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Author Lola Rosario, left, with legendary bomba dancer Raquel Ayala, Loíza, Puerto Rico. (Courtesy of Lola Rosario)
LOÍZA, Puerto Rico — Situated in the northeast region of Puerto Rico, Loíza has for decades captivated visitors. Affectionately labeled the “Capital of Tradition,” this coastal town is widely known for mouth-watering seafood, seemingly endless shorelines, and its spectacular annual week-long festival honoring Saint James.
And while many tourists venture outside of Old San Juan to experience the abundantly colorful sights and sounds this pueblo offers, they’ve only recently begun to see what loiceños have understood for generations: Loíza’s undisputed role as the mecca of Afro-Puerto Rican culture.
It is here, at the intersection of art and music, that we find two of the town’s most celebrated icons: bomba dancer Raquel Ayala and renowned painter and sculptor Samuel Lind.
Raquel Ayala has always had a passion for dance. As a young child listening to Cheo Feliciano and Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, Ayala —who says salsa was her first love— knew music to be an intrinsic part of her being. Innovating her unique style, she flowed freely to those radio tunes her parents played in their humble home.
At the tender age of seven, she started learning to dance bomba, one of Puerto Rico’s traditional folk genres where call-and-response forms the backdrop of an impassioned conversation between subidor (main drummer) and bailador (dancer). Back then, her father, Don Castor Ayala, began forming what would become the family’s musical legacy, the Ballet Folclórico Los Hermanos Ayala de Loíza (Ayala Folkloric Ballet of Loíza).
“Being the youngest at the time, the group consisted of my sister Celia and my brothers Marcos and Rubén. Father said I couldn’t be a part of the group until I was older,” Ayala recalled. “Later, when my older siblings married and after Celia had already moved to Boston, it was only me, my nephews and nieces who remained. I was 15.”
By 1959, Don Castor officially founded the dance company as a cultural non-profit organization. Raquel continued fine-tuning her craft as the group’s principal female dancer. In time the group would be offered numerous opportunities to bring bomba to other shores.
Traveling internationally to México, the Dominican Republic, Perú, and throughout the East Coast of the United States, the Ayalas showcased Puerto Rico’s vibrantly rich heritage. Their performing in festivals and participating in television and travel channel documentaries allowed bomba to reach a much wider audience.
Today, more than 60 years later, Loíza’s bomba tradition continues. And while Raquel Ayala’s legacy as matriarch remains unquestioned, it goes beyond that of her bloodline. Though she is retired from traveling with the dance troupe her father created, she remains active in their rehearsals , as an observer and educator.
Reflecting on what she sees in children learning to dance, she said: “The children who come here are very excited to learn the music and the dance. I remind them that each of us has our own style and unique flavor. The point is not to dance like me.”
Turning serious for a moment, she added: “Bomba is about hand movements, arm gestures, and footwork. When they start doing ‘shake-y shake-y’ with their shoulders, that’s where I draw the line. Because that’s rumba, not bomba.”
When not overseeing one of the group’s practice sessions, she can be found on her porch playing dominoes with younger sister Linda. Otherwise, she’s sometimes seen entertaining tourists with her magnetic personality and infectious laughter.
True to her calling, Raquel is quick to offer a tip to anyone eager to learn a few bomba moves.
Painter and sculptor Samuel Lind (Courtesy of Edmee Cappas)
For Samuel Lind, it’s about allowing these youngsters (many of them teens) to see possibilities rather than obstacles. Calling to mind other creatives from Loíza —such as film producer Roxana Quiñonez Villalobos , actor Modesto Lacen, mixed media artist Celso González Quiñones, and painter Daniel Lind Ramosm to name a few— Lind recognizes the relatability factor.
“When they see people like us , who look like them and come from the same pueblo ,  they begin to see that doors do open,” he explained. “They begin to foster pride in their identity and in our culture.”
***
Lola Rosario is an Afro-Boricua poet and cultural storyteller based in Loíza, Puerto Rico. Twitter: @lola_declama
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