What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

My understanding of popular religion is defined as those manifestations of worship that emerge from the humble layers of a country, which generally lack official academic formation, but are based on the ancient veneration of oral traditions. These practices occur on the outskirts of conventional religious institutions, although they maintain indirect links to them.

In the specific case of Puerto Rico, since the onset of the forceful evangelization of the indigenous people, as well as the mission of maintaining alive the faith and worship of the Spanish inhabitants on the Island, the Church had to deal with popular religious manifestations of diverse nature, playing ignorant in many cases, and embarking in bloody persecutions in others…

Not all religious practices in Puerto Rico, past and current, were related to the Spanish Catholic Church. In terms of assimilation, submission, and experiences, (factors which influence the cultural aspect as well) we must remember that the different African dialects, gradually transformed into substratum by the Catholic doctrine instruction were, and still are, part of the foundations of our popular religion. Unfortunately, there are very few records and articles of the African religions that penetrated Puerto Rico. Nevertheless, I’ve been able to reconstruct a summarized framework of its most distinctive contributions with what little we have.

Spanish Catholicism was altogether brought to Puerto Rico by the first settlers and inhabitants of the Island of Borinquen; a name initially given to Puerto Rico in honor of Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of the Capital city. Everyday life was governed by the Church’s liturgical calendar and was organized in cycles or periods, namely Advent, Nativity, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter.

Since the dawn of Spanish colonization, we had a bishop. His name was Alonso Manso and he arrived on the Island on Christmas morning in 1512. The prelate had serious differences with the existing Catholic flock, which did not care much about religion and refused to send donations to the bishop or the mandatory tithe needed to erect a Church worthy of being called the House of God. In no time, Bishop Manso headed off to Spain, and came back in 1516 as Inquisitor of the Indies.

Years later, on February 1526, we documented the Island’s first carnival celebrated by compassionate Spaniards and indigenous people near the Villa Caparra ruins. From then on, the Island continued celebrating not only the carnival, but also Christmas, the Epiphany, and the cycle of the Passion of Christ. Excluding local variables, all these manifestations maintain the same fundamental characteristics used by almost all Hispanic countries which celebrate these occasions.

In a remarkable synopsis, Historian Salvador Brau explained how Spanish heritage can be appreciated in the majority of the popular religious practices of Puerto Rican people:

“The musical rosaries of our peasants present identical characters as those found in the vigils of the cross or “velorios de cruz” (traditional celebration that renders tribute to the wood in which Christ died; the celebration of the wake is placed in front of the Cross, to say or to sing the rosary), in which the partakers block the hallways of the city, annoying neighbors with their songs during the month of May; hypocrites and genuine grievers alike attend the wake to offer their hands and feet, and silver or waxed figurines to specific icons for the recovery of serious illnesses; both country and city folk believe that supernatural intervention from the souls in Purgatory will favor the acquisition of lost items, realizations of desires, and other similar wishes. Regarding the former, I learned something in the city that I couldn’t observe while in our countryside: I’m referring to the Anima Sola or Lonely Soul wax candle; in other words, the one which lacks any kind of help in this world. The candle is hung from a nail unlit until the requested wish comes true.”(La herencia devota, Almanaque de Damas 1886, San Juan, P.R., González Font, 1887, pages. 134-167).

Lighting candles is a custom that is still very much alive and practiced by all social classes in Puerto Rico, particularly areas of Catholic lineage. The act of lighting a candle represents the prayer in the absence of the individual. The candle is lit, a prayer is said, and a wish is requested.

On the other hand, the fact that all Puerto Ricans are characterized by their mixed races, if not by bloodline, then by culture, is beyond doubt. Black Puerto Rican women from the old days got our taste buds used to a new kind of seasoning, since they were in charge of the kitchen. In essence, black women were the wet nurses of the landowners, the ones who created the sacred institution of the milk brotherhood, a practice known as wetnursing. If a mother could not breastfeed her child for some reason, there was always a kind Puerto Rican woman who had recently given birth- mulatto, white or black – willing to breastfeed any child because the “breasts of those who feed in Christian generosity and providence” will always be blessed.

Customs, traditions, and beliefs 

Even though there is still debate on whether blacks brought to Puerto Rico were assimilated by the Spanish culture, progressively loosing their religious beliefs and the fundamental elements of their African heritage, I will objectively present the facts that I’ve found in my research, both in documented and oral resources.

When black Africans arrived in the New World, they brought with them their beliefs and traditions. The Church, known for its mission to evangelize indigenous communities since the beginning of colonialism in America, also proceeded to force African slaves to convert immediately to Christianity.

