Los Angeles is perhaps the last place I expected to connect to Bomba. For years, decades even, I have observed, appreciated and secretly wanted to learn how to dance and tocar/play Bomba. Back in New York, the closest I got was when a lover of mine would teach me some basic toques – I can’t even remember if they were Bomba rhythms – in between day long sessions of eating and fucking.
I wasn’t afraid of dancing or dancing in public. I’ve always loved dance. Ballet, modern, salsa, merengue, in the club, at a party. Some of my best memories of my recently passed cousin Edgar are of him dancing with me, my sis and/or my kids. One time at a New Year’s Eve party in his and his wife’s apartment in Brooklyn, we all danced so hard that I swore the floor was going to give out underneath us. But was I the right person to dance Bomba?
It should be stated clearly that Bomba is a Black Rican musical legacy. It is rooted in the island’s history of colonization and the enslavement of Blacks bodies. Bomba was and is something that couldn’t be encadenada. It is a language of resistance and survival embodied. I was (and to some extent still am) conflicted as to what is my place and what is my right to access as a light/white(?) Rican.
As I get older I have become more sensitive to the issue of cultural appropriation. The way academics and others because of proximity to certain cultures take on linguistic and other cultural markers but being in Los Angeles has also made me more self conscious and more protective of my culture. Segregation is real here in a way I was and still am unfamiliar with compared to New York City. I have always bristled at being called in as a member of the Indigenous and Black diaspora as others have done within Puerto Ricaness. The mythology of the tri-racial Rican is strong and rooted in both anti indigeneity and anti Blackness. And while there are parts of my upbringing and family that yes are Taino and Black, it feels like a huge disrespect for me to claim those as a light/white Rican. There are things related to my spirituality, my culture that I hold close and privately because I feel like there are other people who have more stake and also have been more isolated, judged, killed even for claiming their rightful place within the larger Puerto Rican diaspora (I’m thinking specifically of the life/work of dear friends like Bianca Laureano and Jessica Marie Johnson).
I began dancing Bomba last year and there is a comfort in co-creating and sharing the batey with other Ricans in the numerically smaller diasporic context of Los Angeles. Two weeks ago I began learning how to play some of the rhythms on the drums and I did so somewhat hesitatingly. I’m not going to get into here the deeply personal connection that Bomba has with where my mother and her mother and so on were born and raised but I still teeter between a discomfort and pride in my learning and practice. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to practice in a space with others who also have shared their own complex relationship with Rican cultural practices. Western religion and other manifestations of colonial internalizations have done a number on us. We do have a duty to undo and challenge these things but we also must do them cautiously.