Spotlight

Dancing Bomba

by Carmen Milagros Torres-Rivera


Illustration by Erick Ortiz Gelpi
“It’s not fair! I don’t want to go to Puerto Rico!” said Marie as she stomped her foot. “It’s not fair! Why couldn’t we go to Disney or to New York? Many of my friends are going there.”

Marie’s mother sighed as she continued washing the dishes. “It’s been six years since you last visited your grandmother and the rest of the family. And you’ve never been there for Christmas. You will love how Christmas is celebrated there.”

“Yeah, Christmas with chickens and cows. Can’t wait to celebrate it.” Marie answered as she left the kitchen to lock herself in her room wishing Christmas would not come.

Marie’s friends were shocked when they heard about Marie’s vacation.

“Puerto Rico? Why is your mother punishing you? Didn’t you get all A’s?” asked Sally who had announced she would be going to New York with her great aunt. They would be visiting museums and skating in Rockefeller Center.

“I sure feel sorry for you.” said Charlene. “It must be so boring going to Puerto Rico. Where is Puerto Rico located anyway? Is it in Africa?”

Marie felt sadder and angrier as the date for leaving to Puerto Rico approached. She tried to convince her mother in every possible form. She begged, she cried, she became angry, she kept silent. But nothing made her mother change her decision. She would spend Christmas in Puerto Rico. And she would be going alone to share with her mother’s family who lived in a city called Ponce who she almost remembered nothing of except for it being terribly hot.

The dreaded day arrived and with a heavy heart she left for Puerto Rico. Her mother left her at the airport where a flight attendant received her and looked over her during the flight. She couldn’t enjoy the sensation of freedom that she always felt when she traveled by plane. But this wasn’t one of the trips she enjoyed like going to Disney, visiting her father’s family in Boston or going to Canada like last summer with her mother and cousins. This wasn’t any of those trips so nothing of the trip made her happy.

When she got to the airport she was surprised of how small was the airport. Hot humid air was the first welcome to Ponce.

Her uncle Tomas waited for her in the airport. When he saw her he gave her a great big hug as he said, “Dios te bendiga! You have grown so much! You look like your mother when she was your age. Mama Aida hasn’t slept waiting for this moment. Come let’s go home!” Marie just gave a small smile, remembering to be polite and begging for this vacation to end.

They arrived to a La Playita, a community in Ponce. Uncle Tomas kept talking all the way. Since he was an English teacher, he spoke to her in English so she couldn’t hide under the excuse that she didn’t understand Spanish, which she did. He told her that La Playita was like a small town within the city of Ponce. They were proud of their community. They prided themselves that the real carnival of Ponce originated in La Playita. And they still continue celebrating their own carnival. Marie sighed. What did she care about carnivals and strange celebrations?

Her grandmother lived in a bright pink house. It was small with beautiful bright flowers that decorated the small balcony. Next to the door were several flower pots with bright red poinsettias. Marie walked inside shyly as uncle Tomas almost yelled while he entered the house, “Mama Aida, Marie is here!”

Mama Aida came out of a room at the back of the house while drying her hands with a towel. Her eyes shined brightly as she hugged Marie, “This is the best Christmas gift for me. You have grown so big and beautiful. Welcome home Marie.”

It was strange for Marie being surrounded by this almost unknown family. Uncles, aunts, cousins and even neighbors appeared to welcome Marie. And they did so hugging and kissing her as if they had known her all her life.

After several hours of receiving all the people from neighborhood, Mama Aida called her family to join her to the back yard. There was a long table with many different plates with different rich smells that watered Marie’s mouth. Mama Aida told her that she had prepared with her daughters a typical Puerto Rican menu to celebrate Marie’s arrival. There was arroz con gandules, a delicious rice with chick peas, Lechon asado, roasted pork cooked with coal and wood instead of an oven, pasteles which were meat pies that were covered in platain leaves and boiled in water. For dessert, Marie enjoyed tembleque which was a coconut dessert with real coconuts like Mama Aida proudly stated. The meal was truly delicious and Marie couldn’t help saying it so.

It was already dark. The stars started to appear in the sky and sparkled so brightly like pieces of glass on a dark piece of cloth. The night silence was broken by the sound of KO-KEEE which uncle Tomas explained was the song of a little amphibian called coqui like the sound it produced. “It is the symbol of Puerto Ricans,” he said proudly while showing her an image of it that he had in a keychain.

As they enjoyed the beauty of the night some persons appeared with barrels that looked like drums. “They’re bomba drums”, uncle Tomas explained. My friends are going to play some bomba music in honor of your visit. Neyda and Estela are going to dance so you can enjoy part of our Puerto Rican heritage.

