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Puertorriqueños de Estados Unidos: Identity, Arts, and Culture

Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States, located in the northeastern Caribbean. Puerto Rican migration to the mainland United States has largely been driven by economic necessity, whether of individuals’ needs to earn more to support themselves and their families, or large scale economic events such as the Great Depression and other economic downturns. Natural disasters such as hurricanes have also played a role. Puerto Ricans who work in the U.S. often go back and forth to the island as their career allows and may have homes in both places. Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland retain strong connections to their island and generally have a desire to preserve their cultural traditions wherever they may live. The American Folklife Center has many collections documenting Puerto Rican culture. This blog will showcase event videos and collection items available online featuring Puerto Rican arts and culture among those who live or work on the mainland.

In 2013 Elena Martínez presented a lecture on her research on the strong sense of identity of Puerto Ricans in New York City. She also follows the history of Puerto Ricans’ migration to New York. As is evident in her presentation, Puerto Rican culture has many influences, from its Spanish history, its indigenous Arawakan or Taino roots, the traditions brought to Puerto Rico by Africans, Puerto Ricans’ interactions with other Caribbean island cultures, influences from South and Central America and Mexico, and the many influences of ethnic groups in the continental United States. Her title is a reference to a poem, “Boricua en la Luna,” a poem by Juan Antonio Corretjer (1908-1985).

During the Great Depression Puerto Rico suffered an even worse economic crisis than other parts of the United States and many Puerto Ricans migrated to the mainland to find work and help support their families in Puerto Rico. Sidney Roberson Cowell documented Puerto Rican singers as part of the WPA California Folk Music Project. Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Losada, all migrants to California, sang songs from their heritage. In the player below you can listen to Elinor Rodriguez singing a sad song about the Great Depression in Puerto Rico “Bolero Sentimental.” Other examples include Cruz Losada singing a dance song, “La Pajaro Pinta” (The gay bird), which is also used as a children’s song, and the patriotic song, “La Tierruca,”performed by Aurora Calderon. More examples of songs as well as photographs of the singers can be found at this link.

Three young women pose around a small table.

Aurora Calderon, Elinor Rodriguez, and Cruz Losada. WPA California Folk Music Collection. Sidney Robertson Cowell, collector, 1939. Library of Congress

The cuatro is a Spanish-Caribbean instrument related to the Spanish guitar that is strongly identified with Puerto Rican music. A folk instrument, the cuatro varies in size and in the way it is strung. Although it was called the “cuatro” because the original instrument had four strings, later a fifth string was added. Today there are six and eight string cuatros as well. In addition they may have single strings like a guitar, or doubled strings like a mandolin. The cuatro is officially a national instrument of the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and celebrated on November 17, el día del Cuatro y del Cuatrista Puertorriqueño. In Working in Paterson, a field project of the American Folklife Center, Manuel Rodriguez describes for Tom Carroll how his cuatro was made:  “My Cuatro was made out of a wood called Palo Santo.” He also tells a story of a man who had a cuatro but did not play it, and what happened when they met: “You like to have a cuatro in your house because it is something you have to have in a Puerto Rican home.”

The Chicago Ethnic Arts Project survey was conducted in 1977 by the American Folklife Center at the request of the Illinois Arts Council to assess and document the status of ethnic art traditions in more than twenty ethnic communities in Chicago. It includes documentation of Puerto Rican music and events in 1977. Recordings of performances at El Romance Club include Los Amantes performing dance music, showcasing a performer playing a small electrified cuatro that appears to have six strings. Part one of the field recording of Los Amantes can be heard using the player below the photograph of the group, and  part 2 is also available at this link.

Three men holding musical instruments

Los Amantes at El Romance Club, Chicago, Illinois, 1977. Photo by Jonas Dovydenas. Chicago Ethnic Arts Project, Library of Congress.

The Lowell Folklife Project includes documentation of the Puerto Rican Festival in 1987 with recordings of several musical groups (information on the content of these recordings may be found on folklorist Tom Rankin’s recording logs at this link). The documentation includes recordings of a well known singer and cuatro player, Johnny Albino (1919-2011). He got his start in music playing for fellow service personnel in the U.S. Army during WWII. After the war his music took him to the mainland U.S. where he toured extensively as part of the group Los Panchos. Although his career led him to live and travel on the mainland, he always considered Puerto Rico his home. In this performance he is billed as Johnny Albino y su conjunto from Puerto Rico.

Three men holding musical instruments on a festival stage.

Johnny Albino y su conjunto from Puerto Rico at the Puerto Rican festival, Lowell, MA. Lowell Folklife Project Collection, Library of Congress. Photo by Tom Rankin, 1987.

Here is a recording of Johnny Albino playing cuatro with his band. This is the second of two recordings of the group. Although this includes traditional style music played on the cuatro, not all the music is Puerto Rican. At about 20:30 minutes into the recording the group performs the traditional Mexican song, “La Bamba,” made famous by Ritchie Valens. The song has become an anthem for Hispanic Americans. If you want to hear more music from this group, find the first recording of Johnny Albino and his  trio at this link.

Another master of the cuatro, Gabriel Muñoz from New Jersey, performed at the Library of Congress in 2016 as part of the group Gabriel Muñoz and Melodias Borinqueñas. Gabriel Muñoz was also interviewed by folklorist Stephen Winick. In this blog in Folklife Today, Winick presents both the concert video and the interview: “Homegrown Plus: Gabriel Muñoz and Melodias Borinqueñas” The cuatro Muñoz plays has the pear-shaped body that is most characteristic of the Puerto Rican cuatro. It is strung with double strings so that it has a mandolin-like sound.

A man playing a cuatro.

Gabriel Muñoz at the Library of Congress. Photo by Stephen Winick, Library of Congress.

This concludes this tour of some collections of Puerto Rican arts and music from the mainland in American Folklife Center collections. More information can be found in the new  guide American Folklife Center Collections: Puerto Rico. If you wish to explore Puerto Rican arts represented in other special collections of the Library of Congress, the PALABRA Archive has excellent recordings of Puerto Rican authors reading their poetry and fiction. As Elena Martínez explained in her talk in the video above, poetry and literature are important ways that Puerto Ricans express their cultural identity. In this example, Esmeralda Santiago explains “How to eat a guava,” and what the tastes and smells of Puerto Rico mean to her. Find more examples of Puerto Rican authors reading their work at this link.

Resources

American Folklife Center Collections: Puerto Rico (finding aid)

Martínez, Elena, ” I’d Still be Puerto Rican, Even if Born on the Moon: Documenting Puerto Rican Migration & Community through the Arts,” 2013 (video) Library of Congress

Martínez, Elena, “I’d Still Be Puerto Rican, Even if Born on the Moon Documenting Puerto Rican Migration and Community Through the Arts,” 2013 (PDF, essay)

Search for audio recordings of Puerto Rican authors and poets reading from their work, Library of Congress PALABRA Archive

Winick, Stephen, “Homegrown Plus: Gabriel Muñoz and Melodias Borinqueñas,” Folklife Today, November 23, 2018d

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