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Research and Creativity in Spanish 447: Afro-Hispanic Culture and Literature

This fall 2013 students in Spanish 447 researched a series of topics related to the African legacy in the culture or literature of the Hispanic Caribbean and Latin America, including: Bachata, “La Jungla” de Wilfredo Lam, Street Art in Cuba, the Poetry of Norberto James Rawlings, Dominican and Haitian Voodoo, Cuban Hip-Hop and Son, Racism in Puerto Rico, Reggaeton, the Palenque of San Basilio, the Garífuna’s and Samba. Towards the end of the semester, they presented their findings to the class with an element of creativity of their choosing.

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This is a description of the arts-based research:

Joshin Atone

I decided to study the history of a famous Dominican musical genre: Bachata. Through a closer look, we see that the forming of this well-known genre has been analogous to the emergence and development of the Dominican urban lower class in the 1960's and 70's. The 31-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo had a profound impact on setting the stage for this musical development, primarily through his monopolization of the music and sugar industry. His control over the music industry (characterized by a fanatical obsession for merengue) severely limited the variety of available Dominican music in the country, forcing Dominicans to look to foreign radio stations to satisfy their musical needs. His expansion of the sugar industry forced many peasants off of their rural farms into urban areas, significantly increasing the poor, urban population dwelling in shantytowns. Upon Trujillo's death, a clever businessman named Radhames Aracena took note of this musically deprived population and began distributing domestically recorded guitar music through his own radio station: Radio Guarachita. His sensitivity to the poor urban population's cultural needs combined with his aptitude for business helped create an explosion of a new Dominican popular music that we today call Bachata. 

For the creative portion of the presentation, I used a guitar and a microphone in conjunction with a loop pedal to play Bachata music. While Bachata music often incorporates the güira, tambora, maracas, and sometimes bongos for percussion, I replaced those instruments with sounds from my mouth. I adhered to Bachata's improvisational roots by only loosely planning out the piece and interpreting it live, spontaneously. 

To listen to a fragment of Joshin’s bachata click here.

Alexis Beckwith

For the end-of-semester creative project, I drew from my experiences in Spain in deciding what topic to cover. I knew that I was interested in painting, as we had learned about the four major proponents of Spanish art throughout the centuries in my art class while abroad. As we had to pull from Latin America, with an African influence, I settled on Wilfredo Lam, a Cuban painter with both African and Chinese ties.

While still required to submit an annotated bibliography, we were encouraged to explore our topic from a self-examination perspective, understanding it through the lens of the texts, films, and musical accompaniment we learned from throughout the semester. The opportunity to meet with the professor to fine tune the project and the presentation was beneficial, and I felt fortunate to have the direct involvement of a teacher who demands the best from her students

In order to obtain a more fuller sense of the artist and his contribution to Cuban art, I reviewed various catalogues of art magazines over the years and examined texts dedicated to both Wifredo Lam, his inspirations (including proponents of his different styles) and biographies discussing his background, upbringing, and training. From this I drew information on his technique, regarding specifically the coloring, stippling patterns, shapes, and focuses. My main focus was on his most famous painting, La Jungla, which I used as a sort of model for my own painting, which was the culmination of my research and presentation. The themes of his paintings generally revolve around his Cuban background, drawing from the nation's history of slavery and therefore mixing with African tradition, including the topic of religion, or santería. He aims at showing darkness within ourselves, while staying true to the importance of nature in Latin America yet straying from typical shapes in his elongated human forms. 

What was nice about this project was being able to explore our artistic sides but still employ our research abilities; however, rather than an extensive paper, we were able to create something new of our own! It was a culmination of sorts of the many things we learned during the class, which we were challenged to take and apply to our own creation, formed through our research on the topic of our choice. It was refreshing to end the semester with a project of this sort rather than piling on another research paper!

To see Alexis’s painting click here.

Cecile Benedict

For my final project in ‘Literatura y cultura afro-hispanas’ I focused on street art in Cuba. Over the years I have found public art to be fascinating, as it is accessible for all members of society and many times makes some sort of political or social statement. Through my research, I found two different artists, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona and José Rodríguez Fuster, who have changed their neighborhoods through street art. For the project I analyzed the use of symbols, colors and religious figures in the works of Escalona and Fuster.