Two women appeared with white dresses full of layers of ruffles in their skirts. They wore kerchiefs on their heads. The music drowned the song of the coquies. TUN-Tun-Tun-Tun, Tun-Tun-Tun-Tun the men beat the drums to that rhythm. The women moved to the music as they swayed their skirts and swirled round and round. TUN-Tun-Tun-Tun, Tun-Tun-Tun-Tun, the music made Marie feel different. She started to move to the beat of the music from the chair. Mama Aida saw her. She pulled Marie to the middle of the yard where the women were dancing. Mama Aida started dancing and said, “Dance with us Marie. This is the ancestral sound that flows in our blood.”

Marie at first felt strange being in the middle of the yard with so many people watching her. She closed her eyes and let the music be part of her. TUN-Tun-Tun-Tun, TUN-Tun-Tun-Tun. And she danced and danced under the stars. When the music ended everyone applauded happily while Mama Aida hugged Marie. She whispered to Marie, “You might have your father’s blue eyes, but the Caribbean soul lives in your heart.”

That night Marie felt so happy that she was in Puerto Rico spending her Christmas vacation with her family. When she talked on the phone with her mother, she told her how happy she now felt being in Ponce. “It’s hot compared to Ohio. But I like it here. And I liked dancing bomba even more than ballet.”

After she finish speaking with her mother, she got ready to go to the bed. As she went to the kitchen to drink water, she saw the light of the back room on. Curious, she approached the door which was open. There she saw her grandmother surrounded by brown masks made of material like the paper bags used when buying groceries. And up on the walls were brightly colored masks with many horns.

“So you discovered my vejigante masks workshop,” said Mama Aida as she placed strips of brown paper over one of the brown masks. “What is a vejigante?” asked Marie as she looked closely as Mama Aida continued placing wet paper strips that made the mask look like a brown mummy.

“A vejigante is a creature of the carnivals. People that dress like vejigantes, wear these colorful masks full of horns with a brightly colored jumper. Vejigantes carry cow bladders full of stones to make noise as they chase people and scare them. They dance to the music of bomba.”

Marie was fascinated with the masks. Mama Aida took one of the finished ones that was hanging on the wall and gave it Marie to hold. “The maks are made of paper-mache. Artisans make these masks so vejigantes can use them in the carnival.”

“Are you an artisan?” asked Marie as she carefully touched the mask. “People say I am. But I consider myself just a creator of masks so the people of La Playita can participate of the carnival.”

Marie carefully touched the mask that was painted in bright red and had lots of dots of different colors covering it. She then said, “I want to go to the carnival. Is it tomorrow?”

“No, it’s in February.” “February? But I won’t be here! I want to see the carnival. And I want to be a vejigante.”

“Grandmother laughed, “Well Marie, you sure make us very proud. You might have been born in Ohio and your last name is Philips, but you are a true Poncena. I have a Christmas gift for you.”

Mama Aida went to a closet that was near the window and took out a plastic box. She opened the box and took out a small mask which was different from the ones hanging on the wall. This mask did not cover the whole face, but looked more like a super hero mask. “This is the mask women and girl use,” said Mama Aida. This is your very own vejigante mask. And before you leave, I will make you the vejigante costume.”
Marie felt excited as she held to her very own mask. She hugged her grandmother as she said “Gracias Mama Aida.” Mama Aida smiled as she said,“Well Marie, it is time to go to sleep. Dios te bendiga. See you in the morning.”

Mama Aida stayed in the room preparing more vejigante masks. Marie entered her room feeling very happy. She was happy to be in Puerto Rico sharing with her family at Christmas. She loved dancing bomba. And now she wanted to be a vejigante. Tomorrow she would call her mother and ask her if she could return in February and participate in the Ponce Carnival. As she closed her eyes, she saw herself dancing bomba dressed as a vejigante. She danced and danced as the other vejigantes joined her as the sound of Tun-Tun-Tun-Tun, TUN-Tun-Tun-Tun became louder. The coquis quietly sang in the background.


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About the author...

Carmen Milagros Torres-Rivera is an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico Humacao. She teaches Basic English, Business English as well as Children’s Literature. She currently is pursuing graduate studies in Caribbean Languages and Literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. Her field of specialization is Caribbean Children’s Literature. She has written articles for the New York based newspaper The Caribbean Voice as well as for TESOL GRAM. She is a member of TESOL where she has given numerous workshops to English teachers. She is married to the plastic artist Erick Ortiz Gelpi and has a daughter.

About the illustrator...

Erick Ortiz Gelpi is a plastic artist and visual arts teacher from Peñuelas, Puerto Rico. He has participated in numerous collective and individual art expositions. His illustrations have appeared in The Caribbean Voice newspaper published in New York.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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1 comments:

  1. Thank you for a beautiful story! I am hoping that my daughter will share this with her daughter too. She also is a from a bi-cultural background and I hope that she will learn to appreciate her Puerto Rican heritage.
    Respectfully I would like to add a small correction. It is my understanding that arroz con gandules is rice with pigeon peas, not rice with chickpeas.
    Thanks again!
    Lydia

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