APS buildings are open only to necessary staff. Work continues remotely. Virtual programs are ongoing. Read more about the APS's COVID response.

Q&A: Race and Nation in Puerto Rican Folklore: Franz Boas and John Alden Mason in Porto Rico -- A Virtual Discussion with Rafael Ocasio

The questions and comments below from participants during the Q&A session are intended to continue our conversation and are grouped thematically as 1) Jíbaro culture, 2) Loíza, 3) Mason’s recordings, 4) Indigenous Taíno traits, 5) Children as informants and as writers of oral samples, and 6) Folk Tales from the Hills of Puerto Rico/Cuentos folklóricos de las montañas de Puerto Rico. I would like to thank you for your attendance and I encourage you to reach out to me at rocasio@agnesscott.edu if you have any further questions.

1)   Jíbaro culture

Q: The geographical dichotomy of the highlands and the lowlands to denote racial differences between white/jíbaro and black cultures is common in Puerto Rican studies. Where does this dichotomy come from? Did the Boas-Mason research and approach to data collection create it?

A: Yes, the racial dichotomy, as illustrated in Mason’s numerous comments to Boas pertaining to his field research in Utuado (white) and in Loíza (Black), was not a new approach taken by either U.S. American or Puerto Rican scholars. In Race and Nation in Puerto Rican Folklore, I trace the historic attraction of Utuado (as the heartland of the jíbaro culture), which had been taking place during the Spanish colonial era, and it was continued by Puerto Rican scholars after the Spanish American War. What struck me about Mason’s letters to Boas was his immediate attraction to Utuado’s cultural practices, including its rich oral folklore (often referred to as “de la montaña”; of the hinterland), since his arrival in early December 1914. While providing information to be used in Boas’s anthropometric research, Mason often described Puerto Rican racial traits, such as coloring of eyes, skin, hair and texture of hair.

Q: Did you come across Jibaro folklore regarding climate/weather? Is that folklore relevant now, especially after hurricane Maria?

A: I don’t recall stories that place climate or weather as a central component of the plot line. There are many references, however, to scorchingly sunny or miserably rainy days. Your question brings me, however, to an issue that was central in my book. What were the parameters of the instructions given to the cultural informants that generated samples of oral stories? I strongly suspect that the instructions called specifically for stories reflective of Puerto Rican “traditions” which, in turn, the informants understood to refer to cultural practices. Thus, in the case of your query, they would not consider “stories about weather” as representations of Puerto Rican culture. 


2)   Loíza

Q: What were some distinctive characteristics of the Loíza folklore, content-wise rather than linguistic?

A: As part of his interview with Melitón Congo, whom he described as a formerly enslaved worker, Mason documented a list of African words, or a “Congo vocabulary.” He merely informed Boas that a high number of words in Loíza “seem to be of native origin.” A significant number of those words relate to religious practices, an implication that Melitón spoke to Mason about local religious practices written down as a glossary titled “Materia Médica and Witchcraft.” References to “hechicero” (male witch), prophet, medicine man, “maestro de brujo” (master sorcerer), and “bruja” (witch) point out the presence of individuals involved with African-based religious practices in Loíza. A striking detail is the fact that, with the exception of “a bruja” (a witch), all terms reference men as high priest-types practitioners of religious ceremonies.   

Q: Any information on the Bantu/Congo orígenes in the music of Bomba and the descendants of Loiza?

A: Mason merely reported to Boas that Melitón Congo had helped him to document a list of an unnoted number of words. Whether Melitón was originally from the Congo region was not indicated, either. The “Congo” vocabulary was never discussed during the editing process, nor was it reported to Espinosa. Why Boas and Mason chose not to publish any of this “slave-based” folk material is still my most puzzling theoretical question. One of the surviving recorded songs mentions Melitón by name. This gave me an indication that Melitón was extremely well known in Loíza at the time.

Q: Do the songs on the cylinder contain African words?

A: Mason was extremely busy in Loíza, as one of the participants wrote: “[Mason] recorded more than Bomba in Loiza, Cuentos Cantados, Baquines and others.” In his descriptions to Boas about this material, however, Mason did not seem to be impressed by the linguistic characteristics of the sample. Writing about the “cuentos cantados” (a narrated story with a musical refrain), Mason simply stated that they were “stories in which part of the dialogue was sung.” The musical component did not impress Mason much, either: “The melody is generally very simple and does not have the auditory impression of Spanish music.”  


3)   Mason’s recordings

Q: Where are the sample materials collected by Mason (such as the wax recordings) kept?

A: Yes, as several members of the audience pointed out, they are available as a collection at the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University (54-148-F). Other files are available on YouTube as well. In Race and Nation in Puerto Rican Folklore, I trace the route that those recordings took from Mason’s hands (I found no reference to whether Boas ever heard them) leading to their current home at Indiana University. It is a mystery that Mason clarified for Dr. Ricardo Alegría, who on the occasion of the inauguration of Caguana, had invited Mason to visit Puerto Rico in 1956. 

