César Colón-Montijo is a journalist and doctoral candidate in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University. He obtained a master's in Anthropology and Audiovisual Communication from the University of Barcelona, Spain, in 2005, and previously completed a BA in communications at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, in 2003. César is the editor of the Cocinando Suave: Ensayos de Salsa en Puerto Rico (2015), a landmark collection of scholarly, historical, and journalistic essays, poems, and photo essays about the histories of salsa. He recently published Viaje a La Casita: Notas de Plena en el Rincón Criollo (2016), an ethnographic chronicle based on his research about Puerto Rican music and culture in the South Bronx. His doctoral dissertation studies the life and music of the foundational Afro-Puerto Rican singer Ismael “Maelo” Rivera (1931-1987) through an ethnographic research conducted in Venezuela, Panamá, Puerto Rico, and New York since 2006.
“Aquí en Colobó: Relating Race, Nature, and Song.”
In this paper, I tell the story of Colobó, a mass-mediated popular song, originally written as a poem on a turtle shell by a fisherman from the neighborhood of Colobó in Loíza, a coastal town in northeastern Puerto Rico. The fisherman gave this poetic turtle shell to Ismael “Maelo” Rivera (1931-1987), a foundational Afro-Puerto Rican salsa singer who, deeply moved by the gift, transformed the poem into a song featured in the album Traigo de todo from 1974.Telling the story of Colobó, however, inevitably implies relating a larger story: a tale about a place and its people—that is, Loíza and loiceños—enduring the specter of race amidst empire and colonialism in Puerto Rico. I relate how the Puerto Rican “racial imagination” (Radano and Bohlman 2000) has been articulated through a racist imagining of the Puerto Rican nation as a racial democracy. By telling the story of Colobó, I thus examine critically how ideas about race and nature have been deployed as essentialist markers of Loíza and loiceños as a racially folklorized place and people (Pérez 2002, Godreau 2006). Therefore, this paper is not only the story of a song. This is a story about how song is constituted as a genre not only by its formal characteristics, but additionally—and perhaps more importantly—by the stories people cherished about it. In this case, these stories my interlocutors tell about Colobó help us think critically about race in Puerto Rico, having in mind that racial matters are not bounded, but pervasive, resilient, malleable, and context-specific.