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New York Folklore Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, 1994
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Vol. 20, Nos. 3-4, 1994

“We’re not here just to plant. We have culture.”
An Ethnography of the South Bronx Casita Rincón Criollo
by Joseph Sciorra
Photographs by Martha Cooper

I returned to the apartment, drank
seven straight shots of rum and tried
to figure out how many empty lots
there were in New York City, Philadelphia,
Newark, Boston, Hartford, Chicago, Gary,
and all the other places where the people
struggled and sweated and cried and
fought to extricate themselves from the
bonds of oppression.
—Ed Vega, Mendoza’s Dreams

Campo, yo vivo triste;
Cada dia sufriendo más.
¿Ay Dios, que será de mi?
Si no bailo esta bomba
Me voy a morir

Countryside, I’m sad;
Everyday I suffer more.
Oh God, what will become of me?
If I don’t dance this bomba
I’m going to die.
—Francisco “Paco” Rivera, “Campo”

The incendiary frenzy that swept New York City during the late 1960s and 1970s, consuming private homes and multi-storied apartment buildings in its wake, reduced the urban landscape to a patchwork quilt of charred earth and rubble-strewn lots. One way Puerto Rican residents of the South Bronx, East Harlem, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side responded to the cataclysmic destruction was to appropriate barren municipal-owned property in order to construct single-story, wood buildings typical of the Caribbean. Casitas de madera (little wood houses) were raised from the scoria and detritus of urban decay, often alongside bountiful gardens; emerging like the fabled phoenix from the ashes. Today, these transformed sites serve as shelter for the homeless, social clubs, block associations, cultural centers, summer retreats, horticultural centers, and entrepreneurial ventures.

One of New York City’s smaller but nonetheless important cultural institutions is an aquamarine, two-room casita located in the South Bronx known as Rincón Criollo. The name translates into “Creole Corner” or "Downhome Corner.” Established in the late 1970s, the site is “world renowned– in the words of Rincón Criollo regular Candido Geigel. Internationalperformers from Puerto Rico such as salsa band leader Andy Montañez and television personality Iris Chacón, to name but two, have visited this Bronx casita. But the vast majority of those who frequent and comprise the membership of this community center are neither famous nor wealthy performers. Instead, they are local working people, many of them dedicated practitioners of Puerto Rico’s African-derived music and dance forms, bomba and plena. Rincón Criollo is the place in New York City where pleneros (performers of plena) gather informally to celebrate an Afro-Caribbean aesthetic and reaffirm a sense of Puerto Rican identity....

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