Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Puerto Rico and Bulgaria.....a cross cultural comparison (or how I became a "Bulgarican")

How did a descendant of Puerto Ricans, raised in the projects of the South Bronx, develop an interest in Bulgaria?

When I was growing up, music and dance were an integral part of our celebrations, especially during Christmas, New Year's, birthdays and weddings. Puerto Ricans love to dance and party. They will find any excuse to do so.

The dances of Puerto Rico are inspired by several different cultural influences: the Spanish, who arrived on the island in 1493, the Taino Indians, who were the natives Columbus and his men found, and the West Africans. The Spanish enslaved the natives, using them to work the gold mines and build the forts. As a result of this cruel treatment, and the introduction of diseases such as smallpox from the Europeans, the native population was decimated. The Spanish, who needed an unpaid workforce, brought in slaves from West Africa to replace the Tainos in the mines. When the gold ran out, the slaves worked in the sugar plantations. When the Africans had a chance to chill and relax (which wasn't often), someone brought out a drum, and people danced to the beat.

Here is a dance called the Plena, which is a blend of Spanish, Taino and African influences, the dominant being African:

And this is the Bomba, a Puerto Rican call and response song and dance, also inspired by African folklore:

Both Puerto Rico and Bulgaria have strong folk music and dance traditions and share a history of domination by foreign powers. Puerto Rico, however, has never been an independent entity. Bulgaria, on the other hand, has been in existence for over 1300 years, and except for the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, and the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe, has been an independent nation for much of those 1300 years.

Spain ruled Puerto Rico for over 400 years, and after the Spanish American War of 1898, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory, and later a commonwealth. One of the reasons Puerto Rico refused statehood has much to do with maintaining its cultural identity, which is a mixture of Spanish, African, and Taino. The original inhabitants, the Taino Indians, lived peacefully on the island for thousands of years until Columbus arrived. He and the Spanish suppressed the indigenous culture, but couldn't destroy it, despite the decimation of the natives and the repression and enslavement of the Africans.

Bulgaria has maintained its cultural identity for over 1300 years, despite the domination of the Ottoman Turks, who ruled the country for five centuries, from the mid 1400's until 1878.

The country is a mixture of a number of influences: Thracian, Slavic, Bulgar, Turkish, Greek and Roma (Gypsy).

The Ottomans conscripted Bulgarian boys to serve as Janissaries in the Sultan's armies, a form of slavery, since these young men never saw their families again. mother's biggest fear was that the Turks would abduct one of her sons. This was a form of taxation imposed on the Christian population of the Balkans.

In the 20th Century, after World War II, the Russians set up puppet governments in Eastern Europe, which lasted until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The Communists were as repressive as the Turks, taking away the human rights of the people of these countries, and sending dissenters to prison camps or worse.

Whoever thought Bulgaria and Puerto Rico would have so much in common historically and culturally? Despite the differences in language and climate, they both share a history of oppression and a love of music and dance.

Although immigrants who come to the United States to live try to pass the culture on to their kids, oftentimes it's diluted and eventually lost as Americanization takes over. My parents, although they kept some of the traditions, and spoke Spanish, wanted my brother and me to speak English and be assimilated. As a result, I understand Spanish, but don't speak it very well.

My children, unfortunately know little of their culture except what I was able to pass on to them, via family and friends. One of my daughters has a very close friend who grew up in Puerto Rico, she has been a valuable source of cultural information for both of us!

I have been to many ethnic festivals during my lifetime. I love the authenticity of them, especially when they are connected with a group that has not been here long enough to be Americanized. Here is a Bulgarian event at Mt. Holyoke College that I went to back in March, the beauty of their culture comes alive here.

Cultural identity is very important. That is why I appreciate the culture I was born to. When I grew up and did some traveling, I learned to appreciate and love the cultures of other countries as well, especially Germany, where I lived for four years. When I took up Balkan folk dancing, I fell in love with Bulgarian culture, and it will always be a part of me. That is how I became a "Bulgarican."

I am a citizen of the world.

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1 comment:

  1. A very interesting comparison between two cultures that are so far away!
    Indeed, we Bulgarians have always said that our culture and mentality is very close to the warm-blooded and hot-tempered southern European countries countries: Spain, Portugal, Italy. That's why it doesn't surprise me that we are also very similar to the Puerto Ricans and other peoples of Hispanic because all of us love to enjoy life.
    However, I disagree with your definition of communism. With a few exceptions, no Bulgarian would ever compare the regime with any form of yoke or tyranny. Today many people even question whether communism was truly worse than capitalism and have mixed feelings about the period.