Micaela Díaz-Sanchez on Gender Roles in "Traditional" Puerto-Rican Bomba

A Puerto-Rican bomba group.

Micaela Díaz-Sanchez presented her work on Puerto Rican bomba dancing in a short lecture on Tuesday, April 2. Diaz-Sanchez is an assistant professor in the Departments of Spanish, Latina/o Studies, and Latin American Studies at Mount Holyoke College.

Bomba is a Puerto-Rican musical tradition that integrates percussion, song, and dance. The art form, which originated in Puerto-Rican slave plantations owned by Spanish colonizers, focuses on a system of mutual call and response between the drummer, who uses drums called barriles, originally formed from barrels, and the dancers. The music combines African, Spanish, and even Haitian Créole and Dutch influences.

Largely suppressed by the Spanish during the colonial period, bomba became the prized symbol of Puerto-Rican nationalism as a supposedly “traditional” form of Puerto-Rican culture in the 20th century. Yet, said Díaz-Sanchez, those looking for “authentic” Puerto-Rican culture in bomba, especially urban-dwellers, tended to freeze a certain stereotype of an art form that was in fact improvisational and therefore constantly changing. In particular, bomba in its more urbanized and touristy form developed certain gender roles, with women required to wear ruffly gowns and petticoats and men cotton suits. The dance moves themselves were also separated into male and female roles. This image of the supposedly authentic bomba reflected rather a patronizing urban re-imagining of the art form, used for commercial and political purposes, rather than a true embrace of the spontaneous, ever-changing tradition actually practiced in private settings.

Bomba has spread to the U.S. and throughout what is now called the “bomba diaspora” in Latin American countries. In the U.S. in particular, practitioners have challenged the supposedly traditional gender roles represented by many Puerto-Rican groups. For example, queer practitioners have played with the traditional costumes, with many men assuming the females’ ruffly skirts and with women wearing the cotton suits. One example of a group that has challenged the gender norms developed over the last one hundred years is Bomberas de la Bania, an all-women’s bomba group centered in the Bay Area.