Por José M. Vadi
“El negro por justa ley, y por su mala conducta, debe de estar con una tusa limpiandole el
culo al buey.”
(“Black people, by just laws and by their bad conduct, should be with a corn husk wiping a bull’s ass,” Saying of my white maternal great-grandfather)
“The truth shall set you free” (James Fennimore Cooper)
Societies and individuals depend on sustaining myths that maintain them in some semblance of order or wholeness. Puerto Rican society is riven by sustaining racial myths such as the myth of the comparative low severity of Puerto Rican slavery, the color-blindness of Puerto Rican society, and of a Puerto Rican identity based on a brotherhood that transcends race. These sustaining myths operate also at a familial level and at the level of individual consciousness but, on the whole, they serve to paper over the legacy of slavery and of its effects on current Puerto Rican society. While the North American society is troubled by its racial past and acknowledges and condemns it, Puerto Rico seems to have adopted a form of historical amnesia of its history of slavery and its continuing effects on Puerto Rican social structure where it is still most advantageous to be “white.” Family histories and individual identities are encapsulated in convenient myths that achieve a similar result at the familial and individual level.
What follows is an account of two myths in my family that illustrate this dynamic. First, I will describe the myths. Then I will uncover the truth as I have been able to arrive at it from historical documents. I will conclude by tracing the implications of these truths for my own identity, for my children, and for my family name.
As a child, I heard the story of a Frenchman named Vadi who had come to Puerto Rico with a black or mulatto wife. He had children from her and they and the older Vadi would relegate the black woman to the back of the house when they conducted business. The offspring of that union between a black woman and the French Vadi were the “colored” Vadi’s. There was no mention of slavery or of the possibility of slavery, thus preserving the myth of an alleged racial harmony that resulted in a café au lait society with relative absence of racial conflict. Dr. Emilio Vadi Collazo, a physician in New York, would call my father and me “primo (cousin).” This contributed to cementing this myth because, superficially, he did not appear to have any African ancestry. As I matured, I wanted to find out who was the black woman who was the mother of all of these Vadi’s “of color.” Over time, I gave up the search for this black woman thinking that no such person ever existed. I began to question whether there was any “blood “relation at all between the Vadi’s who were white and the Vadi’s of color. In time, I would know that all of the people with the Vadi surname from Puerto Rico had African ancestry, even though many of them looked white. Perhaps it was the fact that we all had some African ancestry that led Dr. Emilio Vadi Collazo to call us primo, even if other “white-looking” Vadi’s refused to acknowledge such a link amongst all of the Vadi’s from Puerto Rico.
In reading an essay by Dr. Haydee Cancio de Reichard about the Central Coloso, a sugar mill in Aguada founded by Emilio Vadi Benelli, I came upon a passage that mentioned that Angel Luis Santoni, the second largest slave owner in Aguada, had fathered a daughter from a fifteen year old slave named Enriqueta. The child was named Rosario and she was recognized by Santoni as his daughter. Emilio Vadi Benelli, who was overseer overseer (mayordomo) for Angel Santoni and would later found the Central Coloso, had a common-law marriage with the daughter of Santoni and his slave Enriqueta (ie. Rosario). But none of the offspring of that marriage was recognizably black or married to a black person. Dr. Luis Vadi Benelli, founder of what later became the Clinica Perea in Mayaguez and brother of Emilio, had one male child out of wedlock but this child returned to France and adopted another surname. In short, there were only two possible explanations for the Vadi’s of color in Puerto Rico. Either there had been no Vadi’s “of color” that were offspring of the two Corsican immigrants , Emilio and Luis Vadi Benelli, or their African origins via their mother were obscured by the common process of whitening that is frequent in Puerto Rico. I then concluded that the Vadi’s of color had most likely appropriated that name. This meant that the origins of the Vadi’s “of color” were in slavery. Then who was the slave that took the Vadi name?
In finding my slave descendant, I worked backward beginning with my grandfather, Mariano Vadi Ayala. His death certificate lists his father, my great-grand-father as “Balle Vadi.” The 1872 Puerto Rican Slave Registry (Registro de Esclavos) has no Balle Vadi. But a master’s thesis written by Norma Medina Carrillo (using notary archives of the 1850’s) mentions two slaves with names similar to Balle. These were slaves of Angel Santoni and their overseer was Emilio Vadi Benelli. These slaves were named Antonio Valle and Santiago Valle. Given the common misspelling of names of slaves, it is highly possible that one of these slaves is listed as Balle and later took the name Vadi after emancipation in 1873. Another possibility is that Balle was the nickname of one Jose Maria Vadi (according to notes of a conversation with my father in 1977). I have found only one mention of Jose Maria Vadi and that was in a military service registration document of 1917. I had no evidence that Jose Maria Vadi was a slave or that he was in fact “Balle.”