Luis Manuel Díaz Soler explains that “… the effort of converting blacks into Christianity commenced at the moment they came ashore on the Antillean coasts. As soon as ecclesiastical authorities knew of the entrance of a slave ship, priests were assigned to visit the ship on port. The clergy screened the passengers to determine the possible presence of blasphemers and those with questionable faith, who were so tenaciously persecuted by Spanish authorities. Immediately, priests began to teach Catechism to the newly arrived African slaves, educating them on the foundations of Catholic doctrine, which is the first step towards receiving the Sacrament of Baptism.” (History of Slavery, page165)

Frequently, slave traffickers deceived the bishop by saying that the slave passengers were already christened in Ethiopia or Cape Verde by means of their agents. If the ecclesiastical authorities believed the traffickers, the slaves were sold straight away and went to live with Christian families on the Island without having the slightest idea about Christian doctrine or having received the Sacrament of Baptism.

But as indicated by Díaz Soler, the bishops discovered the tricks and gimmicks played by the traffickers and demanded that African slaves be baptized again in the parochial churches where they would live as slaves in different haciendas and plantations. Therefore, priests in each parochial church had to make sure slaves went to mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation, went to Confession, participated in the Eucharist and complied with the teachings of the Church.

Since 1538, Emperor CharlesV had ordered slave owners to send their slaves to the monastery or church closest to their haciendas so they could be taught Christian doctrine at a time scheduled by the priest in charge. Each year, landowners had to pay their district priest or chaplain eight silver coins for each slave they owned. At the same time, slave owners had to provide priests with ornaments, wine, wax, and lodging free of charge when they visited their haciendas in compliance with their responsibilities.

“In a one-year period, from the moment they arrived in Puerto Rico, any African had to be properly doctrinized and dominate the principles of Catechism (the ten Commandments, the Creed, the Our Father, compassion prayers, the Sacraments, etc.), by heart and perfectly understood. Many times, it was very difficult for some slaves to learn what the ecclesiastical authorities required, a fact that slave owners blamed to the lack of intelligence of the African race. However, the priests went ahead and baptized them if they felt their sincerity, humility, and willingness to learn the Christian doctrine. A penalty of twenty five pesos was charged to slave owners who did not comply with the mandatory religious indoctrination during the required time period. Many slave owners forced their slaves to learn Catechism using cruel punishments to avoid being charged with negligence. Afterward, the required one-year period to administer the Sacrament of Baptism was extended to two years, giving slave owners more time to comply with ecclesiastical requirements. (Coll y Toste, Historical Bulletin, XIII, pgs. 4-5)

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

Possible Black resistance to a new faith 

It is very possible that blacks did not want to renounce the beliefs brought with them from their country of origin and used tricks to avoid finishing the evangelization process. We know that many Africans, brought as slaves to the New World, had embraced the Islamic religion in their countries. This fact was not ignored by the Spanish ecclesiastical authorities who, on the other hand, had initiated the sinister persecution of Semitic groups many years before. Moreover, it cannot be denied that the language barrier hindered the easy and free comprehension between evangelists and potential converts.

Consequently, the unlucky slaves had no choice but to go along. However, I found during my initial research on the subject (which began in 1963 and continues to this day) and after interviewing the children and grandchildren of slaves, that all of them practice the Catholic religion, or had practiced it prior to switching to Protestantism. It is worth noting that rosaries sung as promises to the saints or as pledges of gratefulness for the soul of the ill or the dead in the family, are usually led or sung by Puerto Rican men or women of African descent -especially in the North and South of the island.

In spite of everything, two striking facts about black pagans or witches were imprinted in our cultural history. Let us see.

In 1591, Fr. Nicolás de Ramos, of the Franciscan Order, was bishop of Puerto Rico and later promoted to Archbishop of Santo Domingo. He sent a letter to the king in 1594 “about what happened in San Juan of Puerto Rico with certain black witches”. The missive says:

“Dear Mister: While I was bishop of Puerto Rico, I discovered a large group of black male and female witches presided by the devil in the form of a goat. Each night, they vigorously denied the existence of God, the Mother of God, and the sacraments of the Holy Mother Church, affirming they had no other god other than the devil in which they believe. They went to the countryside with certain unctions to practice these exercises. And it was not a dream because there were people who personally saw them and witnessed these rituals. And even though the witches offered corals and other gifts to buy the witnesses’ silence, they came forward and informed me. To serve justice, I punished them with beatings and exile; and I forced three of them to renounce vehemently…, because they confessed without having to turn to threats or torture. With several accomplices as witnesses, they were found guilty. And the owners of the black women chose to appeal the extradition of their slaves. And during the extradition appeal, the three which had renounced their ways, as accounted in their own confession, which was voluntary, without torment or threats and proven by many witnesses, relapsed into error; therefore, I had no choice but to relegate them to the secular branch, using the ad abolendam de hereticis chapter to guide me with the entire process. And to execute justice, we waited for the Governor, as ordered in the chapter titled ut inquicitionis negatian de hereticis in sexto. And now with an appointed Governor in charge, Diego Mendez executed justice, and they wanted to keep the money for the black women slaves and after many requests and supplications, the money was sent to the Council. I sent a message to Puerto Rico to notify the owners who requested the burns at the stake, and the new governor, to make sure they were excommunicated; Diego Menéndez was just the executioner of my orders, and as such, under the penalty of excommunication, without demanding details of the process, he was obliged to execute and do justice subject to the penalty of excommunication, and if they wanted to request something, they must ask me, not him.”(Coll y Toste, Historical Bulletin, III, pages 48-49. Prosody, syntax and spelling have been modernized)

It seems that these poor black women were burned at the stake like heretics and that their owners asked civil authorities for compensation…

Another historical fact that shows the intolerance of the Church against those traditions, or the different cultural ways of Westerners, occurred in Puerto Rico in 1608. Diego de Torres Vargas, Canon of John the Baptist Cathedral, tells us that: “During Governor Gabriel de Rojas’ term, it was said that a black woman had a talking spirit in her belly. The case was brought to the attention of the Church and after performing an exorcism, the spirit claimed his name was Pedro Lorenzo. He answered all inquiries, about missing and obscure things… like Silico, whom I heard sometimes, and the Commissioner of the Inquisition ordered not to talk to her or excommunication would be given as punishment; and afterward, another one was discovered that made the first one worthy of admiration, but little is said about the ones that came later. Black women who have it inside say that where they come from, the spirit enters and rests in their bellies in the form of an animal and jumps from one women to another like a first born child. (Coll y Toste, Ibid., IV, page 279. I have modernized prosody and spelling.)

I have no doubt that the language barrier is a problem here. It is most probable, not to say that I’m completely sure, that these black women had learned the art of ventriloquism, a possibility that took by surprise the gullible people who ignored such skills. It is difficult to accept an explanation of esoteric nature.

The above-mentioned facts could be construed as elements of resistance used by Africans in view of the new creed imposed on them. One must highlight that, in the events of 1591, the accused black women went back to their old traditions and rituals, which were considered by Spaniards as heretical and pagan. Going against the Catholic faith meant an additional form of repudiation for the religious authorities that allowed slavery.

From 1949 to 1950, the Chilean professor and folklore expert Pablo Garrido worked as a visiting Professor at the University of Puerto Rico, and one of his students learned a very curious piece of information at the Santurce neighborhood called Barrio Obrero: “In the first day of November, it is customary to cook a dish called “garabí” in honor of the most important deceased of the family. Food was placed behind the doors.” (P. Garrido, Popular esoterism and fervor…, page 190)

In 1965, I investigated the oral tradition from Cangrejos to Barrio Obrero and had no luck finding out about the garabí dish. I went further and looked in every imaginable dictionary and found no trace of the word. Manuel Alvarez Nazario does not have it registered as an African term. The word could have been of Taíno or Caribbean origins but that was not the case. Perhaps future generations of researchers will have better luck than I did. I looked into the fact because the wave of Cuban immigrants that began in the 1960’s introduced the popular Afro-Cuban religious tradition known as Santería to our culture, one which honors its deities and the dead with tasty food dishes… It is possible that the piece of information acquired in Santurce is a memory of ancient rituals no longer in existence.

Then again, I must point out that the belief in spells, male witches or “yacós”, was neither in the past nor is today an exclusive patrimony of black Puerto Ricans. Today, it is still customary to sing the following chorus at carnival games:

That Blackman is a witch, a witch he is.
Look into his eyes, the color of coffee.

“I do not believe in witches, but ask me if they exist, oh yes, they exist,” is an ironic saying very common in Puerto Rico and the Hispanic world. While doing my folkloric research, I met people with a reputation of being male and female witches and found out they belong to Puerto Rico’s two dominant ethnic groups. Past and current witchcraft is a mixture of Hispanic and African traditions; in other words: mulatto witchcraft!

