Melanie Maldonado

Interview by Yvette Martínez, November 12, 2020

Transcript

[0:10] Yvette Martínez: Hola Melanie, it’s so good to see you, and I thank you for taking this time so we can have this chat. So let’s get started, ok? Tell me a little bit about yourself, introduce yourself, and your artistic form, and anything that you’d like to describe about yourself.

[0:35] Melanie Maldonado: My name is Melanie Maldonado. On social networks I go by my full genealogical name because I conduct a lot of genealogy and that’s important to me. Plus it gives me a chance to highlight my female line with is an important part of my work, looking at women, their contributions, and their herstories. 

[1:00] I guess the tradition I’m representing in this project is bomba, which is a Black musical tradition from Puerto Rico which goes back centuries, although kind of the definitive start date or time or year is hotly contested in my community. But we can confidently say that bomba has been practiced in Puerto Rico, from different resources that we have, for several centuries now.

[1:38] Bomba is a, as I mentioned, a musical tradition, but it’s also a dance tradition, it’s a song tradition. It’s played on folklore drums, which are called barriles, and they’re made from barrels with a goat skin attached. Which has, unlike some other musical traditions, that really connects us to our African ancestors. Goat skins on drums really connects us to that kind of ancestral past.

[2:13] So that’s a tradition I’m representing as part of this project. I research many different aspects of cultura Puertoriqueña, but most of my attention, most of my time, most of my personal resources, traveling, calling, relationship building, that is really focused on bomba.

[2:42] Yvette: And what drew you? When did you get the bomba – at what age or – what drew you to bomba?

[2:53] Melanie: I’ve been in bomba for twenty years now. I…gosh…It was kind of a confluence of events and circumstances. But the first time I actually saw bomba was at a Puerto Rican Studies Association conference, that was happening in- taking place in Amherst, Massachusetts.

[3:17] Yvette: I love it. I love that place –

[3:20] Melanie: Yes.

[3:21] Yvette: – for women.

[3:22] Melanie: Yes, yes.

[3:24] And there was a moment in one of the evening receptions where some folks brought out some barriles on the stage, and one of the academics, one of the professors, that was there, she got up on stage and started dancing and I was mesmerized. Her name was Marie Ramos, she’s really well known as Marie Calabó.

[3:50] Yvette: Of course. I know Mari Ramos. Absolutely.

[3:54] Melanie: Yes, and so she – I was mesmerized. And then a friend of mine from undergrad, he invited me to attend the rehearsals of a group he was part of. That group’s name, in Chicago, called Grupo Yubá. And then I started a job with ASPIRA about the same time and one of my co-workers introduced me to- invited me, I should say, invited me to rehearsals for a group that he was in, and that group’s called AfriCaribe. 

[4:36] So it was kind of a domino effect, literally, like one month after another, I had these experiences that weren’t really planned, they just kind of came up and introduced me to bomba all at once. So I had these multiple exposures to bomba. And I’m a very spiritual person and I believe in timing, and there were too many forces coming at me related to bomba independently and I just said, “ok, ok”.

[5:15] Yvette: I love it.

[5:17] Melanie: And so I ended up staying, I ended up becoming a member of AfriCaribe and being part of that group for several years until about 2005 I believe. And then while I was with them I joined another group in 2002 called Nuestro Tambó. That was a group in Chicago as well. With that group I had a chance to not only sing and dance, but also play instruments. 

[5:48] Both groups were dedicated to Puerto Rican traditional music. AfriCaribe had kind of a broader scope. So they did musica de la montaña. So I learned how to dance all of those, mazurca, polka, all of those dances. And I also learned how to dance bomba. I learned choreographies for plena, I learned how to dance plena. And then with Nuestra Tambó – AfriCaribe was more of a folkloric group – Nuestro Tambó really had a vision to represent contemporary practice. So – 

[6:27] Yvette: Beautiful

[6:29] Melanie: – there were no costumes per se, they were really about kind of  active living culture. So there were no choreographies. There were no…

[6:40] Yvette: Yeah, yeah

[6:45] Melanie: Yes, it was wonderful, it really was a wonderful experience. I had a chance to play pandereta and cowbell and maraca, more so and that really accelerated my learning in that respect. And that’s what I was looking for, I wanted to learn more songs, I wanted to learn more about the culture. 

[7:07] And then I- kind of just outlining my trajectory here- I went on to enter a doctoral program in 2005 and the focus of my dissertation project- what would have been my dissertation project- was contemporary bomba practices and some of the tensions with the previous generations. And the elders versus the contemporary practice and how that was manifesting itself back in 2005, what I was seeing.

[7:43] Yvette: Oh, that’s fabulous.

[7:46] Melanie: In 2004- let me backup, just a little bit. When I applied to be in that program, back in 2004, I attended a couple of really key events. One was Jesús Cepeda’s Congreso Naciónal de la Bomba, in Puerto Rico. And then I also attended BomPlenazo in New York, in the Bronx, for the first time.

[8:12] Yvette: Yes

[8:13] Melanie: And so I was very inspired by both activities, and I just thought you know this Congreso Naciónal in Puerto Rico, it really appeals to me because I don’t see that we have something like that in the diaspora.

