How Artisans in Puerto Rico Sustain Native Culture

After living in New York City for one year, I decided that it was time to return to Puerto Rico. I was growing increasingly concerned that the unique art and crafts of Puerto Rico, which are influenced by centuries of Caribbean and African influences as well as Spanish, American, and Spanish, might disappear. After my return, I worked with artists and craftspeople for two years to document their daily lives and the ways they tried to preserve traditions, educate others, and reconcile Indigenous and modern cultures.

The recent departure is one of the biggest threats to the artistic heritage of the island. In the last five years, Puerto Ricans are down by nearly 12 percent. Exodus prompted by Hurricane Maria, the COVID-19 pandemic, and diminished services, as well as rising rents and decreased services, has included many artists and artisans, but cultural impact extends beyond that. The knowledge of local practitioners is at risk because many of the emigrants, especially the younger ones, are not able to pass it on. Cultural amnesia is a risk.

My project is called “Survived By Few” and refers to those who are working to preserve specific Taino and Native ideas and techniques. Some people create work using materials and techniques long used by Indigenous artists. Some people find a way to combine ancient and modern approaches. They all share passion, persistence, a life that is devoted to caring for their environment, and the commitment to save a beautiful creative force.

Alice Cheveres conserved the Taino technique in its purest form. Taller Cabachuelas was established in 1984 by Evarin Cheveres in rural Torrecillas. Her process of fabrication involves collecting clay in the area and burning it with wood on the ground instead of a kiln.

She keeps a binder of Taino patterns for workshops she gives to schoolchildren or others. A family of Massachusetts artists came to Massachusetts to study with the artisan. They used the archives for various pieces. Cheveres taught hundreds of people at schools, seminars, and workshops.

I asked her about her practice. It was initially difficult to understand how these techniques were so natural to my family and me. As a child, I remember that everyone pointed at me and asked where I came from. Even in my family, the idea of being Taino, because it was associated with the Indigenous, was looked down on. I quickly understood that Taino blood was my blood and that these methods represented us. “They were here from the beginning.”

Her pottery is a reflection of her respect for the Earth itself. Cheveres stated that “Earth provides for us.” “We are responsible for the condition of the holy ground; I only take as much as I need and not more. If I break a piece, I return it to the Earth. We came from Earth, and we will return to Earth.

Since 1905, in Ciales, Puerto Rico, the Villalobos family has created traditional furniture with unique weaving and braiding techniques. Their firm, Jíbaro Furniture, makes use of hardwoods and cattail.

I first met the Villalobos when Jorge Gonzalez introduced me to them. He is a Puerto Rican who works closely alongside them. His help and others allowed me to harvest cattails in the wetlands of the island. The stalks are dried in the sun in the early morning and then selected for braiding. Braiding can take from six to two days, depending on the level of skill and experience of the artisan.

The family uses oak, mahogany, and mahoe. The family used to access open land and collect wood. They buy lumber now, receive donations sometimes, and cut trees occasionally themselves.

All three members of the active Villalobos family, Guadalupe Villalobos, Juan Luis Villalobos, and Waldemar Villalobos colon, have their workshops. They have a healthy competition. Guadalupe’s “Tu y Yo” design is probably the most acclaimed. The design consists of two rocking chairs that are joined together to allow the occupants to face one another. The armrest of the rocking chair binds it together. Guadalupe uses square braiding – a technique that he invented.

Guadalupe recalls that in the early days, more than ten families worked on the furniture. Around 50 family members were involved. But, they’ve found the younger generation is no longer interested. Juan Luis said, “It is a demanding job, and no one wants it to start early in the day, sweating on the field.” He’s willing to share his techniques. Guadalupe, on the other hand, says that it is important to keep these special skills within the family.

I interviewed several grandkids. They said that they loved the tradition but that obtaining a college degree and pursuing other passions was more important.

The production of beautiful, long-lasting furniture can teach us about self-sustainability, autonomy, and caring for the environment. After more than a hundred years, the Villalobos’ celebrated knowledge of local crafts is in danger.

Bomba is considered one of Puerto Rico’s oldest musical and dancing styles. It was created by enslaved Africans who were transported to the island. The art form, which has its origins in the 16th and early 17th centuries, has evolved to include more than 30 different rhythms. This is due to the interaction between Taino and European music traditions. Ensembles consist of a percussion group that consists of two or more bomba barrel drums, a maraca made originally by Tainos from a higuera log, and a cua stick drum made from a hollow bamboo log. A dancer will enter the drum space during a performance and challenge the player of the high-pitched drum to mark and follow their movements.

The Bomba is much more than a musical show. It was used by our ancestors to express collective suffering, among other emotions, and to denounce oppressors through a powerful display of their presence.

The barrel de Bomba is traditionally made from rum barrels with goat skin. However, on a recent visit to the island, I was able to document the master artisan Rafael Trinidad making a drum using a royal palm.

In the past, most performances were staged in front of an audience. Tambuye, which means drummer in English, has gone back to the roots of the art form and wants to encourage people to engage with the music. Torres claims that Tambuye taught the art to more than 8,000 people around the world. She calls this “bombazo” generation of young people the main supporters of the movement.

Torres stated, “We are aware that not all will seek to preserve the essence and deepen their knowledge of bomba, but a select few return to us to express the desire to conserve.” “That is valuable in any way that you view it.”

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