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Honoring Afro-Puerto Ricans: P.R. Day Parade Edition

The 2015 edition of the Puerto Rican Day parade is fast approaching, and we tip our hats to their efforts to educate and showcase the experience of Puerto Ricans in the United States and the island. One of the greatest proofs of this is this year’s focus on the often overlooked African legacy on our Puerto Rican culture. The celebrations, which are scheduled for Sunday June 14th on New York’s Fifth Avenue, will be a platform to raise global awareness of the beauty and rich legacy of Afro-boricuas in the island and stateside. And because we are in the business of delving deep into the history, culture, and present of all things Puerto Rican, check out Centro’s glimpse into the great impact of the figures the Parade will honor: Carmelo Sobrino, Dra. Marta Moreno Vega, Arturo Schomburg (posthumous), Mayra Santos Febres, Angel "Cucco" Peña, Martina Arroyo, Sylvia del Villard and Miguel Zenon.  

Carmelo Sobrino—Painter, educator
Painter, muralist, sculptor, teacher, engraver. These are some of the few roles attributed to Sobrino. A consummate painter, Carmelo Sobrino came to the arts at a very early age by way of his grandmother with whom he went to live after his father’s passing. Grandma did not only craft musical instruments, she was also a woodworker. The seed was planted and Sobrino delved into the study of art in Puerto Rico that led him to study under some of Puerto Rico’s masters, including Fran Cervoni, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Rafael Tufiño and Augusto Marín. Once a master of the craft himself, he set to pass on his knowledge to new generations of artists through Taller Alacrán, which he founded alongside another one of Puerto Rico’s great Antonio Martorell, and later through Taller Capricornio. Despite the many accomplishments, what stands out when one first speaks with Carmelo is a brilliant, humble spirit and understated demeanor. "Do you come to Puerto Rico often?," he asked me mid-conversation during a recent phone interview. When I said yes, he responded, "When you come to P.R., call me. I'll treat you to coffee." He takes the time to make one feel welcomed and bring into his spotlight many other Puerto Rican heroes. 

Two of these, Juan Flores and Pedro Pietri, Carmelo met during the time he spent in New York City. In fact, Flores includes Sobrino, whose painting Salon de Calle graces the cover of his book The Diaspora Strikes Back, as a perfect example of transnational crossings for the artistic community in the island and New York, "Having been active in the island for over three decades..Sobrino felt impelled to spend some time in New York because some contact with the diaspora experience seemed to him necessary in order to attain a more complete knowledge of Puerto Rican culture." Carmelo settled in Harlem and spent most of his time in the streets, absorbing and observing the city. As he recalls, “When I was in NY, I would go to the streets and paint in the street. I would go to 42nd and paint New York’s bustle..I would take my canvas and would paint really huge pieces. I would set canvases as big as 4 feet by 5 feet on the avenue, and I would paint the flow of people…I still have a painting called What’s Cooking of the multitudes in the streets and What’s Happening…” According to Sobrino, whose paintings were some of the earlier paintings to be displayed at El Museo del Barrio, he learned much from New York's rich culture.    

Another culture he sees as central to Puerto Rico's collective history is African culture. When asked about this, Carmelo shares, “Afro-Antillean culture is involved in one of the biggest elements of culture--music--that dictates the rhythm and movement of a people…here [in Puerto Rico] all cultural manifestations permeate with our black roots...Blacks here left a cultural legacy in our genes and in our lives…in music itself. Salsa, and all those Afro-Antillean rhythms are a product of black culture…great important figures like Campeche, who is the greatest painter our country has produced and during his time was the greatest painter in all of America…maestro Cordero…we are a country with a great black influence…and even more than influence with a being. Without black roots, we would not be Puerto Rican.” Before we hang up, he adds, intent still on shining light on the contributions of other Puerto Ricans, “One of the best known black artists in the world…Jean-Michel Basquiat…is Haitian and Puerto Rican, whose mother Matilda introduced him to art and nurtured and strengthened that talent…for us Puerto Ricans it is an honor to have him as one of our own…Puerto Rican from New York…make sure to honor our friend, Flores, who was a very special friend.” That attention to others, to the world around him, to the greats around him, is the quiet incisiveness of Sobrino’s work—what makes him a master painter and a master human being.

