Understanding Loíza, The Puerto Rican Epicenter of Traditions

Loiza BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of boriquachicks.com

Loíza is one of the most culturally rich municipalities in Puerto Rico. Known as “The Capital of Traditions,” it’s home to some of the most iconic African-influenced traditions that make up Puerto Rican culture. With the largest population of Black residents on the Island, the city serves as a pillar of the Island’s heritage, culture, community, and character. 

During Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s important to highlight this multifaceted town with a plethora of touristic gems, vital ecological locations, cultural traditions, exemplary community-led initiatives, and socioeconomic complexities.

History and Cultural Background

Located on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, its predominantly Black population is due to Loíza being home of Central and West Africans brought by Spanish colonizers during the 17th century. The first wave of colonizers that stepped foot in the area stumbled upon native indigenous Taínos and used them to extract gold. As the economy started to turn to sugar production, African slaves were sent to work the fields.

It’s believed that the town gets its name from Taíno female cacique, Yuiza, who governed part of what is currently the Río Grande de Loíza. Others attribute the name to Spanish occupier Íñigo López de Cervantes y Loayza, who owned many territories and was renowned among other colonizers and governments.  

The Birthplace of ‘Bomba’

The fusion of customs and modes of survival led to the birth of a rich vocabulary, music, food, and places that shape Puerto Rican culture today. From bomba y plena to the way festivities are praised, and community is treasured, the town’s liveliness and artistic drive has undoubtedly become a symbol of pride, and even resistance, throughout history.

Although it’s an iconic music genre throughout the Caribbean, bomba was born as a way for ancestors to express themselves, share news and stories, and communicate amongst each other. It provided a source of political and spiritual expression for a group forced to uproot from their homes and was often a catalyst for rebellion.

Today, bomba continues to serve as a form of protest and preservation. Although many hangout spots throughout the Island have become hubs to practice the dance recreationally, it’s also resurged as a way to assert Black pride within a culture that operates under a subtle yet pervasive vial of racism. 

Most recently, Loíza was central in the protests held for the killing of George Floyd, and bomba played an essential part in sharing the community’s grief.  Afro-Puerto Rican dancer Mar Cruz shared that police brutality “didn’t only affect the African American community but also the Afro-Puerto Rican community,” so through bomba, they represent and honor the ancestors that are often suppressed when talking about this history.

A Cultural, Ecological and Touristic Gem 

Due to the richness of the town’s history, geography and customs, Loíza tends to be a popular tourist destination and weekend go-to spot. From festivals to locally-owned chinchorros (food kiosks to hang out and eat native fried delicacies) to incredible beaches, it has an array of characteristics that make it distinctly unique to the rest of the municipalities.

Among the festivals that encapsulate Boricua heritage and Loíza’s spiritual traditions are the Fiestas Patronales de Santiago Apóstol (Saint James Festival), the week-long July celebration that features the iconic vejigantes (bat-like caricatures with paper-mâché masks and vibrantly colored dresses) in parades and processions.

The town also harbors an archaeological site called María de la Cruz Cave Historical Park, with remains dating back to 4000 BC.

Community-Led Efforts

Although Loíza is rich in culture and has been home to some of the most prominent figures in the Island’s history, it’s also one of the poorest municipalities with over 50% of the population living under the poverty line. The history of racism towards loiceños has led to the stigmatization of its people, traditions, and identity.

Some of the community-led groups that have done incredible work aiding communities, dismantling decades of oppression and inequity, and empowering the population are what have strengthened Loíza’s communities.

With the aim of improving women’s access to health care, reducing violence within the community, and encouraging economic growth, Taller Salud’s community-based organization has been rooted in Loíza since 1989 after Hurricane Hugo devastated the coastal city.

From leading the Black Lives Matter protests in July to powerful community organizing, the anti-racism group Colectivo Ilé has also spent a significant amount of efforts providing communities with the tools needed to understand, embrace and own their blackness in ways that can not only empower but also aid in undoing systemic underpinnings of racism. 

Corporation Piñones Se Integra has worked to improve the lives and wellbeing of Loiza’s residents since 1999. Alongside their ecotourism and arts services, they work with marginalized sectors to transform them culturally, socially, and economically.