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Casita Rincon Criollo

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Brook Ave NY 10451 USA

“It’s as though Puerto Rico opened her arms and expanded her borders, rather than her sons leaving to go far away.” (From a décima by Victor Rafael Hernandez, 1991) As we approached Casita Rincon Criollo in our little bus, Hernandez improvised a decima (sung poetry) that brought tears to my eyes. This day was the culmination of Somos Boricuas, an intense two-week intercambio (cultural exchange) between traditional musicians from Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican musicians from NY. Victor’s decima summed up and reconfirmed the experiences of the previous two weeks—that New York Puerto Ricans are still Puerto Rican, with all the accompanying cultural implications of that self-identification. Carabali, one of the casita’s founding members, greeted the group: “Welcome to this little piece of Puerto Rico in the south of the Bronx.” Rincon Criollo was a partner in Somos Boricuas and, on this sunny June day in1991, was throwing a traditional pig roast for the musicians who participated in the project. It was an incredible cultural, social and musical event. I had known about Rincon Criollo for many years didn’t get there until 1989. My colleague, folklorist Joseph Sciorra, brought me with him. He had been visiting for some time to get to know the folks and do research for an article about casitas in NYC. Rincon Criollo is also called “La Casita de Chema” after José (“Chema”) Soto who, in the late 1970s, began cleaning up the trash-strewn remnants of a burned down building. Friends and neighbors joined his efforts and turned the corner into a haven—a “little piece of Puerto Rico”—for the hardworking community members who had not fled the South Bronx after fires all but destroyed the area and ripped apart a thriving community. Just as I had known about Rincon Criollo for years, the folks there had known about me through my work with Puerto Rican music and musicians in NYC. I was welcomed with open arms—literally—and immediately brought into the fold when Chema presented me with a tiny necklace pandereta (frame drum used in plena) he had made. I gratefully received it but had a moment of the tiniest bit of guilt when Joe exclaimed: “I’ve been coming here for years and I never got anything like that!” La Casita de Chema is also known as the culture casita. Here, the traditions of Puerto Rico — music, dance, cooking, drum-making, language, and community-as-extended-family — are maintained and transmitted. Over the years, Rincon Criollo, along with Los Pleneros de la 21 (New York’s premiere bomba and plena organization), have created a traditional context for the transmission of tradition. Today, young people who were not yet born when the casita was built are becoming masters of the traditions of bomba and plena. They were born into the Casita community and raised there; they straddle the worlds of this little piece of Puerto Rico and the school and street culture of their wider community and they negotiate seamlessly between the two. Many of them have formed their own groups; all of them play with the newer and more established groups in the City. A few years ago, La Casita de Chema had to move to another corner one block away to make way for housing, but they didn’t skip a beat in the move. The garden, smaller than the first one, is producing vegetables, the drums are being made and played, and another generation has been born into the community.

Credits: Produced by filmmaker Ashley James and ethnomusicologist Roberta Singer for "Somos Boricuas." Text by Roberta Singer. Story compiled by Anina Hewey. (3:30)