Abolition of slavery day has special meaning for this descendant of slaves
By John McPhaul
Ivelisse Pabón de Landrón celebrated Tuesday, March 22, which marked the abolition of slavery by the Spanish Empire in 1873, by writing the names of her ancestors who were slaves on scraps of paper, attaching the pieces of paper to balloons and letting them fly over a lake near her home in Ashland, Massachusetts.
Pabón de Landrón, whose parents are Puerto Rican, knows the names of her slave ancestors thanks to a search that has taken her to many parts of Puerto Rico over the course of more than 20 years.
“Nearly 22 years ago, I became interested in knowing my family heritage. I always wondered where did my family originate, being that my mother was a white Puerto Rican and my father was Black,” said Pabón de Landrón, 69. “There were many challenges along the way. I traveled to many sites throughout the island where my ancestors had dwelt and did extensive oral interviews.”
Pabón de Landrón has tried to do her part to keep the legacy of her forebears alive by making traditional Black dolls, for which, when she lived in Puerto Rico, she held a vendor’s license from the Tourism Co.
Her stay in Puerto Rico, from 2000 to 2008, put her in touch with other older Black doll makers who taught her the finer points of the craft.
After leaving Puerto Rico she was accredited by the Massachusetts Cultural Council under the Traditional Arts Program as a master artisan and continues the folkloric tradition of crafting Black dolls, contributing to the culture of Puerto Rico.
The retired fashion designer also offers cultural workshops in doll-making and other Afro-Caribbean traditions such as dance through her company, Soy Negro Productions.
Pabón de Landrón was able to trace her ancestry through old documents in the Archivo General de Puerto Rico in the National Library, an archive documenting the history and culture of the island.
“In addition, I searched church records, newspapers, town registries and the census of Puerto Rico,” Pabón de Landrón said.
What she found was that a mother and daughter were taken out of Africa as slaves and sold in Toa Baja in 1834.
“Teresa was purchased when she was eight years old and worked until she was freed during the Spanish abolition of slavery on March 22, 1873,” Pabón de Landrón said. “She was 42 years old and lived until she was 80.”
Teresa, Pabón de Landrón’s great-great-great-grandmother, was apparently separated from her mother.
“I have not found her mother or any documentation, like a slave registry, or death or baptism records. She is only mentioned on her daughter’s death certificate as being her natural mother, proving they came together on the slave ship,” she said. “All of Teresa’s children were born into slavery until they were freed as young adults in 1873.”
Pabón de Landrón said she learned many interesting -- and painful -- facts about the practice of slavery in Puerto Rico.
“African slaves were held in warehouses, jails, etc. in Old San Juan until they were sold,” she said. “There was also a place in Puerta de Santiago, aka Puerta de Tierra, where slaves were sold.”
Documents show that a jail built on the lawn of El Morro was used to house slaves until they were purchased.
“Also in Palo Seco there was a warehouse where African slaves were branded,” she said.
Pabón de Landrón was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, also known as Loisaida, to the noted community activist Carmen Pabón, known as the Madrina (Godmother) de Loisaida.
She adopted the name Landrón, her grandparents’ surname, to more closely identify with her Afro-Caribbean past.
“My mission all these years as an artist and traditional Black doll maker has been to honor the memory and legacies of those who were enslaved and the contributions they made to the culture in Puerto Rico,” Pabón de Landrón said. “So March 22 … is a celebration of life and an appreciation for their contribution, although painful.”