[8:28] Yvette: Right

[8:29] Melanie: We have knowledge, there are little pockets of knowledge-

[8:31] Yvette: Yeah, yeah

[8;32] Melanie: -but we don’t have a space to kind of learn that together. And this was before social media really blew up, before YouTube really blew up. So I decided, I just thought, I have to get folks together. And so that year I convened a panel- in 2004. And in 2005 literally weeks before I entered my doctoral program I organized and hosted, along with this committee that I had convened, the first Bomba Research Conference, pulling together all of these pockets of knowledge so that we could convene, learn from each other, build each other, and come out of this stronger, come out of that experience stronger. So that was in 2005.

[9:18] In 2007, I was living in Puerto Rico for a bit and I joined a group there, the first all-female group in Puerto Rico, Nandí

[9:29] Yvette: Qué pueblo?

[9:31] Melanie: They were based out of the metro area.

[9:34] Yvette: Ok, ok

[9:36] Melanie: I was with them for a little bit. That summer, I also had a chance to go to the San Francisco Bay Area and participate with an all female project called “Bomberas de la Bahía: la Bomba es Nuestra”. 

[9:56] Yvette: Yeah, yup.

[9:58] Melanie: So I was part of that. Backing up just a little bit, right when I started the Bomba Conference, when I was in was in the process of organizing that…I said you know everything I’m learning so far leads me back to men. Men are the leaders, men are the knowledge bearers. Women are really kind of mentioned in passing, and I know, I know, there’s got to be more to the story. 

[10:27] Yvette: Absolutely. 

[10:28] Melanie: So I applied for a grant from the Centro de Estudios Puertoriqueño en Nueva York, and I received what’s called a diaspora research grant to support a documentary I was working on at the time. Again, before YouTube before social media, before we really had…we didn’t really have videos that existed and now we’ve got an innumerable amount. But at the time I wanted to do a documentary so I applied for a grant, and the title of my project was “Suelta el Moño”, and the idea was to document women. So that kind of like – I would mark 2004, moving into 2005, when I really started focusing on women in bomba.

[11:18] But just kind of going back to the timeline, in 2007 and 2008 I had a chance to participate in all female bomba projects in the San Francisco Bay Area that brought musicians, artists, performers of bomba, practitioners from throughout the diaspora and Puerto Rico to the Bay Area and we did a show each one of those summers. 

[11:42] And meanwhile the Bomba Research Conference continued in Chicago every two years, 2005, 2007 and 2009. And in 2011, I moved the conference to Puerto Rico so that I could incorporate some of these elderly practitioners and utilize historic spaces in Puerto Rico, and kind of have the conference take place in historic spaces. That really triggered something for me, kind of, having these convenings in these spaces, and I just thought, after that first one, I thought to myself, “I have to do this every time, this can’t just be a one time thing.” So that kind of built on that. In 2011, ’13, ’17, ’19, each one of those subsequent conferences have all taken place in historic spaces from alleys to bateyes to the streets to street corners to bars, like we were in a bar one time, but it was because they used to hold bailes de bomba there. That’s kind of been the trajectory. 

[13:01] And then I’ve published, intermittently. One of my papers when I was in my doctoral program, I presented it at a conference and it was selected to be part of the proceedings. The name of the article which was focused on women was called “Bomba Trigueña”. And in that article I talked about how bomba- because of contemporary practice and the adoption of bomba by the diaspora and these diasporic communities- how bomba was kind of losing its association with Black culture and was kind of whitening or lightening and so that’s where that name “Bomba Trigueña” comes from. 

[13:47] Yvette: Beautiful

[13:51] Melanie: That was on women, that one was published in 2008. And then just last fall, I had one published here in the Centro journal. And, I kind of put that documentary project on hold years ago, but continued doing the work, so when the opportunity to publish to the Centro journal, which was going to be focused on bomba, I decided to resurrect some of that research, pull it together and so the title of my article in that publication is called “Suelta el Moño”. And that, that is really about, I probably mention about 27-30 different women and the contributions they made to bomba.

[14:38] So it’s been kind of a long trajectory over the last 20 years, starting from not really hearing about women to now, my work is very marked by exposing those herstories of women and how they contributed to bomba and bringing those stories to light. Bringing those women – the women that I work with, they’re in their 70s, 80s, 90s, one of them just turned 100 this summer. And I create space in the conferences. I say, “I would like you to present”. They respond, “I’ve never spoken in front of a group about this”. I say, “Well exactly, that’s the problem. You are an expert about your family history, you’re an expert about your- all the history and herstories of your pueblo, your municipio. We need you telling the story, it shouldn’t be filtered through me.”

[15:37] Yvette: Absolutely

[15:40] Melanie: My work is very marked by creating those kind of spaces.  In 2018, I had a chance to present to the Smithsonian and they allowed me to take one of those women with me. They paid her way, they set her up. And she had her own bio, her own picture, and she was a presenter at the Smithsonian. And I thought, this is the way it should be.

[16:00] Yvette: Absolutely, thank you for that. Oh my god, that’s so beautiful. I’m so proud of the work that you do. You know, when I started my- what resonated with me was bomba, you know? That’s what called to me. But back then it was hard to get information and I didn’t have the access. And then being from New York it was very hard to get- so I’m so proud and I thank you, I thank you. And I definitely want to see all the articles.

