By Carmen Robles
The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent. Opening the door to learn about the deep, deep roots that connect us.
Before Christopher Columbus changed the name to Puerto Rico, my island was named Boriquen, and Puerto Ricans call themselves Boricuas, in honor of our ancestors. Our roots are linked to Afrodecendientes aka Afro-Latinos, descendants of enslaved West Africans brought to the US, the Caribbean and South America during the diaspora of the Atlantic slave trade.
Afro-Latinos can spot each other a mile away. “La sangre llama” (blood calls) my abuela (grandmother) would say.
It sure does!Take Don DeBoer a PhD counselor, educator and 20-year salsa instructor. My friend Ken Rivera treated me to one of Don’s dance classes. I was immediately drawn to Don. Was it ‘La Sangre’ calling?
I had to know, so I interviewed him and this is what I learned.
CR: Tell me about your lineage
DB: These are not exact categories by any means but it’s how I make sense of my ancestral origins. I am a descendant of three general ethnic groupings: European, Polynesian, and Caribbean. My mother’s father John “Cobra’ Soto Sr. was part of the group of Puerto Ricans who immigrated to Hawaii to work the sugarcane plantations alongside native Hawaiians and other immigrant groups (mostly from Asian countries).
They relocated around 1900 due to devastating hurricanes in Puerto Rico. He married my Hawaiian grandmother. It is this maternal side of my family that instilled in me a sense of my ethnic identity and pride within an American context.
I was mostly raised in the mainland United States but would spend my summers in Hawaii with my mother’s side of the family. In the States I had little access to Hawaiians, and even less after moving to the Midwest for a doctoral program in psychology. No matter where I went, I tended to bond with the Latino community and this became more so as I would teach Latin dance for the next 20 years.
Like many mixed people, I suppose you could say that my development often included a search for authenticity and acceptance by various groups. Now that I am older it is less important to me and I’ve come to a place in my life where I know who I am, I know my family, and I know my community.
CR: Have you been to Puerto Rico?
DB: No, but I did travel to Cuba recently. It was amazing. Like going back in time. I had freshly squeezed fruits and juices for breakfast every morning (guava, pineapple, mango, avocado). I took classes in rumba and percussion. I also took 10 private lessons of straight up Cuban style salsa.
Watching these older black Cuban men at parties on my trip to Cuba really made me miss my father and grandfather as many of the Cuban gentlemen were spirited and had no qualms about dancing, laughing, and embracing others.
It demonstrated to me that while my father was born in Hawaii, he had the Caribbean in his DNA.
CR: Why did you travel to Cuba?
DB: Well, I wanted to go to Cuba because of its rich culture and its obvious connection to salsa music and dance in particular. The taste of forbidden fruit might have something to do with the drive to go. I also wanted to contribute directly to the Cuban people by staying in their casas (houses) and taking their specialty classes.
Now, if any Latino in the United States wanted to go to Cuba to find a sense of identity and belonging, I would say they should proceed with very humble expectations. Even Latinos stick out in Cuba. It is a unique country with unique economic challenges and politics.
Also, many Cubans are just trying to make do and I became embarrassingly aware of my own privilege while visiting this country. Ironically my Cuban American friend whose parents fled Cuba just prior to Fidel Castro’s revolution was adamant on visiting Puerto Rico with me, while I was longing to visit Cuba. It was as if we didn’t want to deal with the dissonance of going back to places of ancestral origin only to be challenged over why we had stayed away all this time.
At this point in my life, I am trying to develop a better appreciation of the legacy of slavery, colonization, and immigration in the Americas. I approached Cuba as if I was approaching a different outcome in the Americas where race is perceived differently but is no doubt still an issue as both the U.S. and Cuba have a history of slavery and inequity.
CR: How were the dance classes?
DB: Afro Cuban Rumba was a workout. My thighs burned. My instructor, from Santiago de Cuba, kept telling me to move with more confidence and strength.
What hula is to Hawaiians seemed to be what rumba is to Cubans, namely a solid tradition that provides a quintessential cultural stamp.When I saw a performance of Afro Cuban Rumba, I knew it was a community event for sure.
It was a hypnotic ensemble that glued percussionists, the host (announcer), singers, dancers, men, women, young, old, and the entire audience. It was about as close to being in a musical as I could get, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
I also couldn’t stop sweating. It was truly a beautiful thing. I appreciated how it has all survived.
CR: What were your challenges in Cuba?
DB: The three main challenges for me were heat and reliance on bottled water, constant solicitation, the Cuban accent and fast speech. But it was small adjustments compared to what I got, which was a complete immersion into movement, rhythm, colors, history, and wonderful people.
CR: What did you discover in Cuba?
DB: Endurance, sensuality, and community.
Moral of the story? Yes indeed, La Sangre does llama…loud and clear.