San Juan, Puerto Rico-Black Cultural Center Fall 2011 Research Tour.
After lunch by “la playa,” we went to Samuel Lind Art Studio. The house was very cool; almost like a piece of art in itself. When we walked inside, I was amazed by the works of art. Everything was so beautiful. What really attracted my attention were the different bronze sculptures. My favorite was the “African Roots” piece. It actually started off as a painting of a mangrove and a man being formed from the roots of the trees coming from the water. Before we left the studio; however, I saw an unfinished sculpture in a back room that was based off of this painting.
After the art studio tour, we walked down the road to the Ayala Family Artisan Center. It was a very…interesting experience. During the performance, we witnessed a crab battle a man as well as a cock fight! Overall it was very fun to watch. Joining the dancers and activity really reinforced our understanding of the bomba tradition.
Another early day on the research tour. We’re on our way to the rainforest this time. I’m really excited about this. Part of me is imagining us going through dense vegetation, climbing up the mountain side. I think that would be really fun and interesting to do, but I know it has to be different. The rainforest is too much of a popular attraction that they had to have made an easier way to move about the forest.
On the bus going to the rainforest, our tour guide was explaining some of the ways Puerto Rican people are mistreated. He told us how Puerto Rican people have to pay government taxes. At first, this seems like a good thing, but it’s really not at all. Without government taxes, they have no congressional representation. No representation means no change in condition at the United States government level.
Another thing the tour guide mentioned that really interested me was that even though Puerto Rico was a U.S. commonwealth, it is still considered a third world country. One thing that really hit me was a follow up comment by another tour member who said, “I’ve never seen or heard of a third world country with a Wal-Mart and a Gamestop.”
When we got to the rainforest, it was as I expected. There were designated paths for us to walk on. It was still very majestic nonetheless. Seeing all the waterfalls and looking at the expansiveness of the forest at the top of an observation deck was an incredible experience. Here are a couple interesting facts I learned: 1. The land in that forest is compatible with just about every type of vegetation. 2. Out of five bioluminescent bays in the world, three are in Puerto Rico and one is within the El Yunque Rainforest. 3. Bamboo plants were introduced accidentally and it was found that they help protect against erosion.
Rhythm and Flow.
Two words that sum up the essence of San Juan and Loiza, Puerto Rico. I say that because from the moment I arrived on the beautiful magnificent island, I have felt, heard, seen, and admired the rhythms.
First, there were rhythms that were obvious. The Bomba dance and Plena music used rhythm in ways that are very elusive to most people. They establish rhythms with drums which are derived from Africa as is common knowledge at the BCC, but what they did with drumming was remarkable. Dance typically follows music. In fact, if you ask most people what dance is, it is movement to music. Well, not with Bomba. The dance is only movement. The music was drums to the rhythm of the dances. There was an initial set by the drummers, but when each person danced the primary was able to watch and play around the dancers moves. That was amazing to me, the skill it takes to do something like this was unmatched by anything I’ve ever seen, and then within all of that there was a flow to the dance amongst the professionals and amongst us amateurs. The Bomba dancers (women) wore beautiful bright dresses and used the dressed to accentuate the flow of their movement.
And then later when we had our opportunity to dance along with them, we knowingly created a flow within ourselves, each person jumping in on a rhythm and flowing with the person who went before as if we all knew who was supposed to go next.
Yep, Rhythm and Flow…
Besides Bomba, there was rhythm and flow all throughout San Juan. I am a design major and visual flow of design is a key aspect of my life and my future career, and so something that caught my attention immediately was the architecture in San Juan. It’s very easy to recognize. European influence is in the architecture. But what I noticed is African influence as well as European. A design philosophy rooted in the principle of design as function. You see it in San Juan, a lot of buildings have the jutting out or protruding balconies. That is for the purpose of looking and creating a view outside of the home or building. What is less evident is the patterns and engravings on pillars and railings. These create a visual flow for your eyes to move with, but don’t stand out as anything special unless you understand design philosophy. Combining this second style of engraving and marking with the aforementioned style of design being more function, less artistic, something amazingly beautiful is created in my opinion. On top of that, visual rhythm and flow is created by the color scheme in the architecture and materials used. A lot of buildings had blue tint on the windows. “Blue is an interesting color choice for that,” I thought at the time, then realized the intent when I looked down and saw blue brick on the roads and paths that we traveled. Beautiful flow created by the repetitive color and the contrasting sandy colors, like tan. Funny how repetition creates flow with ease, like how me repeating and describing rhythm and flow in this blog, bringing my words into a particular flow that I really like.
Speaking of …this is something else that we saw while in San Juan that had the same type of rhythms. Visual rhythm created in the art work in the gallery in San Juan. The flow was created by the timeline style of the artwork. We saw each piece from oldest to newest. Within each piece, the professionalism of each artist was shown in the rhythm of their work. I was stunned at the beauty of elegance of the art. I was even more impressed with the work of Samuel Lind who was the painter we met later on in Loiza.
Such amazing artists from such a diversely mixed hybrid of people, and all of the influence of the Tainos, Spaniards, and Africans is easily seen in the artwork. As I said, I’m a design major so my eyes have adjusted to noticing things like that.
Departing from my discussion of rhythm and flow there was another major theme I took away from the experience in Puerto Rico: Culture and Pride. I noticed that everywhere we went, no matter, San Juan or Loiza, everyone we met found ways to prove that they understood the history and heritage of Puerto Rico. Not only that, there were many more historical sites and cultural landmarks than in any other place I have been before. Puerto Ricans take so much pride in who they are, where they came from, and what makes them unique. Our tour guide in Loiza knew so much about their heritage that he connected it to the nature in the surrounding rainforest. In our fourth and final Bomba lesson with the Ayala family, they used Bomba to tell stories about the culture and even though they sang in Spanish some of the stories we were able to understand. Overall in Puerto Rico, people express love and respect their culture in so many different ways and they understand their history and identify so much more than most people in the United States, especially African Americans.