[16:30] Melanie: Yes, wow, I mean thank you. It’s been, really, my growth process that I’ve just kind of shared with the world because I don’t want it sitting in a drawer somewhere, I don’t want it sitting on a hard drive, I don’t want it sitting in my head. I want to share resources, create resources, create accessibility for these people who are the bearers of tradition and bearers of knowledge so…

[16:57] That’s kind of my trajectory, that’s a long answer, but that’s been the last twenty years for me. And then just one last thing that I would add to that would be, in 2019, I started a project of placing historic markers at these sites that I had been using since 2011. And though Puerto Rico does not have a culture of recognizing Black history sites in a formal way, a way that we do here in the States. And so I just said, after Hurricane María began destroying- or destroyed- some of these historic sites, I just thought, “I can’t wait for some national governing body to go through a review process and decide which one, to vet them. I know, because those communities have told me. In the 50’s, you know, there were bailes de bomba, in the 40’s there were bailes de bomba in that batey, in the 50’s over here there were bailes.” The communities know, and that  for me is validating knowledge. And so I worked with each one of those communities, with each one of those families and in 2019, I put up 4 markers that indicated this is a historic site for bomba. 

[18:18] Yvette: I’m telling you, what a joy, what pleasure, and I thank you. You’ve done so much for all of us. And you’ve actually answered quite a bit of the questions we’ve had. So thank you, I really appreciate that, that’s incredible work that you’ve done. And the amount of networking. Did you run into any resistance in terms of doing this type of work from folks that are also doing the same, the same amount of work, or the same kind of work that you’re doing, the same genre. And actually, from the men, did you get a lot of resistance for it?

[19:02] Melanie: I have encountered resistance, unfortunately. It often comes in the form of boycotting. People will just not attend, they won’t share the event, they won’t even like it. Nowadays we use those terms, in social media terms, but they wouldn’t show up. Or they would host or plan  like alternating events, on the same day, same time, similar location. So that was, you know, that was kind of difficult to navigate. In particular, I don’t think I’ve received any more resistance than other women in my community. And that’s just saying that we all, all of those of us who are doing something for the community, it does interrupt a power dynamic that is historical and just exists because of patriarchy, in that men get to have access, men are the first ones. 

[20:06] I mean, when I would for the conference, and I would go to Puerto Rico, and I would go to some of these municipios that I had been communicating with – when I showed up with a man, they would start talking to the man and start trying to negotiate details with him and I’d have to say, “Hello, I’m the organizer, this is my event. I appreciate the support that this person is providing, but it’s my event.”

[20:30] And so it’s just part of a kind of a social norm that gets reified, that gets reinforced by the behaviors of men in our community who don’t create access when they can, they don’t share opportunities when they can, they block or they attempt to kind of disrupt your progress or your process by not showing up or not encouraging their students or their followers, like “Hey this is a wonderful educational opportunity, you should attend.”

[21:06] Yvette: I know, we’re all in this together, you know?

[21:08] Melanie: That’s how I believe.

[21:10] Yvette: I know I have the experience of being…I never get invited as- we’ve been doing bomba and plena- it’s not all we do, we have a large repertoire of doing other types of Caribbean music- but I’ve never, they never invite me to the BomPlenazos. Even though I attend them, I go, and I participate, so it’s kind of like, I understand. It’s been for years now, so it’s like a situation, I thought would it have gotten better. But networking with these other groups must be phenomenal that you’ve been able-

[21:46] Melanie: Well, I really kind of, just put my head down. It hurts. Those moments hurt. But I kind of think, “alright, I’m going to experience this moment but I’m not going to live in that space of hurt because this work is bigger than me and I can’t let my ego get in the way of the work that needs to be done.” 

[22:14] And I feel like I have had kind of a deposit of intention put in me and I need to follow through with that intention. I need to follow that purpose, and I need to just live my purpose and I cannot be deterred by resistance that I’m met with or the sabotage that comes along the way. 

[22:40] What’s interesting is that when I kind of shifted my idea around my work and who my audience was, I shifted away from…let me not say I shifted away from…I shifted toward…I focused my energies, my intentions, my purpose on connecting these communities, helping give these communities voice to their past. Helping them celebrate these legacies that they either didn’t know about or they knew about but they really thought of it as something from the past and they thought, “oh yeah we used to do that, oh yeah my grandmother, oh yeah my aunt”. And so really helping them see how important it was to highlight those stories, to bring that Black cultural past to the present, just by celebrating it. 

[23:37] Even if, you know, something I’ve explained to some of these families, these committees is, my intention is not to resurrect this practice in your community, that’s really up to your community. But what I do want to do is tell the world that your community had this moment in time when this practice dominated here. Or these families, these individuals, they’ve convened. I’ve just heard stories and I’ve read accounts of people walking overnight to get to a baile de bomba that they know is coming up. And they would walk from town to town to town so they could get there by the time that baile de bomba was going to take place, and that’s a commitment to an experience, that’s a commitment to a practice. And if they were willing to walk several towns over, then that town in particular had something special, had a special element. 

[24:46] And so that when I- when I shifted my focus toward, let me focus on these families. So I do genealogy, and so one of the things I’ve been doing with all these families is building out their family trees so that they can connect all these dots. And so as I focus on these families and these communities and helping them connect the dots so that they can tell the story. I’m going to tell my version, you know, what I’ve learned from them, but now they can put the pieces together and they can tell their own stories. 

[25:21] And so that’s part of even, with the plaques, that what I’ve explained to each one of those families, each one of those communities. I don’t want to have just a one day event. You’re not always going to be here, I’m not always going to be here. I want people to conduct self-guided tours. I want them to say I’m going to be in Arroyo and I heard that there was this plaque that will tell me about the bomba in Arroyo, and all the families, all the individuals that used to go there, maybe one of my ancestors is on there.

