Loiza—the African heart of Puerto Rico and the arts that portray it

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Loiza—the African heart of Puerto Rico and the arts that portray it

Some background for those of you who are not familiar with Puerto Rico or Loiza:

Location of Loíza in Puerto Rico

Loíza (Spanish pronunciation: [loˈisa]) is a small town and municipality on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, north of Canóvanas; east of Carolina; and west of Río Grande. Loíza is spread over 5 wards and Loíza Pueblo (The downtown area and the administrative center of the city). It is part of the San Juan-Caguas-Guaynabo Metropolitan Statistical Area.

A quick census check of the population shows Loiza with anywhere from 26,000 to 30,000 people. Data are not available for 2017, and there is no assessment yet of how Irma and Maria have affected the numbers.

Population Demographics

67% of the population and 64.7% of families were below the poverty line. Out of the total population, 62.3% of those under the age of 18 and 59.5% of those 65 and older were living below the poverty line.

The municipality has the highest concentration of Afro-Puerto Ricans on the island.

Culture

One of Loíza’s barrios, Loíza aldea, is famous across Puerto Rico because it has been a talent pool for dancers and artisans. Formerly a center for black Puerto Rican music, it is said to be the traditional birthplace of the musical form known as plena along with Ponce.

At this point, I am going to digress from the main topic of this post because while I was writing I decided that I wanted to describe my own experiences going to Loiza. Memories kept flooding in and guiding my fingers, so I will go with the flow.

My first visit was in the early ‘70s, and it was brief. I was traveling with two other members of the Young Lords Party and we arrived in Puerto Rico to meet with Puerto Rican leftists. Two of us, Pablo ‘Yoruba’ Guzmán and I, were wearing afros. This created a minor stir, and sadly some of those leftists had difficulty with our stance on Puerto Rico’s Afro-Taino heritage. I remember quite well our short trip out of San Juan to go to eat in Loiza and the smiles that greeted us from the owner of the restaurant and the patrons. Our militant blackness was not out of place there.

Fast-forward to early 2000, and I was working on an HIV-AIDS harm reduction project. Research was being conducted in the Puerto Rican community of New York City and on the island. On one of my trips to the island, in a conversation with one of the key researchers, I put in a request to collect some survey data from black Puerto Ricans specifically. I was taken aback by her response: “No hay negros en Puerto Rico” (there are no blacks in Puerto Rico) she said, dismissively. My attempts to discuss the subject were shutdown, and though I got a clear message from eye contact with other researchers in the room that they didn’t agree with her, she was senior to them and they stayed quiet. I pushed, and asked to go to Loiza. She looked at me and said, “Absolutely not—those people are too dangerous.” That was a truly weird response, since we were conducting some of our research in very dangerous venues like drug sale locations and in “shooting galleries” (drug injection sites). I concluded that “those people” meant those black people who didn’t exist. I pushed, and she denied me an assigned outreach worker (we always traveled with one). I violated (ignored) her dismissal, and decided to set out to Loiza on my own. I inquired about a cab at the front desk of my hotel. Loiza is about a half-hour drive from San Juan. They told me it would be $100. Yikes! Couldn’t afford to pay that out of my pocket. I went back to my room and waited for the housekeeping maid to come in, as we had already exchanged some conversation. She was black. I asked her how I could get to Loiza via public transportation and she grinned. She had family there and gave me directions on how to catch a guagua  (bus). I think the cost was under a dollar at the time. On the way, I stopped off at Piñones to visit the food kiosks on the beach to stuff myself with alcapurrias, bacalaítos, pasteles, and other fast-fried Puerto Rican specialty foods. All of the vendors I encountered were black, and many were women.

Here’s a tourist news video:

I got back on a bus and was seated next to a middle-aged black woman who had a crate of chickens with her. We introduced ourselves and when I told her I was from New York, she told me about all her relatives in the Bronx. When I mentioned to her how much I admired the history of Loiza she smiled broadly and invited me to her home, which I took her up on later in the day. When we arrived in Loiza she left to walk home, reminding me to visit. But before leaving she turned me over to a policeman (who was black), telling him “She’s from New York and is really interested in Loiza.” He grinned, and said, “Let me show you around,” adding, “I have cousins in the Bronx.” (I have to tell you that given my past adversarial relationship with cops in NYC, I was amazed). He spent the next hour walking with me, sharing stories about Loiza and its history.

The Loiza River

We went to where the river meets the sea, and I picked up a small stone to bring home with me as a token of remembrance of “dos aguas,” a spiritual entity combining river and ocean.

The river is the subject of one of the most well known poems of the Afro-Boricua activist and feminist Julia de Burgos.

Rio Grande de Loiza! . . . Great river. Great flood of tears

The greatest of all our island’s tears

save those greater that come from the eyes

of my soul for my enslaved people.

