Ponce, Puerto Rico’s Parque de la Abolición (Abolition Park), is known as the first park in the Caribbean to have had residents raise funds to commemorate the abolition of African slavery (Karen Juanita Carrillo photo)

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the abolition of African slavery in Puerto Rico.

On March 22, 1873, Spain’s parliament passed a law that ended slavery in Puerto Rico. That law ostensibly freed nearly 30,000 enslaved Africans on the island. But it was a freedom that was conditional: Those “free” Afro Puerto Ricans were obligated to continue working for their enslavers for at least three years as a way of compensating the enslavers for their future loss of labor. 

The island’s former enslavers were paid for their loss of “property”—most received financial payments and some, if they were the owners of more than 3 Black people, received land grants as reparations.

Néstor Murray-Irizarry, founder and executive director of the Casa Paoli of the Centro de Investigaciones Folklóricas de Puerto Rico (Center for Folkloric Research of Puerto Rico) in the city of Ponce, told the AmNews that because of the reality of how African slavery ended in Puerto Rico, it’s important not to solely observe the 150th anniversary of Emancipation Day/Day of the abolition of slavery. 

Emancipation Day is a public holiday in Puerto Rico. It’s traditionally celebrated across the island with festivities that include dancing to plena and bomba music, singing, and eating traditional Afro Puerto Rican cuisine. Casa Paoli has, since last year, brought together a group of artists, musicians, and researchers to reflect upon the significance of Emancipation Day and what the 1873 abolition of slavery really led to.

The Casa Paoli Commemorative Commission put together events and lectures about the 1873 abolition of slavery, many of which can still be viewed on the organization’s website (https://en.casapaolipr.com/sesquicentenario-abolicion).

“We’re commemorating the anniversary—but we’re not just celebrating the date. What we’re doing is reflecting, analyzing, and dialoguing about what happened in 1873,” Murray-Irizarry said. “We have invited specialists who study slavery and its effects.”

Murray-Irizarry said his organization’s commemoration of March 22, 1873, will last for more than one day. Casa Paoli plans on holding events throughout the year, until at least March 22, 2024.

The organization is doing this all while trying to rebuild. It is housed in the 19th-century birthplace of the tenor Antonio Paoli (1871–1946). Their building, which was restored in 1987, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009, but damages to the structure due to recent earthquakes in southern Puerto Rico have left it in a dire state. 

Casa Paoli has had to hold events virtually, but occasionally has still been able to conduct workshops on the building’s front terrace, such as teaching children about Puerto Rican instruments like the marímbula––a large percussive box with metal strips––and its origins in Africa. “People use the marímbula very often in this region—in musical groups, they use this quite frequently,” Murray-Irizarry said. “There are some people who say that the marímbula was developed in Puerto Rico and from here, it traveled to Cuba, Santo Domingo, Jamaica, and other places that use these types of African-based instruments.”

Teaching about Black history in southern Puerto Rico and its impact on today’s culture is what makes holidays like Emancipation Day important, Murray-Irizzary said. “For some people, it’s not a big deal, but for others of us, this is a very big deal, this day. There are many events around Emancipation Day, particularly in Ponce where we have Abolition Park. 

“Abolition Park was a site constructed to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico. In the 19th century, the people of Ponce made it a point to designate a plot of land very near to the historic heart of the city, and there they created a park with lots of trees and a stage, and people would come there to hear orchestras play music. People were able to use the park for birthdays and weddings: this was a well-known park in Ponce because it was practically in the middle of the city. And it featured a statue—a monument—that they made, dedicated to the abolition of slavery.”

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  1. Estimada Karen: Muchas gracias por la publicación de tu interesante artículo sobre los eventos que organizo la CASA PAOLI del CENTRO DE investigaciones Folclóricas de Puerto Rico ,INC. con motivo de la conmemoración de la Abolición de la Esclavitud en Puerto Rico . Nuestros eventos continuaran celebrándose durante todos los años. Hace muchos años que llevamos a cabo actividades relacionadas con la herencia africana en Puerto Rico. A pesar de no contar con presupuestos para realizar estos eventos seguiremos trabajando día a día por reeducar a nuestra gente y poco a poco contribuir a minimizar el racismo en Puerto Rico. Ya hemos publicados artículos y libros sobre la herencia africana. Nuestro compromiso no lo detiene nadie. Es un compromiso genuino y sin ningún interés económico. Este año publicaremos otros libros sobre el tema de la afro descendencia , los trovadores y la improvisación, y sobre la historia de la emigración corsa a Puerto Rico. Te mantenemos informada. Néstor Murray-Irizarry

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