[25:53] Yvette: I love it.

[25:54] Melanie: I was just speaking with somebody in Guayama, one of the ladies I work with in Guayama, and I said, “You know…” Her name is Doña Marta. She comes from a very storied family of bomba practitioners.

[26:08] Yvette: I love stories

[26:11] Melanie: She’s in her 80’s. She wasn’t a practitioner herself, although she grew up in the tradition, making enaguas for her grandmother and so when she was five and six years old she was learning how to iron enaguas and put on all the cintas and so she was part of the tradition in that way. 

[26:33] Last December, we put a plaque right in her community, just walking distance from her house. And so I was talking to her the other day and I said, “You know, Doña Marta, I am so sad because right after I put the plaque literally within days these earthquakes started, then the pandemic hit, and we haven’t been able to kind of promote the experience of the plaque, the historic site.

[26:48] She’s like, “Nena, de que tu hablas?” She’s like, “the people have not stopped coming.” She’s like, “every week, I don’t even know who these people are, and they just show up, and they take pictures.” 

[27:12] And I said, “Oh my god, Doña Marta, that’s exactly what we wanted, that’s exactly – that was the purpose.” 

[27:20] She’s like, “this whole time-”

[27:24] I said, “Even during the pandemic?”

[27:25] She’s like, “Yes”. She’s like, “At least once a week, somebody stops there, somebody I don’t even know and they’re taking pictures with the plaque.”

[27:35] Yvette: Melanie, I love it, I love it. What a wonderful- you know, there’s such a great legacy. There’s so many wonderful stories that we all need to know. And I’m telling you, this is wonderful, and I’m so just thrilled because it is something that, we need to pass this on. There’s such important stories to share. I definitely want to be a student and carry your books anywhere. I love the work you’re doing. Please include me in any of the symposiums, any events, your books, your publications, anything. I’d definitely be interested in reading. There’s never enough that you can get, enough information. So I thank you. God bless you. It’s just a thrill for me. I just feel like I never could get enough information. And being from here, it was always such-

[28:31] You know, when I used to go to Puerto Rico to do my research, my cousins, I’d beg them, I’d beg and beg. They went to Air Supply and to rock and roll music and I’m like, “but I want to find some music”. Finally, I started connecting with people but it was a little hard. I did get a lot of support from las families in Puerto Rico. The Cepedas and the Ayalas were very  supportive of the work I was doing here. So I always go back and pay my homage and it’s just wonderful so thank you, thank you.

[29:03] Melanie: That’s fantastic and I’m glad for it.

[29:05] Yvette: Where’s your pueblo? You know what I would like to find out more information of, la Mayagüez.

[29:10] Melanie: Ok, is that where your family is from?

[29:13] Yvette: Yes, my mother, and they used to hear the bomba, but we were not allowed, they weren’t allowed to go to the bombas.

[29:24] Melanie: Who wasn’t?

[29:26] Yvette: My mother. They used to hear the music and my grandfather wouldn’t allow to go. “No, no, no, cause you don’t know what happens at these places.” You know, like it’s not- and it was all- and, I have a lot of musicians in my family, but they’re into classical music. I have a cuatro, a cuatrista, and she has her own group and they play a lot of jíbaro music, and a lot of nueva canción, you know. Beautiful stuff, all of them, they’re all very talented. My aunt was the first female saxophone player in Mayagüez,  in her high school band. So I come from music but when I went into this, my uncle asked me, “Why do I want to dance el baile los negros?” And I was like, I couldn’t believe it, some of us- what do you mean, so I was incensed by that, and it just always, but I appreciate it. But anyway, listen, I’m sorry, I just, I’m so proud, and I can’t wait just start delving into your information. And listen, any help with the documentary you need, any resources, any help, we gotta get it done, ok?

[30:44] Melanie: Thank you.

[30:45] Yvette: But listen, it’s just wonderful to hear your stories. I do want to ask you…I can see the one piece that you love is the bomba, right, that was one of my questions, and you did beautifully. I mean, it’s just such a great- You’ve answered a lot of the questions that I had coming up…What does it mean to practice the African-diasporic folkloric art forms. I mean, you did, and you research, it’s amazing the amount of research. You went to Puerto Rico.  

[31:20] Let me ask you something. Do you focus on one area of the bomba? Because I know there’s different towns and different areas. Where does your ancestors come from?

[31:34] Melanie: I think there are a couple questions in there. So I-  my research really…it happens all over the island, really. 

[31:44] Yvette: It does

[31:47] Melanie: All over the island. Last year’s research conference, we took bomba back to Arecibo a hundred years after it had been outlawed there. So we did bomba, had a session right there. I worked with the municipio and we did bomba one hundred years after it had been outlawed there. I’ve done conference sessions in Mayagüez, in Ponce…

[32:19] Yvette: Oh my goodness, fabulous.

[32:22] Melanie: In Guayama, Arroyo, Patillas, in Piñones, in San Mateo de Cangrejos, which Piñones was a part of but really now is kind of centered on Santurce- we’ve done stuff there-  in Cataño, and that work just continues to grow.

[32:39] Yvette: And in these areas, how is the reception, from the groups that are in the area?