Dra. Marta Moreno Vega—President and Founder, Caribbean Cultural Center
Marta Moreno Vega, a vibrant educator, has been an explorer of all things Puerto Rican, African diaspora, and Latino identity and culture almost from birth. This interest was most likely passed on to Moreno Vega through her parents and grandparents, all born and raised in Puerto Rico. They made sure to infuse her Puerto Rican culture into their home in New York. As she shared with Centro, "My parents painted the walls of our home with the colors of their beloved Puerto Rico. The aqua blue of the sea, the vibrant pink and yellow of homes, the green of the trees. Images of santos católicos, although we never went to church, and the fragrance of tuber roses were always present intermingles with the music of Ramito, Tito Puente and Celina y Reutilio singing to the Orishas." That spirit came to life as she came to her own. With a bachelor’s and master’s degree from NYU, and later a PhD from Temple University, she set to shine light onto the Hispanic arts. She soon became “a leading figure in the preservation and showcasing of Hispanic arts in the New York area.” Dr. Moreno Vega’s accomplishments are many, having founded the Amigos del Museo del Barrio, co-founded the Association of Hispanic Arts, and most recently co-founded the Global Afro-Latino and Caribbean Initiative in 2000. She is also a published author, and published The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions of Santeria in 2000 and  When the Spirits Dance Mambo: Growing Up Nuyorican in El Barrio in 2004. Her magna opus of sorts, however, is the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, which she founded in 1976 (then under the name of the Visual Arts Research and Resource Center Relating to the Caribbean).

The impetus to start the organization came during her tenure as the second director of New York City's El Museo Del Barrio. She recounts, "we recreated an exhibition entitled La Esclavitud focused on enslavement of Africans and its legacy in Puerto Rico. I was taken aback by the reaction of our communities' denial that the beauiful images they were viewing of Loíza and Ponce and other locations on the island, taken by photographer Hiram Maristany, were not Puerto Rico but somewhere else. The racist and discriminatory reactions of our own skin coloring reflected on the images on view made it clear that another organization was necessary to address the history, legacy and contributions of African descendants in the Americas." And so CCCADI was born to highlight the importance of the African experience in this region. Dr. Moreno Vega’s commitment to her community is evident in all of her work. So is her identity as an Afro-Puerto Rican woman. As she shared in a 2012 interview to New Latina, “As an Afro-Puerto Rican, mother and member of my family, I am clear that it is critical that the stories of my community be part of world history…Our communities are still invisible to broader communities because they are viewed as 'other' or 'minority'. We are not minorities, we are not others, we are an integral part of the fabric of this nation. Therefore our experiences and stories are to be made visible, respected and honored.” Through her efforts, Dr. Moreno Vega has not only managed to open up our understanding of these experiences and stories, she has become a story we must pass on.

Arturo Schomburg—Historian, Author and Activist
Arturo Schomburg is not a name one immediately associates with Puerto Rico. Yet it belongs to a man that deserves a prime spot in our book of Puerto Rican pioneers in the United States. Part of the reason he may not be as well known as his accomplishmnents warrant can be attributed to a circuitous trajectory. Schomburg provides a beautiful complexity that may help US Puerto Ricans, and even island Puerto Ricans, negotiating that odd relationship between the US and Puerto Rico breathe easier at night. He is the epitome of fluid identity. He was nationalist, Puerto Rican, intellectual, African American, Afro-boricua, poet, West Indian, historian all at once.

