Puerto Rico’s Emancipation Day which is celebrated on March 22 each year, is notable for a few reasons. The first thing that comes to mind though is that it’s celebrated at all. Emancipation Day in Puerto Rico is the commemoration of the day in 1873 when slavery was abolished on the island which was at the time, still a colony of Spain. In Puerto Rico, Emancipation Day is a national holiday. In the United States, most people don’t even know when Emancipation Day is let alone what it’s celebrating.
U.S. Emancipation Day happens to be on April 16, the date in 1862 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, and it is only observed in Washington D.C., the nation’s capital. The closest we come to on the mainland to how Puerto Rico regards Emancipation Day is Juneteenth, which is celebrated within the Black community on June 19 and is the anniversary of the day Union soldiers descended on Galveston, Texas, and declared that they had won the war and slavery should be abolished, marking the last state to officially do so. Still while many more people are aware of Juneteenth than they once were, it’s still not observed as a national holiday the way Emancipation Day is in Puerto Rico.
So even though slavery was abolished over a decade later in Puerto Rico, the momentous decision has long been widely honored on the island by both citizens and the government. Even after Emancipation Day, the process of actually ending slavery was a long and challenging one in which former slaves were still committed to their owners for three years and those slave owners were actually compensated for losing their slaves. Many communities on the island recognize that struggle and choose to celebrate the slaves that many of us who are of Puerto Rican descent came from as well as the rebels, insurrectionists and revolutionaries that fought to end the brutal practice.
While race relations are far from perfect in Puerto Rico and racial disparities are just as striking as anywhere else, there’s something particularly poignant about the fact that the island that has legally been a commonwealth of the United States for nearly three quarters of a century, yet is still so often forgotten or even looked down upon by the American people and its government, has figured out how important it is to remember the history, struggles and contributions of Africans on its soil, while the world superpower can’t even seem to come close to that.
Some believe that this celebration of freedom in Puerto Rico is so meaningful because the island and its people haven’t actually ever been truly free since Columbus arrived in the fifteenth century, but one way or the other, its residents seem to generally understand that human beings should have equal rights and how important every step to get there has been.
In Puerto Rico members of the community teach and dance to Bomba and Plena, two musical styles with deep African roots, they cook festive meals, celebrate together, walk in parades, and otherwise honor Emancipation Day in a big way. And yet, here in the United States, we are still struggling each and every day to embrace and appreciate Black culture and uplift Black voices.
With the exception of music, African-American culture hasn’t been woven into the tapestry of American society, and the history is still often hidden and diminished. Black people in America simply haven’t historically been encouraged to explore and understand their African roots. We don’t deny that many Black Americans who’ve made contributions to science, the arts, etc. in the U.S. are honored for various reasons at various times, rather our point is actually that their African roots are largely ignored, rather than being celebrated and slavery continues to be a taboo topic of discussion in many circles, and perhaps that’s exactly why America can’t seem to make any headway when it comes to abolishing racism and embracing equal rights for people of all races.
Puerto Rico certainly doesn’t have all the answers, but acknowledging and even celebrating the successful fight to end slavery is undoubtedly an important step in the process of closing the gaps between individuals of different races.