[32:45] Melanie: People travel from throughout the island to support each others projects, there are even some groups that have members that are across the island. And so people are not unfamiliar with going to different towns, to different parts of the island, to learn more, to participate, to be part of some bomba event. 

[33:07] So I’ve worked with a lot of wonderful people. I’ve worked with all these municipios that I mentioned and that work continues. I have many projects in process and they get released when I feel they’re ready to be released, when they’re comprehensive. I don’t like to release information that is kind of shallow or just because I’m eager to release information. I like it to be well researched, to be connected to some knowledge base that is beyond my own. If I am unable to do that, then I rely heavily on the archive, like with the case of Arecibo.

[33:59] I was invited to present at the Congreso de la Afrodescendencia in Puerto Rico and for that presentation I focused on the lugares históricos projects and I talked about all these different places that were historic sites for bomba. And I talked about Arecibo and some of the archival material. Well, in other conversations, I learned that there was somebody whose family had a connection to Arecibo, I just thought, you know what, that it’s time, it’s time to kind of resound Arecibo with bomba. And so I approached the municipio, I invited that person to come present her own research in Arecibo, where her ancestors had been practitioners. 

[34:57] It’s hard to say kind of where my work is focused because I really feel like it’s where the ancestors guide me to for the project, for the moment, for the knowledge base, so it’s really all over. And in some places I have more support than others. But like I said before, for me it’s about, ok I feel like this needs to be done, and I’m not going to worry about the lack of resources, I’m going to focus on what I feel needs to be done and the doors will open, you know. Se abre el camino. It will happen.

[35:40] Yvette: Absolutely

[35:41] Melanie: I don’t know how, and I’m just going to trust the process and every time it’s beautiful. And even for me, because I’m focused on the communities and the families, if those families feel like this was an incredible experience, for me that’s enough.

[35:58] Yvette: I love it. Yeah, I love it. That’s such a recognition and that’s really highlighting the beauty. And nobody- people really take it for granted.

[36:11] Melanie: For sure. So that was, I think, one part of your question, the other part…where are my ancestors from?

[36:17] Yvette: Yes

[36:18] Melanie: Well, that’s a difficult question for a genealogist because now I’m going to tell you my whole family tree. I was born and raised in Chicago. And my parents were born and raised in Chicago. And my four grandparents all were born in different towns and they, all four of my grandparents, met in the diaspora. So when you ask me what town my family is from, you know, I associate most closely with Utuado because that is the town whenever I visited Puerto Rico earlier in my life, that’s where we spent the most time, that I spent the most time with my family. Or even if I stayed with my family, they would take me back to Utuado because that’s where my Maldonado lineage comes from. 

[37:12] Yvette: Oh beautiful, beautiful

[37:14] Melanie: But my parents are Maldonado Medina and Diaz Moreno so Maldonado’s Utuado, Medina is Jayuya, which used to be part of Utuado, it’s right next to Utuado. And then on my other side Diaz Moreno. Diaz from Viejo San Juan. And that’s kind of tricky because for the most part people are not from Viejo San Juan, they went there find a job. For some reason, my family spent decades in Viejo San Juan and that’s the one of the lines that I have that it’s been difficult for me to find where were from before that so I just tell people Viejo San Juan. And then the Moreno line comes from Isabela. It’s kind of sprinkled from all over, but having worked on all of these family trees, for the most part, my family seems to be very tied to the interior of the island, although I have some ancestors that were from Vega Baja, Manatí, Isabela for a long period. But the majority of my ancestors seem to be from Utuado, Jayuya, Morovis, Ciales, this kind of very mountainous interior.

[38:44] Yvette: Yeah, yeah, I know the areas really well. I know, Mayagüez where I used to go as a child with, you know, my mother’s family, and my father’s family is from Vega Baja, so they both met here. And I was born and raised here, pero qué, I want to know where la verdegé is, so if you could find that out for me…

[39:05] Melanie: Well….That’s kind of a contested issue. There is a place that has been identified in Mayagüez which is why for a long time people thought that perhaps it was in Mayagüez…however, at my third Bomba Research Conference, in 2009 once of the participants told me, “Melanie,” and his name is Bardeguez, and he said, “Melanie, I…my family is from southern Puerto Rico, my family is from the area of Guayama, and ummm…my family owned…was kind of on the other side, they owned the plantation that was called “La verdegé”, you know “La Bardeguez”. And he’s like, “I don’t know if there’s any connection, but it’s possible.” And so he told me that, and then I started…you know, once somebody kind of plants a seed, then you start kind of seeing clues all over, you start hearing clues. And there’s actually been some work, done by others, not by me, to research that connection to possibly being Guayama, a place in Guayama. 

[40:47] Yvette: My god, I would love to see that

[40:48] Melanie: And actually just in the last few days there was the Fundación Nacional de [sic] la Cultura Popular, I think that’s the name of it, they published an article written by Jaime Torres Torres, and it was actually a book review, not an article. But he wrote a book review about a book that came out recently regarding the origins of la plena. And this book says based on the research of this one person, that he really strongly believes that plena was founded, started, has its roots in Guayama, and they point to this song, “A la Verdegé” as a possible connection. So that’s why I say like, you know, I heard that over a decade ago. Everything in the bomba community had always pointed to Mayagüez, but there’s kind of this alternate theory or hypothesis growing, by the work being conducted by other people, that possibly it’s Guayama so…

[42:00] Yvette: Exactly. And you know what, I think that’s the same town that Luis Pales Matos was born in, “La Danza Negra”. And you know, I do that, as a form, I’ve been doing that for years in different forms. Right now I’m doing it in like a salsa form with Alberto Caridón’s music and it- when he uses his afro-negroida words, it’s just so beautiful. And La Verdegé is probably somebody’s- a territory. I thought it was a barrio, I thought it was a barrio.

