Relearning an Ancient Craft: Paths to Indigenous Land Rights in Boriquén (Puerto Rico)
The third installment in a series of essays commissioned by PROTODISPATCH.
“Relearning an Ancient Craft” by Jorge González and Angela Brown, was commissioned by PROTODISPATCH, a new digital publication featuring personal perspectives by artists addressing transcontinental concerns, filtered by where they are in the world. It was originally published by the international nonprofit Protocinema and appears here as part of a collaboration between Protocinema and Artnet News.
In the wake of hurricane Fiona, PROTODISPATCH offers Jorge González and Angela Brown’s photo essay and correspondence about their ongoing collaboration on a series of events and engagements in Santurce, Boriquén (Puerto Rico), organized via Jorge’s on-going project Escuela de Oficios. They have embarked on a collective memory and healing project which engages local elders, crafts-people, and drum-making, as well as traditions of group celebration, chanting, and dancing.
Their exchange below, paired with the accompanying images and extensive captions, reveals a journey towards excavating the past through the joy of celebration and music, communal making, and building collective meaning. These are experiments in reinventing education and memory, a field in crisis in many geographies, but here focused on the potential for Boriquén (Puerto Rico), as claims to Indigenous land rights are under constant threat from local authorities.
The tracing of contemporary cultural practices back to ancient Indigenous knowledge is evidence of the connection between deep pasts and the present, supporting arguments for land back claims today. The significance and urgency of these claims is particularly powerful in light of increasingly extreme storms regularly battering the island due to climate crisis.
Importantly, the point of departure here is deeply interpersonal, intimate, and utilizes not only Indigenous, ancestral knowledges, but also oppressive, colonial structures, reimagining them for alternative, liberatory purposes.
Here I was being taught hand-carving of hammock weaving shuttles, with Don Eustaquio Alers, a master hammock-maker, from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico.
Don Eustaquio’s ideals of autonomy and independence for Puerto Rico are expressed with fervor and hope for the future, while sharing his knowledge regarding his trade as weaver, one that compliments cultivation of the land. His loom is mobile. At the Alers family home, in Lomas Verdes, Aguadilla, two tall wooden rods are suspended with tied rope that is affixed to an iron gate, a window frame, and a nail on the wall. In Puerto Rico, hammock weavers tend to have a wooden loom structure in a space dedicated to their trade. Eustaquio shares that, living in New York City with his family prompted him to constantly set up and rollup the loom in their living room in their apartment.
This photo was taken around 2016, at a time when we were initiating our platform called “Escuela de Oficios,” in different spaces around Puerto Rico. If we are to reflect upon hammock-making in the archipelago, the craft is cultivated in two towns, San Sebastián and Las Piedras, one in the west, the other in the southeast. Over the years, we have traced these routes, among others, with a focus on fibers and weaves, and the passing on and continuity of these knowledges.
Our friend Chiro built a stilt house as a symbol of protection for the wetlands, and as a way to show that someone lived there, mainly to prevent arson. These unfortunate incidents of attempted destruction happen often, as people struggle for the use of the coastal forests of Canóvanas, Piñones, and Loíza, rich ancestral lands for Indigenous and Black communities.
The most accessible entrance to these wetlands is through Pueblo Indio, a self-organized community that attained ownership of their parcels by claiming their rights to the land and communal recognition. José Manuel “Chiro” González was one of community leaders involved in the cause and continues to be a voice in his neighborhood.
We met Chiro through harvesting cattails, a central fiber to the Escuela de Oficio’s weaving work. This plant has been very generous to us. Its generosity extends to our relationship with Pueblo Indio, which represents a path towards attaining a broader awareness of the diversity of the land and the waters. Prior to having Chiro’s support, our cattail harvest happened in Santurce, close to our studio, a densely populated area, far from the cycles of life of wetlands.
When I met Angela Brown, we had plans to make a crab stew. A dear friend, Steve Maldonado Silvestrini, joined us on that day.
For several months, we had been talking about making a crab stew. Chiro traps crabs when they are in season. I believe this was the first time we gathered and spent a day at the stilt house. I would not have imagined how energizing this moment of pause was for us.
