Old San Juan. Via
It’s no secret that African influence is everywhere. From cuisine to fashion, dance, art, music and more, our ancestors pretty much helped shape the world’s identity. Historically, when Africans were stolen from the Motherland, their practices went with them. During a recent vacation to Puerto Rico, I saw firsthand the unified connections in African and Puerto Rican culture.
Lined with cobblestone roads, historical churches and vibrant, colorful colonial architecture, Old San Juan is the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico, with buildings dating from the 16th century. At 500 years old, the historical district has seen a lot, from European voyagers to conquistadors, enslaved Tainos, battles and generational shifts overall. During a sunset tour around the city, I gained primary knowledge from my enthusiastic tour guide Jorge and stood in the very same places some major events took place. One thing that stood out to me the most, was Jorge’s statement regarding African influence. “We have a large Black presence in Puerto Rico,” he said. “Africans contributed a lot to our culture, and we take pride in it.”
Coming from a strong Puerto Rican lineage, Noemi Torres agrees. “Just from history, a lot of the African culture that we have embedded in our Puerto Rican culture is from West Africa,” she said. “In my family, our African roots go back to Nigeria so that’s where I see a lot of influence. I see it in our cooking, in our music, in everything.”
Some influences Torres speaks of are jollof and arroz con gandules, both yellow rices — the first, a West African specialty, the latter, a Puerto Rican staple. Another dish is mofongo, made from fried mashed plantains and with roots in Angolan and West African cuisine. Other Puerto Rican dishes with African influence include bacalaitos and pasteles.
“These foods bring the family together,” Torres said. “For example, pasteles is not a thing one person can make. It’s possible, but these dishes are made to bring the family together because of their African influences.” According to Torres, in Puerto Rico, enslaved Africans were allowed to have gardens. The cooking that originates from Africa stems from those gardens and has never left the culture.
As a dance instructor, Torres is also acquainted with the influential instruments from the continent widely used in Bomba, a traditional Puerto Rican dance with an Afro-Latino lineage.
“Bomba definitely comes from African music,” she said. “We use a lot of drums in it, like the subidor and primo, which are like barrel drums, maracas, and fua, which are just two sticks played against the wood of barrels or another piece of wood.”
From Bomba also stemmed Plena, a hybrid musical form that combines some elements of Bomba but with more Spanish flair. As a way to politically protest and prepare to fight during the revolt, Torres said these musical styles were used as the voice of the people. In fact, she compares them to gospel hymns and their similar role in the Black community.
Musicians like Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso uphold that legacy. The Black singer was renowned for his Latin music inspired by social and political unrest. Alonso was so loved that when he passed, a life-size statue was built in his honor, in an Old San Juan plaza right across from his home where he always sang and fed pigeons.
As the daughter of a Puerto Rican and Black mother, Sierra Johnson didn’t fully step into her Puerto Rican heritage until she was older. Since the relationship between her mother and Puerto Rican grandfather was once strained, Johnson lacked a connection to the culture and therefore, didn’t feel comfortable claiming that part of her identity. Once the Maryland resident travelled to the island and met her family, however, that changed.
“When we got there, my husband said it all made sense, just seeing me interact with that side of my family,” Johnson said. “Looking back, I was always unintentionally walking in my truth, just from the foods I prefer and the Spanish words I naturally know.”
Although she identifies more with her Black heritage, Johnson said the similarities between the two cultures are apparent, especially in regards to the women in her family.
“I come from a family of strong and opinionated women. My [Puerto Rican] great-grandmother, aunts, cousins all conduct themselves the same way as my Black ones do,” she said. “It could be because they’re my family but I think in general, there are a lot of strong similarities in Puerto Rican and Black identities, especially women. We both have a strong sense of self, a strong sense of identity rooted in confidence and outspokenness.”
As a Black woman in the states, I often see pushback regarding Africa’s influences on culture. Torres’ family doesn’t do that, and Puerto Ricans seem more intentional about embracing their African heritage.
“Growing up, my mother never really said, ‘Hey, we are from African, Spaniard and Indian ancestry.’ It was just like, ‘This is what a Puerto Rican is.’ I don’t know if other families make that apparent, but for me personally, I just think it’s in our blood. We know that we are African.”
Although Torres doesn’t identify as Black, proudly claiming Puerto Rican as her ethnicity encompasses all of her identities. But aside from her African ancestry, she feels really close to Black culture because of the unified connections. That, and being raised with the same morals and ideals as Black families. Another shared parallel? The struggle.
“It’s sad to say but I think what mashes our cultures so well is the struggle. When Puerto Ricans came to the U.S., we were treated just as badly. We were in the ghettos of New York, constantly looked down upon. Yeah, there are some Puerto Ricans who are light skinned like me and are unfortunately racist, but deep down, Puerto Ricans and Blacks are truly the same, we just speak Spanish. There’s no denying the closeness. If you know the culture, if you know the history, then you definitely see the likeness every day.”
Sierra Allen is an Atlanta-based writer who considers herself a creative by nature and storyteller at heart. As a Black culture enthusiast, she writes with purpose and passion while highlighting local and national community-centered topics.