In the study titled Popular esoterism and fervor in Puerto Rico (1956), its author Pablo Garrido denies the noteworthy existence of African foundations in most parts of esoteric and religious manifestations in Puerto Rico. To this effect, he says: “…it is important to note that the Black population of Puerto Rico, originating from the “yorubas”, “ibos”, “iyesás”, “takuá”s and “egguedos” ethnic groups (only repeated in Cuba and Brazil), does not manifest theogonic survivals of the indigenous African cultures.” (pg. 27)

Later on, the Chilean ethnographer states the following: “Of the migration waves that came from nearby or even remote lands, there is no significant evidence held by the black population. Therefore, we have nothing on the voodoo ritual, the cobra serpent and the zombies, distinctive of the Dahomeyan culture (Haiti), as well as of the Fanti-Ashanti culture found in the British and Dutch colonies of the Caribbean, or even of the ones that could have been introduced by black Venezuelans, predominantly from the Bantu culture of Congo and Angola. Given this scenario, one must admit that if the natives were annihilated at the beginning of the Spanish conquest and of the African cultures, the only continued existence is that of color; any possible hybrid and parasitic forms in Catholicism are either nonexistent or merely an intellectual adventure. Not even the masks typically used in Loíza Village during the celebration of Saint James, nor the songs chanted at the baquiné wake or wake of angels, nor the pealing of the drums in a bomba (male and female) are typologically African, since their expressions are equally found in many other places unconnected and ignorant of African cultures. Stating the contrary would not only be a dishonor to such rich and complex cultures, but also a discriminatory action a priori, assuming that everything done by a black man is substantially different, if not alien, to that done by a White man.” (pgs. 28-29).

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

The “baquiné” or the wake of angels

“Baquiné”, “baquiní” or “quinibán” (by methatesis) is the term used by black slaves in their language to refer to the wake of children, also known as the wake of little angels. In essence, it is a ceremonial party, where people sing, eat and drink. During the ceremony, an expert in this kind of ritual, leads the chants, orders games, riddles are played, stories in the oral tradition are told, as well as anecdotes and myths; on some occasions, before commencing the games, people say the Rosary to comfort the mother of the deceased child, given that the child does not need prayers for being an infant. This ceremony is celebrated to pay respect to a child until the age of seven (who is considered an angel because they unable to sin at such a young age), who will then reunite with the rest of the angels in Paradise.

This belief is very well spread among the regular Catholic people and it seems to coincide with the beliefs of the black slaves. In effect, there is no evidence in Puerto Rico to date which clarifies this cultural fact.

Origin, artistic testimonies, critics and prohibitions of the baquiné wake and other other burial ceremonies. 

As with most facts in oral tradition, we do not know with certainty the origins of the baquiné wake or wake of angels in Puerto Rico, although is probable that before the 17th century the Spanish people from Extremadura and Andalusia, introduced this burial tradition to the Island. Most students and educated people in Puerto Rico have seen or know about the magnificent canvas by Francisco Oller Cestero titled The Wake (El Velorio), finished in October 1893. This painting was presented to the public in the Puerto Rico Exhibition of 1894 in Santurce, and some intellectuals of the time were there to criticize its topic and content. There is no doubt that many of these critics cloaked a lot of disdain and prejudice for the lower classes of the Island; and especially for the black man, depicted in Oller’s painting as the prototype of a venerable old age. Writer and violinist Manuel Martínez Plée wrote back then: “The wake is an anathema (or condemnation) against a tradition that dishonors Puerto Rico and, instead of vanishing, it continues to grow stronger every day. The baquiné wake of lovebirds has substituted the Spanish wake, which is characterized by the same type of desecration, manifests more love / affection, songs and dances around the dead body”. (Don Francisco Oller in La correspondencia de Puerto Rico, 26, V, 1917)

Let us compare the above-mentioned criticism with the following one from J. Zequeira (1894), regarding the old black man who, in a pensive posture, gazes at the dead child: “tired with the years, and even more with the past years of servitude, he leans on a strong cane; and in the accentuated lines of his venerable face, crowned with the whitest hair and long beard, we see a reflective thought dominating his being. He is not the stereotypical stupid and hopeless black man that, submerged in the darkness of ignorance, which unfortunately still proliferates in the mountains of the Island; he is an intelligent being, that has suffered a great deal and who learned from his pain. He is indifferent to the party that surrounds the scene; only the dead child captures his attention… For a long time, he also cried for the loss of his home, there, in the far lands of Africa, a home made even more beautiful by his lovely wife and kids, taken away from him and thrown into slavery like him, in a distant land, by the greed of the White man. And seasoned by his long years of slavery in the reflection of the Infinite and in deep abstract meditations, he finally realized that the death of the child, unlike the fanatics surrounding him in shameful orgy, is not the everlasting happiness waiting for us in the eternal life, but that he considers death as the ultimate kind of liberty, the absolute ideal of his life as a slave.” [J. Zequeira, The Wake (El Velorio), pgs. 9-10]

It is interesting that in Oller’s painting The Wake (El Velorio), he only painted five black people (a girl with a maraca, a boy with a güiro (percussion instrument), a girl or boy fallen on the floor, next to a little bench and a vase with rice, a black woman at the door on the background, and the venerable old man observing the body of the child); the remaining twenty-two are apparently white. In other words, white peasants had adopted the ritual of the wake of little angels, whose origins in Puerto Rico are attributed incorrectly to the black slaves. It seems, as indicated previously by Martinez Plée, that the tradition was widely spread among the peasants of the Island.

