February 26, 2008

Exploring Puerto Rico's African Heritage, Part 5: Luis Palés Matos and his Majestad Negra

So, now equipped with proper vocabulary, I'd like to share this poem with you. It's by Luis Palés Matos, one of Puerto Rico's most famous poets. He generally is credited with the birth of the Afro-Antillean (Antillano) genre of poetry, which is a homage to African heritage. This poem is filled with imagery of dancing and even the words themselves, because of their rhythm and rhyme, sound like music.


Por la encendida calle antillana
Va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba
--Rumba, macumba, candombe, bámbula---
Entre dos filas de negras caras.
Ante ella un congo--gongo y maraca--
ritma una conga bomba que bamba.
Culipandeando la Reina avanza,
Y de su inmensa grupa resbalan
Meneos cachondos que el congo cuaja
En ríos de azúcar y de melaza.
Prieto trapiche de sensual zafra,
El caderamen, masa con masa,
Exprime ritmos, suda que sangra,
Y la molienda culmina en danza.
Por la encendida calle antillana
Va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba.
Flor de Tórtola, rosa de Uganda,
Por ti crepitan bombas y bámbulas;
Por ti en calendas desenfrenadas
Quema la Antilla su sangre ñáñiga.
Haití te ofrece sus calabazas;
Fogosos rones te da Jamaica;
Cuba te dice: ¡dale, mulata!
Y Puerto Rico: ¡melao, melamba!
Sus, mis cocolos de negras caras.
Tronad, tambores; vibrad, maracas.
Por la encendida calle antillana
--Rumba, macumba, candombe, bámbula--
Va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba.

February 24, 2008

About the Scandals with Aníbal

I just wanted to bring this article to light, which clears up some information on the troubles going on in the governor's house in PR, just in case anyone wanted to know.

Exploring Puerto Rico's African Heritage, Part 4: Bemba. and other Words of the Week (Months?)

Yes, word of the week is (finally) back! This week it's bembes/bembas, a word referring to lips, particularly big ones. It feels a bit exaggerated usually and is often used ironically.

Here is a very partial list of other words from various African languages that are present in Puerto Rico today. I say "very partial" because while there are undoubtedly many more words from African languages, few can be traced back to their origins, not only a difficult task but one that is mostly ignored, since very few etymologists and linguists study either African languages or Puerto Rico (sad, really). Anyways, this is a pretty thorough list of words that are definitely from an African language that are used today. The definitions are kind of vague, my fault. Keep in mind that the uses of these words are really fluid and so they are used often in different ways besides the ones given here.

Anyways, without any further ado...

Anamú - a bush, a plant
Bachata - a dance from the Dominican Republic, originally just any kind of party
Baquiné - wake for dead children
Bembeteo - a talkative person, usually someone who speaks way more than they they should
Bembón - a person with big lips
Bochinche - gossip
Bomba - african type dance
Bongó - percussion instrument
Burundanga - mix of things (usually in cooking)
Cachimbo - smoking pipe (according to a more official definition), but also used as a nickname
Calalú - vegetable
Candungo - container, usually bucket or trash can
Chango - a type of black bird, also a timid or wimpy guy
Changa - timid, wimpy girl
Cheche - boss, guru
Chévere - cool, great
Chongo - something that doesn't work because it's slow or old
Chumbo/a - flat butt
Cocolo - people who like salsa
Cocoroco - sound of a rooster
Conga - percussion instrument
Dengue - mosquito as well as the virus
Fufú - a spell
Funche - hard corn meal food
Gandinga - pork tripe, intestines
Gandul - pigeon pea
Gongolí - a little worm
Grifería - african hair
Guineo - banana
Guingambó - okra
Jurutungo - used in "estoy por lo ultimo" instead of ultimo ("I'm almost there")
Mafafo - overweight person, also a type of banana.
Malanga - vegetable
Malango - an ordinary or stupid person
Mambo - type of dance
Marifinga - bland cornmeal food
Marimba - a seed that is dried and filled with smaller seeds to make the instrument
Merengue - a sweet as well as a Dominican dance
Mofongo - dish of mashed plantains
Mogolla - really mixed up
Mondongo - type of dish made of cow stomach
Monga - an illness, like a headcold
Mongo - without strenght
Ñame - yam
Ñangotao - squatting
Neñeñe - whiny, bratty person
Ñoco - missing a part of their body, like a hand or foot
Ñoño/a - lazy or childish person
Pachanga - a country dance
Quimbambas - boondocks
Quingombó - a bean
Sambumbia - keep adding things, usually liquids (to a stew, for example)
Sandunga/eo - enjoyment or a rhythm that overtakes you
Titingó - going out to have fun
Tumbao - a type of walking that is really notable in the streets...
I'm not really sure how to explain this last one, I think the best way would be through this video here...

