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There’s a board game we play in our family called Puerto Rico. It’s one those long strategy games with lots of pieces and lots of rules. Some people in our family love it (me, my husband, my dad) and some people (ahem my mom) hate it.
My mom, who was a high school Spanish teacher, does always like to regale us with Puerto Rican history while we play though. Especially about the Taínos and Jibaros who escaped to the mountains. (There’s a Puerto Rican mountain on the game board, which is why this always comes up.)
All this to say, Puerto Rican history and the mix of cultures and people groups has been something I’ve definitely thought about before. But during my trip to Puerto Rico for the Women in Travel Summit, I also go to experience the important African history in Puerto Rico.
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A Brief History of Afro-Puerto Ricans
There’s a really long a deep history here. And there is not way I can do it justice in this brief article. So let me just give you a summary, and please forgive everything I’m leaving out.
Puerto Rico, like so many other islands in the Caribbean, was once colonized by the Spanish. There were already indigenous people living there (the Taínos) who had arrived from South America. And of course, once the Spanish arrived they brought along enslaved people. So there have been Africans in Puerto Rico for a long time.
Loíza, Puerto Rico once became a haven for people who had escaped enslavement. Our guide to the area told us that because of Loíza’s unique geography being in a mangrove forest, it was a good place for these people to hide. And as a result, an Afro-Puerto Rican community built up.
Afro-Puerto Rican Culture in Loíza
If you’re visiting Puerto Rico and want to get a taste of the rich Afro-Puerto Rican culture that is there, a trip to Loíza is the perfect place to go. Here’s a sampling of what you can find there!
La Bomba is the traditional dance of Afro-Puerto Ricans. It began as a way for enslaved people to express themselves and has continued as an iconic and important dance for Black Puerto Ricans today.
There are three parts to la Bomba: the dancer, the singer, and the musicians. Traditionally it is played on drums that were once made from hollowed out trees, but now they usually use barrels.
The dance is also an entire conversation. It’s all about communication as the drummers take cues from the dancer to understand the rhythm and the dancer always acknowledges the drummers as they enter the floor. Because the whole dance depends on the drummer and dancer communicating, traditionally only one main person can be dancing la Bomba at a time.
There are a couple places you can learn about la Bomba in Loíza. First at COPI, which is a cultural center in Piñones. There they offer bike and kayak rentals, and generally they have Bomba workshops on Saturdays. If you want to visit, I suggest calling ahead to make sure you know when they are going to be open and offering the workshop.
You may also be lucky and catch la Bomba at El Batey de Ayala. This is a local home and artisan shop that also sometimes has Bomba demonstrations in the yard. There isn’t a dependable schedule though, so don’t necessarily count on this one.
Art in Loíza
A deep history likes the one Loíza has often cultivates rich art. And that’s definitely the case here.
At El Batey de Ayala, you can visit the shop where you can buy coconut masks that are used in traditional festivals (see more on that below).
Across the street from El Batey de Ayala, you can visit the home and art studio of the incredible artist Samuel Lind. He truly does it all: painting, screen printing, sculpture, and probably more. You can tour his home studio where you’ll see finished paintings and sculptures as well as works in progress.
Lind strives to capture the rich culture of Loíza. His Bomba paintings have energy and fire, while his paintings of the mangrove forests surrounding Loíza capture that unique beauty.
Besides the beautiful art, my favorite thing was seeing his studio in progress. It’s the kind of space where you can see the creativity flowing, because there is just art EVERYWHERE.
Fiesta de Santiago Apóstol
The Fiesta de Santiago Apóstol is the most important festival in Loíza. It celebrates St. James, who was believed to have appeared in Loíza, and so Loíza has adopted him as their patron saint.
If you want to experience the best Loíza has to offer, this is the time to come. It’s a multi-day festival that begins on July 24 and goes through July 28 each year. There is dancing and music and parades. You’ll see the traditional coconut masks made by the Ayalas with spikes that represent evil or the Moors which were conquered by St. James. Yes, this is a little confusing considering this is an African heritage town, but it is what it is and just know the Christian traditions of having a festival for a saint have also mixed with the African traditions and the deity Changó. So all that to say, it’s a nuanced and complicated history.
But if you want to go and experience Afro-Puerto Rican culture at its most lively, la Fiesta de Santiago Apóstol in late July is definitely the time to go!
Travel Tip: If you want to experience the culture of Loíza and are maybe a little unsure about finding it on your own, consider booking a guided tour that can take you to the right spots and tell you all about the history.
Why Is This Important?
Obviously, there’s been a lot of focus in telling the stories of underrepresented communities across a variety of industries in the past few years. And it’s not different in travel.
But telling the stories of communities like the one in Loíza go beyond just highlighting diversity for diversity’s sake. Because it’s about the PEOPLE there.
Puerto Rico has become a vacation haven recently. And as storms have pushed native Puerto Ricans out of the country in some cases, other people have tried to capitalize on this. There are people who want to turn Puerto Rico into a luxury paradise. And while there are definitely some great luxury experiences to be had on the island, that’s not what makes Puerto Rico what it is.
It’s places like Loíza that matter. That get to the heartbeat of Puerto Rico’s culture. And if we’re not talking about the stories and people of places like this, I worry sometimes that money will talk too loudly and we’ll loose the richness of these kinds of cultural heritage towns.
Which is a good reminder for wherever you are traveling. Do you best to find the places and the people and culture that isn’t necessarily what you see when you open Instagram. Because they matter.