The oldest information we have about the celebration of a baquiné wake or the wake of an innocent child (up until the ages of 6 or 7) is offered by Friar Iñigo Abbad y La Sierra in 1788, at the time the book Geographic, civil and natural history of the Island of St. John the Baptist of Puerto Rico (Historia geográfica, civil y natural de la Isla de San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico) was published. Chapter 31, “Way of life and customs of the people of this island,” which refers to the passion Puerto Ricans have for dancing, he said: “The birth or death of any child is also celebrated with dances that last until they cannot withstand the stench of the deceased; however, these are prepared to last several days; these parties are paid by the godparents.” (Fray Iñigo, Hist…, page 190)

Regarding the baquiné wake, some local folklore experts ascribe its origin to Spain (southern regions up to Western Extremadura) and adopted by black slaves both in Spain and Puerto Rico. Others consider its origins purely African. The truth is that similar ceremonies were developed in both regions and that only the black applied the African term “baquiné” or “baquiní” to its peninsular counterpart “little angel’s wake”. It is intriguing that in 19th century Italy there was a practice similar to that of the Spanish.
So in keeping with the former, Antonio Gianandrea from Rome wrote: “We also call the dead children between the ages of 7 and 8 angels among us. And during the processions, boys and girls were dressed as angels with wings and walked in procession until they reach the Patron Saint of the celebration. And also these ones were called angels.” (Rodríguez Marín, Cantos….Vol, V, pg. 9)

Guillermo Ramirez considers the baquiné wake to have Spanish origins. Since Ramirez’s text about the wake of angels is not very well known, the following is an exact transcription: “Recently I found an engraving of the French artist Gustave Doré (1833-1883) titled Jay surrounding a dead child (province of Alicante), in the book History of Dance by German author Curt Sachs. This French cartoonist devoted himself to writing about contemporary society and illustrating books such as The Bible and Don Quixote.

It is remarkable how the scene he encapsulates in his engraving, from the action point of view to the pictorial composition, etc., is very similar to The Wake, by Dore’s Puerto Rican counterpart during his time, Francisco Oller (1833-1917), who was coincidently born in the same year as Doré. Oller lives eleven years more than Doré. Oller’s painting is finished in 1894, and it is not unusual his inspiration came from Doré’s. In both works of arts, the child lies on the table crowned with flowers, the priest accompanying the family, the characters dressed as peasants, the Alicante guitarist and the Puerto Rican “cuatro” (a four string guitar native to Puerto Rico) guitarist, a musician from Alicante playing some kind of flute and a Puerto Rican woman playing the maracas. The furniture, in each case, as well as the objects depicted on the walls, are the conventional ones of the place. The only main difference I make out is that the Puerto Rican wake is more festive. In Spanish engravings, the environment is gloomier, but it might be because of the moment when the artist captures the scene, since there are also dignified moments in the Puerto Rican version of the wake. I shared these differences with Spanish Professor José Nieto Iglesias, and he tells me that this tradition was spread in many Spanish regions. This means that the origin of the baquiné wake is Spanish and Christian, not African.” (El arte en Puerto Rico, pages 66-67)

Professor Gianandra’s testimony (19th century), and those of Guillermo Ramirez, as well as the vast amount of folkloric literature gathered in various places of Spanish America, makes us reconsider the assertion that the baquiné wake has African origins. Federico Ratzel does not mention anything about worship or rituals similar to our baquiné wake in his work The Human Races (Las razas humana) (1888), which depicts in detail the life of the African people.

Lexicologist Manuel álvarez Nazario found the term baquiní in The Dominican Republic, yet this word is used to identify wakes for both, children and adults. The ceremony is also known and practiced in San Basilio de Palenque (a black community in Colombia), as well as in Alto y Bajo Chocó, also in Colombia, Bolivia, Cuba, The Dominican Republic, Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, English and French-speaking Caribbean islands, Mexico and in some regions of Chile, Peru and Argentina, where they are known as vigils or the wake of angels.