Well that's all for now... I'll be posting later (I hope... depends on a few external factors!).

February 23, 2008

Exploring Puerto Rico's African Heritage, Part 4: Bomba

Bomba is a dance created by African slaves in Loíza, although it is danced all over the island, especially in the West (like Mayagüez) and South (like Ponce). It is a beautiful dance, with strong beats and irresitable movements. It also is one of the roots of Salsa and most of Puerto Rico's music.

The general outfit for both men and women is white: men white suits (or at least a white shirt) and a straw hat, women in a white shirt and skirt (usually). Colors can be added to this but the white is expected. The pivotal part of the outfit is the woman's skirt, which must have multiple thick layers in order to create the desired effect.

The dancers in turn are accompanied by a variety of musicians. Percussion is crucial. Usually it's a trio of barriles, large drums, along with a single maraca and other instruments. There are also singers, either a soloist or a group (or both). Click

Bomba is, overall, a dialogue between the musicians and the dancer(s). With her skirt (or possibly a shawl or scarf), the dancer directs the percussion. I can't think of any way to describe this but with videos.

First off, here is a short video with one of the most important figures in Bomba today, Tata Cepeda. Her family has been a huge part in the survival and growth of Bomba. This doesn't really show off the "dialogue" per se, since I'm pretty sure it's choreographed, but it is a tribute to her talents as well as an amazing dance.

This other video is longer and not as fast, but if you are still interested I highly recommend it. It takes a moment to get ready, but the dancing is really interesting.

I hope somehow I've managed to share my affection for this dancing with you... it's kind of hard to express the feeling while watching it. Still...

February 21, 2008

A Chic San Juan?

One last post tonight, I swear. I just wanted to pass along this blog post talking about Puerto Rico's attempt at establishing itself as a "fancy" destination, especially Condado. Something about this seems... strange. Does anyone else get that feeling? Not in a sense of Americanization but just... I don't know what. What do you think?

A Few Current Events: the Eclipse, an Art Collection, and the Teachers' Strike

As everyone probably knows, last night was a lunar eclipse. I found this amazing photo of an eclipse by the faro (lighthouse) in Arecibo and I had to share it!

Also, I just stumbled upon this page with a variety of Puerto Rican art. It's not a collection of my favorites, but there are some that are definitely interesting, particularly those from Campeche and "Goyita" (a friend of mine's mother is nearly identical to the woman in that painting!). Apparently this is a selection of what is up at the Galeria Nacional in Viejo San Juan, in which case I will definitely be going next time I am in the island!

Another thought: I've been eying the news about the impeding teacher's strike but apparently it is more serious than I would have suspected. Apparently 10 protesting teachers have been detained and there have been some injuries. It's really unfortunate that it has to come to this and I really hope that it can be settled soon. If you want more information, a great article (along with a video) can be found here... but it is in Spanish.