About 20 years ago, Chiro planted various palm trees of the Roystonea borinquena variety, commonly called palma real. We spent a moment meditating upon the lives of these palm trees prior to taking one down. We marked our intentions to continue learning from them. At that moment, we were committed to making a first drum as an instrument to heal and open paths. This action has transformed our relationship with what we take from nature, it is an element of offering that also took the life of a resource. Of one palm, we made three drums, and kept the remaining wood for later use, to continue making musical instruments.
Eight years ago, as part of Escuela de Oficios, I started working with fibers as a response to provide a direction towards engaging in the creation of a mutual learning space, in a regenerative manner. At an early stage, in those first meetings with knowledge-holders, the master weavers, I remember a basket-maker, Edwin Marcucci, talking to us about the permission he requested to harvest and work with a plant.
Throughout the years I’ve come to better understand this relationship with nature. It has taken a slow and continuous development for passing on the knowledge I’ve received to more deeply understand this relationship. As we continue to take natural resources, our commitment grows. With our families and teachers, we are learning to play and sing.
Significant labor is required to cut down and process a palm tree for making an Afro-Boricua drum. Alejandra Ferreras, pictured here, helped with the construction of our first drum, with the guidance of knowledge-holder Don Rafael Trinidad. Alejandra, a social psychologist, together with her partner, photographer Javier Piñero, immersed themselves in the process and relationships of Escuela de Oficios in order to reflect upon the continuity of ancestral knowledge in the context of colonial oppression.
This photo by Javier Piñero captures a moment after a harvest. Cattail flower stems, papayas, a broom made of “escobilla” plant, among other fruits and seeds, are presented to the Altar at my studio, which serves as Escuela de Oficios space.
Our harvests mainly center on cattail, a resource that has taught us about generosity. Any weaving technique can be applied with this grass. Our ancient houses were made out of cattail, with a base of palm leaves, specifically of palma real, or as our teacher Rafael Trinidad calls it, palma de yagua, referring to the leaves used for bohios, our ancestors’ name for a humble rural house.
Since 2014, a regenerative approach to learning spaces was engaged within the initial development of Escuela de Oficios. Ideas around the conception of a communal house were actively engaged through learning and exchanging about natural fibers and weaving techniques.
In these years, we have taken and received great support from resources and knowledge-holders. We have organized and practiced, determined to be able to pass on what we have learned. In recent years, we have meditated around the complete collapse of our worlds and reflected upon the loss of significant supporters. Our Altar is a response to an interior of a communal house in its possibilities, to offer a payment to Life and Death that accompanies our growth.
“When a student is ready to receive, the same as the teacher is to give.” These were the words of Rafael Trinidad as he shared his method for painting drum hide. Rafael Trinidad is a maker of percussion instruments and a master metalsmith. Don Rafa has dedicated his life to music with a sense of transmitting a natural sound, as he calls his interests in making percussion instruments.
The first time I met Rafa was at a local craft fair. He gave a talk about his evolution as a crafter, which embodies a strong sense of care for the resources that are employed in his works. In his open-air workshop, I appreciated how machines and tools were made to work with wood, fibers, and animal hides, which he prepares on site.
This was the first palm drum made with the guidance of Rafael Trinidad. He ceremoniously presented it, transmitting wisdom. From his words I share:
“This drum, right, has manifested itself, it has manifested itself with its presence doing the perfect thing. And I thank you, those who are linked to Rafael, for doing this work, so that the first piece, well, has achieved success. It means that success is already manifested in the future, right, and I thank you again, because it has freed me. And that sound was as I requested. As we ask. Make it sound how he likes it. And that tuntun is the beating of a heart. As I say the tuntun of a drum is the beat of a heart. And now I want you to think about your heart and think about the heart of God and think about the heart of all humanity, of all people. And beat that drum like it’s a heart. Go ahead.”
As Rafael Trinidad led the drum beats and rosary chanting, on May 15, 2022, intentions of light were also being placed upon weaving a sol lace, by teacher Jasmine Rivera. Sol lace has been a formative weaving technique for Escuela de Oficios. Thanks to the support of teachers like Jasmine Rivera, I’m now able to teach it. This year, I have been able to teach it together with Jasmine, thanks to a collective weave that is shared and walked between communities. As I continue to sustain a promise of May, I hope to cultivate being a constant learner and beginner. Photo by Raquel Pérez Puig.
