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  • New York Afro-Puerto Rican and Afro-Dominican Roots Music: Liberation Mythologies and Overlapping Diasporas
  • Raquel Z. Rivera

I made up the story on the spot for my first-graders who I had been teaching bomba music through the rhythm called sicá. I told them: Let’s pretend there was a woman called Mama Africa who was a very good mother who had many kids. She had a big treasure that she wanted to pass on to her children. But there was a very bad man by the name of Mister E. who found out about the treasure and wanted to steal it. So Mama Africa hid the treasure so well that Mister E. wasn’t able to find it. In the end, her kids were able to get her treasure. And she saved some of her treasure for all of us too. Then I asked my students: “Do you know what the treasure is? It starts with an ‘s.’ “Candy!” was the first thing one of them said. “It starts with ‘sssssss,’” I reminded them. “Toys!” another said. Finally, one of them remembered the rhythm that we had been learning in class: “Sicá!”

I have paraphrased above a story Manuela Arciniegas told me that filled my heart to the brim with tenderness and awe at her ingenious storytelling skills as well as her students’ hilarious reactions. It is a story that poignantly introduces the two guiding concepts of this article: “liberation mythologies” and “diaspora.” Aside from being a great story weaver and educator, Arciniegas is the New York-raised daughter of Dominican parents as well as a drummer, songwriter, singer, and cultural activist focused primarily on Afro-Puerto Rican roots musical traditions such as bomba and plena and Afro-Dominican roots genres such as palos, salves, congos and gagá.1 She has also been my artistic collaborator and good friend for close to a decade [End Page 3] since she came back to New York City with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. We met as fellow members in the Afro-Dominican music group Pa’ lo Monte. A few years later we were both founding members of the Afro-Puerto Rican ensemble Alma Moyo and co-founders of the all-women Afro-Dominican/Puerto Rican music collective Yaya. She went on to found the cultural arts and social justice organization, The Legacy Circle.2 Currently a doctoral student as well as mother of three, Arciniegas is a powerhouse example of the beauty and commitment of the New York roots musical community that is at the heart of this article.

Diaspora and Its Discontents

Rogers Brubaker (2005) has criticized proponents of “diaspora” for misleadingly posing the concept as one involving discrete entities, bounded groups, and ethnodemographic facts. Thus, he argues, advocates of “diaspora” have fallen into the same essentializing pitfalls that they have criticized in the case of nationalisms and nationalists, with the great difference that instead of subscribing to territorial- and nation-bound notions of identity, advocates of diaspora have relied on a “non-territorial form of essentialized belonging”:

Diaspora is often seen as destiny—a destiny to which previously dormant members (or previously dormant diasporas in their entirety) are now ‘awakening.’ . . . Embedded in the teleological language of ‘awakening’—the language, not coincidentally, of many nationalist movements—are essentialist assumptions about ‘true’ identities”


Brubaker describes these advocates of the concept of diaspora as an “actively diasporan faction” who seek as much to “describe the world” as to “remake it.” He concedes that diaspora can be a useful concept as long as we think of it not as unmediated fact but as stances, projects, claims, idioms, and practices.

Brubaker’s distinction between diaspora as “entity” and diaspora as “stance” strikes me as insightful. Scholars of diaspora should indeed avoid describing political projects as unmediated fact. However, there are quite a few aspects of Brubaker’s arguments with which I disagree or find lacking. For example, he dismisses ancestry-based analyses of diaspora as doomed to be essentialist—as if it were impossible to acknowledge the contestedness, complexity, and fluidity of both “ancestry” and “diaspora” while still engaging with them as categories of analysis. Brubaker seems most interested in...


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