Schomburg has long been recognized (and if you haven’t been to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, what are you waiting for?) as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance and one that helped set the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement of later years. Yet, he has lurked within Puerto Rican history, slowly becoming a kind of quiet hero for other Puerto Ricans living in the intersections. Born in Puerto Rico in 1874, the son of a black West Indian mother and German father, Schomburg moved to the United States when he was 17. As Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof has written in "The Migrations of Arturo Schomburg: On Being Antillano, Negro, and Puerto Rican in New York 1891-1938," this was well before Puerto Ricans settled in droves in New York City and when Cubans were the biggest group of exiles in the city. He soon, as other Puerto Ricans of the time did, associated with the Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalists, and particularly the Partido Revolucionario Cubano and its Puerto Rican wing. He founded the revolutionary club, Las Dos Antillas, and became deeply involved in the movement. The nationalist cause, however, was not the only cause that defined him. Shrouded in the myth of racial democracy that evolved in Cuban and Puerto Rico nationalist causes was a space for Afro-Cubans and Afro-Puerto Ricans politics that did not necessarily exist back home.

No doubt, Schomburg’s commitment to uncovering and sharing the history of blacks (and particularly of black heroism) in the Caribbean and the United States took shape in this context. After the Spanish American War, the end of the Cuban Revolutionary struggle and the beginning of Puerto Rico's colonial relationship with the United States (coupled with the death of his wife in 1900), Schomburg became increasingly disillusioned with the nationalist cause and divorced himself (although never completely) from his nationalist identity, and the brand of racial politics the myth of racial harmony allowed. He delved deeper into black social circles, into middle class and intellectual African American circles that birthed the Harlem Renaissance, and adopted a pan-African ideology, which he articulated in a myriad of ways. Most significant was his zeal for collecting and writing the history of blacks across the globe, which not only earned him a wing in the New York Public Library, it makes him a necessary Puerto Rican to know and honor. 

Mayra Santos Febres—Author
Asthma drove Mayra Santos Febres to the pen. She was 5 years old living in the Puerto Rico where she was born. As she once told the Barcelona Review, "Since I couldn't climb trees or bike like the other kids in my neighborhood, I spent my time describing how I would climb the highest tree in the universe and how I would ride a bike to the farthest coast on the island and I would then dive to the bottom of the sea until I reached far away lands where the air would be generous with everyone, even with those who had trouble breathing." And so it was that one of Puerto Rico's premier modern writers was born. Though her work is vast (she has published over 10 books in the past 25 years), she is best known for her very first novel Sirena Selena vestida de pena, or Sirena Selena in English, and Nuestra Señora de la Noche. As if that wasn't enough, she is also the Executive Director of the Festival de la Palabra

Santos Febres, who self-identifies as Afro-Boricua, shared her thoughts about black culture in Puerto Rico and about the Puerto Rican Day Parade honor with Centro, "Being Puerto Rican is, in itself, being afroboricua. All boricuas are afroboricuas culturally. In my case, my color identifies me as such without a doubt. It’s an honor to belong to the great stock of Roberto Clemente, Sylvia del Villard, Arturo Schomburg, Samuel Lind, Daniel Lind, Julia de Burgos, Cecila Orta, Angelita Lind, Cucco Peña, Juan Morel Campos, José Campeche, Pedro Albizu Campos, José Celso Barbosa, Carmelo Sobrino, Awilda Sterling, Ruth Fernández, Lucy Favery, Carmen Belén Richardson, Ramos Antonini, and so many other black politicians, sportsmen, orators, painters, composers, authors, dancers, historians, doctors who have elevated Puerto Rico. I receive this award in name of my ancestors and those of my people." And so it is that in Santos Febres words, whether written or spoken, the past, present, and future of Puerto Rico achieves the kind of depth and beauty that makes all Puerto Ricans shine. 