Alvarez Nazario also points out an additional lexical variable of Hispanic origin to categorize the same ceremony: “Other places within the Island, deep in the mountains and away from the coasts, where blacks where fewer, the decadent word florón, of apparent Hispanic derivation, is still in use to name the vigils of children, particularly if the dead child is white (in Loiza Village, however, florón is just the name of an element of entertainment used during the baquiné wake).” (Alvarez Nazario, Op.cit., page 285 and note 82)

During the mid 1950’s, when I was eight years old, I had the opportunity of witnessing some baquiné wakes in the urban and sub-urban areas of the municipality of Dorado, where I was born and raised. In this northern coastal town, this ritual was called indistinctly baquiné or florón, both by blacks and whites that interacted in the songs and games. In truth, one of the games played was also called florón. I can still remember it clearly: a group of boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 10 would hold a garland of natural flowers, made by the adults with wild flowers or with flowers from their own gardens. It was a circle-shaped garland that the little ones would spin between their hands as they encircled the table where the small open casket of the dead child was placed and they sang:

The big flower is at hand,
On the hand the big flower is.
The big flower stopped by here,
I saw it and did not grab it.


Come, come,
Come by big flower.

There are other versions of the big flower game-song in other towns around the island, as well other versions of the baquiné wake. Some go like this:

Kind mothers
Cry for their children,
Realizing they are sinking
With no escape.

Grab that child,
Remove him from there,
So that his mother
Stops suffering.

Bring the pair
Of white horses,
That the priest is waiting for them
At the holy field.

Bring the pair
Of black horses,
That the priest is waiting for them
At the cemetery.

Do not cry for him Mother,
Do not cry anymore,
Because his wings
Are getting wet.

Do not cry for him Mother,
Do not cry anymore,
That this one is gone
And another one will return.

(NOTE: Translation of verses does not reflect poetry metric explained hereunder)

If we measure the lines of the previous verses, we’ll notice that the accent falls on the odd syllables; therefore, they are hexasyllables of trochaic rhythm, very characteristic of the Spanish popular and traditional poetry of the Middle Ages. In fact, the previous songs possess the typical backward-and-forward movement so characteristic of the Spanish verse form zejel, as well as some Galician-Portuguese carols. Among the baquiné wake songs, in addition to the minor art verse forms we find décimas (ten-line stanzas of poetry) and even seguidillas (a Spanish folk dance).

A composition made up of four décimas was found in Vieques in 1950; it was recited by Roberto Bonano (who was 70 years old at the time). Given the doctrinal poetic interest of these décimas, in addition to coming from the Island Municipality, which evidences the proliferation of said ritual, I’ve copied them hereunder in their original form:

Four candles slowly
instantly, and as they are lit
Addressing your farewell
Tenacious and gloriously.
Our God, Merciful Father,
Your soul He has tenderly called
To enjoy beside him
The happiness He embodies.

Who should be so lucky,
And before life crosses
That sweet innocence
Death will visit you.
You die without strong evidence;
Without knowing what pain is;
You live spiritually
Perceiving the sweetness
In such a flower garden.

I look at you lying on that table
And your luck touches me.
Glory will find you in death
Sadness will remain among us.
You carry no sin
Your life was peace and love,
Despair and pain crown us
We are guilty of the law…
But you, when you talk to God,
Pray for the sinners…

Tell your mother not to cry,
Even when your dream is eternal…
Your smile floats around us
Amid such beautiful flowers…
You understand her pain,
Her anguish, her sorrow;
But may God call you there
to the eternal altar. Oh, yes!
Remember me angel
If you were to enter Heaven.

Just as interesting and refreshing are the carols sang during the same time in the municipality of Manatí:

Make that little coffin
with pinewood,
So my God
Can show him the way…

I bring a little casket
Made of golden pinewood,
Baby Jesus inside,
Bathed in blood.

Within the Church
the Divine Mother knows;
the Divine Mother knows,
suffers in patience!

The peninsular origins are clearly evident in the transcribed songs. Aside from the narrated short stories, some of clear African origins, I haven’t found any chants that could be identified with this ethnic group. Some baquiné wakes are accompanied by a cuatro, guitargüiro and maracas, particularly in the heart of the Island. In coastal areas, people typically use percussion instruments such as tambourines, sticks, maracas and a güiro. When none of these instruments are available, people keep the rhythm by clapping.

I regard as very important for Afro-Puerto Rican culture specialists the folkloric stories titled Baquiné, published by Luis Palés Matos in El Mundo newspaper on December 9th, 1945. In this written pies, he recreates the baquiné wake scene he witnessed as a little boy with Lupe, a black maid who worked at his home, who took him to the ravines of Hacienda Esperanza de la Central Bustamante in the town of Guayama. Palés remembers with emotion the folkloric stories narrated and dramatized by Lupe, as well as the mysterious songs played before the ceremony by the director of the wake, known as Master Balestier, the best Grand Saint Père (Great Saint Father), and what blacks phonetically understood as the Gran Ciempiés (Great Centipede).

