By the time this article comes out, I will have returned from my annual trip to Puerto Rico. My mother, a senior, retired to a condominium my parents bought in the early 1980s. It’s a bit far from New York, but she loves living in San Juan, one block from the beach. The air is clean and fresh, and it’s always sunny. The last time I was able to visit was in February 2020 when I spent a harrowing four days in the hospital undergoing emergency hernia surgery. I was doubled over on my mother’s kitchen floor hoping it was only a stomach virus, until I felt the protrusion coming out of my chest.
Before ending up in an emergency room for 22 hours waiting to be admitted, I spent most of my time shopping, running errands, and accompanying my mother to appointments. I was having a nice visit and even got some free time every day to enjoy a quiet cocktail at the La Concha Hotel, just up the street from our apartment in the Condado district. It’s a completely refurbished gem from the 1950s, named after a shell-like structure that once housed the famous La Perla restaurant. Hurricane Maria of 2017 beat it up pretty well but they renovated the hotel’s pools and patios, where I sipped my expensive daiquiri in a secluded nook overlooking the rising Atlantic Ocean, which has begun to erode the beach that was once double the width.
I like to be lulled into a meditative haze by the sounds of lapping waves and wind in the palm trees, but on that occasion, a DJ completely disturbed my peace with loud dance music all for the benefit of pensioners, families with small children, and middle-aged people trying to catch up on their reading. After a blistering set worthy of a rave on Ibiza, the music finally stopped. Serenity returned, or so I thought, and then came the mariachi band in full charro costumes with all the horns, guitars, and violins.
At first, I didn’t understand what was happening. Was there a catered theme party somewhere? I adore mariachi, but just because there is a common colonial background does not make music from southwestern Mexico and Puerto Rico interchangeable. However, the pensioners, families with small children, and middle-aged tourists seemed to enjoy it. It went perfectly with pre-fab Piña Coladas and slushy margaritas as if we were at a resort in Acapulco. I was disappointed in the hotel’s entertainment director, who didn’t know, care, or think that guests deserved to hear traditional music from Puerto Rico. There is so much to choose from a heritage that spans back 500 years, when Spain landed on the Caribbean island of Boriken.
The island’s first music was created by the indigenous Taino people, who were subjugated and then nearly decimated by disease, rebellion, and forced labor by the early 16th century. They passed on maracas and other percussive instruments to enslaved Africans who were brought to replace the Tainos on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations. This is where members from different African tribes fashioned drums out of rum barrels for communication and thus introduced a style of music and dance called bomba. It remains an art form of Afro-Caribbean resistance, unity, and perseverance around the island.
Jibaro emerged in the 19th century and was named after the machete-wielding Hispanic sharecroppers, in their iconic handmade palmetto-leaf hats, who worked the interior highlands of Puerto Rico. The central instrument is the cuatro guitar with five courses (pairs) of double strings.
Plena is the urban working-class music of the early 20th century. It’s a genre that was one of entertainment but also functioned as a musical newspaper (periódico cantado) which informed the poor and under-educated people who lived in the barrios of Ponce in southern Puerto Rico. One can easily identify a plena band by the hand-held flat drum called the pandereta.
I don’t expect a major hotel chain to feature bomba, plena, or jibaro – that would be downright revolutionary, but surely salsa would be the obvious choice. The golden age of 1970s mainstream salsa is the result of indigenous, African, and Cuban music fashioned by various Latin entertainers in New York City such as Ray Barretto, Johnny Pacheco, Tito Puente, Héctor Lavoe, and Willie Colon, among many others. However, salsa doesn’t need a stage full of Fania All-Stars with a giant jazz orchestra and elaborate scores. It requires nothing more than some beautiful voices, congas, percussion, cuatros, and Boricua emotion.
On second thought, perhaps stripped-down salsa is too evocative of Puerto Rico’s racially, economically, and socially stratified history. Even citizens at the top, who consider themselves fully European Spanish, still embody remnants of indigenous people – sometimes literally in their DNA – every time they eat native cassava, guava, and pineapple, or consume coffee, bananas, and sesame seeds brought from Africa. Music and food have always tied the people together into a diverse, exciting, complex culture that is now waning.
