Puerto Rico’s African heritage is front and center in the town of Loíza. The town was established in the 17th century, and one theory proposes it was named in honor of one of two known female tribal chiefs, or cacicas, of the native taíno tribe.
Way before being declared a municipality, the Loíza area served as a settlement for the Nigerian peoples originally brought in as slaves by the Spaniards. Their contribution to Puerto Rican culture is undeniable, introducing diverse elements such as their songs and dances, their crafts and foods, and even their Yoruba religion, from which various “New World” religions sprang.
Spanish traditions such as the fiesta patronal –a carnavalesque celebration of a town’s patron saint with music, dancing, and food— round out the major influences that come together in this town. For the local loiceños, one fiesta is not enough. Loíza celebrates two saints: Saint Patrick in March and St. James the Apostle in July.
Many of Puerto Rico’s renowned artesanos create their masterpieces from their studios in Loíza. These studios are often open to the public by day to display and sell their artwork and wares.
Samuel Lind’s studio showcases his brightly-colored paintings of the town’s traditions past and present. Across the street, Artesanías Castor Ayala beckons with its storefront décor showcasing their specialty of vejigante masks and dresses. Vejigantes are crucial participants of the aforementioned fiestas patronales. Originally designed to represent the Muslim enemy during the Spanish Crusades, they have become a recognizable symbol of merriment and mischief. Ayala’s masks, created from coconut shells, are prized collectables.
Major recording artist Tego Calderón has family roots in Loíza, a fact he proudly mentions in his music. Puerto Rico’s own reggeatón music is an infectiously danceable mix of various genres such as hip-hop, reggae, and salsa, that has become an influential genre in itself around the world. Calderón’s background influences his lyrics, which emphasize cultural pride in the face of lingering racial and class tensions. By bringing attention to Loíza’s cultural richness, these artists hope the rest of Puerto Rico will return the favor and come to the aid of the town’s poor communities.