February 21, 2008

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!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

who is the artist....i have the design as a tattoo and would love to give her/him credit for it when people ask!!!!!