I remember the first time my parents and I went to visit Servando, a friend of the family, in 1984. We flew from JFK on Eastern Airlines and landed at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. The terminal was semi-enclosed at the time; luggage rattled on a conveyer belt into an open-air plaza where hot, wet, ocean air weighed down our formal flying outfits. Waiting close by were un-airconditioned taxis usually driven by older gentlemen wearing short-sleeve, button-down guayabera shirts, and straw fedoras. They would invariably crank up the music, probably as a way to dissuade us from asking too many tourist questions, and some, much to my mother’s dismay, would smoke a stinky Puerto Rican cigar all the way to the hotel.
The beachside Holiday Inn in Isla Verde was more of a motel, and so close to the airport that we could hear airplanes departing and arriving regularly. I didn’t care. All I did was eat new exotic foods and swim in the warm clean ocean during the day. At night we took taxis to nicer hotels along the route from Isla Verde to Old San Juan. There was the El San Juan, Dupont Plaza, La Concha, Caribe Hilton, and El Convento. This is when I tasted fried plantains, paella, and octopus salad for the first time, and helped myself to sips of mother’s Bacardi and coke. My stepfather was a barfly and sniffed out any lobby with a lounge band, but the music was usually schlocky, stuffy, and tame. Occasionally, my stepfather showed off his dance skills, but it was intended to be background music and not the vibrant beats from the taxis. Our friend Servando never accompanied us to the lounges. Unless it was Pablo Casals, Andres Segovia or maybe Puerto Rican classical music called danza, all other music was for common people, and he was no commoner.
Servando was the last of his generation who dressed in white linen suits, his gray hair slicked back with pomade exposing a high sloped forehead and topped with a long brim Panama hat to protect his aristocratic face. He would go for strolls every day, before and after the sun reached its highest point. I could go along but only if I was properly attired – no shorts, sneakers, or tank tops. Stops would include the bakery, Banco Popular, the Pueblo supermarket, and the corner shop for limes and rum. He only drank Ron del Barrilito, produced in nearby Bayamón since 1880 by the Fernández family from Santander, Spain.
Walking along Condado’s Ashford Avenue, Servando would tip his hat to prominent older ladies he knew. Some were covered with mantilla veils if they were mourning or going to church; some would be accompanied by companions to carry the parasol and parcels. “Buenos Dias, Doña ______,” Servando would say with a slight bow. I might be introduced in the midst of lengthy conservations from which I could make out certain words having to do with the health issues of family members. To save myself from catatonic boredom, a pushcart vendor might happen along with homemade coconut, caramel, or sesame candies. After we parted ways with another bow, he would catch me up on the conversation, “Doña __________ comes from a very good family from Spain and a very old family in Puerto Rico,” as if the only good families ever came from Spain, followed by her pedigree. The late husband was always an important scholar or industrialist and the son was a doctor or lawyer in New York or Miami. Halfway through the stroll, we would make our way to an outdoor coffee counter for a pick-me-up and to sit on stools beneath the shade of trees and a corrugated roof as protection against daily sun splashes.
Servando ordered espresso for himself and my cafe con leche (espresso with hot milk) from the lady behind the counter manning the silver coffee machines and a display case of pastries, fritters, and empanadas. The coffees were served in real cups along with a dish of dark damp local sugar – the tangible emblem of misery, abuse, and profit for hundreds of years. If Servando was tired, we stayed for two cups, giving him a chance to smoke one of his Turkish cigarettes whose blue smoke floated lazily in the heavy air as he told me what I should be reading. A professor at Columbia University, Servando insisted on testing my aptitude in French and Spanish. He had the unfortunate role of acting as my Latin tutor for a solid school year and all I remember is that the plural of farmer is agricolae; the singular is agricola.
He would have hated modern-day San Juan with its shabbily-dressed man-children on scooters and women in near-nude beachwear on the main promenade. He would have hated contemporary culture even more. Servando owned no television – neither in New York nor San Juan. He once saw me admiring the voluptuous Iris Chacón, known as “La Bomba,” the original Puerto Rican bombshell attired in a mesh and bead bodysuit, on the cover of a magazine and said, “Tomás, there is vulgarity (pronounced vool-ga-reet-tee) all around us. We must dissect the culture with pincers for anything worthwhile, with pincers (pronounced peen-serrrrs)! Do you hear me?!” I did, but he had no idea of my appetite for vulgarity or the love I had developed for Puerto Rican television.
