Puerto Rico is generally considered home to many enslaved Africans following the transporting of thousands of slaves to the Caribbean Island in the 17th century. Those who escaped and wanted protection crossed into Puerto Rico and pledged their allegiance to the Spanish Crown and converted to Catholicism in return for their freedom.
Many of the enslaved are believed to have come from Saint Thomas and Saint Croix who were escaping the harsh conditions and treatment on plantations, according to Fredericknewspost.com.
While the freed slaves found refuge in the Spanish colony, the Crown saw it as an opportunity to weaken its neighbors who had intentions of attacking them.
Psychologist and community historian Lester Nurse Allende said Spain was engaged in ambush marketing by telling enslaved Africans they can escape to the region and gain their freedom. It was an appealing offer but one that did not favor European slave plantations as owners saw it as placing undue pressure on them.
Cangrejos became the settlement of many of the enslaved Africans who escaped to Puerto Rico. It was a safe haven from being recaptured because of the large tract of land surrounded by mangroves and beaches which became a fortress for the people. The Spanish named the place cimarrones in reference to the reality that freed slaves heavily populated the region.
The city, according to oral history, got its name from ochre-colored crabs that inhabited the beaches of Cangrejos. The freed slaves became a strong defense in the Spanish military campaign to protect its territory against British invasion. The enslaved Africans became known as Black fighters who leveraged their knowledge of the swampy jungle to diffuse attacks from the British forces.
When they were confident of their contributions to the Puerto Rican region, the freed slaves demanded of the Spanish crown to recognize Cangrejos as a Black community. Historical documents also indicated that the enslaved Africans asked for a church to be erected to enable them to worship on their terms.
That request was reported in the dailies which are still framed in the community church. It is the first church to be built by Black slaves in 1729 named San Mateo de Cangrejos.
Over the years, as the population grew, the freed slaves renovated the building with additional towers with a brick dome above the altar. In 1971, the church closed its doors to the community and became a sanctuary for catholic nuns who lived in the Carmelite convent.
Community historian Allende said this might have been a result of bad blood between the church and the black community. The region witnessed further decline after its town status was downgraded in the late 1800s and divided into many districts.
She said it was a community that was always alive with activities and people had a sense of belonging. She recalled that nightlife was bliss in Cangrejos and parents drummed home the heritage of the community to them.
But, as modernity made incursions in the region, the swamp, the beaches and parking lots were replaced with new infrastructure.
The church is among the few historical relics that connect the present with the past and history of the freed slaves.