Something like sharing muscle memory.
We first met in 2021, in your studio in Santurce. I had been following your work because I felt—and still feel—that it honored a type of learning that is too often forgotten. A learning that happens in real time, in active physical collaboration. Something like sharing muscle memory.
That day in your studio, I asked for your thoughts on weaving traditions in Puerto Rico, and how the labor and care of the hand and the body get passed down from generation to generation. You showed me a hammock-in-progress, with maguey1 wrapped around two wooden posts. I was interested in what the industrially-made tool or textile leaves behind.
You handed me a small wooden shuttle, which you had carved by hand after an original by Don Eustaquio Aler.2 Its imperfections were evidence of your having carved it tentatively, curiously. It was made by a student, carefully imitating the work of a master. For me, it was a sculpture about openness and humility, while also being a tool that would allow you to weave and build your own muscle memories, to keep tradition alive.
We jumped onto the back of Chiro’s 4-wheeler, and he brought us to an already-steaming pot of boiled crabs.
A few days later you invited me to Canóvanas to meet José Manuel “Chiro” González3, who had constructed an amazing stilt house in the middle of the marsh, and whose knowledge of the land seemed boundless. I expected to learn about the cattail grasses, which you had collected from the marshes to dry them for weaving mats and rugs. But instead, surrounded by the tall enea4 rustling in the breeze, we prepared a meal.
We jumped onto the back of Chiro’s 4-wheeler, and he brought us to an already-steaming pot of boiled crabs. He showed us where to press our thumbs into each shell, so that the best meat would simply cleave away from the slimy gook around the head. We didn’t need any tools other than our hands and a big metal bowl.
We cooked and ate our meal in the stilt house that Chiro had built using found wood and aluminum and we used a long stick to feed salchichas5 to Bartolo, Chiro’s pet caiman. In honor of Luisa Capetillo’s feminist organizing, we read out loud her words on the promotion of agricultural education6, and labor advocacy. I felt that she was having lunch with us, too.
And we spent time together on land that is thick with ancestral knowledge…
At the end of the day, as we drove through Pueblo Indio and past the old sugar mill, I thought about how learning from one another can happen so organically, and so profoundly, simply through the gesture of an invitation. Chiro invited you. You invited me. And we spent time together on land that is thick with ancestral knowledge, buzzing with the inventiveness that emerges somewhere between joy and pain, celebration and struggle.
Little did we know, this buzzing would become a drumbeat almost a year later. When I was invited to contribute an installation about the architect Henry Klumb’s work in Puerto Rico for the exhibition “Sick Architecture” at CIVA, Brussels. I immediately thought of how your project Escuela de Oficios7 emerged out of your engagement with Casa Klumb, Klumb’s former home and architectural manifesto, which recently burned down.
As soon as we started talking about this trajectory through the lens of healing, you remembered Klumb’s plans for rural schools. Capetillo must have smiled in her grave when we realized that the rural school was not only intellectually, but materially tied to the collaboration that the land makes possible.
You remembered that, in his plans for the schools, Klumb had recommended the use of palmwood boards for the walls. He likely chose the wood because it was widely available in the 1940s and ‘50s, but madera de palma, you told me, was also sacred. It used to be a traditional wood used for rural homes. Since a palm tree provides its wood from its outer layer, it can easily be hollowed. So, you proposed to make bomba drums, whose sound consistently brings boricuas together in times of hardship. The drum could initiate a shared sense of healing in which the past and present overlapped in power and pain.
It all happened quickly after that. You found a palm to cut down with help from Chiro and Alejandra Ferreras. You cut it into sections and hollowed out the barrels. You brought them to Don Rafael Trinidad (“Rafa”) in Manatí and carried them with you on your trip to the Dominican Republic, where they were played before they were even completed. You watched Omar, an Arab immigrant butcher friend, carefully skin a goat for the drums’ leather in a respectful manner with prayer.
And along the way, you sent me photos and videos, observations and moments of surprise. We thought of the Mexica god Xipetotec, “the flayed one,” who embodies a cycle of death and rebirth, keeping the sun in the sky, ensuring a fruitful harvest. Perhaps our drums are something like Xipetotec. Wearing sacrificed skins, they honor growth and death at the same time. And they make their way to your altar.
