FEATURE

The Rhythm of Resilience

Following Hurricane Maria, these educators looked to tradition to help colleagues and students mourn what was lost—and celebrate what remains.
Illustration by Jovanna Tosello

La bomba Puertorriqueña is as rhythmic as its name—as unmistakably tied to its place, its history, its joy and its pain. 

The dance was born on Puerto Rico’s sugar plantations, a form of resistance and self-expression for enslaved people facing cruel conditions. The varying beats, lyrics and movements gave them freedom within their bondage: to express torment and trauma, to celebrate small triumphs of laughter, love and community, to sustain traditions of an old land—and to lay claim to a new one. 

For once the movement had been performed, it could not be undone. 

The dance’s call-and-response echoes traditions of West Africa. The drums often used—barriles de bomba, or rum barrels—evoke memories of the trade system that brought enslaved people to the island. At the time the dance originated, many enslaved people were separated from others who spoke the same language, so lyrics were necessarily scarce. But it was the empowered dancer’s movements—a shared language perfected over centuries—that illustrated resilience. 

A resilience so deeply planted in Puerto Rican soil that no wind, no rain could wash it away. 

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the island of Puerto Rico, wreaking devastating damage. Forceful winds and relentless floodwaters broke bridges, ruined roadways and swept away entire neighborhoods. The island lost power. Many Puerto Ricans went months without running water, air conditioning or refrigeration. 

Recovery efforts failed, in the short term, due to the impossibility of air travel to and from the island; in the long term, the U.S. government did not provide the Puerto Rican people the same steadfast support and resources it provided to people who had recently endured natural disasters on the mainland. And the local government had neither the resources nor the organization needed to go it alone. This crisis was too big, too costly.

The latest estimates conclude that nearly 3,000 people died as a result of the hurricane, either in its initial surge or in the continued darkness that cut them off from medical care. 

 

A Call to Action

In San Juan’s Escuela Dr. Arturo Morales-Carrión, music educator Rody J. Huertas Ostolaza had previously made plans to transform the struggling elementary school. With help from a School Improvement Grant from the Department of Education of Puerto Rico, he had recruited dancer and counselor-in-training Víctor M. Serrano Román to assist him in forming alliances in the community and leveraging these relationships to improve the school. But after the hurricane, they knew they had to dig deeper. 

“We had a plan already to help transform the school,” Serrano says. “But since the hurricane came, we transformed the plan.” 

Friends since 2004, Huertas (a musician) and Serrano (a dancer) had traveled around the world as artists expressing Puerto Rican folklore through performance. In 2012, the duo co-founded Compañía Folklórica Magüey de Puerto Rico, a nonprofit that (among other work) integrates theater, music and dance into workshops for school communities as a way to address issues like bullying. They define their mission as “rescuing the values, sensibility and motivation of Puerto Ricans.”

Five years later, many Puerto Ricans needed a reminder of that motivation. This was especially true for educators and students. Schools were closing. Teachers were losing jobs. Students were leaving, seeking refuge on the mainland. The fate of Escuela Morales-Carrión was uncertain. 

But Huertas and Serrano saw an opportunity to return to the roots and the stories that no hurricane-force wind could destroy. Those who had first danced la bomba Puertorriqueña had endured worse—but still, they danced.

“Everyone, including us, was so sad because of what was happening,” Serrano says. “But it was very important for us to empower [teachers] in order to then start doing what we’re supposed to be doing. … It was an opportunity to embrace the experience and become more powerful than before.”

Read how Team Puerto Rico adapted their workshops to teach resilience through fine arts in other parts of the world!

Empowering Teachers 

In the eight weeks prior to students’ return to school, teachers at Escuela Morales-Carrión discovered a uniting and inspiring force in each other—and in their shared culture. It began with healing.

“First, we needed teachers to talk about what they were living at that moment,” Serrano explains. “To have the opportunity to express themselves, to listen to each other, and to start working as a team after the hurricane.” 

This was accomplished through workshops that explored mindfulness and body movement as tools of self-empowerment and interpersonal connection. They helped teachers open up about the different ways the hurricane had brought them pain—and brought them closer to their community. 

“They were so glad they had the opportunity to express themselves, to listen to each other,” Serrano says. “During those days and those moments, it was like a new beginning.” 