Later on, I found an entry for Jose Maria Vade (sic) in the U.S. Census of 1910. With the help of Anna Feliciano, a maternal relative that I met on Ancetry.com, I was able to locate the 1917 Death Certificate for José Maria Vadi and this certificate proved, decisively, that he was my great grandfather. In that document, his son, Mariano Vadi (my grandfather), is listed as the declarant and identified as his son. Thus Jose Maria Vadi was, clearly, Balle and I had found Balle. Balle was sixty at the time of this death in 1917 and thus was born in 1857. He was sixteen years old when the slaves were freed and nineteen years old in 1876 when they were required to select a surname that would be carried by all of their descendants.
The 1910 Census lists a ninety year old man, Juan Antonio Vadi Muñoz as a lodger (alojado) in the household of José Maria Vadi. That was Balle’s father and he was born circa 1820. The document also states that Juan Antonio’s parents were born in Africa. It was Juan Antonio who most likely took the surname Vadi, given the fact that that his son, Jose Maria, was nineteen and thus not of adult age. From the Certificate of Death of Jose Maria Vadi (Balle), I learned that his mother was named Francisca Acevedo.
The search for Balle was difficult in light of the fact that the Registro de Esclavos or Slave Registry of 1872 omits district #3 that encompassed Aguada.[ii] No Balle Vadi appears in the U.S. Census but persons with the same surname as my grandfather (Mariano Vadi Ayala) appear in the 1910 Census and in World War I registration documents. These were Epifanio Vadi Ayala, Leon Vadi Ayala, and Pedro Vadi Ayala. Like my grandfather, these men were all machinists in sugar mills. The oldest of these men, Epifanio, was born in 1873, the same year that slaves were emancipated in Puerto Rico. This means that their father, Balle, was of adult age, in 1873. By logical deduction, it was Balle’s father, Juan Antonio, who took the name “Vadi” as his surname in 1876 when the former slaves were required to adopt a surname with the understanding that the surname adopted would be the ones inherited by their descendants forever after. Since Balle was not the son of Rosario Vadi Santoni, his father took the name Vadi and hence the origins of my surname. I have no blood connection either to the Vadi or to the Santoni family.
After making this discovery, I decided to examine the maternal side of my father’s ancestry. My father’s maternal surname was “Pardo” and the evidence of slave lineage through that side of my family is even more direct than was the case with his paternal or Vadi side. As with the Vadi’s, there was a “descent myth” with the Pardo’s as well. The myth was that my father’s grandmother, Matilde Pardo, also had the surname Belflan or Belfian. One Belflan or Belfian had fathered her and then left to fight in the Franco Prussian War and never returned from the war. In the 1910 U.S. Census, Matilde Pardo appears as Matilde Pardo Belfland and in the 1920 U.S. Census she is listed as “white.” I have found no evidence of this person named Belfland but I have found evidence that Matilde Pardo and her husband, Reyes Pardo, had been slaves in childhood.
My father had told me that Matilde Pardo’s mother was named Maria Constancia. The Registro de Esclavos (slave registry) for 1872 shows a Maria Esperanza who was the slave of “Pardog (sic) and Pardo.” The record also shows that a slave named Maria had given birth to a child in 1868 while still a slave of Pardog and Pardo. 1868 was the year Matilde Pardo was born. Moreover, this birth had occurred in San German Puerto Rico. Matilde Pardo always claimed she was from Lajas, Puerto Rico but Lajas was part of San German until the 1880’s when it became a separate municipality. So her mother’s name, date of birth, location, and slave owner’s name all coincide in the likelihood that the child born to the slave Maria in 1868 was Matilde Pardo, my great-grand-mother.
Matilde Pardo’s spouse was named Reyes. I conducted a search in the Registry of Slaves for 1872 for all slaves named Reyes. About six or seven slaves with such names appeared but only one of them was enslaved by “Pardog and Pardo.” The register lists a slave named Reyes who was 18 years old in 1872 and who “belonged” to “Pardog and Pardo” in San German, Puerto Rico. It is extremely likely that at emancipation, the slave Reyes took the name of his slave master (Pardo) to become Reyes Pardo, my great-grandfather. The registry also lists his parents as “Juan Chiquito” and “Catalina.” Juan Chiquito and Catalina were slaves on the Hacienda Resolución and they were my great great grandparents. Again, in the case of Reyes “Pardo,” the dates, location, first name, and slave owner name all point to the inextricable conclusion that Reyes Pardo was in fact my paternal great-grandfather.