Exploring Puerto Rico's African Heritage, Part 3: Loíza

Loíza is a city just east of San Juan, touching the Atlantic Ocean. The name Loíza purportedly comes from a Taíno cacica (female cacique, chief), who chose the name Luisa when baptized by the Spaniards. There is a variety of mythology surrounding the name and origin of the city, however. During colonial times, Loíza began to harbor escaped slaves not only from Puerto Rico but from all over the Caribbean. Because of this population, Loíza today is considered the center of African-derived culture in the island, bringing the popular bomba and other activities to the island which now form part of its identity. On the other hand, Loíza is one of the most impoverished parts of the island. Largely because of its black population and bureaucratic racism, Loíza has been slower than most municipalities to receive financial help. Drugs are a big problem, along with crime. However, I think some of these claims are a bit exaggerated and it is not as horrible as some say. I don't have much experience there, though, so I can't say.

Anyways, one of Loíza's greatest contributions to Puerto Rico's identity is the fiesta de Santiago (Saint James). This holiday is celebrated during July in the streets of Loíza with parades depicting the battle between the Spaniards and the Moors. While it is known for its strange creatures and caricatures of people that seems as though they have stepped out of an abstract painting, the real show-stealer is the vejigantes, the bizarre demons with paper-mache or coconut masks and giant dresses made in every vivid color that exists. While they're supposed to represent the Moors, they have become so much more. They are dancing, mischievous characters that have captured the affections of the island.

A great account of this festival can be found here, and a fascinating video (in Spanish and produced by the University of Puerto Rico) from 1949 is here.

(By the way, the picture here was drawn by my good friend. I've asked her to do a few drawings for the blog, hopefully we'll see more soon!)

February 19, 2008

Exploring Puerto Rico's African Heritage, Part 2: El Museo de Nuestra Raíz Africana, San Juan

Real quick one today. I just wanted to say that if anyone is really interested in looking more at PR's African Heritage, the best place is the Museo de Nuestra Raíz Africana (Museum of our African roots). It's a museum located right outside of el Morro. Honestly, I haven't been (yet!), but if you are interested in seeing a more cultural view of the island it's definitely worth your time. Anyways, if you want to read more about it, here is a description in English and here is better one in Spanish, if you're feeling adventurous.

February 18, 2008

Exploring Puerto Rico's African Heritage, Part 1: A General History

Slaves from Africa first came to Puerto Rico to replace the shrinking population of Taínos, the indigenous people of the island. Because of European diseases and cruel treatment, Spaniards turned to slavery in order to maintain their profits. Most of the slaves were imported from West Africa, particularly Nigeria. From the Yoruba people the popular Santería religion, combined with Spanish Catholicism, was born (it's much more common in Cuba than in Puerto Rico, however).

Even though freedom could be bought or earned, unlike in the United States, slavery and all of its abuses continued until 1873, mostly for the sake of maintaining the coffee, caña (sugar cane), and tobacco industries. The American Invasion came only about 30 years later, in 1898. Part of America's reasons for keeping self-governance from Puerto Rico was because of the racial composition of the island, which at that time was already quite mixed.

Culturally Puerto Rico owes much to its African heritage. The language has been greatly enriched by the inclusion of words from Yoruba and other languages (if you or your library has a subscription to JSTOR, I highly recommend this article for more information... I'll be talking about it anyways but that article is excellent). African music is the root of the rhythms heard today in all music from the island, including reggaetón and salsa. It's also made a part of food, literature (like Julia de Burgos!), art, and just a general sense of being. I'll be looking at these, and more, over the next few days.

Today African heritage is widely recognized, although sometimes denied because of racism (also to be discussed this week). And while there is an "Afro-Puerto Rican" identity, it is usually sacrificed for the adoption of the general Puerto Rican identity, due to the status situation with the United States. While people with part or full African ancestry can be found all over the island, the cultural center is the town of Loíza.

To be continued tomorrow!

February 17, 2008

Julia de Burgos' Birthday and a week of African Heritage

Today is the birthday of Julia de Burgos, one of Puerto Rico's most important and famous writers. While she lived a short and tragic life, the love for her homeland has allowed her poetry to speak for her even through the grave.