[42:36] a Melanie: Well, and I think-

[42:37] Yvette: It could be a plantation too.

[42:38] Melanie: I can tell you that in Guayama, it was a personal property, it was a plantation.

[42:46] Yvette: A plantation…Wow. I love it. Well, I’m telling you, definitely want to follow you and want to get more information because it’s fascinating. I love it. It’s such a cool thing. You’ve gone so many- let me ask you, do you also teach bomba?

[43:09] Melanie: I’ve lectured quite a bit over the years. I try to create as many resources as possible, whether it’s through publishing, whether it’s through presenting. Obviously, my own conference has been a platform for me to present every two years, but I’ve had some other opportunities to present in other places, different ways, through different mediums. I tried to create a couple of short videos that explain some things. One of them is the enagua. I have a little video explaining my research about the enagua, and how I feel that it, based on my own research, how it has affected bomba dance for women, and the fact that we, any woman lifts her skirt, is really about the enagua, and the role that the enagua played, probably at least early to mid-1900’s in bomba. Because women didn’t used to throw piquetes before, they didn’t used to interact with the drum directly. And so…

[44:24] Yvette: I didn’t know that.

[44:25] Melanie: Yes

[44:26] Yvette: Really?

[44:27] Melanie: So they’re parading and creating beautiful figures and this experience of the enagua was how they participated and showing the enagua in different ways, creating different postures to show the enagua, was really the strongest part of a woman’s participation in bomba.

[44:51] Yvette: Creativity was really, where you can see where her creativity, you know…

[44:56] Melanie: Well, a lot of them would hire seamstresses.

[44:59] Yvette: Wow.

[45:00] Melanie: And there’s one lady in…at least one person that I’ve heard of- I think, actually I’ve heard of two- but one that is directly connected to my work, where she and her friends would go to the bailes de bomba with suitcases full of enaguas, and every time they went out to dance, they would have a new enagua on, that night.

[44:24] Yvette: Oh my god

[44:25] Melanie: And you know, el lujo de la noche de la vé esa rama la nueva…like “What did she have this week?” or “What did she have this time?” or you know, “How is this enagua different than the one from earlier in the night?” And so there’s a whole subculture. I mean, I’ve had families tell me, “Oh no, my house was like party central. All the women would come over and they would construct their enagua for the upcoming baile de bomba and in some cases they would construct multiple enaguas. So you have kind of these enagua parties that would happen, and then you would also have this whole subculture of seamstresses who would be hired specifically like, “You know, I only have this much amount of money, so see what you…how, you know, I really want the baddest, most wonderful thing you can create with this little amount of money that I have. What can you do? Make- create your magic.” So it’s- it was pretty, pretty beautiful to learn, to hear those stories.

[46:33] Yvette: Oh my god, I would love to more of them. I didn’t realize that- I mean, I knew the importance of the enagua, but that they did not do piquete and they just were a decoration.

[46:46] Melanie: Yep

[46:47] Yvette: And the role of the woman and…

[46:50] Melanie: It really was to decorate the dance space around the man, while he interacted with the drummer.

[46:57] Yvette: Oh my goodness. I love it, I love it. I’m telling you, these elders must be so proud to be able to really, you know…it’s giving the importance of it, that for years nobody wanted to recognize it, people were ashamed of it, so it’s really…it’s amazing, it’s amazing. I was going to ask you, if you could describe one of your experiences, in your approach, your- well, you know what? You really have answered so many of the questions, asking them is like, wait a minute. Let me ask you, in retrospect, would you have chosen this path of work, if you had a choice?

[47:40] Melanie: You know, I spent a good part of my life preparing for Broadway actually. I was in what today would be considered middle school, and in Chicago we just had K through 8. We had elementary schools, we call them, in Chicago, grammar schools. You graduate from grammar school in eighth grade and go into high school. There’s no thing of middle school so that’s a different concept I’m dealing with now, even with my own children. But being in those grades that are considered middle school, I just knew that I wanted to act and I wanted to…I knew for sure I wanted to act. I wasn’t quite sure if I could do the singing or the dancing, but I knew I wanted to. And so I went to high school, we chose a high school that was very strategic about selecting a high school that had a strong theater program and so I chose one that did and had the wonderful fortune of being cast, being cast in major roles for every show and being cultivated by serious theater teachers who said, “hey you’ve got a voice, you can sing” or like, “hey, you can move, you can do this, professionally.” 

[49:02] And so having that encouragement align with something that I already felt inside like I wanted to do was empowering. So I ended up studying theater, I have an undergrad in theater and acting. And about halfway through that course of study, I was diagnosed with cancer and I had a very large tumor right here. And I had it removed, they tested it, and they found- it was a mass. They tested it, determined it was a tumor, a malignant tumor and that it had cancer cells that only come from the thyroid, so months later, I had my thyroid removed. And so they said, you know, we got it, you’re- we really don’t need to do anything else, you’re great. If there was a cancer to get, you got one of the better ones. 

