Campo, yo vivo triste
Cada día sufriendo más
Ay Dio’ ¿qué será de mí?
Si no bailo esta bomba,
Me voy a morir
Field, I live in sadness.
Every day, I suffer more.
Oh God, what will become of me?
If I don’t dance this bomba,
I’m going to die.
—Refrain from a traditional bomba song
If you walk through the streets of Old San Juan, you will probably come across the phrase Viva Puerto Rico Libre (Freedom for Puerto Rico) graffitied onto the wall of some Spanish colonial building from the sixteenth century. Next to it, you will most likely encounter signs announcing the sale of expensive historic houses that have never been ours.
At the edge of Old San Juan, outside the tall city walls that stand beside the sea, you will encounter La Perla, a barrio of colorful houses connected by steep cement staircases. More recently, the rich have coveted its beautiful location, but La Perla is not for sale. More than a neighborhood, La Perla is a strong and unified community. There, it is not difficult to meet residents who proudly say they were born, raised, and will grow old in La Perla.
In this working-class neighborhood, community leaders—including Keyla Baez, Yesenia Ortiz, Rashelle Burns, and Manny, who prefers not to use his last name—gather each Friday with other residents to organize a batey, a space where people sing, play, and dance bomba, the oldest genre of the Afro-Puerto Rican musical tradition. The spot is known as the Community Batey of La Plaza del Negro.
Through bomba, which developed four centuries ago among the island’s enslaved Africans as a means for resistance, resilience, and self-expression, the group has built a community with a powerful sense of purpose.
“It’s the music, the sound of the drum, the beating of the heart, the feeling of belonging,” Rashelle says. “That’s what creates community.” In the batey, Rashelle found exactly what she needed to feel complete and safe. “Connecting with this space, Friday to Friday, heals us, makes us feel we belong, makes us feel stronger.”
These gatherings serve to promote political awareness. Singers often weave new lyrics into traditional bomba songs to reclaim their African heritage and denounce social issues such as gender violence, government corruption, and the colonial status of Puerto Rico.
Coño, wake up Boricua
They don’t care about your life
Love yourself and your land.
Life in sovereignty.
This government is useless
They want to keep everything.
We are not going to permit that.
We are going to fight.
We are like a hurricane.
—“Huracan,” lyrics by María José Montijo
“In the Community Batey, we all find a way to resist with dignity, courage, love, respect, sadness, bravery, and frustration—with all that living in Puerto Rico implies,” Rashelle says. “Nowadays, there is a lot of bomba in Puerto Rico. People are playing bomba everywhere. I think this is because we have understood that it is the best way to resist.”
First documented in the seventeenth century, Caribbean bomba emerged in the context of colonialism. Enslaved Africans were transported from many different regions, speaking many different languages. Bomba’s improvisational rhythm became a common language, a dialogue between drummers and dancers that brought the island’s oppressed people closer together, made them feel more powerful. The plantation owners soon recognized this as a problem. For Yesenia Ortiz, it’s remarkable the music survived.
“Due to its seditious nature, bomba has been repressed at all times,” Yesenia explains. “Bomba is still alive thanks to the Maroons, because the enslaved were not allowed to play bomba.” Early Maroon settlements were made up of escaped and freed Africans who lived side by side with the Caribbean’s Indigenous people.
For these ancestral communities, the batey was a spiritual and political space where people shared sentiments and strengthened ties. They celebrated significant social events and sometimes planned acts of rebellion. Centuries later, thanks to the ancestors who fought to hold on to their culture, bomba remains a powerful tool of liberation.
For this reason, Lío Villahermosa, a longtime activist, practitioner, and teacher from Santurce (another working-class neighborhood in San Juan with a rich history in bomba), believes that one should give thanks before entering a batey to honor and remember the context in which bomba was conceived.
“It is music born from suffering and pain,” Villahermosa explains. “People were killed for practicing it, and others were beaten and mistreated, and yet they continued doing it.” Lío is a regular visitor at the Community Batey where he remains at the forefront of LGBTQ inclusion. “It’s my new family, my new community. The fact of having a little time to get away from the pain, from the realities of this country, having a weekly space where we can share this beautiful musical genre gives you a feeling of plenitude, which, in that moment, is medicine.”