Today also happens to be my mother's birthday... I'm not sure what they have in common, except that both are successful women despite the odds. So this is for both of them and strong women everywhere!

Here is one of her most famous poems,
Río Grande de Loíza.


¡Río Grande de Loíza!... Alárgate en mi espíritu
y deja que mi alma se pierda en tus riachuelos,
para buscar la fuente que te robó de niño
y en un ímpetu loco te devolvió al sendero.

Enróscate en mis labios y deja que te beba,
para sentirte mío por un breve momento,
y esconderte del mundo, y en ti mismo esconderte,
y oír voces de asombro, en la boca del viento.

Apéate un instante del lomo de la tierra,
y busca de mis ansias el íntimo secreto;
confúndeme en el vuelo de mi ave fantasía,
y déjame una rosa de agua en mis ensueños.

¡Río Grande de Loíza!.. Mi manantial, mi río,
desde que alzóse al mundo el pétalo materno;
contigo se bajaron desde las rudas cuestas
a buscar nuevos surcos, mis pálidos anhelos;
y mi niñez fue toda un poema en el río,
y un río en el poema de mis primeros sueños.

Llegó la adolescencia. Me sorprendió la vida
prendida en lo más ancho de tu viajar eterno;
y fui tuya mil veces, y en un bello romance
me despertaste el alma y me besaste el cuerpo.

¿Adónde te llevaste las aguas que bañaron
mis formas, en espiga del sol recién abierto?
¡Quién sabe en qué remoto país mediterráneo
algún fauno en la playa me estará poseyendo!

¡Quién sabe en qué aguacero de qué tierra lejana
me estaré derramando para abrir surcos nuevos;
o si acaso, cansada de morder corazones,
me estaré congelando en cristales de hielo!

¡Río Grande de Loíza! Azul, Moreno, Rojo.
Espejo azul, caído pedazo azul del cielo;
desnuda carne blanca que se te vuelve negra
cada vez que la noche se te mete en el lecho;
roja franja de sangre, cuando baja la lluvia
a torrentes su barro te vomitan los cerros.

Río hombre, pero hombre con pureza de río,
porque das tu azul alma cuando das tu azul beso.
Muy señor río mío. Río hombre. Único hombre
que ha besado en mi alma al besar en mi cuerpo.

¡Río Grande de Loíza!... Río grande. Llanto grande.
El más grande de todos nuestros llantos isleños,
si no fuera más grande el que de mi se sale
por los ojos del alma para mi esclavo pueblo.

In other news, seeing as it's Black History Month and personally I keep finding more African influences in a variety of cultures in the last few days, I've decided to give next week to seeing African heritage in Puerto Rico. This is one of my favorite subjects of Puerto Rico, by the way. Anyways, this following poem is another one which faces African heritage and the history of slavery in Puerto Rico in both the past, present, and future.


Ay ay ay, que soy grifa y pura negra;
grifería en mi pelo, cafrería en mis labios;
y mi chata nariz mozambiquea.

Negra de intacto tinte, lloro y río
la vibración de ser estatua negra;
de ser trozo de noche,
en que mis blancos dientes relampaguean;
y ser negro bejuco
que a lo negro se enreda
y comba el negro nido
en que el cuervo se acuesta.
Negro trozo de negro en que me esculpo,
ay ay ay, que mi estatua es toda negra.

Dícenme que mi abuelo fue el esclavo
por quien el amo dio treinta monedas.
Ay ay ay, que el esclavo fue mi abuelo
es mi pena, es mi pena.
Si hubiera sido el amo,
sería mi vergüenza;
que en los hombres, igual que en las naciones,
si el ser el siervo es no tener derechos,
el ser el amo es no tener conciencia.