Respecting their culture and history is also seen in religion. A lot of the things we saw had some type of religious background involved. We saw two of the oldest churches in the territory of Puerto Rico as well as a whole lot of art that had religious representations in it. The main religion from what I gathered is Catholicism. Once the people know and understand so much history, I noticed that even our very first tour guide, who was not Catholic, knew about the history of the religion, That was impressive.
To wrap this up, those central themes I mentioned cover pretty much all of my feelings about the wonderful experience of Puerto Rico. I loved this experience and it was amazing and a life-changing experience. I also know that I personally will be very inspired with writing poetry and doing design work in my classes when I go back to Purdue.
Thank you Black Cultural Center, I will remember this for a lifetime.
Friday, October 7, 2011
So we boarded the super cold bus at 3 am to go to Indianapolis Airport, but 11 hours later we emerged from the airport in Puerto Rico to be struck by the humidity of the colony. Our first stop was at El Murro. There we toured the historic fort which Puerto Ricans used to protect their city of Old San Juan from invasion and enemies. Our next stop was to check in to our hotel by the Pier, which was the Sheraton Old San Juan. Later in the evening, we had dinner at Latin Roots, a restaurant where we first learned some Salsa movements before engaging in a very appetizing Puerto Rican buffet which included plantains and the traditional Puerto Rican dessert, flan. While some of us ended the night with Latin Roots, others of us explored the city. We found that nearby there was a spot called Nuyorican Café. The Nuyorican Café also has a location in New York and it is primarily a lounge for various artists. We discovered the Nuyorican Café here, we decided to check it out to see if they were still doing spoken word. We were told that they no longer did spoken word, but that if we wanted, we could do it. Some members from Haraka got up and did a few pieces. Overall, the first day was a very informative one where we became exposed to Puerto Rican culture.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Day Two! So we have been in Puerto Rico two days now and the experience has been amazing as well as exhilarating! We started our morning with a Master Bomba class with the Cepeda family. Each of the girls within our group had skirts so we were very much involved. We learned the Bomba steps and counts for 2 hours, then we got the chance to dance Bomba to the drums with our own interpretation of the dance. Though it was a lot of work, it was more exhilarating than it was tiring. Next, we walked to the National Gallery Museum where we saw art pieces from Puerto Ricans such as Jose Campeché, Francisco Oller, and Ramón Frade. These artists tried to integrate a certain consciousness in their work in order to depict “average” Puerto Ricans and those Puerto Ricans which were either enslaved or forced to work because they had darker skin.
Our next stop was lunch at a place called Aureola where we had the traditional Puerto Rican cuisine of rice & beans. The vibe in the restaurant was very relaxed and had a Puerto Rican flair.
Our next stop was a creative writing workshop with writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizzaro. Yolanda designed workshops where we had the opportunity to write about our ancestors and to understand why we should have price in our history and where we came from. When she shared the story about her being teased and ultimately stabbed with pencils because of her race I realized how similar her experience is to a dark-skinned person or a person who is considered “black” in America.
Later in the evening, we got to meet former Purdue alumni who are now living in Puerto Rico and then see the Cepeda family perform a Bomba ceremony for us. At the end of the performance, they allowed us to take part and we ended up dancing for over an hour.
We had had a thrilling experience so far.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Today we went to Loiza, a 40-minute trip from Old San Juan where we took an aerobic Bomba class taught by Tico, who was very friendly & hyped! We learned hot to do a more African-influenced Bomba, which seemed to be much freer and inspired by how you feel than compared to the Bomba we larned with the Cepeda family. We also visited the Loiza Cultural Center and although the building was small, you could tell the devotion by the community to retain some part of their history. What was very inspiring for me was the fact that they took us to a beach and cooked us a traditional Puerto Rican dish on the beach. They really went out of their way to welcome us into their culture and community, and I’m sure if there wasn’t a language barrier we would have been able to have a much more interactive experience. The gesture of the cooking for us was still very thoughtful and kind.
As the Research Tour trip began, I felt as though I had a good perspective on what to expect from the history of Puerto Rican culture based on our discussions in the Black Thought Collective. Taking this knowledge with me on the tour I was excited to gain a more modern view of the culture and society. With the progression of the trip, one of the most memorable moments for me that is a representation of Puerto Rican culture is our trip to Loiza. This was very enlightening to me because while the exterior of the city may not be an “ideal” living situation – the houses, building and overall physical appearance – the people possess an extreme amount of talent and passion for their culture and heritage. Artist Samuel Lind is a wonderful example of a person documenting and paying homage to one’s origins and culture. This trip to Loiza has helped my perspective on my purpose and place in African American culture in the United States. It is very important that we not only focus on where we are presently and hope to be in the future, we must also remember the rich heritage and origins from where we came. This is our duty as emerging leaders.
Now that the Research Tour to Puerto Rico is coming to a close, I am so appreciative for this experience not only because this is my first trip outside the continental U.S., but also because it has taught me a lot about the expansion of the black community on a broader scale. I am currently taking an Early American and Colonial literature course where we have been discussing colonialism and European influence on indigenous people and, while being here in San Juan and Loiza, the various influences are very prevalent. The fusion of Spaniard influence, African influence, and Indian influence is demonstrated in the food, music, mannerisms, and architecture. The passion for Puerto Rican culture and society is a celebrated experience. I am glad to have had the opportunity to witness first hand for a few moments.