Cucco Peña—Musician, Composer and Arranger
Known as one of the best arrangers of Puerto Rican Music not only in the eyes of Puerto Ricans but of the world, Angel "Cucco" Peña was born in Santurce Puerto Rico to a family of musicians. In fact, he is the third generation in a family whose name is synonymous with popular music in Puerto Rico. His father, "Lito" Peña, founded the renowned Orquesta Panamericana (Pan American Orchestra). Speaking of his childhood, Cucco shared with Centro, “Music, for generations, since the times of my grandfather to my children, has been at the center of our family… My grandfather Don Juan Peña Reyes and my father, Don Lito Peña, were inspired, serious, and studious musicians who transmitted to me the love and a great respect for music since I was very little.” 

Cucco Peña started playing music at an early age and studied in the prestigious Conservatorio de Musica of Puerto Rico. As he remembers, “I started playing the trumpet when I was 17 in my dad’s orchestra. This was my Alma Matter for all intents and purposes. Playing in dances, recording, accompanying artists of all genres from Celia Cruz to Sammy Davis, from Ruth Fernandez and Cheo Feliciano to Rubén Blades or Willy Colón.” His career has taken him across borders, musical genres, and roles. He is equally comfortable as an arranger, composer, producer, and publicist. He has worked with the likes of  Gilberto Santa Rosa, Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, Chayanne and Ricky Martin, amongts many others; has multiple Grammy nominations, Cannes nomintions, Carnegie Hall appearances and Banco Popular specials under his belt. 

Speaking of the honor bestowed by the Puerto Rican Day Parade, which includes the opportunity to compose the theme music for the parade “Obertura Patria,” and of his ties to New York City, Peña shares, “This recognition by the Puerto Rican Day Parade has been an honor and a sweet surprise. I feel deeply connected to the Puerto Rican community in New York for many reasons. I think that, like me, the majority of Puerto Ricans have family that moved to N.Y. and built there a new life, who we love and miss as much as they do us... On the other hand, some of my first trips to New York were as musician for La Panamericana, when we would play in Teatro Puerto Rico and the clubs of the 70s and 80s. It filled us with pride to travel to New York in those times and share the stage with the great orchestras of distinguished Puerto Ricans like Tito Puente and Tito Rodríguez… Essentially, my career has been tied to New York from the beginning…” The same can be said of his connection to his African identity. “In Puerto Rico, like the saying goes, ‘el que no tiene dinga tiene mandinga,’ in other words, that we understand since elementary school that all of us, in some major or minor degree, have African blood in our veins, and for me, as I’m sure for other Puerto Rican musicians and artists, my blackness has been a kind of passport to the heaven of Afro-Caribbean music. I’ve always thought that the contribution of the Caribbean to world music resides in its rhythms, and at the same time, those Afro-Caribbean rhythms are our presentation card to the world, and a flag that we elevate proudly wherever we go.” Peña will be doing just that come the Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Martina Arroyo—Opera Singer
One of the most glorious voices in the world, said the New York Times once, belong to this operatic soprano of Puerto Rican descent. Born in New York to a Puerto Rican father and an African American mother, Martina grew up in Harlem. Both parents put a premium on education, which led Martina to pursue and graduate with a teaching degree from Hunter College. Opera entered her life well before that. Both her parents sang, though not professionally, and as a student at Hunter High School, she secured a spot in the Hunter College Opera Workshop during an impromptu audition with the Director Joseph Turnau. As Rosalyn M. Story recounts on her book, So I Sing, "Arroyo wandered in one day and sang an informal audition—a photentically learned yet musically impressive rendering of the 'Jewel Song' from Faust memorized from a recording." Arroyo fell in love with and fearleslly pursued her newfound interest in opera, which she balanced with her work as social worker for the East End Welfare Center. Contradictory as these two worlds may seem, they most likely contributed to the determination and down-to-earth pizzaz that made her not only one of the world's foremost opera singer of the 70s and 80s but a force that opened the opera world to other people, and particularly women, of color.   