Through my analysis I concluded that the works of both artists have helped generate a feeling of belonging among all members of the community, through the representation of the communities roots in the art, especially those of Afro-Cuban descent.  Among other symbols, I found that the depiction of people as neither black nor white in Jaimanitas, the neighborhood of Fuster, made a statement about the equality of race in the society. The Callejón de Hamel, the street of Escalona’s work, which has been described by analysts as the ultimate Afro-Cuban art creation, features numerous gods of Santería, a religion which stems from Africa.  These two artists have created works, which reflect the diversity of Cuba’s culture and seek to unite the community through the development of public art.

For the creative element of this project I compiled a virtual collage using the presentation software called Prezi.  The collage was centered on an image of different colored figures holding hands in a circle.  To me this reflected the creation of unity and community that street art creates.  I included background music of a musical version of the poem ‘La Muralla’ by Nicolás Guillén, to demonstrate that street art can inspire the creation of other kinds of art as well.  Finally I incorporated words, phrases and symbols that to me embody the works of Escalona and Fuster.

Jamie Caroccio

For the Afro-Hispanic Literature and Culture class I took this semester with professor Ilia Casanova, I analyzed three reoccurring symbols in the Dominican poet Norberto James Rawling’s poetry. I developed my thesis around these reoccurring symbols: tierra, earth, luz, light, and voz, voice, focusing on how they serve to give voice to the “cocolo” identity that the author has transformed from its degrading origins to a proud black-hispanic identity. Through this project I was able to learn more about the “cocolo” identity that originated in the Dominican Republic as a means of shunning Dominicans recognized as having African descent. During my investigation I noticed the presence of these symbols and how they functioned to give a voice to this minority community, recognizing and celebrating a people that have been left in history’s shadow. In James’ poetry I was able to analyze how he used the earth to talk about the roots, and identity of both himself and his community on a wider level. The light and voice were clearly symbols of the importance of giving voice to such a stifled history. For the creative part of my project I wrote a poem playing on the symbols of earth, light and voice by recounting part of Haiti’s history based on the novel The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat that we read in class. Using the protagonist of that novel, Amabelle, I recounted some violent scenes from the 1937 Massacre, a government-sponsored genocide in the Dominican Republic with the goal of wiping out the Haitian population residing in the borderlands with Haiti. The investigation allowed me to better understand such a violent history through the creative expression of poetry. It was particularly interesting to analyze James’ poetry after having studied a much more blatant type of poetry by poets such as Nicolás Guillén and Blas Jiménez.

To read Jamie’s poem click here.

Natalia Cornell-Roberts

The focus of my project was Dominican Vudu, its importance in society and how it differs from Haitian vudu. In order to demonstrate this, I did a poster that symbolizes how vudu evolved from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, and also the racial prejudice against many Haitians by the Dominicans, which is apparent in Dominican vudu. I demonstrated this by coloring the Haitian side black, while leaving the Dominican side white. Vudu originated from West Africa, and came to Hispaniola with the slave trade, so I used paper mache to create part of West Africa and the island of Hispaniola. In attempts to distinguish themselves from Haiti, Dominicans changed the name of their vudu to “la 21 División,” and modified a few traditions and festivals.

Charlotte Edson

For my Spanish Creative Project, I elected to research Afro-Cuban women in regards to the gender inequality they face on a regular basis. Through my research, it was made clear that the access to a higher education for women is substantially more difficult than for men. Therefore, the majority of my research was focused on how hip-hop and rap music are used to create awareness for women’s rights and ultimately serves as a voice for women in order to promote positive change. I specifically focused on the Cuban all-female rap group, Las Krudas, to prove how the developing feminist rappers are determined to create awareness and better lives for women. Because rap is a popular form of music, Las Krudas has been able to communicate their feminist beliefs with a large audience in order to help solve issues associated with gender inequality. 

For the creative aspect of my project, I made a video on the program, iMovie which was a collaboration of various YouTube videos in order to demonstrate the feminist rap movement. My video included clips of the following: an interview with rap artist, Jay Z, defining rap along with a series of clips of Las Krudas performing and being interviewed about their purpose and goals. I wanted to showcase the power of the female rap movement, specifically in Cuba. 

