Puerto Rican Culture

Salsa, Reggaetón y Nación: Race, Music and Puerto Rican Identity

Entry Question

What do you understand by Afro-diasporic musical genres?

Cocolos Modernos

Professor and scholar of race and Caribbean music Petra Rivera-Rideau argues “that a cultural politics of blackness links salsa and reggaetón. This cultural politics of blackness denotes a particular positioning that not only calls attention to the processes of racial exclusion embedded within Puerto Rico’s so-called racial democracy but also situates the island within the broader African diaspora. Salsa and reggaetón are [many times] connected through diasporic cultural politics that centers on blackness. ” (1)

Socio-cultural context

Hegemonic constructions of Puerto Rican and US Latina/o identities tend to uphold race mixture as their foundation; however, in the process, they also frequently diminish the importance of blackness, privileging a whitened ‘Hispanicity’ instead. (2)

What current or day-to-day examples can you give of cultural whitewashing?

Afro-Diasporic Musical Genres

Salsa and reggaetón are linked together via a cultural politics of blackness that foregrounds broader connections to the African diaspora. Alternatively, it denotes a strategic positioning in relation to racial politics that denounces the problematic and essentializing tropes of blackness that are intrinsic to the discourses of western modernity within which Puerto Rican and Latina/o identities have been defined. (2)

In general, salsa musicians composed songs that contested the structures of power that adversely affected their communities, including colonialism, classism, and racism… salsa nourished an appreciation of African style evident in its musical aesthetics, dance forms, and the hairdos and fashions adopted by many salsa artists and fans. (3)

In Puerto Rico, reggaetón developed in part as a response to the neoliberal and racist policies that adversely affected working-class, predominantly non-white communities living in the island’s urban housing projects and barrios. (4)

Case Studies

I. “El negro bembón”

“‘El negro bembón’ can be read as a denouncement of racial violence and an account of the everyday strategies that black Puerto Ricans must use to avoid such incidents. This directly refutes one of the fundamental premises of racial democracy discourses, pointing out the persistence of racism despite rhetoric to the contrary.” (7)

Someone killed el negro bembón,
Someone killed el negro bembón
People are crying night and day

Because Everybody loved
al negrito bembón

And the police came and they arrested the killer
and one of the policemen who was also a bembón/ a black man got bad luck and was assigned the case
And you know what question he asked the killer?
Why you killed him?
And you know what the assassin answered? I killed him because he has big lips.
The policeman bit his lips and said:

That is not justifiable.

II. “Las caras lindas”

‘Las caras lindas,’ or ‘Beautiful Faces,’ describes the resilience and beauty of black communities throughout the diaspora, and especially in Latin America, and it has been embraced by many as an anthem celebrating Afro-Latina/o identities. Like his recordings with Cortijo, Rivera’s performance of ‘Las caras lindas’ represents a stark contrast to the privileging of whiteness in Puerto Rico and much of Latin America. (7)

The beautiful faces of my black people are a parade of molasses in bloom. When they pass in front of me my heart is happy with its blackness. The beautiful faces of my brown race have crying, grief, and pain they are the truth, survivors of life’s challenges and they have a lot of love inside. We are the molasses that laughs, the molasses that cry, we are the molasses that love. It is touching. That’s why I’m proud of our color. We are welcoming clear poetry. They have their rhythm, they have a melody, the beautiful faces of my black people.

III. “Loíza”

Located in the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico, Loíza is a town that is often described as the epicenter of Afro-Puerto Rican life and culture, sometimes in problematic ways that reiterate the ‘folkloricization’ of blackness. However, Calderón departs from this dominant image of Loíza by frequently describing socioeconomic conditions in the town as the product of perpetual institutional racism (P. Rivera, 2010, pp. 137–138). In this regard, Loíza serves as a metonym not of a folkoricized blackness, but rather of black communities that are consistently subject to racism on the island. (10)