Similar intersections converge when Arroyo speaks of her identity. Asked how she defines herself upon earning the coveted Kennedy Center Honors in 2013, the Washington Post reported, "Her name and part of her heritage are Hispanic, but Arroyo has never particularly self-identified as such. 'I am what you see,' she says: 'a black woman.' She adds, 'I’m a New Yorker through and through. My father’s Spanish became so bad I used to have to translate for him. He was more American than I’ll ever be.'' Later, speaking of her black identity, she shared, "'I thought the color problem was the other man’s problem,' she says. 'I didn’t know how to carry that burden. I also came from a home where color didn’t matter. I wasn’t as aware as someone who came from a situation where there was segregation. . . . I had never been an outsider. It gives you a type of fearlessness because you don’t know you’re going to run into the problem, and I didn’t run into it. Or if I did, I didn’t know about it.'" The responses, honest, layered, complex, even initially jarring for those who may identify as Latinos or with the struggles of the black community, whispers a powerful message. New Yorker, Spanish and English speaking, American and yet not as much as her Puerto Rican father, black and consciously unaware of the color problem. When you consider the many forms and genres that converge in opera—the space in which Martina soared—these responses make sense. All these identities at once and none at all made and make Martina a unique brand of Puerto Rican, one that is ironically universal to the US Puerto Rican experience.

Sylvia del Villard—Choreographer, Actress and Activist
Sylvia del Villard, one of the staunchest defender of Afro-Puerto Rican culture in Puerto Rico and the United States, was born a year before the Stock Market Crash and amidst growing economic woes in Puerto Rico. As it was common for some poorer Puerto Rican and Latin American families of the time, her parents left her to the care of Paula Moreno Herrera, who according to author and journalist Juan Moreno Velazquez, Sylvia knew and recognized as her mother thereafter. Moreno Herrera took care of Sylvia until she was old enough to attend college. Even then, she showed hints of the brilliance that evolved in later years during her time in the United States. She received a scholarship to study at Fisk University in Tennessee. She studied Anthropology and Social Work there, and encountered the rampant racism that was common in the deep south of those days. There's little evidence to show how this affected Sylvia, but she ended up completing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico. Later, she continued her education at the City University of New York (CUNY) while training her voice under the likes of Sonya Rudenka and even Leo Braun of the Metropolitan Opera. It was in New York where she fell in love with Africa and developed the kind of racial politics that she later applied to her long career as an actress and dancer first in Puerto Rico and later again in New York City and even Hollywood

Sylvia's commitment to African and Afro-Puerto Rican culture took on many forms. She danced, symbolically and literally, between dance/song/theater and education; between Puerto Rico and New York and later California. As a student at CUNY, she joined Africa House, a song and dance troupe. She chereographed pieces based on The Boyfriend, The Crucible, and Witches of Salem that toured the United States to much fanfare. She would then turn around and perform Alejandro Tapia y Rivera's La cuarterona and the poetry of Luis Palés Matos. She eventually founded the Afro-Boricua El Coquí Theater in Puerto Rico, the Luis Palés Matos Theater in San Juan, and later the Soninke company in New York

Of note was also her activism and consistent efforts to exalt Afro-Puerto Rican culture. One particular incident speaks to that. She was a vocal critic of the telenovela industry's racist practices, and during the early 70s took on condemning Angela Mayer's use of blackface in the portrayal of Chianita in the soap opera, El hijo de Ángela María. In 1974, recounts author of Tuning Out Blackness, Yeidy M. Rivero, del Villard used a television appearance meant to plug an upcoming show to "condemn racial discrimination, the use of blackface, and Chianita. Del Villard indicated that watching white actors in blackface was 'repulsive' and that 'blacks in Puerto Rico were tired of this situation.'" Be it through dance, culture, or by speaking against racism, del Villard carved an important space for herself in the history of Puerto Ricans, regardless of location. 

