Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá is a widely acclaimed Puerto Rican essayist, novelist and academic. Many of his essays and novels focus on Puerto Rican everyday life. These include his first historic novel about class and race, La renuncia del Héroe Baltasar (1974, translated into English as The Renunciation in 1997), Las tribulaciones de Jonás (the 1981 funeral chronicle for populist governor of the 1950s and 1960s Luis Muñoz Marín), Una noche con Iris Chacón (1986) about the “Vedette of America” and the recent collection of essays Caribeños (2003) which includes pieces on the popular composers Rafael Hernández and Bobby Capó.
Juan Flores is Professor in the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican-Latino Studies at Hunter College and Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His translation of this key text for Puerto Rican cultural studies echoes the need for bilingual education and commitment at Hunter to a curriculum that includes Puerto Rican historical and cultural experiences and opens out the cultural canon. Flores is the author of several key critical texts in Puerto Rican cultural studies including the essay collections Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity (1993) and From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity (2000).
Written in 1982 and originally published in San Juan in 1983, Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá’s vivid account of the lively funeral of Afro-Puerto Rican popular musician Rafael Cortijo was an immediate bestseller and has become a contemporary Puerto Rican classic. This autobiographical chronicle is a fundamental work for those wishing to understand more about the island’s social and cultural make-up and the key role of popular musicians such as Cortijo, Ismael (“Maelo”) Rivera and Ruth Fernández. It was translated into French in 1994 for l’Harmattan by Claude Fell.
Cortijo (1928-1982) was a catalytic figure in the history of the Puerto Rican national popular genre, the plena. Plena emerged from its rural roots on the South coast of the island at the beginning of the twentieth century to become the music of the poor and working classes. From the 1920s through the 1940s it was adopted by the dance salons and ballrooms, particularly in New York where Manuel “Canario” Jiménez was a key figure in the 1930s. In the 1950s and 1960s, plena returned to its Afro-Caribbean and proletarian roots through the innovative recordings of legendary percussionist and bandleader Cortijo (and other singer/bandleaders such as Mon Rivera and “El Sonero Mayor”, Ismael Rivera). In 1988 an uproar was sparked in the press by the suggestion that the national Center for the Fine Arts should be named after Cortijo. The ensuing debate about African, working-class and popular culture in the formation of Puerto Rican identities is fully documented in Flores’s essay “Cortijo’s Revenge: New Mappings of Puerto Rican Culture” (1993: 92-107). Ironically, it was foreshadowed by the suggestion in Rodríguez Juliá’s chronicle that a Rafael Cortijo theater be established as poetic class justice for the naming of the infamous working-class projects after the poet Lloréns Torres (p.26).
Flores provides a succinct introduction to the text which locates it in relation to the rest of Rodríguez Juliá’s output and the significance of Cortijo and his band (Cortijo y su Combo) in the history of Puerto Rican popular music and culture. He also comments on the difficulty of translating the text which frequently switches between linguistic registers and uses a rich array of “jerga” or street slang terms from the early 1980s. Perhaps the greatest liberty has been taken with the title of the text which translates literally as “Cortijo’s Funeral”. Flores, with the blessing of Rodríguez Juliá, has opted instead for the Joycean “wake” which adds the meanings of “awakening” and “in the wake of”, suggestive of Cortijo’s cultural resonance. It also plays on the historical intertext of Francisco Oller’s nineteenth century masterpiece, the painting El velorio (The Wake) in which another lettered white man visits a humble abode.
Rodríguez Juliá’s chronicle is a testimony to the importance of Cortijo within the impoverished communities of the Puerto Rican projects as the funeral cortege winds its way through the streets of Santurce. Key cultural figures are amongst the grief-stricken mourners including cultural commentators and academics such as Orvil Miller, Manolo Febres, Ángel (“Chuco”) Quintera, Aníbal Quijano and Gabriel Mézquida, politicians such as Luis Ambrosio de Jesús Cortijo of the Partido Nuevo Progresista and ex-governor Rafael Hernández Colón, baseball legend Peruchín Cepeda, fellow musicians and singers including Cheo Feliciano, Sammy Ayala, Ruth Fernández, Willie Rosario, Mario Cora, Pellín Rodríguez, Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez, Elías Lopés, Catalino “Tite” Curet Alonso, Panamian salsa icon Rubén Blades and last but not least Cortijo’s childhood friend and fellow band member Ismael Rivera whose desperate pain and suffering leave an ardent imprint on the chronicle. Also present is Cardinal Aponte Martínez, made infamous by his refusal to allow the informal, popular anthem “Lamento borincano” (composed by Rafael Hernández in 1929) to be sung in the cathedral at the funeral of Luis Muñoz Marín. Aponte attempts to repair the damage done by proclaiming his pride in being Puerto Rican like Cortijo. Later, Luis Ambrosio de Jesús Cortijo establishes his authority, as opposed to that of the patrician white politician from Ponce, Hernández Colón, to take leave of the immortal Cortijo. It takes the music of the national anthem “La Borinqueña” to temporarily unite the fractured tribes present in the fiction of a Puerto Rican family.
The account consistently focuses on the highly charged encounter between the “ordinary” people who have turned out to pay homage to their cultural hero and the self-conscious, white, middle-class, intellectual for whom this “people people” (of whom black, working class women are seen to be emblematic) remain “Other”. Rodríguez Juliá notes the complexity of attempting to describe the contradictory diversity of the Puerto Rican people (p.24) and is always conscious as a chronicler of the mediating effect of his perceptions and “imaginative memory” (Flores 2000: 23). As he states at the outset of his text, it is situated at the intersection of “many historical crossroads” (p.19) or a web of historical and social relations, interactions and contexts. The chronicle traces how “tradition [is] burst into a thousand clashing pieces” (p.73) through Cortijo’s work and in the irreverent conclusion to his funeral. More than twenty years on El entierro de Cortijo remains a key text in the ongoing debates around popular culture, race, class and national identity in Puerto Rico and its diaspora.
For English-speaking readers who are unfamiliar with Puerto Rican music, it is to be hoped that after reading this engaging chronicle, you might be inspired to seek out recordings by some of the artists featured and discover the lively rhythms of bomba and plena which were influential in the creation of the salsa sound.