Sitting in New York—where Capetillo organized Puerto Rican and Cuban tobacco workers in the 1910s, where my abuela worked in a rubber boot factory, with the sounds of Ponce seeming so far away—I wonder what the drums will teach us next…
Un GRAN abrazo,
There is a possibility to heal and grow here.
Thank you, reflection on these past years is helpful. I appreciate you centering ideas of health and sickness in our work together. You allowed me to move forward with the rest of the events with the clear intention of providing care and healing for every participant and every material.
First, we revisited wild gardens and rural schools that once carried the spirit of our palm trees and made us rethink our learning spaces through drum-making. The resulting bateyes, or sugar mill, were ceremonious plazas of remembrance, celebration, and empowerment. What we want our learning spaces to be.
Escuela de Oficios, (a collective project or mutual-learning) is built on a base of generosity to create spaces of exchange. All the people who participate actively engage in the regeneration of public infrastructures. With this approach, I see how Casa Klumb has become one of our meeting places to gather to reflect upon the urgency that education faces in Puerto Rico.
Although we have not physically entered the gardens and forest that once surrounded Casa Klumb, we have delved into its wild gardens and its “sickened” spatial sequences many times. Our conversations consider what it means for a house to deteriorate and to bear traces of both colonial and ancestral histories. Together, we identified ideological resources that point to Casa Klumb’s essential form: a house, but a house as a living organism open to collaboration with others.
Perhaps it is important here to mention the relationship between wellness of bodies and architecture/space as extensions of bodies. This says that within acknowledgement of its histories, we are aware of its decay and consummation there is also potential for perpetual regeneration. There is a possibility to heal and grow here.
The principle of our offerings also results from experiencing unimagined loss and mourning. While responding to loss, I decided to actively engage in a celebration called rosario cantao (singing rosaries) that has been of great significance to our friend and teacher Elsa Escabí8, who died in 2020. May her soul rest in peace. Among other things, Elsa compiled oral histories. Through her we learned how music is kept through lunar cycles, played and sung with intentions of fertility through a communal expression, the rosario cantao.
A year ago, in May, Escuela de Oficios initiated a celebration of offering and care for life and its transformations that has now become a promise. Elsa will always be in our hearts. On the occasion of our first chantings of the rosary we were interconnected with different locations through an effort led by curators Mari Spirito and Abhijan Toto, an invitation of growth and empowerment that I extended from my dear community of unlearners. Within this these changing and singin ceremonies, Don Rafael Trinidad, a master drum-maker and keeper of velatorios (vigils), who is also known as a promesero9 (keeper of promises) was leading us all in a rosario cantao.
This week you will presenting our Tambor de Palma to the public, showing an excerpt from our film about the drum during the “Sick Architecture” conference in Brussels. I believe I have not shared with you that in the first days of this year a drum was placed in my hands by a spiritualist neighbor, Cristina Savinón, caretaker of an Altar to San Miguel Arcangel, and she shared a story of how atabales10 may accompany the passing of someone very esteemed by a community. Cristina mentioned, if she were to die in the Dominican Republic, palos would be heard for days and nights.
Soon after I was to learn about the passing of the beloved plena musician Tito Matos and of how a plenero that holds together his community in all his efforts will be immortalized. Now I come to terms that days and nights of a bomba y plena11 vigil will be the start of a lifetime of remembrance by all who were impacted by him.
We have also learned to cultivate from the dead with the opportunity to return a beat full of humanity.
Last May, our Altar was sung to for the first time by Tito Matos, en paz descanse, together with Los Devotos, and esteemed artist and dancer Awilda Sterling. The group Los Devotos grew from community organization efforts through the Taller Comunidad La Goyco, which sought to revitalize rosarios cantaos in Santurce, after the devastating hurricanes of 2017. Awilda shared words of wisdom about a precise moment that happens when we are able to learn from our elders.
I’m very fortunate to have such a prosperous moment to organize a space that holds a sense of being for All. From these initial chantings, I learned, via Tito, how a profound and ongoing commitment to this expression is a powerful way to honor communal cohesion.
