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Translating Cultures

by William Cumpiano

Š 1993 All rights reserved

While serving as translator for Dr. Michael Kline during his field interviews of the singing Cabrera family (as part of Pioneer Valley Folklore Society family folklore documentation project), I found myself drawn into the long-forgotten realm of my own native land's folklore. We met and taped the Puerto Rican family in their tidy Holyoke, Massachusetts apartment several times over the past couple of months. There we had the opportunity to learn how music had served to originally bring Don Alejando and Doņa Hortensia Cabrera together, and how it now keeps their family together through the adversities of life in a strange, forbidding, far-off land.

The Cabreras, it turns out, live their native folklore on a more or less daily basis. Over countless hours, Don Alejandro taught his sons Alex and Axel to play the guitar and sing traditional Puerto Rican melodies, holiday songs and romantic ballads. As for myself, however, observance of traditional folklore was definitely not a prominent feature of my middle-class, professional/academic family upbringing in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Eventually, I become estranged from even the tiny bit of acquired consciousness of my homeland's traditions when I left Puerto Rico for college in the United States in the early sixties.

Notwithstanding, at the time Puerto Rican culture was thick with musical folklore. It's birthright was the sum of the cultures of the colonizing 16th century Spaniards, the ancient Taino and Carib indians, and the West Africans that arrived on the island during the slave trade of 17th and 18th centuries.

Alas, in recent decades, this rich heritage has been almost completely overshadowed by the great global leveller: North American cable tv-shopping mall cultural colonialism. Indeed, young Puerto Ricans today predominantly skip to a musical beat originating in Nashville and Las Vegas: a compelling, layered, synthesized sound, overdubbed by local crooners who plead in their own language. And so, for that matter, do young Greeks, young Portuguese, young Italians, young Venezuelans...

At that moment I felt as if I were witnessing the rarest of spectacles: two youngsters, clearly uncoerced, intently absorbed in the playing of turn- of-the-century Puerto Rican ballads, torch songs and ancient melodies; singing alongside their father in that small Holyoke tenement. And they played so unhesitatingly, so unselfconsciously--as if there was nothing at all remarkable about it, as if it were the most natural thing to in the world to do.

The Cabreras told us of "parrandas" and "promesas," and sang "decimas," "aguinaldos," and the "seis chorreao." These words peppered the stories that Michael and I so busily labored to collect. The words alone had the power to awaken old, musty recollections of an earlier time and an earlier place, as they leafed through the pages of my mind.

Some of those words I hadn't heard uttered for twenty years, yet I nonetheless remembered what they meant: the "parranda," was an itinerant caroling party held during the yearly Epiphany celebrations. A "promesa" was a personal promise made to a saint that one was bound to fulfill repeatedly, over many years, if health or good fortune befell a loved one. A "controversia" was a singing duel between two troubadors, usually improvised on the spot, conducted in a teasing manner, and done in a "decima" structure: consisting of ten lines that rhyme according to complicated rules--a custom originating in 16th century Spain. An "aguinaldo" (gift) was a christmas song; the "seis chorreao" one of many variants of a seventeenth-century rural music-song-dance form, usually about good times and simple pleasures. And on and on.

I remembered them because they brought to mind events that I myself witnessed during my early childhood, but was never to see again. They rekindled memories of neighbors and family friends appearing at our door in suburban San Juan in early January, singing the same old songs: the ones that challenged us to open our door and let this thirsty, reckless crowd come inside. But if the door was slow to open, the songs would change: they became taunting, scolding songs berating those living inside, calling them cheapskates and party-poopers. The same songs, year after year.

But the "parrandas" and the caroling eventually stopped. The comunal Epiphany celebrations faded. In its place, the veneration of a northern, winter-loving, overcoated Santa Claus became my small tropical island's biggest yearly holiday. Now, loudspeakers in the shopping malls blare out those familiar "parranda" songs that we used to sing, but now they urge shoppers to overspend in these yearly, frenzied holiday potlatches. And, as well, the "promesas" and the "seis chorreao" are rarely heard, I am told.

As we sat there, somewhere in Holyoke, microphone in hand, we picked up some flickering embers of a once bright fire. It felt oddly subversive, almost as if we were trying to beat back the tide. But the songs persist, nonetheless, in spite of everything.