In an explanatory note, Palés clarifies that the Great Centipede is the: “Name given to the director of the baquiné wake songs and who takes on, in said ceremony, an almost priestly role in the southern part of Puerto Rico. It is possible that the term Great Centipede is the result of a deformation of the French expression “Grand Saint Pierre” (Great Saint Peter) or “Grand Saint Père” (Great Saint Father). If such were the case, then it would be very interesting for black Caribbean folklore to look for the relationship between Puerto Rico’s baquiné wake ceremony and Haitian voodooism or with the culte de morts or cult of deat of the French Antilles. With the exception of said region, the author has not heard of the Great Centipede in any other part of the Island. But let us charge the researchers with the task of finding out; I just point out the information.” (Reseña de una vida inútil, L.P.M., Works, T. II, page 88)

I strongly suspect that Palés, even with his witty vision and poet’s instinct, interpolated in the above mentioned folkloric tale two different, even though related, rituals. The information gathered in the southern region of the Island indicates that rosaries and novenas, sung or prayed, are not elements of the baquiné wakes. Nonetheless, up until the other day (circa 1975), locals of the region sang the so-called Mendés Rosaries, which they also labeled French Rosaries. During the 1970’s, we found in the of Jobos Port area in Guayama the songs of a Mendés rosary that begins with the Domini, ani manita quoted by Palés in his work Baquiné. On the other hand, some of the baquiné wake verses included by Palés in his work are still remembered by some older people. In conclusion, it seems that Palés entwined baquiné songs with rosary songs in the Mende language.

In 1973, writer and linguist Edwin Figueroa Berrios, narrator Luis Rafael Sánchez, and I visited the mountains between the towns of Cayey and Guayama in an area called Rinconcina, near the neighborhoods of Caimital and Carite. While there, brothers Leoncio and Marcelo Gastón, who were 79 and 77 years old respectively at the time, offered us their knowledge of the Mendés rosaries and novena. On the one hand, the stories they recalled were already quite contaminated with recent facts and, on the other hand, they were not remembered correctly. However, they could very well remember the scenes of the rosaries, as well as the best singers of the place. According to the Masó brothers, Alejandro Texidor, El Cabo Tete, Aniceto Santel, Faustino Valdes and Zenon Maso were the best singers of Guayama. They also indicated that the most outstanding singers of Mende rosaries were Emerito Torruellas, Pablo Terechea, Eusebio Mensenet and Baldomero Gaston from the neighborhoods of Bélgica and San Antón in Ponce. The Masó brothers narrated animal stories and dramatized them by mimicking their movements and sounds. It was such a delight to watch them, choreographically speaking. Unfortunately, we did not have cameras or video cameras at hand. In spite of it all, I was able to document by hand our findings, notes that I still have.

The Mendé rosaries done in honor of the dead as well as during the wake of angels or baquiné wake are a thing of the past. However, between 1978 and 1980 I was able to document a rare but explicable occurrence of numerous wakes for children in the Magas neighborhood in the town of Guayanilla, where a noxious petrochemical gas leak caused the death of various local children. Without a doubt, when unfavorable circumstances oppress human beings in every way, and they are not able to solve a problem which is out of their control, the spirit expresses itself freely and, from the depth of the mysterious collective unconscious, the soul shows itself using the same forms of mourning used by our ancestors, through the use of lyrical dramatic songs. The people who sang the wake of angels in 1978 in the Magas neighborhood had never done it before and had not even heard of such ceremony.

Public health system regulations and the demand for permits to celebrate old-style public wakes contributed, in great extent, to their extinction. Let us remember that in the mid 19th century, these practices were prohibited because they were considered immoral and disgraceful for the good manners of the Spanish. For this reason, Article113 of the regulation Police Department and Good Governance of 1862 stated the following: “…no dances shall be allowed at the altar, nor wakes of infants or of children in their early childhood; no relocation of coffins of people of color from one house to the other for mourning or singing as done in the country of origin, nor could a wake be celebrated at the house of the deceased.” In the case offenders did not comply with these decrees, a penalty of four pesos was charged.

