one at a time, maybe more than a thousand people.
This “freedom” was rough, however. Free blacks at the time were subjected to massive discrimination in Puerto Rican society. (And they still are, as evidenced by our own personal experiences. But those are different stories.)
Betances did not have his sights set on abolishing slavery only in Puerto Rico. In 1865, one of his closest associates (Julio Coronado Vizcarrondo) moved to Madrid, where he helped establish the Spanish Abolition Society as well as an influential newspaper. He worked for the passage of the Moret Law in Spain in 1870, also known as the “Law of the Fee Belly,” a statute that granted freedom to newborn children of slaves as well as to any slave child born after 1868.
And on March 22, 1973, Spain abolished slavery in Puerto Rico. Actual liberation was not immediate nor without serious opposition and struggle, but March 22 is celebrated to this day as Abolition Day in Puerto Rico. When we lived here, my wife and I always had to keep this in mind and plan our work schedules around it, because it is a territorial holiday and our son did not have school on this day.
Abolition in the rest of the Spanish colonies proceeded, of course, with varying degrees of struggle and delay. Cuba in particular was a fight. Slavery there of more than 400,000 people continued until 1880.
Ramón Emeterio Betances was said to have been very happy when slavery was abolished in the Spanish colonies, and proud of the direct role Puerto Ricans played in the political process that achieved it.
Betances went on to spend his final 26 years continuing to fight, mostly from exile in France, for an independent Nation of Puerto Rico.
Naturally he was vehemently opposed to the USA’s annexation of Puerto Rico, which was clearly imminent in the days following the sinking if the USS Maine
This event occurred only days before Betances died. From his death bed, he was quoted as saying:
"No quiero colonia, ni con España, ni con los Estados Unidos. ¿Y que les pasa a los puertorriqueños, que no se rebelan?"
“I don’t want a colony, not with Spain nor with the United States. And what is the matter with Puerto Ricans, that they don’t rebel?”
Betances died in France on September 16, 1898. He was almost in poverty. His remains were not repatriated to Puerto Rico for 22 more years.
But he is
A massive crowd assembled in San Juan in 1920, when Betances’s remains finally arrived.
It took two days for his caravan to make the trip back to Cabo Rojo.
Who Will Pick the Coffee?
For all you readers out there who are 114 years old, you will remember when Puerto Rican coffee was hailed throughout Europe as the world’s finest.
(past tense emphasized) one of Puerto Rico’s top exports, right up there with sugar and tobacco. It all started when some beans were brought from Martinique in 1736, and it really took off when some Corsican immigrants settled in west-central Puerto Rico in the 1800s and made coffee their main thing. By the late 1800s, this island was the world’s 6th leading coffee producer.
But the industry has had a rough go over many decades, as tends to happen. Hurricanes and competition have traditionally been the primary obstacles chronically forcing people to seek other means of economic survival.
I can assure you, though, that the Arabica beans grown in the high shady mountains of Puerto Rico’s Cordillera Central are still utterly exquisite. And I know my coffee. I am a person from Seattle.
Puerto Rico’s coffee industry suffered a particularly sharp decline during this past decade. One of the causes was a serious erosion in reputation, promulgated by unscrupulous behavior by the island’s three biggest roasters.
I detected this situation back when I lived here, but I was not sure exactly what was going on. Back then my favorite bag of coffee to buy in the grocery store was one put out by a little company called Café d’Aquí (“Coffee of Here”). It was one of the cheapest bags of coffee available, but damn was it GOOD – when you got a good bag, that is (which was most of the time). However I did notice that my Café d’Aqui could be inconsistent. Occasionally I got a bad bag.
Here’s the deal: Puerto Rico now consumes about 300,000 quintals of coffee per year, but only grows about 80,000 quintals. Thus, the island must import coffee. The island’s three biggest roasters (Yaucono, Café Rico, and Café Cream) control 80% of the coffee available here. And in past decades their bags have been graced with the words “Puerto Rican Coffee” printed on the outside.
As you can see, the numbers hardly add up. Most of that “Puerto Rican Coffee” was not grown in Puerto Rico. Much of it was far lower grade robusto beans, imported from somewhere else. There have been some publicized seizures of illegal imports in recent years, confiscated while en route to big roasters, and this has brought the issue to the public eye. It has also helped to instigate a revival of the Puerto Rican Arabica to its rightful place as a boutique product, up there with Jamaica's Blue Mountain coffee.
The new Governor of Puerto Rico is on board with the revival. An October 2013 article in The Jamaican Observer
reports of the Puerto Rican government's plans to generate 6,000 new coffee jobs and cultivate an additional 16,000 acres during the next two years. To accomplish this, the government plans to recruit workers and award $4.2 million dollars in fertilizer incentives. Another $670,000 will be made available to growers and brokers under a subsidy program intended to stabilize the local market and spur production. Agreements had already been signed with 25 nurseries.
Sound good? Does to me!
But here’s a more somber note:
Puerto Rico’s 2013 coffee crop was the smallest in modern history. Only about 40,000 kilograms were collected.
Today many high central farms sit abandoned. Only about 4,000 coffee farmers remain, compared to more than 11,000 just a decade ago. Prior to the recent government incentives, getting seeds had been a big problem, along with the skyrocketing price of fertilizer and the emergence of insects.
But those aren't the biggest problems.
The biggest problem, now, is that no one wants to pick the coffee. Each year the island loses as much as 35% of the crop because no one picks it.
In an attempt address this gap, the new government has renewed an executive order issued by the previous administration: You can go and pick coffee and not be penalized. You can still collect your welfare check, in addition.
Seasoned pickers earn about $50 per day; that’s at $5 to $7 per 28-pound bag, plus another $2 per bag in state and municipal government subsidies.