by Emma Fiala
Prior to class starting, I was staying at a nearby hostel and had gone to La Placita, an open public square, with friends. During the day, La Placita is a quiet space for a local farmer’s market, but at night, it transforms into a vibrant community, and every time I went, it was a different place compared to the previous night. One night was an older crowd, and the next night was mainly students. I was excited to take my new classmates to La Placita and discover yet another flavor of it.
The night we went was the night of a huge, free salsa concert. The artists featured were La Tribu de Abrante, Plena Libre and El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. The event began at 5pm, but continued until midnight. When we arrived at the plaza, there were more people than I had ever seen there. Thousands filled the streets— dancing to salsa, watching street performers juggle fire, and enjoying a carefree Friday night out with friends.
After the concert, we visited a small, but popular salsa and karaoke bar called Taberna Los Vazquez. Some of us knew basic salsa, but others had never danced it before. A local couple offered to teach us salsa and we all learned some new steps. My own experience with salsa was from Zumba classes with my mom at our local YMCA, so learning from a very experienced local dancer was perfect. Some things my classmates said about their own experience was that they liked how open the streets were and how social connection was not defined by entering a door into a four-walled room. Others mentioned how dancing and salsa were good ways to break typical social barriers. One commented that he learned salsa essentially without words, but through motions, gestures and body language. Just in the few short days I had spent in San Juan, I loved it, so sharing part of what I love about San Juan with my classmates was rewarding. Needless to say, we all left exhausted.
Why it Matters:
Music and dance seem to be particularly important to Puerto Ricans as it expresses certain aspects of heritage and culture. Puerto Rico has a very interesting music/dance history. It was originally inhabited by the Taíno Indians who performed Areíto, a dance with music to honor their ancestors and their gods. These performances oftentimes took place in a central plaza, or public space, and observers were members of the community and neighboring communities. After European conquistadors came to the Caribbean, Puerto Rico’s music and dance changed to incorporate influences from Spain, Africa and other European nations.
From speaking with local Puerto Ricans, dance/music/social outings are a large part of the culture. Many children grow up learning how to dance from their family, so dancing well is a way to honor those that taught you. From an outsider’s perspective, when I am salsa dancing, whether dancing with a local or struggling to dance with another new-learner, I find myself totally in the present feeling alive and enjoying the ambiance.
On a more serious note, one person spoke with me about the significance of “going out.” He defined “going out” as a form of escape from THIS to the real Puerto Rico. After asking for more clarification, he said that THIS represents everyday problems-- crippling economic debt, politiquería (political corruption), and the uncertainty of living under President Trump among other things. The real Puerto Rico, when it was thriving was described as a place that is self-sufficient, hard-working and lively. Essentially, escaping Puerto Rico as a colony living as a dependent at the mercy of other governing authorities. In addition, it’s important to note that Puerto Rican culture has placed importance on hospitality and social connection, so regardless of what economic or political environment Puerto Ricans are in, “going out” is not something that can ever be taken away.
Overall, my classmates and I had a great time at La Placita. At face value, the entirety of La Placita escaped, but from what?