This is for my people/pueblo!
With love, el abayarde!
With DJ Adam!
And Cachete, the big man of the drums!
For my people, that I love so much!
From Calderon, pa’ Loiza!
I’m in no hurry
But your slowness angers me
And the one who doesn’t deals/brega with Loiza
(No, don’t cry!)
He wants me to think
That I’m part of a racial trilogy
Where everybody is equal, no special treatment
I know how to forgive 
It’s you who doesn’t know how to excuse yourself
So, how do you justify all this bad treatment?
It’s just that your history/story is embarrassing.
Among other things
You traded chains for handcuffs.
We are not all the same in legal terms
And that has been proven in court
In the clear justice is obtained only by fighting 
That’s why we are as we are (Fuck it!)
If there’s no money for the lawyer, the state will provide one 
But brother
The one who takes you is the one who brought you
They kill you and don’t draw their guns
The cage is flooding
A legal sentence is a lame defense
There will never be justice without equality
Damn evil that destroys humanity
Because he’s protesting, he’s going to take away my freedom.
If I don’t recognize your authority
There will never be justice without equality
Damn evil that destroys humanity
If I protest, he’s going to take away my freedom.
I know that I don’t belong to your society
Of hypocrites
Vanity, plenty of falsehood 
There’s a lot of everything [consumerism] but no happiness
I have nothing
Just these fed up lyrics
And the ability not to believe in your truth
Who else
would think of 
saturate the mind of innocent children
With inconsistent education
Viciously manipulated
for the convenience of the wealthy
In the past they got away with it, they abused and they refuse to let me know of their wrongdoings
It is said that things have changed
but don’t go to sleep, they walk with sticks
And I’ve heard Ruben Berrios advocate for me.
I don’t trust anyone.
All with Vieques
My black people suffer
Little by little, mi negrito
Be smart
Be proud and honor god
For those niches
that believe themselves better by their professions
Or for having factions of their oppressors
Bastards, suckers
España go fuck yourself (Ja!)
I’m niche
Proud of my roots
Of having a lot of bemba and a big nose
We don’t stop being happy not even when suffering
That’s why our father God blesses us
There will never be justice without equality
Damn evil that destroys humanity
If I protest, he’s going to take away my freedom.
I don’t recognize your authority
This is el Abayarde!
Bringing it as it is!
I’m pushing them hard, to wake up my people!
Hey, how nice is my Loiza!
Look how pretty it is!

Group Discussion

Discuss the similarities and different perspectives of blackness between “El negro bembón” by Cortijo y su Combo, “Las caras lindas” by Ismael Rivera, and “Loíza” by Tego Calderón.

Reparations- Yomaira Figueroa

In the Chapter “Reparations” from her book Decolonizing Diasporas, writer, scholar, and associate professor Dr. Yomaira Figueroa uses three novels of a contemporary Afro-Latinx literary corpus (among them Bodega Dreams, our focus) to theoretically engage with the concepts and practices of reparations and decolonial love.

Central Theoretical Arguments

.Ideological structures, orders, and legacies of colonialism subsist (coloniality). (117)

.Calls for reparations must contend with current social and political injustices and dismantle colonialism and coloniality itself. (117)

.Reparations are based on an ethics of valuing differences and the notion that justice-oriented work in the present is valuable in the future. (119)

.Reparations imply that other worlds beyond our imaginations are possible. (119)

.Decolonial love is what fuels the work of decolonization as a political and social project. (120)

.Decolonial love necessitates ethical actions in the face of visible and invisible domination. It requires forging relationships based on love and affinity. (121)

.Bearing witness to violence in the past and in the present is central to achieving a decolonial reparation. (121)

.Practices of decolonial love can be found across communities of color in creative, political, social, and cultural [and religious or spiritual] forms, and act as reparative forces beyond the scope of capitalist accumulation. (121)

.Material reparations must go in tandem with a commitment to transforming both the ideologies and structures of coloniality. (124)

Oral presentations on “Reparations” (Pages 117-135; 145-6) by Yomaira Figueroa

Morel, Ernesto

Reyes, Noelia

Reisgerzog,Nicholas D

Yan, Timothy

Joachim, Taiya M

DaCosta, Alexander

Chain Reactions

Bodega Dreams posits a reparation of the self and reconciliation of community. Quiñonez proposes a reparation of the imagination by decolonial love that goes beyond colonial and settler logics. (118)

Figueroa says that Bodega’s grand vision of real state power and middle-class aspirations helps Julio (Chino) start practicing decolonial love by finding beauty in his neighborhood, love for his community, and respect for their literal and cultural language. (125)

However, she argues that Bodega’s dreams fail because of his reliance on the capitalist model of accumulation and distribution. He believes that reparations for East Harlem will be achieved by mimicking corrupt Anglo political and economic patterns. (127)

Do you agree or disagree with Figueroa? What examples from the novel can you bring to support your views?

Group Discussion

What was a major takeaway from our class?

What was difficult this semester and how did you overcome that obstacle?

Chat Discussion

Send some good vibes and words of encouragement to your classmates.