Jay Furhman

My project focused on a style of Cuban music called ‘son cubano’ that has its origin in African drumming and Spanish guitar. I felt it was highly appropriate for this class because it is a perfect example of the mixing of two cultures that were the focus of our investigations. The information I presented was interesting because it had a lot of different dimensions: a full understanding of the music included historical information about the Spanish slave trade in Cuba, sociological claims about an interracial Cuban society, cultural anthropology, and also investigations that focused on the technical aspects of this style of music. From various sources I was able to create a presentation which showed how historically the ‘son cubano’ could be thought of as an important factor in helping blacks achieve more equality amongst the elite, upper, white classes in Cuba. The popularity of the Son in turn got the black musicians who played it more respect from mainstream society and politicians in the early 1900s. The Son has gone on to have an incredible influence in other styles of music that also have gained worldwide popularity such as Latin Jazz and salsa.

For the creative portion of the presentation I decided to play my guitar along with a backing track I made with Garageband. As a long time guitarist this was an obvious choice for me. I tried my best to incorporate the characteristic elements of Son music, but it turned out sounding more like Latin Jazz which is a style that I am more familiar with, which also helped form more of a personal connection between the project and my own interests. This project was definitely the coolest assignment I had this year in any class.

To listen to a fragment of Jay’s son click here.

Elizabeth Laprade

My creative project was about racism in Puerto Rico and how, although many people deny its existence due to such a racially mixed population, it does systematically exist, especially in the context of the family.

I have found that racism in Puerto Rico is not always as obvious or visible in actions as it may be in places such as the United States where segregation laws have been effected in the past and where racism tends to exist between a large white population and a much darker population. However, despite racism not always occurring on public platforms between black and white, it still occurs against Puerto Ricans who have darker or more African features and there is a wide spread negation of the country's African ancestry. The way that these forms of racism and racial prejudices play a role in families was apparent in my research. Many children who were born with more African characteristics than their parents or siblings were vulnerable to being outcast and treated unequally in comparison with children of lighter skin tone and feature. These were all examples of a denial of African ancestry and traits as well as of racism within families themselves. It was extremely interesting to read about and research this topic because racism is something I have learned and heard about all my life, yet had never been exposed (although not personally) to it in another light or manner. I did not realized, primarily, that places or countries even existed where a majority could even think to state that racism does not exist. Secondly, it was eye-opening to research how such an important sociological factor in the modern world such as race can play a crucial role "behind the scenes" such as it does in Puerto Rican families. 

My creative project was a poster board. On the top half was a woman of an unclear race that appeared to be "in the shadows". I chose this image to highlight this idea of shadows and shades of race in Puerto Rico and to emphasize how race is always changing and never truly definite or definable. Around the woman's head I placed words cut from magazines such as "family" "friends" "work" "shadows" "silhouettes" and more, all of which I believe play a part in the identification of race from the perspective of others and oneself.

On the lower half of the poster I created a collage. In the center is a woman's head with one side having generally lighter features such as fairer skin colors, blonde hair, light eyes; while the other half was collaged with darker features such as darker skin tones, curly black hair, browner eyes, etc. Surrounding the face is all different types of people, of different races, ethnicity, appearance, age and origin. These images were all meant to further show how flexible a concept race can be in Puerto Rico and how depending on who is looking at a person, one's race becomes subjective to this person’s interpretation.

Alie Mihuta

For my final presentation for Spanish 447 I decided to focus on the Voodoo
religious tradition in Haiti and the role this religion played in the Haitian slave revolution in 1791. I decided to focus on voodoo because I have a minor in Religious Studies but have never had the opportunity to explore those traditions with African roots. The goal of my project was to breakdown the stereotypes of Haitian voodoo and demonstrate that there is much more to the tradition than just animal sacrifice and spiritual dances- those things we normally think of when hearing the word ‘voodoo’. From my research I found that voodoo was a spirituality that functioned as the mental escape for Haitians enduring the harsh reality of slavery. It was the motivation and inspiration that the Haitians needed to survive their enslavement and also to rebel against slavery to obtain freedom. In my presentation I tried to show that in a way, we all have our own unique types of voodoo because we all have things and people in our lives that inspire us and keep us motivated. Therefore, the voodoo tradition shouldn't feel so foreign to Americans and other westerners because we all can relate to this religious tradition. In order to explain further this idea that everyone in a sense has their own voodoo, I incorporated a creative project into my presentation. I put together a slide show of pictures of my family and friends as well as important and inspiring people and events. All of these things together make up my own personal voodoo.

Claire Munson

When I was thinking about what to do for my creative project for this class, I immediately thought of reggaeton because it is a genre of music that is very distinct. Reggaeton is a combination of many styles of music and has recently become popular internationally. Reggaeton is a mix of hip-hop, salsa, and also has aspects of western African music. It has its roots in Puerto Rico where it was born in the poor urban barrios or neighborhoods. It became an outlet for expression and freedom for the marginalized population of Puerto Rico, but in recent years has spread across Latin America and the globe.