Huertas and Serrano—with collaboration from local musicians, artists, educators and organizations such as Asociación Universitaria de Consejería Profesional—also organized workshops that taught empowerment, wellness and resilience through creativity. Teachers learned how social justice issues and emotion are expressed through Puerto Rican dance, music and literature. They learned that their resilience had a history—a history that could be repeated, like a rhythm. 

Huertas witnessed a transformation among the teachers. Many had come in, he said, worried about the lifespan of their jobs and the school. By the end of the eight weeks, they were grateful to have tools to help them not only cope, but feel rejuvenated to serve their students. 

Students lined up in circles, stretching and holding each others' hands.
Students at Escuela Morales Carrión laugh during a movement exercise.

Empowering Students

Huertas, Serrano and dance instructor Zorimar Rosado Meléndez—brought together by the School Improvement Grant—pounced on the opportunity to teach social justice and empowerment through Puerto Rican folklore. The students of Escuela Morales-Carrión who returned to the school were still suffering in the aftermath of the hurricane, but they now had a new opportunity: to connect to a piece of their cultural heritage grounded in resilience. 

Those lessons began with the movements of la bomba Puertorriqueña. Given its origins as a form of expression for enslaved people, the dancer’s power to dictate what the drummer must do—not vice versa—provided an immediate lesson in agency. 

In teaching this dance and its history to students, Rosado says, “we were telling them that they are the only ones that are in control of their lives.”

“And their bodies,” Huertas adds. 

Throughout the year, students learned about the social justice themes embedded in their folklore and connected those lessons to their present-day emotions, concerns and passions. They analyzed lyrics from more modern bombas that explored themes of racism, politics, the environment and education. They learned how words and body movements could be used to express frustration, anxiety or feelings of injustice. Like their teachers before them, they discovered coping strategies, but they also discovered more about their culture and, within it, their power.

Rosado describes this as helping students learn how “to be resilient in a Puerto Rican way”—a culturally sustaining method of teaching that illustrates the history and strengths inherent in students’ identities. 

“We gave them another way of thinking,” Huertas says. “We knew that right now children need that type of practice. When they go to their houses they’re not going to have energy or electricity. But they knew they had another thing to do using the art. They feel that they have a new life, a new chapter.” 

This approach to using art to explore identity and justice undergirds the mission of Team Puerto Rico—a group comprised of Huertas, Serrano, Rosado, Vianca Ortíz Veguilla and Instructional Coach Evelyn Pérez Mass. Rather than viewing artforms as electives, they stress the importance of music and body movement in helping students understand not just their emotions, but their language, their culture and their perceptions of others. 

“We build up individual and collective identity as Puerto Ricans,” Serrano says, underscoring the group’s mission. “So they cannot only understand it but believe it.”

This approach, Team Puerto Rico found, had a positive impact on students beyond the workshops. 

“Students had the opportunity to solve problems through art,” Rosado says. “It was another way that the students learned they can change the world without a word. That they can change the world through movement, through the body, through knowing themselves so they can help others.”

 

Un Propósito Puertorriqueño

The youth still remaining in Puerto Rico have been called “The Maria Generation” —many feeling disconnected from the life they knew, from hope. One-third of students say their families struggled to find enough food and water; more than 7 percent of students show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For all students, regardless of their circumstances, life as they know it is now divided into before and after the storm. 

But there are things a storm cannot take away—things buried deep, rooted deep. It’s this reminder that Team Puerto Rico is hoping to bring to more students. A reminder that resilience is a Puerto Rican trait. 

Serrano recognizes this moment as especially fraught. Puerto Rico faces many obstacles beyond its control—including continued disparities in federal support­—in rebuilding its infrastructure and providing for its people. But he finds strength in the folklore. 

“We are trying to use it so [students] identify with it and live it through the dance or live it through the music,” he explains. “And live it through day by day in what they do and how to express themselves freely in this identity that defines us.” 

Puerto Rico’s students face undue burdens going forward, in both the rebuilding of their homeland and of their futures. Skeptics might say that no art form can overcome the incredible challenges Puerto Rico faces after Hurricane Maria. They might say that the rhythm is moving too fast for Puerto Rican youth to keep up. But these students of la bomba Puertorriqueña know that it’s the dancer who is in control.

That once this movement begins, it cannot be undone.

Collins is the senior writer for Teaching Tolerance.