As I mentioned in another blog post during this #WorldKidLit Month, Puerto Rico owes much of its cultural inheritance to its population of African descent. Although they were kidnapped, brought as captives to the Western Hemisphere, and forced to labor under the sadistic conditions established by European colonial powers, African peoples endured, survived, and created new ways of being in the world.
One of the preeminent contributions of formerly enslaved people to Puerto Rican culture is bomba, a dance and musical style borne from West African rhythms and movement. Arising from the use of drums and incorporating both Spanish and indigenous Taíno influences, bomba was a way for the people to express themselves, to protest, and to even plan revolts. While it had seemingly fallen of out of fashion decades earlier, it is currently experiencing a resurgence among younger generations of performers and activists.
In When Julia Danced Bomba/Cuando Julia bailaba bomba we have a young girl learning the traditions and movements of bomba. As the book opens, the protagonist Julia and a boy named Cheito (perhaps her brother; he is never explicitly named as such) are rushing in to the local cultural center to join the bomba class already in session. While Cheito is a natural at the drums, Julia struggles with her dancing. She’d rather be playing make-believe, pretending to be an astronaut, than be in bomba class on a Saturday.
No matter how hard she tries, Julia can’t get the steps down, much less the rhythm. And then the teacher announces a bombazo, a time in which the older dancers improvise solos to the beat of the drums while the rest of the class sings. It is usually Julia’s favorite part of class-because she gets to blend in the crowd and watch- but the teacher announces that today the younger dancers, including Julia, will also get to dance!
Julia is nervous, to say the least. While the others are dancing, she is worrying. And then it’s her turn. Gathering her courage, Julia steps into the bombazo circle. But then the rhythm of the drums does its job.
The book’s text is bilingual, with English on the tope of the page and Spanish on the bottom, and is most appropriate for children in early elementary school grades. This would be perfectly paired with a lesson on Puerto Rican bomba in the classroom. At the end of book, there is a brief essay with general information about bomba, and a glossary of bomba-related terms. This would also be a good book to use in a social-emotional learning (SEL) lesson about facing one’s fears.
When Julia Danced Bomba would also fit in with a library program about bomba. If your library is in a community where there is a group of bomba dancers and musicians, it would be fabulous to have such a group visit and perform for patrons (during our present global pandemic, however, this would perhaps have to be a virtual visit).
If, like Julia, you want to work on your bomba steps, check out this video from KQED, a public media company based in the United States. In bomba, the dancer leads the rhythm; she or he improvises and the drums follow. The drums and the dancers dialogue with one another in a conversation of resilience, persistence, and perseverance.
Written by Raquel M. Ortiz; Illustrated by Flor de Vita
English translation by Gabriela Baeza Ventura
2019, Piñata Books, an imprint of Arte Público Press
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.