Reyes Pardo was the husband of Matilde Pardo and he was 14 years older than Matilde. It was not unusual for girls to marry older men at that time. The documents also reveal that Matilde had children by the time she was 15 years old. A 1917 passport application with a picture of her son, Jose Pardo (born in 1883) provides this evidence. Jose Pardo was my father’s beloved “Tio Pepe” of whom I heard countless stories during my childhood. Another passport application with photo dated 1917 exists showing another of her sons, Reyes Pardo (junior not senior, born 1894). I got to know this Reyes Pardo in New York as my father’s uncle, brother of my father’s mother, Juana Maria Pardo. Altogether Matilde Pardo had 13 children, among them being my paternal grandmother, Juana Maria Pardo.
The claim by Matilde Pardo that her paternal name was Belflan is, most likely, a “whitening myth.” In the 1910 census, all of her children appear as “Pardo y Pardo,” indicating that both their maternal and paternal names were names of a common slave master. Had Belflan been their grandfather, their surnames would be Pardo Belflan and this is not the case in the 1910 Census where her children are listed as “Pardo y Pardo.” In the 1920 Census, Matilde Pardo is listed as “white.” All of this suggests efforts at “blanqueamiento” or whitening.
Researching further, I found that the slave-owning Pardo’s had come to Puerto Rico from Holland with the arrival of one Manuel Pardo around 1830 (via St. Thomas). The source states that he had one or two slaves.[iii] As part of the overall sugar boom of the period after 1800, Pardo expanded his slaveholdings to some 69 slaves and, at one time, sought to import 100 more slaves. Pardo was located in Mayaguez, where he had a small number of slaves, but most of the slaves were employed at his estate, Hacienda Resolución in San German. He was heavily indebted and lost 22 slaves in the morbid cholera epidemic of 1856. Nonetheless, he was able to meet his debt obligations and did not go bankrupt.[iv] This attests to the high rate of labor exploitation on his estate. It is most likely that his son, Antonio Pardo, was the slave owner of my ancestor Reyes Pardo, who was 18 at the time the Slave Registry was compiled in 1872.
I paid a visit to the Hacienda Resolución in Lajas Puerto Rico on Father’s Day of 2012. It is located in a flat and expansive valley now dedicated to cattle raising and to the production of hay for stock feed. The entire hacienda is fenced-in and there is a large gate with an entry road that is almost a quarter of a mile deep. As I stood at that gate and peered through the fence at the land where my forefathers had toiled in slavery, I could feel the goose bumps all over my body. There is a foreboding isolation to the place even though a well-travelled paved road runs right past it. It must have been very desolate one hundred years ago. Even though it was a rainy day, I could sense how miserable those slaves had to be. The land is table flat and there are no trees on the hacienda proper. I could imagine how my forefathers toiled in the hot sun, without shade, to build the fortunes of the slave masters that stole their labor and thus their dignity as human beings. The level of labor extracted had to be enormous in order to pay off the massive debts of the Pardo slave masters. I had my picture taken at the gate of the hacienda and left it with profound sadness. This sadness was made even more acute when we tripped upon a roadside open bar with live musicians playing to a dancing public in celebration of Father’s Day.
Thus my ancestors were enslaved by foreign immigrants to Puerto Rico, some from Corsica (Emilio Vadi and Angel Luis Santoni) and the others from Holland (the Pardo family). These immigrants found opportunities in Puerto Rico to make their fortunes in ways that were forbidden in most of Europe: via chattel slavery. Emilio Vadi was a conundrum in that he was a Free Mason and a man of progressive views who defied the social conventions of his era to live with the daughter of a slave and to recognize his offspring from that woman as legitimate. He would make fun of the pretenses and the social opprobrium of the “Blanquitos” or white well-to-do sectors in Aguada, where he resided.[v] Nonetheless, his ambition for economic advancement and economic gain overcame whatever progressive inclinations or scruples he might have had. He chose the most readily available avenue to wealth in the Puerto Rico of that time, serving first as an overseer to one of the largest slave owners in Aguada and then becoming a slave owner upon purchasing the slave owner’s estate.