Miguel Zenón—Jazz Musician and Composer
Fresh from his recent performance of "Identities are Changeable: Tales from the Diaspora" at the Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture, alto sax player, Miguel Zenón commands our attention once again as one of the parades honorees. Zenón, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, has been infusing Puerto Ricanness into his music for some time. Sometimes subtle and other times blatantly so, his connection to Puerto Rico is evident. As Noraliz Ruiz has already written in Centro Voices about Zenón, his “extensive discography, with nine albums as a leader, evidences Puerto Rican influence, from the clearest rhythmic references of plena to the melodic deconstruction of the Puerto Rican seis. Traces of Puerto Rican folk and popular music have been constant throughout Zenón’s career.” His latest album, Identities are Changeable, Zenón “poses a novel approach to Puerto Rican music, and it is precisely jazz, with its infinite sonic possibilities, that lends him enough room to explore and experiment with a concept as subjective as identity, from a Nuyorican lens. The experiences of seven Nuyoricans addressing what it means to be Puerto Rican provide the storyline of this project, resulting in a jazz suite entirely driven by oral history.”

How does a Puerto Rican born on the island approach the Puerto Rican U.S. experience, of which he is now one? Zenón explained to Ruiz, “I’ve been interested in the phenomenon that is the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. for a very long time. I have family in New York City and would visit them from an early age, so my initial curiosity was born then and it was rekindled when NYC became my permanent home in 1998. What put me over the edge in terms of jumping into this project was a book by the late Juan Flores called The Diaspora Strikes Back, on which he conducted interviews with various individuals (of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican heritage)…I went into the interviews basically looking for the answer to one question: What does it mean to be Puerto Rican? If there was one thing I learned from this project, it was that there is not one correct answer; it could vary greatly depending on each individual, the opportunities they were presented with and the choices that they made."

One of the ways to answer that question, Zenón found, was through exploring the issue of Afro-Puerto Ricannes. One song in particular, “Same Fight,” explores the intersections and commonalities of Puerto Ricans and African Americans in New York. Speaking about this particular song to Centro’s staff, Zenón provides insights about Afro-Boricuas more generally, “I’ve been curious about the natural attraction between the Puerto Rican community and the African American community, be it in the language, in the style, in what they listened…When we speak of a struggle, we speak of the same struggle, right? And we speak of how these communities come together…ever since the Puerto Ricans arrived in the United States, in art spaces, in music spaces, with hip hop, for instance, which is something that has also been studied a lot…And also from the perspective of the Afro-Latino, no? Many times, especially in the United States, it is assumed that when one speaks of an African America, we refer to a person of African descent...but one who comes from here in the United States. There’s no mention of America in general…” Yet, the reality is that Latin America and the Caribbean also have a very important place in those conversations. Zenon’s rhythms, jazz laced with the sounds of the Caribbean, have opened up the discussion. Catch his full insights in the interview below. 

Exploring, understanding, and sharing the stories of these singular Puerto Ricans honored by the Puerto Rican Day Parade, I am struck by their multifaceted experiences, of their ability to inhabit several worlds at once. Not that this should surprise me. Identity as a construction, identity as a fluid, elusive thing is not a novel idea. What it is, however, is a silently accepted tenet in our Puerto Rican culture, one that becomes more visible when we speak of often silenced issues of race and blackness in Puerto Rican communities. To see these honorees wear their many identities so visibly, vocally, deliciously shamelessly for display on the Puerto Rican Day Parade is a sign of good things to come for the event and for the ways we understand and celebrate what it means to be Puerto Rican more fully.

Photos of Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, Angel "Cucco" Peña, Miguel Zenon, and Carmelo Sobrino provided by them. Photo of Mayra Santos Febres was courtesy of and credited to Daniel Mordzinski. Photo of Sylvia Villard courtesy of the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Photo of Martina Arroyo is from http://www.martinaarroyo.com/discography.htmlPhoto of Artur Schomburg is from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture /General Research and Reference Division/The New York Public Library

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 5 June 2015.