Throughout the Caribbean, in Brazil and here on the U.S. mainland Carnival, Mardi Gras and other heavily African-influenced traditions are a testament to the survival and persistence of black cultures in the diaspora. Carnival season in Puerto Rico came and went this year, ending on Fat Tuesday as it does every year—with an explosion of music, dance and vejigante masks. Carnival In Ponce, Puerto Rico, known as “Carnaval Ponceño” has been celebrated for 160 years, and this year was dedicated to to the volunteers who worked tirelessly for hurricane relief.
No hurricane, no Donald Trump bullying and racist neglect of the island will ever be able to extinguish the deeply rooted traditions that provide both strength and joy to the island’s people.
Looking at the devastation wrought by Irma and Maria to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and the ongoing crisis for people on the islands, fueled by the failure of the president and Republican-controlled Congress to shoulder its responsibility—one wonders how people can celebrate?
The answer is simple—how can they not? A people without joy, without music, without song and dance are defeated. Puerto Ricans will not be defeated.
Puerto Rico se levanta!
Join the celebration and continue to contribute.
Puerto Rico is an island with a rich blend of traditions—some from Europe, some from Taino indigenous roots—wrapped in a package that is West and Central African in origin. You can hear it in the Africanized tones of Puerto Rican Spanish, taste it in the foods and see it in the dances and art. To better understand the roots of Afro-Puerto Rican music, traditions and crafts you need to understand the history of the colonial/enslavement era. I am republishing here selected, and revised parts of a story I wrote for Black Kos last year—“Puerto Rico: “Race,” ancestry, identity and culture.”
From its inception, slavery in Puerto Rico was brutal.
According to historian Luis M. Diaz, the largest contingent of African slaves came from the areas of the present-day Gold Coast, Nigeria, and Dahomey, and the region known as the area of Guineas, together known as the Slave Coast. The vast majority were Yorubas and Igbos, ethnic groups from Nigeria, and Bantus from the Guineas. The number of slaves in Puerto Rico rose from 1,500 in 1530 to 15,000 by 1555. The slaves were stamped with a hot iron on the forehead, a branding which meant that they were brought to the country legally and prevented their kidnapping.
Over the years there were numerous slave rebellions, detailed in Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico: Conspiracies and Uprisings, 1795-1873, by Guillermo A. Baralt.
As a genealogist, I have scoured the slave census records and located some of my husband’s ancestors, and the names of those who owned them.
Registro Central de Esclavos (Central Slave Registrar) and the 1872 Slave Census
Slavery was a fact of life in Puerto Rico until the passing of Moret Law in 1870. This edict granted freedom to slaves over 60, those belonging to the state, and children born to slaves after 9/17/1868. Most importantly for genealogy purposes, the Moret Law established the Central Slave Registrar which in 1872 began gathering the following data on the island's slave population: name, country of origin, present residence, names of parents, sex, marital status, trade, age, physical description, and master's name. There are eight microfilm rolls available, organized by the geographical districts, then by city. There is no information for District 3.
District 1 - Dorado, Naranjito, Trujillo Alto, Trujillo Bajo, San Juan
District 2 - Arecibo, Camuy, Ciales, Hatillo, Manati, Morovis, Quebradillas, Utuado
District 4 - Anasco, Cabo Rojo, Mayaguez
District 4 - Mayaguez (cont.), Sabana Grande, San German
District 5 - Adjuntas, Barros, Coamo, Guayanilla, Penuelas, Yauco, Juana Diaz
District 5 - Barranquitas, Ponce
District 6 - Arroyo, Guayama, Cidra
District 6 - Cidra (cont.), Aguas Buenas, Caguas, Cayey, Gurabo, Hato Grande (San Lorenzo), Salinas, Sabana del Palmar (Comerio)
For further reading, I suggest, Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Century Puerto Rico, by Luis A. Figueroa.
On March 22, 1873, slavery was "abolished" in Puerto Rico, but with one significant caveat. The slaves were not emancipated; they had to buy their own freedom, at whatever price was set by their last masters. The law required that the former slaves work for another three years for their former masters, other people interested in their services, or for the "state" in order to pay some compensation.
Free blacks from other nearby islands had also migrated to Puerto Rico to find work in the sugar industry. It should be no surprise then, that many major historical figures from Puerto Rico had African ancestry—like Arturo Schomburg.
It is in Puerto Rican culture—in its dance and music that we most clearly see black Puerto Rico. The musical traditions of bomba y plena are alive and well today, and have roots in the enslavement period.