He ended his tour with a trip to the mayor’s office. He escorted me in and introduced me to the mayor, Ferdín Carrasquillo Ayala, who was black. He greeted me warmly, asked me about my interest in Loiza, and asked me if I had family in Loiza (I told him my husband’s family was from Ponce). He then told me about his cousins in New York.

After leaving his office, I went to search for a family who were relatives of one of my clients in NYC, “Junito” who was born and raised in Loiza and was in drug treatment in NYC. I was very surprised when I met him: he was a very, very white-skinned Puerto Rican and when he told me he was born and raised in Loiza, he saw my surprised response and laughed. He told me his nickname growing up was “vaso leche” (glass of milk). His wife was an ebony-skinned black Puerto Rican woman and I remember him stating that he was ensuring that his kids would be a “proper color.”

I’m going to end my digression here and get back to the Loiza which is the heart of much of the African tradition on the island. I will add one more thing: I had a wonderful time with “those people.”

In the art world of both painting and sculpture, one name associated with Puerto Rico, Loiza, blackness, African spirituality, and culture stands out above all the rest: Samuel Lind.

In “Samuel Lind Hernandez: The Glory of Loiza,” Eugenio Hopgood writes:

Artwork created by Samuel Lind Hernandez is inseparable to his roots at Barrio (district) Mediania Alta in Loiza, the most important epicenter of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. Lind was raised in a palm grove in between the road and the beach eating crabs and cassava and drinking coconut milk. He was given paper by his uncle to make notebooks and sketch the people of the town.  High energy bomba dances comprised of sensual moves, famous in Loiza as well as the festive processions and religious traditions in honor of Patron Saint San Miguel Arcangel, provided the inspiration for his first paintings as an adolescent and can still be seen in his art today.

“My first formal painting was of a bomba dance, that is very powerful here; I had that sense of wanting to capture this dance graphically with all of its energy and force,” said the 63-year-old Lind during an interview from his workshop in Loiza, where he has lived and worked his entire life.

At San Juan’s School of Plastic Arts, where he paid for his studies offering drum lessons at several local churches; Lind studied the techniques of painting, sculpture, and silk screen painting.

“It (School of Plastic Arts) served to learn the basics and history of art, which is important, but nothing took me away from my perception of who I was. I was too attached to my heritance; I was born in a house where a saint is maintained…I had an upbringing here that was my world, my universe,” Lind said. Maintaining a saint is part of the tradition in Loiza where the statue of San Miguel Arcangel guarded the house of a distinguished family in the community, who had the right to take care of it and was responsible to take it to the annual processions during the month of July.

“What differentiates my work is that I am very regionalist but now that’s ‘in’ according to the world of art,” Lind said. “Today this distinctiveness gives the artist more value. When I was at the School of Plastic Arts some would say my work wouldn’t transcend because it was too folkloric.” It was a derogatory comment, reproaching at times his desire to project his Afro-Puerto Rican culture.

Too folkloric? The levels of racism and classism in that remark leave me almost speechless. However, I’ve heard too many similar putdowns and dismissals of artists of color to be truly surprised.

Third World Newsreel distributed a short film about Lind and his work as both artist and activist. The trailer is below.

Samuel Lind’s Coastal World
This documentary captures the colors, music and culture that inspire the art of Samuel Lind, an Afro-Puerto Rican painter, graphic artist and sculptor. Originally from Loiza, Puerto Rico, Lind celebrates Afro-Puerto Rican culture in his work and is inspired by the Santiago Apostle Festivities, the popular bomba music and dance, local personalities and the beauty of the east coast scenery. Also an activist, Lind heads a movement to stop gentrification in his beloved coastal town.

Samuel Lind’s Coastal World

Lind’s work is on display in a number of videos, and a simple Google search of his name will bring up hundreds of photos of his work. Visit his webpage at fineartamerica.

One of Lind’s most outstanding and spiritual tributes to African spirituality is his sculpture of the Yoruba orisha (deity) Osain, which is in el Jardín Botánico y Cultural William Miranda Marín de Caguas (The cultural and Botanical Garden in Caguas), Puerto Rico. Please take a look. There’s another photo here with the description, “It was believed that to escape from the Spanish, the Africans hid in nature and became the trees.”

Samuel Lind in his studio with his Osain sculpture
Samuel Lind in his Loiza studio with his Osain sculpture

Osain or Osanyin is revered throughout the Caribbean, Brazil, and here in the mainland United States by practitioners of African diasporic religious traditions who use wild herbs (ewe) as the fundamental part of initiatory and healing practices.

Here is more of Lind’s art, with music

I really wanted to do a phone interview with Samuel Lind for this piece. Daily Kos member Bobby Neary, who is in Puerto Rico, has tried to reach him butit seems Lind’s landline phone is still out. (It’s probably for the best, since I don’t know how well my Spanglish would hold up.) Instead I had a long conversation (in English) about Lind and other artists whose focus is Afro-Puerto Rican culture.

