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Mar Cruz, an Afro-Puerto Rican dancer, was 22 years old when a West African ancestor visited her in a dream, put his hand on her chest and prayed in a Yoruba dialect. “When he finished his prayer I suddenly began hearing a drum beating inside of me, inside of my body, and it was so strong that it shook me,” she says. Days later she heard the exact same rhythms while walking in town, beckoning her to the free community program where she would begin to study bomba.
The movement and sound of bomba originates in the practices of West Africans brought to the Caribbean island by European colonizers as slaves in the 17th century, and over time absorbed influences from the Spanish as well as the region’s indigenous Taíno people. Slavery fueled sugar production and many other industries, and continued until 1873, when a law creating a gradual ban went into effect. Like other Afro-Caribbean cultural forms, bomba provided a source of political and spiritual expression for people who’d been forcibly uprooted from their homes, at times catalyzing rebellions.
“When we have something to say to protest, we go out there and play bomba,” says Mar. “It is our way of saying ‘we are here.’”
In Puerto Rico’s center of black culture, Loíza, bomba is at the heart of protests. Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, groups like Colectivo Ilé have shared their grief through the dance. “That death didn’t only affect the African American community but also the Afro-Puerto Rican community,” says Mar. “People have always been racist towards us. They are finally willing to say, ‘That was a tragedy!’ But they are racist too. There used to be lynchings here too.”