The group that organizes the Community Batey joined the bomba movement just two years ago. After attending a free workshop, they learned to dance, play, and even craft the barriles, the drums made from the wood of rum barrels. Months later, the work was interrupted by the pandemic. To mitigate the impact of social isolation, Keyla Baez, her partner Manny, and other community leaders began to meet in Plaza del Negro to practice and share what they had learned.Since then, people from all over Puerto Rico and other countries have visited La Perla to participate.
“Although we were neighbors, there was nothing connecting me to Keyla,” Yesenia says. “Now we’re great friends! On a community level, bomba has brought us together. Now my life revolves around this batey and bomba.”
Many believe that to understand bomba, you must see it and participate.
Imagine the salty smell of the ocean as it permeates La Perla. The sounds of the drums fuse with the force of the sea that strikes the rocks nearby. Rashelle begins to sing the chorus; the audience joins in. From the edge of the crowd, Yesenia approaches the center of the concrete space. She extends her arms, raises the hem of her magnificent white skirt, and bows to greet one of the drummers. The drummer strikes the drum hard, playing in answer to her improvised steps as she twists and yanks at the hem of her dress with great intensity and much speed. Her steps are just one of an infinite number of rhythmic combinations that will never be repeated. The waves crash loudly onto the rocks, echoing the percussionists’ palms as they strike the stretch of goatskin that covers each barril. The bombazo (bomba gathering) has begun.
Each skirt, expression, and barrilero (drummer) seem to converse without words in an ancestral language. Sporadically, the children who play on the seashore join and dance while holding hands. The walls surrounding the space are painted with images of the same children dancing and laughing.
As night falls, the drums are still beating when a torrential rain takes the batey by surprise. Racing ahead, Yesenia flings open the doors of her house to offer shelter. People take over the couches and the kitchen. The last ones to enter stand on the stairs. Arepas with beans are handed out while the barrileros settle in the living room and begin to play once again. One of bomba’s most prominent figures, Jesus Cepeda, is present. Leaning on his walking cane, he claims the microphone to sing and lead the group as if it were an orchestra. In unison, they sing, dance, and laugh. Nothing else matters in that moment.
Today, the Community Batey of la Plaza del Negro is a well-known spot for those who wish to initiate themselves in the practice of bomba. Bomba masters and experienced musicians, like Lío Villahermosa, Jesus Cepeda, and Maribella Burgos, share their knowledge with adults and children who have never danced or played a barril.
“Our drums are there for everyone because this first contact is capable of changing their lives,” Rashelle says.
“The more people are in contact with bomba, the greater our resistance as a country will be,” Lío explains. “It is everyone’s right to know their culture and their roots. It is everyone’s duty to make it accessible to everyone. Some people cannot afford bomba dance classes or afford classes to play a barril,”
This was the case for Yesenia Ortiz, who has lived in La Perla for ten years. She had tried to approach bomba in the past, but the classes were too expensive. “I question the commercialization of culture,” she says. “Cultural needs should not be tied to economic status. No one should be denied that space.” The Community Batey defies capitalist logic since no one pays to access. “It is a way of getting closer to your culture and a space where you can express yourself, without there being a need for consumption.”
In a colony with a severe economic recession, the importance of these community-run spaces cannot be understated. In 2021, the Fiscal Control Board imposed by the U.S. government onto Puerto Rico granted less than 0.16 percent of the country’s budget to institutions in charge of promoting arts and culture.
“There’s also the issue that, when we look at the people who are organizing events around bomba, eighty percent of them are white,” Yesenia points out. “We must question that too. Who is teaching me to dance bomba? Personally, I think, well, I’m going to dance however I want! Because I am Negra (a Black women) and no blanquito is going to tell me how to dance.”
For most of its history, bomba has been a male-dominated practice. Traditionally, women dance in skirts, and men play the instruments. But in the Community Batey, visitors question and subvert traditional gender-based roles every Friday. Anyone is free to dance in a skirt—Lío was the first on the island—or to sit down and play, regardless of their gender, age, or social background.
“We are a super welcoming and inclusive space,” Yesenia explains.
This particular batey is an expression of how the barrio of La Perla has historically been a refuge for groups that have been systematically marginalized. The residents of La Perla, forbidden to live within the city walls, established the zone during the Spanish occupation. Now, the U.S. government claims all the land within thirty feet of the wall, including zones inside La Perla. Under this premise, U.S. authorities have attempted to demolish and expropriate dozens of residences to build a boardwalk for tourists. What is happening in La Perla contrasts with the 2007 Paseo Caribe project, when the government allowed private luxury buildings to be built one foot away from the wall.