We have been blessed with a support structure–the land itself. And, specifically, an extremely generous palm tree that has allowed us to see our ancestral home through its fibers. And as you mention Xipetotec, we have also learned to cultivate from the dead with the opportunity to return a beat full of humanity.
I would like to echo what our teacher Rafael Trinidad shared with us when he presented to us our first tambor de palma: “The tuntún12 of a drum is the beat of a heart.
I want you to think about your heart, and think about the heart of the Creator, and think about the heart of all humanity, of all people. And beat that drum like it’s a heart.”
Un GRAN abrazo,
1. Maguey is an indigenous plant of the Caribbean region, well regarded for its fiber. Its botanical name is Furcraea tuberosa. In Puerto Rico, extraction and spinning of the fiber is still applied by few knowledge-holders to make hammocks. Maguey specimens vary in different localities throughout the hemisphere, all sharing characteristics of the agave family. Other local uses of the plant provide medicinal properties. For example, its roots can be brewed to cleanse blood stream, among other afflictions.
2. Don Eustaquio Alers is a master hammock weaver based in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. At a young age, he learned hammock making by himself by watching his father weaving. Don Eustaquio’s ideals of autonomy and independence of Puerto Rico are expressed with fervor and hope for the future, while sharing his knowledge regarding his trade as weaver, one that compliments cultivation of the land. Eustaquio’s contribution to Escuela de Oficios wasthe conception of Banquetas Cheveres, portable stools, that extend the principles of a hammock loom.These different gathering spaces were highly significant to the platform’s development in its initial stage.
3. José Manuel “Chiro” González is a one of founding residents of Pueblo Indio, a self-organized community, in barrio La Central, Canóvanas. Pueblo Indio settles on the outskirts of wetland forests and old and sugarcane plantation. Since a child, Chiro has worked these lands. The construction of the stilt-house came to be as a strategy to let passerbys of a custodianship of the forest.
4. Enea, “cattail” in English, is a tall grass, which grows abundantly in marshland environments. This generous grass allows it to be plaited, knotted, and twisted. To properly attain the fiber one should harvest on a waning moon and separate the stem of leaves. A week later the fiber is ready to be wetted and manipulated. This plant is regarded as a family and significant collaborator to Escuela de Oficios.
5. Salchichas are little sausages, often bought in small cans and added to various dishes.
6. This out-loud reading of Puerto Rican anarco-feminist leader Luisa Capetillo, made at Chiro’s stilt house, brings together the voices of Monica Rodríguez and Michy Marxuach, among other contributors, as part of La Germinal’s “Emancipatory Essays,” a public program transmitted through Montez Press Radio, as part of Alia Farid’s exhibition “The Space Between Classrooms,” at Swiss Institute, May 24th, 2021.
7. Started in 2014, Escuela de Oficios (Trade School), is a platform for learning from and with Puerto Rican artisans highly skilled in craft traditions and rural construction. González started the platform in response to historical erasure and deteriorating academic spaces, using skill-sharing and workshops to promote healing and ensure the continuity of techniques forgotten by the amnesia of colonization.
8. Elsa Escabí, esteemed knowledge holder, dedicated a great part of her life to observing with profoundness many cultural expressions of Puerto Rico. Together with her brother, Pedro Escabí, they compiled a method to register oral histories of the archipelago. As trained musicians, their work compiles valuable registers and interpretations of popular songs, musical instruments, and festivities, which traces indigenous continuity undermining the determined false extinction.
9. A promesero or promesera are keepers of promises, organizers of religious celebrations in local communities, often held at a promiser’s home. A promise is kept through offering an altar, music, chantings, and food, as an act of gratitude for a granted spiritual petition. In the context of Puerto Rico, collective worship can bring together indigenous and African comunion and communication that often is expressed through Catholic beliefs.
10. Atabales or palos are tall drums traditional to Dominican celebrations played in religious and festive gatherings.
11. Bomba and plena are popular Puerto Rican music traditions, both with deep roots in African drumming and significance in religious ceremony and the coming-together of community. While bomba is a sort of call and response between drummers and a dancer, plena is often called “the sung newspaper” as its songs typically recount everyday stories and events.
12. Tuntún is an onomatopoeia, standing in for the sound of a drumbeat
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.