Asynchronous Assignment on Bodega Dream (Pages 201-213; Book III)

In Book III “A New Language Being Born,” Ernesto Quiñonez closes the case and presents how Julio decides to inform the police about Nazario and Vera’s involvement in the killing of Bodega. He also describes William Irizarry’s funeral and how the people of East Harlem pay tribute to his life and deeds. Lastly, Quiñonez offers a reflection about the vibrancy of the Puerto Rican and Latinx communities and their power of transformation.



In the comment section down below, write a (200-word minimum) response based on ONE of the following prompts (due on 5/10 before the class):


Ernesto Quiñonez starts Book III with an epigraph from Miguel Piñero’s poem “La Bodega Sold Dreams”. What connection do you identify with this central poem of the Nuyorican Movement and the end of the novel?


Why do you think the people from El barrio decided to honor Bodega’s life by remembering his days as a Young Lord above all else?


How Julio’s decision of helping Geran (the old man) and Hipólito (his grandson) and his dream about Bodega, Spanglish, and the evolution of El barrio demonstrates Julio’s new perspective regarding El barrio and Puerto Rican culture.


Respectfully interact with ONE of your classmates’ responses. Do you agree with their points and interpretations? Do you disagree? What other observations about pages 201-213 (Book III) from Bodega Dreams do you want to bring into the discussion?

Bodega Dreams (Pages 158-200; Book II Rounds 8-12)- Ernesto Quiñonez

Entry Question

What topics from the second half of the semester (the Puerto Rican Diaspora) would you like to see included in the final?


Manifest destiny was a widely held cultural belief in the 19th-century United States that Anglo-white settlers were destined —by God, its advocates believed— to expand across North America. The settlers saw the expansion as both justified and inevitable. The Spanish-American war was the last stage in the territorial expansion associated with this ideology of imperial domination.

Arguably the ideology continued through foreign policy that supports neo-colonialism (corporate takeover), religious expansion, and military intervention.

How the title of round 8 and the critical perspective about Manifest Destiny presented by Nazario himself (pages 159-160) points towards a big dilemma regarding underground economies and the dream of Puerto Rican empowerment through ownership and capitalist warfare?

Bodega Dreams (Book II Rounds 8-12)

This last section of Book II involves the confrontation between the main couples in the novel and between competing forces in the turf war. Most of the characters in the novel are in an existential crisis and at the crossroads. They must decide who they trust and why. What relationships are going to be left behind or destroyed, and how to execute their plans for individual and/or collective betterment.

Oral presentation on the novel Bodega Dreams (Book II Rounds 8-12; Pages 158-200)

Wright, Xavier

Yan, Timothy

Discuss how rounds 8-12 present a crisis or full split-ups between the characters down below. What is the significance of these separations for the plot? 

.Julio (Chino) and Nancy (Blanca)

.Roberto (the anointed) and his mother

.Vera and Vidal

.Bodega and Nazario

Asynchronous Assignment on Bodega Dreams (Pages 128-157; Book II Rounds 5-7)

In rounds five to seven from the second book of Bodega Dreams, Ernesto Quiñonez pays attention to Nancy and Julio’s marital problems, to the centrality of Christianity to many in the Puerto Rican and Latinx community, and to the imminence of war between underground bosses Aaron Fischman from the Lower East Side (Loisaida) and Willie Bodega from East Harlem (El barrio).



In the comment section down below, write a (200-word minimum) response based on ONE of the following prompts (due on 5/3 before the class):


How the matter of women’s agency and social mobility within Puerto Rican and Latinx societies are integrated into the representation of the pentecostal church? How Nancy’s (Blanca’s) points of view clash with Julio’s (Chino’s)? How do you interpret Julio’s decision of attending church? What he discovers while there?


What Chino finds out regarding Salazar while riding with Sapo? How Sapo takes the opportunity to criticize Chino’s colorism and complexes with Latinas?


Recapitulate on the criminal case as of this point in the plot. What are the connections between the fire at Bodega’s building and Nazario and Chino’s visit to Mr. Cavalleri? How bosses Bodega and Fischman are implicated?


Respectfully interact with ONE of your classmates’ responses. Do you agree with their points and interpretations? Do you disagree? What other observations about pages 128-157 (Book II Rounds 5-7) from Bodega Dreams do you want to bring into the discussion?