One does not have to go to Puerto Rico to see Puerto Rican art that is African-influenced. I live in New York’s Hudson Valley, and have the pleasure of knowing Pablo Shine.

Pablo Shine was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1961. He first studied painting under the direction of his father, Professor James Shine at the Art Student League in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1978 he became a member and co-founder of “Workshop 78”, a nonprofit organization, directed by his father, to promote young talent in the field of visual arts in San Juan.

From 1980 to 1983 he furthered his studies in art history, painting and printmaking at the University of Puerto Rico and the Interamerican University in San Juan. During that time he also exhibited his work in many art galleries and museums of the Island including the Ponce Art Museum, the Institute of Puertorrican Culture and Botello Gallery. In 1983 he continued his studies in art at SUNY New Paltz where he earned a Masters degree in Fine Arts in 1988.

Since 1983 he has had many exhibitions in the Hudson Valley area, NYC, Washington DC, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Gallery showings include Caiman Gallery(NYC), Ariel Gallery (NYC), Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (NYC) and Cueto Gallery in San Juan, just to name a few. Pablo’s work is presently represented in the area by Wired Gallery in High Falls. His painting “Graceful Warrior” recently won the first prize award at Woodstock Artist Association & Museum.

Pablo notes:

My work is inspired by a variety of sources…The flora and folklore of my native Puerto Rico. The African presence, manifested in the music and spirituality, brought to the island by the African slaves during the age of colonization.

Pablo brought to my attention other Puerto Rican artists who are noted for their Afro-Boricua focus. One is a cousin of Samuel Lind, Daniel Lind Ramos.

The accomplished African-Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos paints on canvas with oil, brushes, and spatulas, meticulously blending colors, layering textures, and shaping images. He also works with common cardboard, wire screen, discarded appliances, car parts, the refuse of coconut palm trees, broken musical instruments and used articles of everyday domestic and agricultural labor. Local artisans in his hometown of Loíza, the seat of Puerto Rico’s African cultural heritage, use these materials as well to create the dynamic masks of the characters for the annual Fiestas of Santiago Apóstol.

He is the subject of “Daniel Lind Ramos and the Visual Politics of Race in Puerto Rican Art” by Fabienne Viala

The tale of miscegenation in Puerto Rico is mainly a Taíno/Hispanic one that excludes Blackness. The fact that the Black component was not integrated in the commemorative 1992 events had to do with the official definition of Puerto Rican cultural identity as the homogeneous result of a Spanish and Indian encounter. It goes without saying that such a limited representation of Puerto Rican identity does not suit all the Puerto Ricans. When it comes to cultural politics, many artists, journalists, historians and educators work towards a more complex representation of their society, acknowledging not only that racism exists in Puerto Rico, that racial discrimination remains a common practice, but also that race is a taboo with damaging consequences (Bonilla Silva 2010). The novelist, professor and activist Mayra Santos Febres analysed how the fear of « everything black » lead to the silencing of Black Puerto Rican history in the school curricula and in the cultural representations on the island. Santos Febres showed that blackness is associated to irrationality, located in a cultural liminal space, characterised as non-intelligible, sensual, and primitive, as opposed to the values of civilization provided first by Spain, eventually by the USA. Black Antillean identity, in literature and arts, is associated with other Caribbean people coming from countries considered underdeveloped, such as the Dominicans, the Cubans or even « worse », the Haitians (Santos Febres 2009).

This is when Daniel Lind Ramos’s visual imagination becomes really interesting to understand and question race in Puerto Rico. Performance and visual arts are the cultural fields where the consensual cultural perspective of the Free Associated State has been strongly invalidated in Puerto Rico. More specifically, I consider Lind Ramos’s art pieces, from paintings to installations, to be a laboratory for addressing issues of race in relationship to identity, memory and belonging in Puerto Rico.

When I asked Pablo about his own journey as an artist and what led him to

Nadhiyr Velez playing bata drum

explore the African roots of Puerto Rican culture, I was shocked and surprised by his answer. He said, “Your husband.” I had no idea.

My husband is a black Puerto Rican drummer, singer, and priest of Ochosi  in the African-diasporic religious tradition of Lucumi.

Pablo said, “About 10 years ago I was looking for someone to do do folkloric music and spiritual music, and I took drumming lessons with Nadhiyr, rediscovering my roots and making connections with African culture on the islands. Before that I was doing other things with my art.”

“Recently Nadhiyr needed elephant images symbolic of Obatala to put on the neck of a shekere so I painted  them for him, and I am now painting elephants all the time.”

The art tradition rooted in Africa is entwined with dance, music, song, foods, and the use of language.

Stay tuned: Next Sunday we will explore bomba, the festivals on the island in Loiza and Ponce, and those here on the mainland that keep these vibrant traditions alive, passing them on to new generations.

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