Ay ay ay, los pecados del rey blanco
lávelos en perdón la reina negra.
Ay ay ay, que la raza se me fuga
y hacia la raza blanca zumba y vuela
hundirse en su agua clara;
tal vez si la blanca se ensombrará en la negra.

Ay ay ay, que mi negra raza huye
y con la blanca corre a ser trigueña;
¡a ser la del futuro,
fraternidad de América!

February 16, 2008

Safety in Puerto Rico, Part 2: Driving!

So last time I talked about general safety in Puerto Rico. Now I'm going to talk about something that actually does scare me: driving.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not as bad as driving in, say, Tehran. But driving is still more dangerous than the United States. It's not the roads themselves that are bad, because they're actually quite nice, identical to American highways (although towards the center of the island there are some in the mountains that are only one lane... a bit scary). But these roads are so overcrowded that many are subject to constant traffic jams (tapones), encouraged by the multitude of SUVs (I think Puerto Ricans like them even more than Americans). On top of that, many drivers are quite aggressive and will run red lights (although I've heard with a few new cameras it's become less common) and switch lanes without much warning.

This doesn't mean there are a lot of accidents, however; Puerto Rican drivers have incredibly quick reflexes and so a lot of accidents are barely avoided.

Some of my most terrifying memories throughout my life involve my friend's father driving us around the island. Not only did we have to worry about other people's driving, but he also was a hazard on the road. Every time he started telling a story he would look over to whomever he was talking to and would take his hands off the wheel. I can't even say how many accidents we almost caused.

The buses (públicos) are equally unreliable. They keep rising the prices, they're inconvenient as they rarely come on time or at all, and the driving is just as bad. It's an option for tourists who want to save some money, I suppose, but even for all the money you save it might not be worth it.

Walking and bike-riding are also not good options. While people will run across intersections and such, it always seems kind of risky. Drivers also don't seem to know what to do with bikes on the road, since it's so uncommon. I've actually read a story of a público driver hitting (and killing) a bike-rider in Old San Juan... you've been warned!

Here's a short video of a traffic jam (ignore the music!).

Pictures of Ponce

The New York Times has posted a slideshow of photos from Ponce, describing the merits of visiting the city. They're nice pictures, check them out!

February 14, 2008

Puerto Rico Gets Involved in the Primaries

So, my news (thanks Google for allowing me to set my news page to automatically pick up news on Puerto Rico) keeps coming up with the news that Aníbal, governor of Puerto Rico, is endorsing Obama.

    Great leaders like Senator Obama are defined by their visionary leadership
- but also by their willingness to listen to, and learn from, the voices
of citizens. The four million Puerto Ricans on the Island, along with the
four million across the U.S. mainland, are seeking such a leader as
President. Senator Obama has answered our call, by hearing Puerto Ricans'
desire to advance our economic, social and political aspirations. I am
proud to endorse Barack Obama for President.
This is making waves because apparently PR has 63 delegates, more than most states, and it's winner-take-all. This is made its way around a few blogs already.

Honestly, I think this is nonsense. The idea that Puerto Rico can determine the primaries just seems ridiculous to me. Let's see... could it be that their primary is on June 1st, the very last primary? I am hoping that by then this will all be decided. Even if it is, who's to say that Puerto Rico won't vote for Hillary? While racism, according to our media, supposedly has kept Latinos on Hillary's side, this certainly can't be an excuse for Puerto Rico, with its sizable black and mixed population... but Puerto Ricans tend to be cautious with both liberal morals and uncertain change (my main example here being the inability to claim either statehood or independence and instead preferring a inhibitive but "safe" Commonwealth). I'm not sure how much Aníbal's endorsement will mean to Puerto Rico but I am not sure it will have as much weight as some project. He's a relatively unpopular governor involved in a few scandals in the moment.

The strangest part of all of this for me is that they can have a vote in the primaries, but can't vote in the general election. How bizarre would it be to have them choose a presidential candidate, only to be unable to support him/her in the real election? It's like having someone make a cake and then tell them they can't have a piece.

