15 Feb How to Celebrate Black History Month in Puerto Rico
Mark Chesnut • Latinflyer.com
Black History Month is a time to celebrate the African diaspora and recognize its struggle and contributions around the country and around the world. And Puerto Rico is no exception.
For an expert overview about how to celebrate Black History Month in Puerto Rico, we turned to Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, co-founder of Corredor Afro, a project that documents the historical and contemporary African-based traditions of Puerto Rico and the diaspora. She’s also the president of the Creative Justice Initiative and founder of the Caribbean Cultural Center and African Diaspora Institute in New York City. Members of the Corredor Afro team also contributed their thoughts. Discover Puerto Rico is another great resource for anyone planning a Puerto Rico vacation, with lots of great ideas about things to do in Puerto Rico.
How would you describe the importance of African heritage and culture in Puerto Rico? Moreno Vega: African descendent traditions, ancestral knowledge, and experiences in Puerto Rico are central to our racial and cultural identity. The identity that is us! It is also foundational to the construction of the country. Like many other countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, Puerto Rico was built on the backs of the enslaved people brought from Africa. Black men and women are an integral part of the culture but have not been given that place in official history. From art, music, gastronomy, language accent, and overall culture, as you walk down any Puerto Rican street and specifically in predominantly black and afro communities, it is evident that we are unequivocally afro.
Is there greater awareness and appreciation now for this aspect of Puerto Rican history and culture?
Corredor Afro Team: There is still much to do, but we do feel there is greater awareness and greater interest among people at all levels of society, especially young people in searching and discovering their history, who they are, and where they come from. Afro-descendants in Puerto Rico and the community in general are slowly but surely starting to explore their traditions and African roots.
In a period in which racial and social justice are critical to framing a narrative of equity, bringing visibility to our African heritage as part of the tapestry that is Puerto Rico, government officials, scholars, institutions, universities, and organized communities must bring the needs of African descendants’ communities to the forefront of the Puerto Rican social and cultural agenda.
What’s your advice for visitors looking to experience the many facets of African heritage on the island?
Corredor Afro Team: Plan, reach out to knowledgeable locals, and explore beyond the San Juan Area. The municipality of Loíza is at the center of the afro Puerto Rican and afro Caribbean experience of the island, just minutes away from the tourist destination of San Juan. Other municipalities are also great places to start, like Ponce, Mayaguez and Humacao.
In addition to viewing, tasting, and listening to elements related to African heritage, do you know of any “hands-on” opportunities where visitors might be able to learn dances, create art, or learn to cook? (Obviously the pandemic has affected our ability to interact for now, but thinking about future visits…)
Moreno Vega: Throughout the island communities, Afro Puerto Rican community-based cultural organizations welcome visitors from all over the world. Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI) is one of them, where Bomba and Drums traditional workshops occur.
Also, cultural-natural ecosystem immersion happens via bicycles and kayaks. At COPI, located in the municipality of Loiza, Puerto Rico, visitors will have the opportunity to rent bikes and kayaks to experience the mangroves and lagunes that have been part of the surrounding predominantly Black community’s daily life and livelihoods.
Corredor Afro, created by Maricruz Rivera Clemente, founder of COPI, and Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, president of Creative Justice Initiative, is a project designed to share multidisciplinary experiences focused on documenting the historical and contemporary African-based traditions of Puerto Rico and the Diaspora. Corredor Afro offers curated experiences grounded in the African legacy. For visitors interested in cultural immersion and conscious tourism, we arrange and provide culturally sensitive experiences such as workshops on African Religions, Art History, Silkscreen, Mosaic, and Visual Arts. Both Corredor Afro and COPI offer educational, cultural grounding experiences at their locations and through various locations in the area of Pinones – Loiza.
More Ways to Explore African Influences in Puerto Rico (from Discover Puerto Rico)
- Cuisine– Numerous popular Puerto Rican dishes date back to African influences including mofongo, bacalaitos, and pasteles. El Burén de Lula, recognized by James Beard, is a small and immensely popular eatery in the popular town of Loiza to experience authentic African influenced cuisine.
- Art– Many museums throughout the Island have permanent exhibitions of African culture and have gained international recognition including Museo de Arte de Ponce, Museo De Las Americas, and Museo de Historia de Caguas. And, Samuel Lind Studio in Loiza is completely dedicated to African influence, solely. A new exhibition titled NEGRO/A/X Art Exhibit via Casa Afro in Piñones, Puerto Rico is also currently highlighting 20 afro-Puerto Rican artists, and a 3D virtual tour of the exhibit is offeredonline.
- Dance– One of the most breathtaking demonstrations of Afro-Puerto Rican heritage is the Bomba; a rhythm played by two or more drums guided by the dancer’s feet. Don Rafael Cepeda School of Bomba and Plena is one of the numerous places where visitors learn, during future trips. Musicians like Calma Carmona are available upon request for interviews about the African influence of the Island’s music.