Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Sun (Epilogue: Dead Time)


The Caribbean side of the island, Rincon, Puerto Rico, 31 December 2007. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The isle is full of noises,

Sound and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not….

                                         And sometime voices

That, if then I had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that, when I waked,

I cried to dream again. 

Shakespeare, The Tempest

The magic that Shakespeare’s Caliban sensed in his island is known to all Puerto Ricans. In the ancient isle of Boriquén there is not a hill, a small mountain or a hidden cave where the ocean cannot be seen, heard in the distance, or smelt in the evening’s air. It is an island of “subtle, tender, and delicate temperance,” where “the air breathes upon us … most sweetly.” (The Tempest, I.ii.44-49). If you come from the desert to the island, you will find its vegetation so lush and green that your eyes will hurt for days. The same divinity that Walt Whitman found in the North American landscape was a living presence to Julia de Burgos (1916-1953) in her poerm “Río Grande de Loíza”:

Coil around my lips and let me drink from you

to feel you mine for a brief moment,

and hide you from the world

and hide within you

and hear bewildered voices in the mouth of the wind.[1]

The spiritual bastion that is Puerto Rico—much more than its old Spanish fortresses—gives to the people courage in the face of hurricanes: there is always, in the words of the old plena song, “an aroma of coffee and hope for tomorrow.”

El_Velorio_by_Francisco_Oller (1)

“El Velorio” – ‘The Wake’ – by Puerto Rican impressionist artist Francisco Oller. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We began this series of posts with an image of one of the most distinctive of Puerto Rican paintings: El Velorio. Francisco Oller (1833 –1917) crystalized for posterity one of those essential rituals—the baquiné—which in the words of Antonio Pedreira, “recover admirably the hidden beats of the heart of a people.”[2] Observe the dead child in the center of the painting. Yet the people (with the exception of the terrified priest) are exulting in a jubilant feast. The belief is that the child has gone to heaven, and it is the sacred duty of the funeral party to remind the grieving family that one must rejoice before the event. And so they dance and sing joyful songs:

No lo llores, madre,

no lo llores más,

mira que le tienes

las alas mojás.

(Don’t cry for him, mother,

don’t cry for him anymore,

look out

don’t wet his wings.)[3]

Thus it is always with Puerto Ricans: you confront troubles with joy, oppose despair with a courageous affirmation—an exultation—of life over difficulties. Life eternal, ever-present and glorious, even in the face of death.

During Christmas, island troubadours sing the rapture of the birth of the Holy Child and the visit of the Three Kings:

The moon is clear,

the night serene;

for many more years

may you have Christmas Eve.[4]

When dark clouds—harbinger of hurricanes—appear in the horizon, you sing in prayer:

Holy Mary

free us from all evil

protect us, Lady,

from the terrible storm.

And if ever the storm and its winds reach the island, you dance under the storm:

If the sky falls down,

I’ll dance under the storm.

Things are bad, bad,

but I assure you:

he who seeks shall find.

Yoooh, yeah, yoooh, yeah!

Listen to the voices of the children at the end of the Salsa Giants’ video “Dance Under the Storm” and you will hear the voices heard by Caliban in his isle.


“Baile De Loiza Aldea” by Antonio Broccoli Porto. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Do not assume from the above that this is always a winning proposition. The winds often drown the voices of singers, and towering waves may crash on the shore and wash away dancers. Puerto Rico’s debt of over $70 billion may signal the return of the “dead time”—that empty, dreaded period between sugar cane harvests when there is no work to be had, and no food to feed the family.

One of Puerto Rico’s greatest playwrights, Manuel Méndez Ballester (1909-2002), has left a heart-rending portrait of such times in his masterpiece Tiempo Muerto (Dead Time). Ignacio, a worker in the cane fields, has fallen sick with tuberculosis and has lost his job. His wife Juana tends to their sick youngest child, who eventually dies of fever. Their oldest son, Samuel, maintains the family with a job in the cane fields, but dreams of becoming a sailor in the merchant marine. Ignacio allows Samuel to leave the home to pursue his dream.


Sugar cane workers, vicinity of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, December 1941. (Credit: Jack Delano)

Rosa, their daughter, is sent to become a housekeeper in the overseer’s house in order to support the family. She becomes pregnant with the overseer’s child. The overseer makes a deal with Ignacio: if Rosa stays in his house as his mistress, Ignacio can have his old job back. To which Ignacio, his family facing famine and ruin, agrees.

When Samuel returns from overseas he challenges his father: “Let me do what you did not have the courage to do!” In an ensuing confrontation, the overseer kills Samuel, who is in turn killed by Ignacio.

Beware the wrath of the jíbaro! (Jíbaros are Puerto Rican peasants from the coasts and mountains.) When cornered, threatened or humiliated, he is bound to curse with Caliban:

All the infections that the sun sucks up

From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him

By inchmeal a disease!


(Does this not sound like the yellow fever from which Carlos Finlay and Walter Reed freed us? Or like the zika virus now threatening us?) The jíbaro also knows instinctively that cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre (every predatory bird has his kingbird—a small bird that can defeat him). He is not slow to wake him from his nest.

After years of doubts and equivocation, I am no longer confused about my debt to Cuba and my love for Puerto Rico. For the latter, José Gautier Benítez (1851-1880) said in best in “Ausencia”:

You give life to the maiden

who inspires my frenzy,

I love her because of you,

I love you because of her.[5]

For the former, I claim the words of yet another Puerto Rican poet, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, who also lived torn between two islands:

My two countries I glorify

in the same song![6]



Devil’s Sentry Box—bartizan at Fort San Cristóbal in San Juan, Puerto Rico, 22 July 2010. (Credit: Jan Tazky)

[1] Julia de Burgos, “Río Grande de Loíza,” in Carmen Gómez Tejera, Ana María Losada and Jorge Luis Porrás, eds., Poesía Puertorriqueña (México: Editorial Orión, 1972), 232.

[2] Antonio S. Pedreira, Insularismo (Rio Piedras, PR: Editorial Edil, 1969), 152.

[3] Marcelino Canino Salgado, El cantar folklórico de Puerto Rico (Rio Piedras, PR: Editorial Universitaria, 1974), 355.

[4] Canino, 209.

[5] José Gautier Benítez, Antología Poética (San Juan, PR: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1967), 17.

[6] Lola Rodríguez de Tió, “A Puerto Rico,” in Gómez Tejera, 78.


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