Knowing the truth that my father was a descendant of slaves on both sides of his family has led me to what I can only describe as a convulsion of identity and an even more critical awareness on my part regarding how Puerto Rican culture deals with the whole gamut of racial issues. I came to understand, in my gut, the meaning of “nobody knows my name” because I was now left to wonder “What is my true name?” I have the surname Vadi not because I am Vadi through any genetic connection but because of a decision or choice made by one of my ancestors, who had been enslaved, to adopt that name. My initial reaction was to reject the name. But that would be a betrayal of my father and grandfather who went by that name. Moreover, my enslaved ancestors paid a very heavy price to have a surname. There is a delicious irony and justice in their appropriating the very name of the person who stole their labor, their dignity, and their honor. And there is an even greater sense of “getting even” in taking a name debased in its association with slavery and slave ownership and raising it from its debasement through my own achievements and those of my parents and my children (one a medical doctor and the other a playwright and writer). No, I will not hang my head down. I will not define myself by a surname but by what I have achieved in life and by the content of my character. And that is what I expect from my children and their descendants as well.
I know that I am here because somehow, the slaves Juan Chiquito, Catalina, Reyes, Matilde, Juan Antonio, Francisca, and Balle survived; because they were strong and because they endured. I have the sense of being a successful warrior who overcame many obstacles in my life. From my birth in the slum of Barrio Buenos Aires in Parada 26 in Santurce, to my upbringing in East Harlem’s slum of “El Barrio,” to a college degree from the City College of New York and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin at Madison—all of this is somehow linked to the moral fiber and to the fortitude of my slave ancestors. This in turn has led me to question the ways in which Puerto Rican culture deals or fails to deal with slavery and the legacy of slavery that persists in Puerto Rico.
At its root, Puerto Rican culture manifests amnesia regarding slavery and its lingering legacy. First, there is the myth of Puerto Rico as a racial democracy where there is no awareness of race, racism, or exclusion based on race. Related to this myth, is the view that Puerto Ricans are a blend of Spanish, Taino Indian, and African ancestry. But this mélange is almost invariably related to diminishing the African roots of Puerto Rican identity. The use of euphemisms such as the term “trigueño” (or wheat colored) “elevates” a person to the status of this mélange and moves them away from their Africaness. The national iconic identity is that of the while hillbilly or jibaro and not of the trigueño mélange.[vi] The iconic high culture is Hispanic and lends little or no weight to the African roots of a large part of the Puerto Rican population.
Besides these super structural aspects of Puerto Rican identity, the structural reality is that there is an absence of gente negra in the important economic, political, and social echelons of Puerto Rican society. As in the United States, the gente negra are represented in sports and in the world of spectacle (entertainment). A cursory view of the “society” pages of newspapers reveals and absence of dark skinned Puerto Ricans. Here, the pattern is similar to the United States. In fact, even in the world of entertainment, it was not until the 1960’s that the black musical ensemble Cortijo y Su Combo broke through the color barrier that excluded black Puerto Rican performers from the more prestigious performing venues in the capitol of San Juan.
What is remarkable, in light of this situation, is the degree to which Puerto Ricans either are oblivious to this situation or pretend to be because it shatters the ingrained belief of Puerto Rico as a racial democracy. This belief did not evolve without design. Maria Margarita Flores Collazo shows that the Puerto Rican elite of the immediate post-abolition period set out to construct such an ideology fearing the examples of Haiti and Cuba.[vii] An examination of the documents of that period (circa 1870’s) provides numerous examples of public officials and cultural leaders stressing the degree of thankfulness of the now “emancipated” slaves to their former masters for their new-found freedom.[viii] They remarked frequently on the peaceful manner in which the former slaves were conducting themselves and moving from the status of slaves to citizens.
Even progressive intellectuals imbibe this myth of Puerto Rico as a racial democracy despite the structural facts that do not support it. I was once on a boat on a tour of San Juan bay when I remarked to one of the leading progressive intellectuals in the island that I was the darkest person on the boat. A group of mostly middle class Puerto Ricans had chartered the boat for a bit of drinking and socializing. But there were no dark-skinned persons in this network of people and I (a mulato) was the darkest person there. My intellectual friend remarked, “Es que ellos se marginan (they marginalize themselves).” Even if one were to accept this at face value, simple curiosity leads to the question “Why?” Why would darker skinned people marginalize themselves? In fact, do they? What does this show about Puerto Rican “racial democracy?” In short, if this is the reaction of one of the island’s leading progressive intellectuals, one is left to wonder what would be the reaction of the non-progressive and non-intellectual sectors of Puerto Rican society. In fact, these sectors either don’t recognize there is a problem or hide behind an obscurantist transcendent Puerto Rican ideology that race does not matter to Puerto Ricans because we are a mélange of…..blah, blah, blah.