Bomba and plena are percussion-driven musical traditions from Puerto Rico that move people to dance. Often mentioned together as though they were a single musical style, both reflect the African heritage of Puerto Rico, but there are basic distinctions between them in rhythm, instrumentation, and lyrics. […]
Bomba dates back to the early European colonial period in Puerto Rico. It comes out of the musical traditions brought by enslaved Africans in the 17th century. To them, bomba music was a source of political and spiritual expression. The lyrics conveyed a sense of anger and sadness about their condition, and songs served as a catalyst for rebellions and uprisings. [...]
Plena developed from bomba music around the beginning of the 20th century in southern Puerto Rico. Plena lyrics are narrative. They convey a story about events, address topical themes, often comment on political protest movements, and offer satirical commentaries. Tito Matos, leader of the Puerto Rican group Viento de Agua, describes plena as "the newspaper of the people." Plena has only one basic rhythm, in contrast to bomba´s sixteen rhythms. [...]
Bomba and plena are defining musical sounds of the Afro-Puerto Rican population. Matos says, "In Puerto Rico you go to Black and humble communities and you’re going to find bomba and plena without a doubt." These Afro-Puerto Rican musical traditions have also enjoyed an active life in New York City and other communities in which Puerto Ricans have settled.
I don’t usually embed videos that have no English subtitles—however I’ll going to make an exception. This film is worth watching for the music alone—even if you don’t understand the interspersed interviews. Filmmaker Paloma Suau wrote and directed Raíces in 2001.
There can be no discussion of bomba and plena without introducing Familia Cepeda:
The Cepeda Family is one of the most famous exponents of Puerto Rican folk music, with generations of musicians working to preserve the African heritage in Puerto Rican music. The family is well known for their performances of bomba and plena folkloric music and are considered by many to be the keepers of those traditional genres.
Led by the family patriarch, Rafael Cepeda until his death in 1996, other family members that contribute to this mission are: Luis “Chichito” Cepeda (director and percussion), Modesto Cepeda (vocals), Roberto Cepeda (vocals and percussion), William, Carlos, Alba, Jesus and Luis “Hadji” Cepeda (percussion), with Petra, Brenda, and Wichie Cepeda (vocals). William Cepeda, also has his own band: Grupo Afro Boricua.
Despite his family’s intimate association with folkloric music, William Cepeda has also ventured beyond plena and bomba to jazz and developed a unique style which he calls “Afrorican Jazz”.
When writing here about Loiza, Puerto Rico, as one of the centers of Afro-Puerto Rican culture, I didn’t include videos of dance/drumming. Young people ably demonstrate that traditions are being passed on—as you will see here:
You do not have to go to Puerto Rico to hear and see bomba plena music performed. Founded in 1983, and based in New York City, Los Pleneros de la 21 travel around the mainland—educating and entertaining.
Los Pleneros de la 21 is dedicated to fostering awareness, appreciation and understanding of the richness and vitality of Puerto Rican artistic traditions of African descent and Creole, as well as to promote their further development. Our overall goals are: 1) to present accessible public traditional music programming, 2) to expose inner city youth and others to the cultural heritage of Puerto Rico and encourage their active participation in these traditions, and 3) to perform a repertoire of works embedded in the rich tradition of Puerto Rican folk music to audiences everywhere.
When attending festivals in Puerto Rico in heavily African-ancestored areas like Loiza and Ponce, expect to see vejigante masks. Though the original birthplace of the vejigante was in Spain, ironically birthed during the push to drive out the Moors, in Puerto Rico they became an important part of Afro-Puerto Rican folk craft and iconography. The vejigantes crafted in Loiza are made of coconut shells—those from Ponce are of paper mâché.
Vejigantes of Puerto Rico: Origins, Myths, & Messengers:
Puerto Rico’s vejigantes (bay-he-GAHN-tay) are known for their colorful costumes with bat-like wings, the inflated animal bladders they carry, and by their masks with three or more horns. There are two distinct vejigante styles coming from two regions and two differing celebrations. One is from the city of Ponce in the South of Puerto Rico with masks made of papier-mâché, associated with the celebrations of Carnival. The second style is from the town of Loíza, far to the North, with masks made from coconuts and identified with the Feast of Santiago in late July. Both though are mysterious, mischievous characters that have become symbols of cultural identity, resilience, and resistance.