Anyways, point is, it's too early to make that judgment. I think I'll just sit back and allow everyone to scramble over themselves trying to predict what cannot be predicted.

February 13, 2008

Bananas and plantains

So, I found this blog post and thought it would be appropriate to explain the difference between the two. Basically, in Puerto Rico, guineos are bananas and plátanos are plantains. The term guineo comes from Africa, which brought bananas along with slavery. Bananas are usually smaller than the ones found in North America (they're kind of cute, actually). Meanwhile, plátanos are divided into two types: the bland verdes used to make tostones (slices fried and squished then fried again) and mofongo (just mashed, fried, and mixed with spices and usually bacon), and sweet amarillos.

It's kind of interesting how there is no precise word for banana across the Spanish-speaking world, which the blog above explains. Kind of silly, I suppose, but worth knowing about.

February 10, 2008

Safety in Puerto Rico, Part 1: General Safety

Puerto Rico is SAFE.

There is a misconception that Puerto Rico is an unsafe place to be. Somewhere between the reports of some-high-number of murders and crime rates in New York it arose, terrifying would-be Americans and other tourists from visiting.

"Isn't it dangerous?" people have asked me.

It surprises them when I tell them I often feel safer there than in many big cities here. I would dare to say I feel very, very comfortable walking around Puerto Rico, despite being an obviously American young woman. Now, granted, I haven't been alone too often while there, but even still it's not something I would mind because I always feel safe.

I think this stems from a few factors...

  1. Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean. Yes, it's true (go look at a map if you don't believe me). But this doesn't mean that their neighbors share their crime with them... duh.
  2. Puerto Rico has poor people. Also true but sort of deceiving. Compared to most of America, Puerto Rico is far behind economically. On the other hand, compared to most of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is thriving. The difference between them--and I'm going to go on a limb here, because I haven't been to other parts of the Caribbean, so feel free to correct me--is that there is no huge class disparity that is seen in other countries. Most people live on about the same level, and, while they do exist, there are very few pockets of incredibly poor and incredibly rich people. Another part of it is that most people make more than enough money for necessities and then some. After all, $20,000 is considered (low) middle class while in the U.S. it would be not much more than pocket change. However, the prices of living are increasing much faster than the wages (for example, water has gone up quite a few times by as much as 400% and real estate is getting ridiculously high), so eventually there may be some problems.
  3. Puerto Rico has black people. Shocker there! Now, I know there are racists both on and off the island who would like to blame crime on them. It shouldn't be really too surprising that I'm going to say it's nonsense, especially for Puerto Rico where blacks, while certainly marginalized, receive more equal treatment than in the U.S. and certainly better than in their sister countries... DR, I'm talking to you. Racism in PR is complicated and I'll be touching on it later. In terms of crime though, it is definitely a non-issue.
That aside, what is the crime in Puerto Rico like? Well, there are two risk factors: where you are and what you're doing there. For the first, there are certain areas that you wouldn't want to go. The most famous, and important, is La Perla, pictured in the picture above. It's right between el Morro and el Castillo de San Cristobal and tourists have been known to mistakenly enter a few times. There are a few other places as well that could be avoided to prevent issues, like parts of Loiza (a bit east of San Juan) and supposedly parts of Ponce. Generally, the worse the houses are, the better it is you stay away... unless they're houses in the mountains, which are generally pretty safe.

The other question is what exactly are you doing? About 90% (I believe... I read it somewhere a while ago) of homocides are drug-related. If you're not messing with drugs and gangs you shouldn't have any problem at all.

For tourists, pickpocketing isn't as common as, say, Europe, but it is something to prepare for as would be done in any American city or even less, since most tourists only stop at Old San Juan, which is incredibly safe. Point is, there is no reason to be scared of the Island of Enchantment.

(Sorry for such a long hiatus between posts! They will continue in due order from now on I hope)