--2 With This Pen: More to Memory than Meets the 'I' (Part 2)
Sept. 23, 2017

With This Pen: More to Memory than Meets the 'I' (Part 2)

Jamie Figueroa on cultural memory and the legacy of freedom

September 4, 2011, 10:00 am
By Jamie Figueroa

There is a term in Portuguese, quilombo, that refers to the settlements founded by escaped slaves as well as others (Jews, Arabs and various indigenous peoples of Brazil), who experienced oppression back when slavery was still in style. 

These folks actively resisted the power structure that was extinguishing their humanity and realized that, for their own survival and any hope for future generations, they had to free themselves. So they freed themselves. They created their own communities where their language, culture, dignity and children could not only survive but ultimately thrive.


This exact kind of settlement also has roots in Boriken. Loíza exists because of the escaped slaves (Congolese, Yorba, Bantus, Mandinka) and Tainos who found refuge in the farthest northeastern corner of the island. They freed themselves. Named after Yuisa, the cacique (chief) who was in power when the Spanish first arrived, Loíza is also called the ‘La Capital de la Tradición’. It has birthed generations of artists, writers, dancers and musicians. It is also where the subversive and infectious rhythms and songs of Bomba and Plena originated. My family is from Loíza.


Fast forward three generations: a brown girl in the heart of Ohio, in the 1980s and ’90s, with no culture or ancestral awareness, with no dignity for herself or for those who came before her in her lineage, a girl whose every movement was an attempt at apologizing for who and what she was. They freed themselves. A girl who was enslaved by the ignorance, fear and cowardice she had for herself and for all the previous generations--whose brave acts of survival, and celebration of life, enabled her very existence.


Can I, with the spirit of my ancestors, create a metaphorical settlement within myself built on inclusion, awareness, empowerment, intelligences of varying kinds, compassion, gratitude and love? Can I call this act a celebration? Can I make this a daily dance and go so far as to call it holy? After all, isn’t it a resurrection--of memory? The conscious acknowledgment of genetic memory my body has stored in every single cell--even when I was in a mental state of amnesia that, in its own way, was an act of self-induced annihilation.


In January 2010, the same month the earthquake devastated Haiti, I was one island over, visiting Boriken for the first time. At one point during my trip I was in Loíza, dancing Bomba. Two men pounded barillas, one immense and dark, one pale with heavy glasses. The Rio Grande de Loíza gushed past the iguanas tucked high into red willow trees. I could see the shiny wet black of their luminescent eyes, the bonelike quality of their hard thick nails, their scaly skins in various stages of shedding, and below these trees my bare feet danced upon the same ground where my ancestors danced.


The dancing was a conversation with those who, while physically dead, are still very much alive in me. I heard and spoke the sensations in my body:

Do you remember me?

Do you remember us?

I am here.

You are home.

We are free. 


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