Bodega Dreams (Pages 83-127; Book II Rounds 1-4)- Ernesto Quiñonez

Entry Question

Ernesto Quiñonez/Chino mentions Piri Thomas as a cultural figure that got right the struggles of Puerto Ricans in El barrio. How this poem resonates with the novel? What ideas they share?

Book II, Rounds 1-4

In these chapters, author Ernesto Quiñonez keeps exploring the topic of Latinxs and education by presenting a flashback of a violent event in Junior High. After being confronted by a bigot English teacher, Mr. Blessington, Sapo bites him in the neck (something similar happened to the assassinated journalist). Quiñonez also expands on the relationships between lawyer Nazario, Bodega, and Julio. We learn how Nazario is the face of Bodega’s operation in the neighborhood. He is respected and feared in the streets but he distributes help and directly interacts with the community. Chino also confirms that Bodega effectively sent Sapo to kill Salazar the journalist allegedly working with a “Big Fish” from Loisaida (Bodega’s rival, Fischman). He also discovers that Bodega used him in order to present himself as “family” to Vera (Bodega organized the donation and the ceremony).  Lastly, these chapters present the reunification and re-ignited romance between Willie Bodega and Vera (Izzy and Veronica). Veronica seems impressed by Willie’s acquisitive power.

Oral presentation on the novel Bodega Dreams (Pages 83-127).

Usher, Kirkland L

Von Drathen-Ruiz, Olivia

Open Debate 

After re-reading pages 106-107, what do you think of Bodega and Nazario’s plan for el Barrio, what ideas seem reasonable? Which ones do you oppose or make you conflicted? Discuss both pros and cons.

Asynchronous Assignment on Bodega Dreams (Pages 43-82; Book I Rounds 5-9)

In rounds five to nine from Book I of Bodega Dreams, Ernesto Quiñonez explores how Julio/Chino’s decides to enter “in business” with Willie Bodega and his crew as well as with Deborah (“Negra/Negy”).  The reader also perceives Chino’s views on gender, Afro-religion, migration, and citizenship, Boricua cultural institutions, street and family codes. This first part ends with a crime that will let Chino understands the dangers of his involvement with Bodega and his homeboy, Sapo.



In the comment section down below, write a (200-word minimum) response based on ONE of the following prompts (due on 4/26 before class):


How Chino’s moral flexibility is connected to his family’s socio-economic needs?

Refer to specific chapters, excerpts, plot development, and/or characters.


In chapter nine, Willie Bodega tells Chino how the Young Lords during the 70s challenged Puerto Rican and Latinx patriarchy (“Down with machismo and male chauvinism!”). They acknowledge that “Latin women were undergoing a revolution and this would force the Latin man to change his ways and reinvent himself (80),” considering how Chino describes, narrates, and analyzes female characters, do you think women achieved their goals and men changed their ways?

Refer to specific chapters, excerpts, plot development, and/or characters.


Chapter six, “Qué Viva Changó,” simultaneously re-inforces racial sterotypes and highlights the centrality of Afro-diasporic spiritual practices and spaces within El barrio. Discuss.


Analyze how the conjunction of the setting (El Museo del Barrio) and the story of his relationship with Veronica (Vera) allows the reader to perceive a different, more sensitive side of Willie Bodega.


Respectfully interact with ONE of your classmates’ responses. Do you agree with their points and interpretations? Do you disagree? What other observations about pages 43-82 from Bodega Dreams do you want to bring into the discussion?

Bodega Dreams (Pages 1-42; Book I Rounds 1-4)- Ernesto Quiñonez

Entry Question

Have you had a similar experience of neglect and cultural erasure in your schools as the ones described by Chino in Bodega Dreams?

Bodega Dreams (Chapters 1-4)

In these first chapters, Puerto Rican-Ecuadorian novelist Ernesto Quiñonez establishes, Julio, aka Chino as a central narrator. Chino describes his experiences growing up in El barrio, a marginalized Puerto Rican and Latinx neighborhood up until the 90s (the present of the story). Through Chino’s rendition of these pages, the reader gets an urban portrait and identifies four major characters:

.Sapo, a street hustler that loves Harlem

.Nancy, his wife, and a complex moral compass

.Willie Bodega, an ex-Young Lord activist turned shady realtor and the neighborhood’s benefactor

.Nazario, a lawyer, and Bodega’s partner


Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary”

How do Pietri’s concerns match Quiñonez/Chino’s description of Harlem? (Pages 4-5)

Oral presentation on the novel Bodega Dreams (pages 1-42).