Ponce’s vejigantes have a connection with Carnival, a festival that begins in early February, just before Lent. In Carnival, the vejigantes just like in Loíza, are reveling characters that interact with the crowds and cause mischief with the inflated bladders they carry. With their characteristic snouts, sharp teeth, and multitudes of horns, Ponce’s vejigantes cast a distinctive silhouette to this internationally-celebrated festival.
In Loíza, the vejigantes represent the Muslim Moors in the Catholic festival of the Feast of Santiago. This festival, also known as the Festival of Saint James, celebrates the ouster of the Moors from Spain. In Loíza, the festival lasts three days, and its roots can be traced back to a legend of the discovery of the statue of Saint James outside of the town. Some explain their inclusion in the religious festival as a symbol of the ongoing battle of good over evil. No matter the history, Loíza’s population (primarily of African descent) views the vejigante as a strong, and unapologetic character with a history of survival and a connection to Africa that they can relate to.
This exhibition of craftsmen and contemporary artists shows how this figure that is such an integral character in these festivals has become an iconic symbol that unifies and identifies the people of Puerto Rico. These artists perceive the vejigantes from many different perspectives: as a nationalist hero; a character that brings into focus issues of Latino identity; a creature that is used as a surrogate to discuss the life and death struggle of living with AIDS; a symbol that brings a community together with its visage or captures the imagination with its mystery. For these artists, the vejigante has evolved into something much more than a playful festival figure – it has become the living incarnation of the Puerto Rican spirit with all its vigor, resilience and jubilant ferocity.
A previous hurricane, Hugo, inspired this song, animation about the arrival of Hugo to Loiza.
Since many of the Africans dragged to Puerto Rico and enslaved in Loiza were Yoruba or Fon, it is no surprise to see masks that evoke the trickster Orisha Eleggua, (Exu in Brazil, Papa Legba in Haiti) and a masking tradition that was part of Egungun societies which honored the ancestors.
There are some great photos of vejigante masks at this blog post:
One of the classics of Puerto Rican theater is the play Los Vejigantes written by Francisco Arriví, known as "The Father of Puerto Rican Theater."
In 1955 Arriví wrote the first of a trilogy of plays under the title of “Máscara puertorriqueña” [Puerto Rican Masquerade], addressing the controversial topic of racial prejudice in Puerto Rico—a theme that had not been openly discussed in the theater since Alejandro Tapia’s La Cuarterona. The three plays are: Bolero y plena (which is in turn composed of two plays: Medusas en la bahía and El murciélago); Vejigantes, staged at the first Puerto Rican Theater Festival in 1958 and awarded a prize from the Institute of Literature the following year; and Sirena, dramatized by the Experimental Theater of the Ateneo Puertorriqueño in 1959.
Thomas Wayne Edison, examines Arriví’s exploration of racial issues in Puerto Rico in “Correcting ‘a Touch of the Brush’: Afro-Caribbean Racial Identity and Shame in Francisco Arriví’s Los vejigantes and Carlos Guillermo Wilson’s Chombo,” in the Afro-Hispanic Review:
Francisco Arriví's drama Los vejigantes was published as the final work in his trilogy of plays that he entitled Máscara puertorriqueña (1959). In these plays, Arriví utilizes music and dance to highlight Puerto Rican African ethnicity and cultural expression. Los vejigantes reflects miscegenation between a Spanish landowner (Benedicto) and a black peasant girl (Toña) in the early twentieth century. In the second act, the product of this union, Marta, projects an internalized psychological complex, which causes her to be ashamed of herself and her mother Mamá Toña. The drama ends with Marta's daughter Clarita helping her mother to accept her true ethnic heritage. The colorful and festive annual celebration of Loíza Aldea is the setting of the first act.
As the play begins, the curtain rises to display a Puerto Rican plantation in 1910. The sound of drums slowly Crescendos and soon is accompanied by musicians or timbaleros singing repeated verses of the song “Joyalito." This song symbolizes the bomba musical tradition; a musical style that reflects the cultural legacy of the nation's black community. The spiritual importance of bomba music is illustrated through the aged Mamá Toña, who symbolizes Afro-Puerto Ricans on the island that have retained elements of their African heritage and practices.
(Joyalito song and dance scene — from Vejigantes — Teatro Sol de San German, Puerto Rico
As darkness falls in Puerto Rico, much of the island is still without light, except from the moon and stars. It is however, never silent—there is always the sound of the coqui frogs in the countryside and music pulsating in city streets. Where there is music, there is hope.
My hope is that more readers will get to know and love Puerto Rican culture like I do.
Pa’lante Puerto Rico!