Cultures of resistance in this country pre-date the formation of the United States, and reflect the resistance to enslavement and colonization, which would eventually give birth to the US. Beginning in the Caribbean, on an island whose history of resistance is not only long, but also still active today as a colony fighting for independence, Puerto Rico is home to the powerful tradition of bomba. While this unit focuses on 20th century cultural history, and bomba’s origins precede this era by nearly 500 years, the tradition has endured throughout these centuries and is still practiced today. What’s more, in the early 20th century bomba gave birth to another Afro-Boricuan tradition, plena, whose emergence “coincided with the consolidation of the Puerto Rican working class.” As Juan Flores writes, “Many of the best-known plenas, from the earliest times on, tell of strikes, working conditions and events of working-class life; they give voice, usually in sharp ironic tones and imagery, to the experience of working people in all its aspects.”4 As plena became more popular in Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S, particularly in New York City, its working class roots were lost for several decades. Alongside bomba, in the 1950s and 1960s both interrelated traditions saw a renewal and a reconnection to their radical roots.
As the 2020 documentary called “Why Puerto Rican Bomba Music Is Resistance” explains, bomba was developed in the 1500s in Puerto Rico by enslaved Africans as an expression of freedom and a form of resistance. A bomba gathering is called a “bámbula,” which translates to a practice of re-remembrance. In the face of kidnapping and enslavement, the tradition of bomba is a remembrance of home, a connection to community, and an assertion of humanity and freedom. Bomba was also a form of communication, which bridged language and cultural differences among Africans of different ethnic groups. The language of bomba drumming and dancing told stories, spread news, and even organized revolts. Thus, this cultural form was not only an expression of humanity, but also a tool for revolution and liberation.
Ivelisse Diaz, a vocalist member of Bomba Con Buya, describes the art form: “Bomba is the oldest genre of Puerto Rico, tracing back to our African roots. It tells the story of our ancestors. It is meant for healing. It is a time traveling genre. And it’s Black music!”5 The tradition of bomba is a reminder of the often-erased Black identity of many Puerto Ricans who are Afro-descendants. Natasha S. Alford traces this erasure, as well as a celebration of Blackness in her personal history and in Puerto Rico more broadly, in her 2020 documentary, “Afro-Latinx Revolution: Puerto Rico.” Bomba is featured prominently in the documentary given its uniquely Afro-Boricuan origin.
Given its revolutionary history, it’s not surprising that bomba music and dance have been present more recently at Ricky Renuncia protests, May Day rallies, and other uprisings in Puerto Rico, as well as at Black Lives Matter protests in both Puerto Rico and mainland US.
Bomba and Freedom - Questions, Connections, and Activities
- Why is Puerto Rican racial identity so diverse? What is the history behind this?
- How can music and dance be an act of resistance and a tool for liberation?
- How is bomba, a 500-year-old tradition from Puerto Rico, connected to the contemporary Movement for Black Lives?
- Bomba performances at BLM rallies
- New Haven’s Movimiento Cultural Afro-Continental (MCAC)
- Opener - analyze tweet about Puerto Rican racial identity (found in resource section below)
- Analyze maps of the transatlantic slave trade to understand that a large percentage of enslaved people disembarked in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico
- Read about Hatuey and other Indigenous Taínos who allied with enslaved Africans to resist Spanish colonizers
- Watch either/both documentaries, “Why Puerto Rican Bomba Music Is Resistance” and “Afro-Latinx Revolution: Puerto Rico” (both pasted in resources below), and discuss