As we stated in our previous article under the series “Puerto Rican Culture”, being a Puerto Rican involves a rich mix of cultures due to various voyages across time.
Besides the Spanish and Taínos indigenous people heritage, African heritage also contributed to Puerto Rican culture.
In order to gain a general insight of Puerto Rico’s African heritage, we recommend a visit to the permanent exhibition rooms named “Herencia Africana” (African Heritage) and “Conquista y Colonización” (Conquest and Colonization) in the Museum of the Americas in Old San Juan. The information provided in the “African Heritage” exhibition room is based on the book titled “Herencia Africana” written by Dr. Ricardo Alegría. We share a summary of information available in this museum in regards to this topic as follows.
A few years after the Spaniards officially conquered Boriquén (known today as Puerto Rico), in 1510 African slaves were brought directly from Spain by Juan Ponce de León.
In 1517, King Charles I of Spain and V of Germany allowed to bring directly from Africa around 4,000 slaves to “La Española” (today comprised of Haiti and Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Jamaica, among others.
In 1531, the indigenous population had decreased significantly; thus, the indigenous workforce began to be substituted by the African slaves’. Until approximately 1540, gold mining was the principal economic activity in the island of Puerto Rico.
From around 1540 to half of the 16th century, the development of Spain’s colony involved an economy resulting from the sugar industry and import of African slaves. The African slaves became the main workforce of the commercial sugar industry.
By the end of the 16th century, the islands of Puerto Rico and “La Española” became the main sugar supplier of Castilla, Spain. By that time, there were at least 12 sugar refineries operating in Puerto Rico. The sugar refinery place was like a small town since it included the property of the sugar supplier, houses, shacks, churches, and buildings for the sugar grinding and elaboration.
As a result of the arrival of African slaves to Puerto Rico, ceremonial and popular African musical instruments, songs and dances left a footprint in the island and became part of its culture. Among such musical instruments are: the “bomba”, a wooden drum around 3 feet high and with a piece of leather to play the drum, a small drum known as “bongó”, and the “marimba”, a wooden box with wooden or flexible bars.
The word “bomba” is not only used to describe the 3-foot-high drum, but also is the name of an African music genre which Puerto Ricans lively dance to as part of their folklore. Another traditional Puerto Rican music genre with African roots is the “plena”.
At the end of the gallery exhibition in the “African Heritage” room, we had the chance to see pictures of “vejigantes”, which represent a traditional folkloric character of African roots festivals celebrated in Puerto Rico. Their vivid color costumes and handcrafted masks made of coconut are worth to see at these festivals.
The Museum of the Americas is located in Cuartel de Ballajá, Old San Juan. You may access the museum’s contact information by clicking the corresponding link below this article.