On November 1st the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center of Cleveland, Ohio celebrated their 25th anniversary with a live salsa band, a traditional Boricua feast, performances and Bomba music.
Founded in 1989 by Daisy Rivera, the center serves as a center for the wellness and education of Cleveland’s Puerto Rican community by teaching Boricua cultural traditions and instilling pride in the youth. Julia de Burgos also provides workshops of all kinds and hosts celebrations that fortify Cleveland’s Puerto Rican population. In a city that isn’t nationally recognized for having a strong Boricua history like New York City or Chicago, Julia de Burgos Cultural Art Center is imperative. The 25th anniversary was special. Bomba drummers from Chicago, Santurce and Carolina, came to celebrate with us by presenting our music. Before they performed I was given the opportunity to converse with them about their musical experiences and the various cultural projects that they were working on and implementing. Through that conversation I remembered why I needed Bomba and why I became a writer.
Bomba is storytelling but a very special kind of storytelling. The music began in the cañaverales throughout Puerto Rico, primarily in Mayagüez, Santurce, Loíza, and Ponce, by enslaved African peoples. Bomba served as a healing ritual for Puerto Ricans to dance, drum, and tell stories, while momentarily escaping the pains of slavery.
Dr. Pablo Luis Rivera of Grupo Restauración Cultural mentions that Bomba was and always will be resistance music, because of its historical political value and its present day political value. Like any other Latin American, Spanish-speaking country, when people think of Puerto Rico they don’t always remember Africa. We dance salsa on Friday nights and every holiday forgetting that the timbales that we hear behind Hector Lavoe’s voice would not exist without the presence of African identity in Puerto Rico.
Jonathan Pacheco of Bomba con Buya in Chicago mentioned that he’s tired of the stereotypes that come with being Puerto Rican. Rafael Maya agreed while makeshift drumming on the table he smiled and said “we have to bring to light our black heritage. There is a commonality between blacks in Latin America and the Caribbean and Bomba offers insight into that.”
Because society as a whole is rooted in anti-blackness, the link between Puerto Rico and Africa is often weakened or completely ignored. This intentional phenomenon is complicated and causes conflict in Puerto Rican communities including the erasure of Boricuas who physically appear more African, but hay esperanza. Dr. Rivera explained to me that part of the mission of Grupo Restauración Cultural was to fortify that link. The best way to fortify the link between African diaspora cultures and Africa is to acknowledge that it exists and adamantly present it to others. We have to understand that – without an African presence en la isla Puerto Rican culture would not be what we all know and adore as Puerto Rican culture.
While I was getting to know the Bomba performers, I also spoke with Gil Cody, the educator, African Diaspora enthusiast, and drummer who was responsible for bringing the Bomba groups to Cleveland. He told the attendees how he was trying to strengthen the “Bomba scene” in Cleveland – one way is by giving Bomba lessons and hosting a group at the cultural arts center a few months before. He also assured me that I needed to join the new group. After I told him that I would join, he asked me to dance with him during that night’s performance, which I politely refused to do. These drummers didn’t know who I was and they weren’t from my city but still they all warmly encouraged me. Everyone was relentless.
They continued to encourage me and when I said I hadn’t really danced professionally; Lauren Brooks and Ivelisse Díaz of Bomba con Buya explained to me that Bomba wasn’t about how much experience one has moving a skirt rather it was about our actual experience as living sons and daughters of the Diaspora. It was about the resilience from which we come. I jokingly tried to look for excuses but then I remembered what one of my most meaningful mentors, former political prisoner Dylcia Pagán, said to me, “Always dance Bomba, negrita. It’s a part of your essence.” She was right. Just like breathing, Bomba was an indispensable characteristic of my being. I put on the skirt and as I nervously moved it in front of people who had never seen me dance, I realized that Bomba was more than passion, more than stage performance, more than making the audience happy. It was my story. It was where I came from. It was my existence.
I began publishing a personal blog a little over a year ago on my wordpress account. My essays were usually tiny slivers of my soul and pieces of the stories wise “abuelitas” would share with me. Some of the essays were dark, others were light. Some were rants and some were lessons to be celebrated but I did it because our stories matter. Part of being proud, whether this involves being proud to be Puerto Rican, proud to be a negra, proud to be who you are, is discovering every essence of your soul. Every time I write I rediscover myself and every time I dance Bomba I rediscover Puerto Rico and the resilience of my ancestors. Once you begin the journey to self-discovery, loving yourself becomes easier. Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center, Grupo Restauración Cultural, and Bomba con Buya are teachers with a mission to encourage people to self-discover. Once the “students” and communities understand the pureza from which they come, they develop a stronger love for themselves. Resilient self-love is what leads to a better world.
My conversation with the Bomba drummers and dancers, and the experiences that I have had with Julia de Burgos Cultural Art Center of Cleveland will always remind me why my people and I matter. The passion that I saw on the faces of every performer, board member, volunteer, and staff member of Julia de Burgos Cultural Art Center and the passion that I saw on the faces of every drummer and performer of the various bomba groups that celebrated with us was irresistibly contagious. Our communities need healing but having the passion to celebrate ourselves is a great start. The beat of our drums are pieces of resistance, necessary for survival, and serve as reverence for the ancestors. Bomba cannot be separated from our existence even in the midst of battling white supremacy. The beat of our drums will always matter not just because they can and will captivate the entire body regardless of how hard you try to hold it in; but because, like our stories, the beat of our drums is intrinsically who we are.