[50:07] And so I kind of felt on top of the world, and I auditioned, I applied for Tisch School of the Arts in New York, and I thought, “You know, I’ve got a new lease on life, let me try to go to one of the best theater schools.” I flew up, I was offered an audition, I went, I auditioned, I got in. And I couldn’t afford it. It was the mid-90’s and it was $33,000 a year at that time, and I just couldn’t afford it, and I thought, “You know what, I was accepted and it’s going to be kind of this logro, this achievement that nobody will every know about”, but it was very validating. Like I had the skill, the talent to be accepted into such a prestigious school for what I wanted to do. 

[51:03] So I went back to the school I was at, kept trudging away, was in my fourth year, my senior year, and got cast in the lead role. It was the first time since I had been in college that that had happened, and I was having trouble hitting my high notes, and I’m like, “there’s something here”, and I would have to like literally move it out of the way to hit my high notes, and I said, “this is not right.” And I went back the doctor and I had a relapse. And my cancer had come back so I thought, “oh my gosh, I’m going to die, like this is it, my life is over. They told me it wouldn’t come back, it came back, it was more aggressive.” I said, “that’s it’s, I’m going to die, so I’m going to live life, I’m going to experience the world.” 

[51:54] So I just left school, left my job, left my city. I’m like, “I’m gonna go, whatever time I have left.” And then, you know, that lasted for a little while and I’m like, “I’m still alive, so I’m better go back and finish school.” So I did, but that kind of ended my theater career because I was- that show that I was in, it was a play that was being workshopped by a very prominent Black playwright, and really kind of one of the fathers of the Black theater movement in the United States. And he had cast me in this lead role, I had this wonderful role in a show that he was kind of workshopping at our University and he had asked me to stay in the role when it toured nationally. And I just thought, “Holy cow, like I didn’t know that I could actually kind of achieve my dream and here it is.” So that relapse with cancer kind of cut that trajectory short.

[52:58] Yvette: Got it

[52:59] Melanie: And I went on to figure that out for the next couple years, and then that’s- that was ’96, and then in 2000 was when I kind of encountered bomba or bomba found me or I was drawn to bomba, I don’t know how to- I kind of came to bomba. So sometimes my mom said, “Oh I’m so sad that you never kind of got to realize that dream.” And I just said, “You know, I had several moments of validation in that dream, and now I’m on a path that makes me probably just as happy or happier than I would have been doing that. I’m very happy doing what I do.”

[53:45] Yvette: And I’m telling you, to be able to have the skills to run a conference, to get up there and have to speak, that is performance, you know? So in your own way, you are bringing your performance. But it’s never too late, something may come about, you never know.

[54:06] Melanie: I don’t know, I don’t know. If I had the chance that I had? I just feel that I responded to a calling to live my purpose and I’m living it. So, you know, would I have chosen it again? That’s kind of a question that I don’t even know how to answer because I’m living my purpose, like would I have chosen to live my purpose again? Of course.

[54:34] Yvette: I know, It’s such a joy, and you know what, at the end of the day, you feel so complete, you know? You feel like, yeah, there is a reason, so it’s wonderful. On that note, I wanted to ask you, what do you see in your future?

[54:53] Melanie: Umm, you know, that’s- I definitely see some more publishing coming forth, I already have some things in the works. I would, at some point, like to finish that documentary, although I- it will be, it will have a different thrust, probably. I know that women will anchor that project, but it was kind of- when I started it, back in 2004 and really nurtured that in 2005 and 2006, it had a different kind of thrust, a different purpose, and I feel like it’s much fuller, I know more now. I have different context, I have newer contacts, I have a more amplified network, and an understand of how women’s roles. You know, I was still kind of searching, like what is that woman’s role? And now I have a better understanding of that and so that, I know, would be part of that future for me too, so, we’ll see. And then just keep doing, you know, learning and sharing, learning and sharing, that’s how I see.

[56:11] Yvette: The resurgence that I’ve seen in bomba, happening in the past couple of years…I would say in the past 20…15 years now I would say, has been really heartwarming because for a time nobody was really, really, this was back in early…we’re trying to keep it going and really researching it, and I think it’s such a well deserved thing. And you know, our kids need to learn this history. And once they know the legacy that they’re being left with, you know, it puts them in the right path, you know? And to honor the ancestors, the best way to do it, is come on, learn. And thank you for starting doing the work that you do, it’s phenomenal. 

[56:58] Melanie: Thank you.

[56:59] Yvette: I’m really proud of the work that you do and..thank you, I will be a follower.

[57:06] Melanie: I guess you just made me think of something else. Another thing that I’ve been doing again with these bomba families, with their genealogies is kind of like, pushing it up a notch. And I have been working with three families to date, to connect their ancestral lines to Africa. And so I’ve been able to do that with three families. We’ve determined through genetic testing, which specific ethnic groups their ancestral lines tie back to. And so that is a less developed project, kind of, in my portfolio of projects, but it is a very meaningful project to me, to these families. It has pains, of course, of these families and the narratives about their own histories. 

[58:00] One family that has a French name, they, you know, the elders in that family have shifted from, “oh, you know, we’ve got this French ancestry,” to, “no, you know this is a name that was imposed on our family, by enslavers, and we are African descendants.” And so this work is kind of shifting that and changing that and I look forward to continuing that work and my idea is to kind of map Africa in Puerto Rico and see what all these ethnic groups are that are part of our make-up. I mean, I have several, so many different countries listed in my-

[58:45] Yvette: Me too.