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

Esoteric beliefs and practices 

The generalization that black Puerto Ricans are superstitious and have the tendency to practice witchcraft, that they celebrate obscure and secret rituals, is an absolute fallacy. To attribute these characteristics to them is to pass on racial prejudice, and we have the nerve of asserting that these practices are common to Puerto Ricans of low socioculural standing. Even so, even within the most elite society of the island we can find people who believe in telepathy, the evil eye, in the use of amulets and lucky charms, and other esoteric traditions. While it is true that within the lower and middle classes of black Puerto Ricans, there are men and women who read cards, offer spiritual consultations to those in need, prepare spells and charms, some of which claim to improve the romantic and economic situation of the petitioner, and an array of other unimaginable things; it is also true that thousands of light skinned Puerto Ricans go to them also in search of supposed spiritual and material wellbeing. On the other hand, we found that some members of the Puerto Rican high class, regardless of ethnicity, seek help and advice from fortune-tellers who prowl said economic class, the only difference being that they call themselves psychics, Tarot readers, mediums, astrologers and parapsychologists, whose main interest, in most the cases, is to rob them blind…

From black magical traditions, only two words which have already fallen into disuse, remain in our folklore within the new generation of Puerto Ricans: “fufú” and “yacó”. The word “fufú, according to the teachings of Manuel Alvarez Nazario, comes from Africa, as it has been recorded in other black communities of Spanish America with the same meaning as the one used in Puerto Rico. “In the African communities of North America, as well as in the Ewe of Togo, the Efik or Carabali of Southern Nigeria, and the Mende of Sierra Leona, the word fufú has etymologic and semantic relation to the meaning used in Puerto Rico: spell or witchcraft.” ( Alvarez Nazario, Op. cit., page 288)

The word “yacó” means spell or curse. According to the aforementioned lexicologist, this word was common in the southeastern coast of the Island, but it is not currently used and is almost extinct. The term probably arrived with the Franco-Antillean slaves that came to Puerto Rico between the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th. (Ibid., page 290)

The term fua-fua is used to refer to witches. Turner (1949) found the term fwa as common among Gullah blacks, and points out that “… its origins are probably from Congo.” (page 89).

Prayer to free oneself from witches, picked up in the area of Loiza Village:

“With the angel and Saint Sylvester,
Free me and share me,
And all the witches,
Hang yourselves”.
(Sic., Mauleón, page 90)

Remedies against the evil eye towards children:

For the evil eye, crush mint with urine; heat it, and pour it over the child’s head. (Ibid.)
All types of flowers are picked and crushed, put in water and under the sun, then the water is poured over the child. (Ibid.)

Against evil spirits:

When people have a black cloud following them wherever they go, they take white basil baths to remove evil spirits. (Ibid)
To remove the evil spirits, one makes odorous smoke with anamuor guinea henweed . (Ibid.)

In addition to the sentences above, black Puerto Ricans know the old prayer of the Magnificant by heart, which they use constantly when they feel evil energies or when things do not go well. Moreover, as stated before, this is a generalization among all Puerto Rican believers.

The abovementioned words (yacó, fufú, fua-fua) are only used in Afro-Caribbean poetry, or in literary works that imitate the speech of our old blacks. It is absurd to think that in present-day Puerto Rico, there are black Puerto Ricans that speak like Mother Yoyó (Mamá Yoyó) or White Lilly (Lirio Blanco), and that believe wholeheartedly in these things.

Furthermore, it is possible that these mistaken ideas about our local blacks, mostly imparted by the elite or educated class, are the result of a lack of interaction and solidarity among all social classes. On the other hand, higher education helped create a literary and ideal vision of a 19th century Puerto Rico, which ceased to exist many years ago. This romantic vision of our land and its people framed by many of our intellectual and political personalities is the result of alienation and, deep inside, of indifference. One must always remember that literary fiction and reality are two different things. The locus amoenus (pleasant place), the Eden created by those estranged Puerto Ricans of the evident painful reality only exists in works of fiction of the past.

Therefore, there is no doubt black men were forced to assimilate to the Hispanic culture of the dominant classes. They adopted and adapted religious beliefs and practices from Catholicism. At the same time, after the North American military invasion in 1898, many black Puerto Ricans as well as other members of the white and mixed-race communities affiliated themselves to the evangelical creeds and churches, which established themselves in Puerto Rico as of that moment. Since then, worship of religious images as well as the Santeria craftsmen began to fade away.

Conversely, the Thanksgiving Day tradition was introduced in our island. It is generally known as Turkey Day because, in the case of our copycat version, the shape or external trait arrived first, and then we embraced its true meaning, unless it is lost or replaced by a new one.

Worship rituals to icons and the dead have vanished gradually. The masks of our Eastern coast are purely a colorful sight for tourists to enjoy, sponsored by an artificial policy of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Unfortunately, none of our private or public higher education institutions offer academic programs to study the expression of our folklore, which no doubt is a parallel world to the official one and, emphatically, of equal value and importance.

Author: Marcelino Canino Salgado
Published: September 28, 2010.

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