Puerto Rico’s struggle against colonialism has spanned five centuries and is still ongoing. The United States invaded the island, then a Spanish colony, in 1898. In the last decades, the economy has been entirely restructured in benefit of U.S. corporate interests. The Fiscal Control Board and current public policy are pushing harsh austerity measures onto the local population while giving tax exemptions to wealthy offshore investors.
Gentrification and other tactics of colonial displacement have affected the Community Batey. In May 2021, the U.S. government prohibited the community from in La Plaza del Negro. The group moved their gatherings to La Perla’s malecón (boardwalk).
“That wall that they are supposedly protecting, for the Yankees, was built by the same slaves who played bomba,” Yesenia says. For her, the class and racial oppression continues, this time in the hands of new colonizers. “We keep calling ourselves the Batey of La Plaza del Negro because when someone asks us why we don’t play there anymore, we can use it to explain to everyone what’s going on.”
Recently, Keyla and Manny rehabilitated the first floor of their house, turning it into a community workshop to make barriles. “It’s a place that makes you part of art,” Manny says. “It’s an open space for education. It was an honor to be taught how to make them. Later, I saw it as a duty, as if it were almost necessary for our survival as a culture and community. The drums have been a blessing.”
Manny does not charge people to use the workshop. Instead, he asks people to donate tools or other resources the workshop needs. “I will never capitalize on this. This is the only way genuineness is born, not thinking about money but in terms of necessity. Necessity, and not having an abundance of money, made this space possible.”
A visual artist, he perceived the craft as a more vivid and immersive way to connect with his African roots and understand the history of his ancestors. Far from home, Africans turned rum barrels into drums to reinvigorate their identity.
“By building barrels, we can understand specific information of what freedom was,” Manny explains. “The only free being is one able to maintain their old traditions. That was impossible if you were a slave. They could only do it if they merged things together. To maintain their culture, they had to escape. Bomba was born from those free Black people.”
For Manny, having the opportunity to forge a barril remains an act of liberation. “We have seen that bomba unifies the oppressed and makes us see that the oppressors are very few. It makes us see that there are more of us who wish to sustain ourselves. And how do we do it? From within the communities.”
Last year, a violent event shocked Puerto Rico. In April 2021, Keishla Rodríguez was murdered by her partner. The police found her body in a lagoon under the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge. The next day, and in response to the government’s demonstrated inaction concerning the country’s high rate of femicide, a group of women managed to close the bridge with their drums. While the group sang powerful bomba songs about feminist resistance, hundreds of people parked on the avenue to join the protest. Several women gave their testimonies about the gender-based violence they had overcome throughout their lives.
Hours later, the authorities arrested Keishla’s killer.
They sowed fear in us; we grew wings.
Every minute of every week
They steal our friends; they kill our sisters.
They destroy their bodies; they disappear them.
Don’t forget their names, please, Mr. governor.
For the women leaders fighting in Peñuelas,
for those who resist strongly in Playuela,
for the women holding during hurricane Maria,
for all the mothers against the US Navy.
We sing without fear; we ask for justice.
We scream for each missing woman.
Let it resonate loud; we want each other alive!
Let the femicide fall hard.
I burn everything; I break everything.
If one day a guy turns off your eyes
nothing silences me anymore; everything is enough for me
If they touch one woman, all women respond!
—“Fearless Song,” written by Mexican singer Vivir Quintana and adapted by Puerto Rican feminist Bomba group Barilleras del 8M
With no expectations of help from the state, bomba practitioners like Keyla, Yesenia, Rashelle, and Manny have come together to forge solutions for their communities. The batey in La Perla, dedicated to both resistance and progress, is a prime example of this.
“The gathering is something extraordinary,” Keyla says. “A cada rato, I tell the girls. Look what we have done. We are making history! Seeing that the children are integrating into our batey motivates us to continue. Right now, my two daughters will inherit the batey. It is something that will not end easily but continue.”
Mariana Núñez Lozada is a Katzenberger Art History intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an anthropology student, with a minor in gender studies, at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. Through her work, she hopes to increase the visibility of Caribbean and queer communities. She wishes to thank Julia Gutiérrez-Rivera for her advice on this story.