Pa’lante: Moving the Spirits of Puerto Rico

Pa’lante: Moving the Spirits of Puerto Rico

On Wednesday, July 4, 2018, Americans stateside celebrated Independence Day with BBQs and fireworks, while compatriots in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico continued to reel from a devastated infrastructure and environmental catastrophe. Hurricane Maria is regarded as the worst natural disaster to impact the island, which occurred amid the island’s outstanding debt crisis. As a result, hundreds of public schools closed, families lost their homes, and people were left destitute of running water and electricity. A painful casualty, Puerto Rico also suffered a death toll of nearly 5,000. And with Tropical Storm Beryl now at the Caribbean’s doorstep, we tap into the enduring power of music and spirituality, both in times of struggle and as a token of solidarity.

Music, song and dance have long been tied to prayer, worship and rebirth in Afro-Caribbean syncretic systems of faith practiced in places like Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Spiritualties like Santería, Lucumi, Palo and Ifá have traditionally been practiced in very clandestine and intimate settings (these faiths have historically been demonized), with music playing a paramount role in introducing the uninitiated to elements of said faiths.

“According to Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, founder of The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute,” explains tenured New York City educator and author,  Peggy Robles Alvarado, ”musical exchanges between Cubans and Puerto Ricans of New York City during the 1950s (such as Collazo and Tito Puente and jazz projects that bridged Latinos and African Americans like Mario Bauza, and Dizzy Gillespie) led to collaborations that exposed audiences to Yoruba chants for the first time. Eventually, Gillespie utilized rhythms found in Lucumi and Kongo music to create a style he called  ‘Cubop.’ As a result, the visibility of Lucumi practitioners grew through popular music, and that led to the establishment of botánicas that flourished to serve the growing population of Lucumi worshipers. What was once a small group of practitioners grew to thousands in a few years.”

The late Cuban singer, La Lupe, who was crowned Queen of Latin Soul before her death, was a devout practitioner of Santería and unabashedly sang songs that paid homage to her orishas. Marc Anthony’s wildly famous remake of Hector Lavoe’s “Aguanile,” which helped soundtrack the biographical movie of El Cantante—based on the musical legacy of Lavoe—speaks to the Yoruba faith and culture. Of Cuban and French heritage, the down tempo soul sisters of Ibeyi (featured in Beyoncé’s landmark Lemonade), arrived to the music scene with a self-titled debut LP entirely dedicated to their ancestors.


“Our father and mother are both initiated. We grew up listening to the Yoruba chants and the bata drums and watching our parents take care of their home temples,” Naomi, one-half of Ibeyi, said to VIBE concerning the practice of Santería. “It’s part of what we’ve grown up with.”

On the enduring legacy of such Afro-descendent faiths and forms of worship, She’s Gotta Have It actress Santana Caress Benítez has this to say: “These various practices have survived because they tell the stories of our lineage and make sure that we stay connected to our bloodline and to the earth. Ritual saves and improves lives over and over again… our ancestors knew that. No matter what traumas or devastations our people endured, their spirituality could never be fully stripped away; it’s probably the one thing they could truly hold on to,” adding that music has long “been especially powerful because of the way it really raises vibrations and can pull spirits down.”

An initiated priestess of Palo and Lucumi, Alvarado not only seconds Benítez’s sentiments about music’s vital role in worship, but in the continuation of these Afro-descendent faiths.

“Historically, songs were codified, transmitted orally and were imperative to the survival of these Afro-based spiritual systems and the people who believed in them when facing colonization and forced conversions as a result of the slave trade,” she says. “As Palo and Lucumi were syncretized with Catholic practices in the Caribbean, songs were modified to include words in Spanish, Yoruba, and Congo… We sing, dance and praise the ancestors and sacred entities that helped keep these traditions alive.”

Bearing in mind the current state of Puerto Rico, Alvarado also delves into the significance behind non-Western ideology: “Through divination [a standard ritual of contacting spirits], patrons can access an intangible force that helps them feel empowered despite the present precarious situations. Participants feel they can help steer the uncontrollable path of their lives as affected by poverty, unstable living conditions, drug abuse or violence. During divining sessions, patrons are offered solutions and hope to an otherwise bleak reality. They are a catalyst to help change their situations.”

As Puerto Rico presses on in need of proper U.S. backing and restoration, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega and Yoruba priestess offers healing and hopeful words over text: “It is in the spirit of our ancestors that we have acquired our courage and resistance for justice. Our divine forces of nature sustain our warrior creative spirit. We will resist, we will sustain, we will thrive!”

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