In my project I concentrate on the evolution of reggaeton and how it has become what it is today. I focus on how the people use it to express themselves and address social and political issues. As the creative aspect of my project, I created a video, which uses music and photos to answer the question: what is the significance of reggaeton? I asked this question to many people and used their answers to create a new definition of what it really means. It is not only a genre of music, but also a style of music that allows for people to make statements and address issues they normally would not be able to. When I think of reggaeton I think of freedom: freedom of expression.

Christina Rukki

San Basilio de Palenque: A small piece of Africa in Colombia

There is a well-known town on the Colombian Caribbean Coast, one hour from the city of Cartagena known as San Basilio de Palenque where inhabitants live guided by African customs, traditions and rites, just as their ancestors did several centuries ago. They are known for their particular history and the survival of their now unique language. Apart from the language which is clearly very important to the inhabitants of San Basilio de Palenque, music is also a major part of their culture. During my investigation I read a lot about the connection between the music and the language since many of their songs tell stories of their history and traditions, making it a huge part of their identity. I decided to learn more about the music and the connection between it and the language. This led to my thesis that oral tradition, especially through music, is capable of assisting in the preservation of a language and culture.

Besides holding cultural events, and the inclusion of learning the language and history and school, it has been said that producing a compilation of songs in Palenque by different music groups in the community, both in written form and as sound recordings can be used as a teaching resource for learning the language. This would be a great way to encourage and engage the younger generations to learn and use the language. I learned so much about San Basilio de Palenque and now it’s a place I would like to visit. Their culture is very interesting and their history is very powerful. For the creative portion, I really wanted to create something that would help people see how wonderful the people who belong to this community are, and how different their language is to Spanish and why it’s important to preserve it, as well as how important music is to their daily life. The best way to learn about this is by visiting the village, but since I can’t bring my peers there, I decided to compile a video and bring San Basilio de Palenque to them.

Elley Symmes

For my project I investigated the Brazilian music genre and national dance, Samba. This dance and music began with the slaves that were brought to Brazil from West Africa in the sixteenth century. After slavery was abolished in 1888, these Afro-Brazilians began moving to Rio de Janeiro from the northeastern state, Bahía. Here is where samba's popularity grew amongst the Afro-Brazilian communities living in the ‘favelas’. Prior to the 1930s the white upper class dismissed this musical genre and thought of it as a dance for the poor. It was not until President Gétulio Vargas claimed Samba as Brazil's national dance that it began to be a principle cultural aspect of the country. With this nationalization also began the myth of Brazil as a racial democracy. Since they had taken a dance from the poor Afro-Brazilians and made it a symbol of Brazil's identity, the country must therefore live in racial harmony. Wrong. Although, samba did originate from the African slaves, the dance has now been completely commercialized and is used to perpetuate the fiction of a racial democracy in Brazil. For the creative part of my project I used a box with a lid on top of it. On the outside of the lid I put different pictures that related to the samba dance. I put the pictures that had to do with the dances origin in the background with the current image of samba sticking out over them. I did this to show how people have forgotten about the dances simplicity and are now focused on the commercialized image of the dance. When you take the lid off you see a depiction of Rio de Janeiro with the ‘favelas’ and all the racist crimes that happen within the city. I then put pictures on all sides of the box and cut the sides to show that racism cannot be kept in a confined space. It is going to spread if not addressed. 

Taylor Washington

The final project of my Afro-Hispanic Literature and Culture class required that I research any cultural component of an Afro-Hispanic group in Latin America I desired. The Garífuna are a mixed group of indigenous and African people who mainly live in Honduras and Nicaragua. Today, they are fighting against official governments for rights to the land they have lived on for centuries. Unfortunately, globalization has made this fight increasingly difficult for the Garífuna in recent years, since the land they live on is ideal for the tourism industry and therefore targeted by powerful capitalistic groups. Lack of land security can lead to loss of homes, livelihood, political power, social capital and more. The preservation of land is directly connected to the preservation of a culture, and if the Garífuna do not have complete land security, they are in danger of losing their way of life. In order to demonstrate this connection in a more creative way, I cooked the ‘tradicional’ cassava bread of the Garífuna people to better understand the relationship between the people and the land they depend on.