[58:46] Melanie: -my DNA profile. But, you know it doesn’t really mean much if you don’t…every country has so many different languages, so many different ethnic groups. Like it’s great to know that I have a percentage from this country and that country, but it is so much more meaningful, and I’ve seen it with these families, where they can say, “my maternal line goes back to this specific ethnic group in this specific country, and I know that my ancestors, at some point, came from that place, on my maternal line, or my paternal line.” So that’s going to be a big project in the future, is continuing that work and expanding that documentation of families, of bomba families, because I’m interested to know what were some of those elements that had been maintained in their families that they then brought to bomba.

[59:42] Yvette: Oh my gosh. Yeah, that’s phenomenal, you know? It’s such an important project that it has to get done. And the documentary now. You know, with us coming out of Covid, and us coming on the other side, how we come out of this as a group of people, you know, is very important. And this kind of work really is important for our young people, for all these young- especially for these young voters who we have here today. All these Latino young voters need to know this information, just to empower them. It’s such a great way and I think ahora con, with all this stuff coming about, let’s keep our eyes open, there’s all this funding, we have got to join these groups and all this, because I think it’s a project that’s worthy and it’s got to get done, ok? Do you have any books yet?

[1:00:37] Melanie: Not yet, but I definitely hope to down the road. That’s part of that publishing that I mentioned that I hope to be able to produce down the road so I’ve been working on some other projects, other people’s projects, being invited into a couple of anthologies, but I really want to have some materials that just come directly from my work so.

[1:01:09] Yvette: Absolutely. Oh my god, what an honor. It’s been a thrill to speak with you, and boy do I have lots of questions. And one of these days I would love to sit down with you.

[1:01:19] Melanie: Yes, of course.

[1:01:21] Yvette: It’s an important work, and please share any information. If you can send me links, anything that I can go search. Because I would really, I would love to. Also, whatever I could share with the rest of our community, it would be terrific. I do a lot of Arts in Ed, and I do love working in schools, and my favorite grades are between like 4th and 6th grade and even high school. I’ve done them all. But it’s just, they’re so fascinated when they get engaged and they start learning more of these things, and it’s just fabulous. So keep the work going, I’m thrilled, and if you need an assistant, me llama.

[1:02:05] Melanie: Gracias, gracias.

[1:02:06] Yvette: Listen Melanie, I think we really covered quite a bit, I mean all this wonderful stuff you shared. Is there anything you want to add that I might have left out? Quickly looking at the questions, I feel like we’ve covered a lot in your conversation, all the questions that were here.

[1:02:23] Melanie: I think I would just like to mention a couple of the women who have been very influential for me, who have been very supportive, some of those elderly women who have extended themselves to me and my work. First, I have to start with Lúz María Rosado Villodas of Guayama who…she was a friend of mine, and she died. We had five wonderful years of friendship. She mentored me, she loved on me like a daughter, and her passing was really crushing to me. But she was probably the first elder practitioner who really took me under her wing and shared so much with me. And I take a very relational approach to research. I feed the relationship because I feel like the information is going to come organically so develop an authentic relationship and if the relationship doesn’t develop…Again because I feel like, you know, it’s spirit led, then that the information is not going to come, it’s not going to be good information. It’s not meant for you, Melanie. 

[1:03:54] Yvette: Exactly.

[1:03:55] Melanie: And so if the relationship can’t happen, then the information is just not meant for you. So there haven’t been too many, just a couple, where I’ve worked or tried to reach out and the relationship doesn’t like, we just don’t gel, for whatever reason. And I thought, “ok, you know what, that relationship is meant for somebody else, that information is meant for somebody else.” I don’t hold any grievances. But I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had several elderly women who have really just loved on me and I care about them so much and I just have very special relationships…and so she’s one. 

[1:04:38] And her cousin, Marta Almodovar Clavell, in Guayama, is another. Another person is Marta Amaro Navarro, from Arroyo. She has really just connected me to such a special history in her own family. And so, in Patillas, Lydia Ortíz, is a wonderful woman. And actually these three last names that I gave you, Doña Marta from Guayama, Doña Marta from Arroyo, and Doña Lydia de Patillas, I’m actually gathering them via Zoom next Sunday so that they can share some of the stories that they’ve shared with me, with the public. So I’m going to interview them live, and just let them talk. They’re hilarious. They all love to tell stories, they all love to share, and they have all taken me under their wings, and just loved on me, and accepted my work and contributed to it in such a gracious, generous way. 

[1:05:54] And then also, Doña Elizabeth García, from Mayagüez, she’s also just a wonderful, wonderful person, who has been so generous with me. And so, I wanted to mention those five women, who are all elderly women in the world of bomba, who have had such a meaningful contribution to my work. And there’s so many other women that I could name, but those five have really invested in me, in terms of the information that they’ve provided and shared with me so…

[1:06:36] Yvette: Wow, Melanie, it’s amazing. I think you truly have been chosen to carry on this. And it’s…what a thrill that you have taken on this, really presenting this in a very scholarly and true way and an honorable way, so it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful, and giving people the honor of telling their stories, I mean, that’s so important. So I thank you and I can’t wait to hear the conversations and the stories.

Project Support

This project is supported by a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website or in our programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or the New Jersey Council for the Humanities.