My perception of Puerto Rico has also been challenged by knowledge of my ancestral paternal roots in slavery. Puerto Rico no longer seems to be “la isla del encanto” or the charmed island. It rather resembles Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. As an activist in the U.S, civil rights movement of the 1960’s, I have had repulsion to the states of the American South. I have passed up opportunities to visit them because of my knowledge of their histories and what occurred there in the 1960’s in places such as Philadelphia, Mississippi and Selma, Alabama. In short, the idealized version of Puerto Rico as the land of the jibaro and beautiful palmed vistas has been complemented by an image of Puerto Rico as the land of slave masters and slaves, the componte, the argolla, the whip, the jackboot and the nightstick. The Hispanicist dream of the idyllic land of enchantment has been eviscerated by the nightmare of slavery and its legacy that underlies that dream. That was my initial reaction, a reaction that changed on deeper reflection.
I can no more renounce Puerto Rico than I can renounce my name. I can renounce the idyllic image, the cultural amnesia regarding slavery and its legacy, and the image of Puerto Rico as a racial democracy. But the reality “is what it is.” And rather than be rendered impotent by that reality and becoming a person in double exile—without a name and without a nation—I have to accept the reality and to commit myself to changing it. This is the only way to render homage to Juan, Margurite, Juan Chiquito, Catalina, Reyes, Matilde, Juan Antonio, Francsica and Balle—to my slave ancestors who survived –and who, through me, can find a voice to change the legacy of their servitude that still persists underneath a vestment of racial democracy that covers an essential part: a legacy of slavery.
In my mind, there is no doubt that the effects of slavery linger for generations. Part of the Puerto Rican view of the island as a racial democracy is to view slavery as something that occurred in the past and that has been transcended by a non-racial, criollo society and identity. That this view is in error is evident within my own family. Knowing the history of slavery in my family has shed light on the personal characteristics of members of my family that I could not explain. I offer these views more as hypotheses than as proofs because we do not know enough about all of the elements that make a person.
I got to know four of the children of Matilde Pardo, three women and one man. They were all introverted and hardly spoke unless spoken to. One of them lived for decades in a tenement in New York without ever leaving the apartment. She was not ill but she was totally housebound, sullen, and hardly spoke. Her two sisters shared all of these characteristics. One of them lived in Aguada, Puerto Rico and the other lived in New York. The New York resident married a Spaniard and had an only son. As a widow, she made a humble living working in a laundry while raising her only child. He grew up to become a heroin addict as was another son one of Matilde Pardo’s daughters.
The one male son of Matilde Pardo that I knew was Reyes Pardo (the same name as my enslaved great grandfather). He was tall and had a grave and sullen aspect to his personality. I never saw him laugh. He was my father’s great uncle and was highly respected as the patriarch of the family and for his grave and serious character.
In hindsight, there was no joy in living, spontaneity, or liveliness in the Pardo’s that I knew. There was inwardness to their personalities as if they were carrying a heavy internal burden. They carried themselves as if life was an endurance test—something borne rather than cherished. My father and his brother also went through life in this way. How much of this the legacy of slavery is, I do not know. But it requires little stretch of the imagination to see how these would be personality attributes of one who was or had been enslaved. And these attributes could be handed down in the way that their children modeled their behavior after them and in the attitudes and world views inculcated in them by people who had known slavery. Maybe this is the ultimate meaning of “es que ellos mismos se marginan”: to blame the victims of slavery for their “self-exclusion” in a way that overlooks this marginalization as an understandable response to their knowing that in the broader society, to be non-white is to be inferior, undesirable, and even dangerous; a rational response to their knowing that underlying Puerto Rico’s self-conception as a racial democracy and its use of the diminutive negrito and negrita as terms of endearment, is a racism of such subtlety as to constitute a racismo con cariño.
[vi]See Mariluz Franco Ortiz, et al, “Las lecciones de la esclavitud; Discursos de esclavitud, mestizaje, y blancamiento en una escuela elemental de Puerto Rico,” Cuadernos de Investigación, Universidad de Puerto Rico en Cayey, Cuaderno 15, Año 2010.