An animated Daniel Diaz, Arte Inc.’s co-founder and chairman, moved through the aisles of Fair Haven School’s auditorium with the fervor of a televangelist.
His message — that we must not forget the history of slavery in Puerto Rico, that we must harness its lessons and move forward to build bridges of understanding — captivated the assembly of students, teachers, and sprinkling of community members who attended an event held to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Puerto Rico on Mar. 22, 1873. The event, part history lesson, part cultural celebration, was originally scheduled for last week but was postponed due to inclement weather.
Sponsored by Puerto Ricans United Inc., (PRU) of New Haven, an umbrella organization that has reinvigorated and reimagined the spirit and legacy of Puerto Rican parades in the city with a more concentrated celebration on the New Haven Green for the past two years, the event also featured live drumming and bomba dancing with Movimiento Cultural, a local cultural organization headed by Kevin Diaz.
According to Joseph Rodriguez, co-founder and president of PRU — who works in the office of U.S. Sen. Dick Blumenthal and who was recently appointed to the New Haven Board of Education — the special school assembly was not only designed to commemorate slavery’s abolition in Puerto Rico and highlight African influences, but to “promote and preserve the Puerto Rican culture,” especially in the aftermath of the island’s ravaging by Hurricane María last fall.
“New Haven is a city that welcomes all — New Haven is a diverse city,” said Rodriguez before introducing Diaz to the largely Hispanic audience. According to Principal Heriberto “Ed” Cordero, Fair Haven School serves a population that is more than 80 percent Latino. “We all have an innate desire to connect with our roots — it’s important to know where you come from, to learn from the past to help us move forward in our pursuits,” said Cordero before the start of the program.
Speaking with passion and urgency, Diaz, who is Puerto Rican, discussed the confluence of three cultures, Spanish, African, and the Taino — the native inhabitants of the island — and the “horrible” legacy of slavery that ensued.
“The Spanish,” he said, “brought a rich culture, but we were not discovered.” Diaz described Spain’s arrival to the island in 1493 not as a discovery, but as an encounter. “Taino Indians had their own civilized culture — a very civilized culture. They had a lot of advancements in science, they had their own religion, they had their own gods.”
Diaz also spoke about the enslavement of the Taino, a number of revolts and the leaders who led them, leading up to the eventual liberation of the Taino. A new chapter in Puerto Rico’s history would also record Spanish colonizers turning to the Atlantic slave trade to import laborers from West Africa in support their operations. With the enslavement of ethnic Africans came contributions of language, art, music and dance.
“Slavery in any shape is horrible,” emphasized Diaz. “We want to make sure we don’t forget slavery because it did take place, but use that horrible time in history to create better relationships among us as students, to create a better New Haven, which will then will create a better Connecticut, a better U.S.A. and a better world.”
Diaz distributed a colorful poster to educators illustrating a list of words like mofungo, bomba and merengue, words of African origin that have enriched and joined the Spanish language spoken in Puerto Rico.
The brief history lesson by Diaz ended with an introduction of musical guests Movimiento Cultural by PRU Board member and community-builder Feny Taylor (pictured above).
After several musical numbers and some spirited bomba dancing, which expresses a powerful interaction and synergy between drummer and dancer…
… students were invited to join in some cultural dancing.
Audience revelry kicked into high gear when some teachers headed for the stage to get in on the celebratory movement.
Principal Cordero proved a highly focused student as he took direction from Movimiento Cultural’s Alex Rosado.
As Diaz earlier noted from the stage, “anyone in the world ... it doesn’t matter where they are, if you play a drum, they start moving. And that shows you how we are connected to Africa.… When you hear those drums, that’s when you’re going to see that you are connected to each other.”
In addition to their school outreach, Puerto Ricans United will host their third annual Puerto Rican Festival on the New Haven Green on Saturday, Aug. 11, from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Rodriguez noted that due to New Haven’s challenging budget this year, the city is not expected to participate in festival cost-sharing support to help offset city services: “Due to the city’s financial restraints many organizations that organize summer concerts or cultural events are forced to raise additional dollars to cover such expenses,” he said. Contributions in support of the festival can be sent to:PRU, 466 Middletown Avenue, Unit 19, New Haven, CT 06513, or contact PRU at Puertoricansunitedinc@yahoo.com.