After a morning of professional wrestling, I watched Walter Mercado, the flamboyant astrologer who divined our future while dressed in ornate gowns and bejeweled capes. There were wildly politically incorrect historical soap operas known as novellas, and, of course, Sabado Gigante hosted by Don Francisco, an hours-long pan-American variety show with acts from all over the Spanish-speaking world. It was a weekly immersion into Latin culture which hosted all styles of music. Whether in Caracas, Miami, New York, or San Juan, everyone from grandparents to toddlers would sit down to watch comedy skits, contests, musicians, and dancers.
Everything has changed, though. Sabado Gigante is off the air. Walter Mercado, Don Francisco, and Servando have all passed away, and salsa, which once ruled the airwaves, has been replaced by reggaeton, a blend of Jamaican, Latin, and hip-hop music. It’s probably what the DJ at La Concha was spinning.
The airport transportation on my recent trip was a roomy new taxi, hermetically sealed, and cooled by air saturated with artificial scent comparable to laundry detergent. In 1984 it would have been rude to ask for windows to be closed and the air conditioner turned on, but now it seems rude to ask for open windows and fresh air. The polite, perfectly bilingual young man turned up the subscription radio service to lavish me with the strains of Phil Collins’ “One More Night.” Was that for my easy listening enjoyment? I felt slightly offended. El no me conoce. He doesn’t know me, a guy who lived on the edge of Spanish Harlem during the 1970s. I convinced myself that he probably has a standard playlist for chunky white guys from the States. He wasn’t even born when I was haunting the lounges of San Juan. Judging by his age, he was more likely to play Reggaeton artists like Bad Bunny or Daddy Yankee after he dropped me off. It’s safe to say that everyone has heard Daddy Yankee whether you know it or not. He is featured in “Despacito” (2017), a song by Puerto Rican-born artist Luis Fonsi. It is one of the most popular crossover songs since “Macarena” (1993) by Los Del Rio.
Every time I visit, my mother’s neighborhood feels less Puerto Rican. Residents have been displaced by near-empty ultra-luxury properties, Airbnbs, and new millionaires seeking out juicy tax breaks. The old family villas protected by rusting ironwork sit quietly waiting for their final hours – abandoned by everyone but sunbathing iguanas by day and the back-and-forth song of coqui frogs by night. There are no less than a dozen major hotels in the Condado and the cruise ship port is within walking distance. The shops, cafes, and restaurants are geared to a demographic expecting sushi instead of roast pork and Starbucks instead of cafe con leche. I’m always careful about lamenting the good old days, because what was good for me was probably horrible for an entire population, but I don’t want Puerto Rico to resign itself to being subsumed, consumed, and then erased. It is slowly happening economically, culturally, and politically, as the island is neither a state nor sovereign country but an unincorporated territory of the United States with little power except its cultural identity.
In the spring of 2021, La Concha unveiled a 20 by 30-foot mural of salsa singer Héctor Lavoe painted by graffiti artist Alec Monopoly. Seeing that painting on the sidewall of the hotel gives me hope that enough people will look up and ask, “who is that?” If I’m strolling along Avenida Ashford, at the same age now as Servando was back in 1984, I will be happy to answer that question: “that is Héctor Juan Pérez Martínez, born in Ponce in 1943 and buried in Ponce in 1993. He was a world-renowned performer from the 1967 to 1990 and is still one of the greatest Latin singers of all time.” While there are many street-art renditions of Lavoe in other parts of Puerto Rico, it is significant that the main tourist center finally has a clear and visible homage to a Puerto Rican artist, salsa, and by extension, all the Borinquen folk music that came before. Perhaps La Concha, with its steadfast oceanside shell, will be the very thing to help guard the pearls of local art against the inevitable storms and erosion. The mural is a good start. It almost makes up for the mariachi band and rave DJ, almost.
Header image: Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Brad Clinesmith.