Chain Reactions

.How Chino’s account about education illuminates larger social issues in El Barrio (East Harlem)? (Pages 6-7)

.How Chino’s perception of El barrio changes once he gets married to Nancy and goes to Hunter College? (Pages 12-13)

.What racial and gender stereotypes emerge when we consider Chino’s description of sisters Nancy (“Blanca”) and (“Negra”)? (Pages 9, 21)

.Describe Willie Bodega’s vision of Puerto Rican and Latinx uplift and its connection to real state and ownership. (Pages 28-30; 35,37)

.How do the Young Lords’ community aid and revolutionary activism resemble and differentiate from Bodega’s current plan? (Pages 31-33)

Asynchronous Assignment on Afro-Boricua Archives and You Are Who I Love

Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez argues that Frank Espada’s photography and Aracelis Girmay’s poetry  “embodied practices that refuse silencing and erasure by bringing the Boricua subject to the fore as valuable and knowing human subject.” In cleaving these works together,  she makes space for the examination of photo/poetics as “insurgent productions.” She analyzes how “the body and the quotidian are used as lenses through which to understand and indict coloniality and erasure.”

Inspired by the theory of Tina Campt, Figueroa suggests that the observer and reader listen to the images. “In her monograph Listening to Images, Tina Campt articulates the photographic image as a phenomenon beyond sight and focuses on sound, frequency, and the aural as a valuable and necessary intervention in Black diasporic cultural studies and beyond. Campt urges us to understand that the act of “listening to images” as “a practice of looking beyond what we see and attuning our senses to the other affective frequencies through which photographs register.”



In the comment section down below, write a creative response based on ONE of the following prompts (due on 4/19 before class):


Inspire by Yomaira Figueroa’s method of describing and “listening” to photographs of Afro-Boricuas, describe and analyze one of Frank Espada’s photos from The Puerto Rican Diaspora Project.


Write a poem about a Puerto Rican, Latinx, Afro-diasporic and/or indigenous community using the poetic structure and main phrase (“You Are Who I Love”) proposed by Aracelis Girmay.


Respectfully interact with ONE of your classmates’ creative responses. What elements of his/her/their piece caught your attention? What other observations about Frank Espada’s photographs and/or the poem by Aracelis Girmay do you want to bring into the discussion?

Afro-Boricua Archives- Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez

A native of Puerto Rico, writer and associate professor, Yomaira Figueroa, was raised in Hoboken, NJ, and is a first-generation high school and college graduate. She earned her Ph.D. and M.A. in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Figueroa works on 20th century U.S. Latinx Caribbean, Afro-Latinx, and Afro-Hispanic literature and culture. Her most recent book Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature, focuses on diasporic and exilic Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and Equatoguinean texts in contact. She is currently writing a book on Afro-Boricua Histories and audiovisual archives.

Afro-Boricua Archives

“The quotidian moments captured in the photos of Frank Espada’s Afro-Puerto Rican subjects and in Girmay’s poem “You Are Who I Love” are the facts of everyday Blackness and Black life and survival in the diaspora. The everyday moments that Espada documents invite a form of listening to what Tina Campt calls the “quiet register”; it is listening to the quotidian and the intimate as a central part of the human.”

Oral presentation on the essay “Afro-Boricua Archives” or the poem “You Are Who I Love.”


Rodriguez Martinez,Anacaona Y

Frank Espada

“These images and stories are works of poetry that refuse dehumanization and accusations of cultural pathologies. Instead, Espada renders his subjects through a lens of love, celebration, and dignity.”

How can we interpret these Frank Espada photos from Figueroa’s perspective? What elements stand out? What stories they suggest?

Aracelis Girmay

“Both Frank Espada’s photography and Girmay’s poetry allow Puerto Rican, Afro-Puerto Ricans, and other people of color to see themselves rendered beautifully as survivors and resistors. These bundles of photography and poetry can be cleaved together (but not apart) because they are visualizations of the human.”

Pick a line from Aracelis Girmay’s “You Are Who Are Love” that matches well with Espada’s photography project. Explain your selection.


Girmay and Espada create an archive of who is loved. Who is loved in these poems and in these photographs are: colonial subjects, diasporic peoples, those resisting coloniality, and practicing old/creating new ways to love one another. Within Espada’s work, we must bend our ear to listen to the poetics of the image, in Girmay’s work we must conjure and imagine the people, the bodies, and the immense love she writes about. We can listen to his images and read her poetry and behold an indispensable way to see communities that have been disappeared by the archive, coloniality, and erasure.