Q: Would consulting those reveal the vernacular language instead of the Castilian translations? Would not the recordings be a better way to get to the grass-roots language?

A: An enthusiastic yes to both questions. I hope linguists are interested in engaging in such an in-depth study of what Mason often generically referred to as “local Spanish dialectical pronunciation patterns” and, in the case of Loíza, “the dialect spoken on the coast.”  


4)   Indigenous Taíno traits

Q: I wanted to hear more about the correspondence between Boas and his students. Would you say more about how they represent and discuss indigeneity in Utuado?

A: Great question! Mason often reported to Boas about his exploration of “Indiera,” on the highlands region in the Cordillera Central, reputedly, according to Mason, an area with a higher concentration of what he and Boas referred to as “Indian blood.” Indeed, as Jorge Duany has pointed out, other anthropologists, such as U.S. anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, had already traveled extensively through Indiera for similar reasons. Boas and Mason were well-acquainted with Fewkes’s field work and often referenced it in their letters. Yet Mason had yet another source of information about Indiera through the work of an amateur anthropologist, Robert Junghanns, a U.S. American who had made Puerto Rico his home. Mason reported to Boas about Junghanns’s field work in exceptionally positive terms. Junghanns visited Mason at Capá and together they traveled throughout the reputed Indiera territory. Junghanns also facilitated identification of individuals earmarked for Boas’ anthropometric field research. Their conversations about colorized terms used widely in Puerto Rico included Junghanns’s interpretation about the meaning of “indio” (literally Indian) as a skin color and racial classification in Puerto Rico.

Q: Please say something about the slide “Indigenous Taino ‘traits.’”

A: My photos on the slide “Indigenous Taino ‘traits’” highlighted individuals in Puerto Rico who frequently take part in cultural events that celebrate Taíno culture. Such events include, for example, “Festival Indígena” (Indigenous Festival), a musical-type yearly event that takes place in Jayuya (in the mountainous central range), a town known as the “indigenous capital of the island.” Indeed, the Puerto Rican government promotes tourism through a “Taina Route and Indigenous Culture in Puerto Rico,” highlighting the mountainous central range’s numerous “caves, trails, graves, and petroglyphs tell the story of the island’s cultural origins” (https://www.discoverpuertorico.com/article/taina-route-indigenous-culture-puerto-rico). Other organized groups, such as the concilio Taíno Guatu-Ma-Cu-A-Borikén, often celebrate socio-religious activities and ceremonies on the grounds of Caguana. These celebrations include musical performances with Indigenous musical instruments and performers dressed in traditional Taíno clothings.

Q: I would appreciate hearing Dr. Ocasio’s impressions of whether there are current cultural efforts underway in Puerto Rico to revive and/or keep these traditions alive, please. What do you make of the Taino revival on the island?

A: Both of these questions are at the heart of current discussions about the concept of the Puerto Rican “nation,” an angle that is also a cornerstone of my book Race and Nation. Public displays of Taíno artifacts such as the 2018 Smithsonian exhibition, “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean,” have underscored the resilience of Taino ancestry: “[t]he Indigenous peoples of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean are not extinct and they never were” (https://www.si.edu/newsdesk/releases/ta-no-perseverance-subject-upcoming-new-york-city-exhibition-national-museum-american-india). The exhibit also included a symposium that brought together individuals that consider themselves part of the Taíno nation. I was lucky to be present and enjoyed the presentations by the activist Elba Anaca Lugo, a native of Utuado and leader of Consejo General de Taínos Borincanos, who spoke about the “essence” of the Boricua indigenous movement. Her presentation in Spanish is available: si.edu/es/object/yt_yfl8frDFD_M. Abuela Shashira Rodríguez, also with Consejo General de Tainos Borincanos, as the mother of all Boricuas made the call for all Puerto Ricans to claim ancestral land. Her presentation in Spanish is also available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srEDBaokzVY. Certainly, given today’s highly contested Puerto Rico-United States political status, Abuela Shashira’s emotive call of “claiming ownership” of Boricua’s ancestral land indeed becomes a powerful statement. They also challenged past Puerto Rican government administrations in their mismanagement of important Taíno grounds, such as Caguana, while also ascertaining their rights to use the park for socio-religious ceremonies.   


5)   Children as informants and as writers of oral samples

Q: Many folklorists and anthropologists collect children's folklore - it's not unusual - Alan Lomax collected dozens of children's expressive culture.

A: Yes, indeed it was not unusual to use children as cultural informants. Before Mason’s arrival, I also uncovered several instances of U.S. companies established in Puerto Rico hosting contests for children, calling them to provide written samples of oral folklore. More importantly, in turning to school children from the public school system as writers, however, Mason ignored that they were also struggling with the inclusion of English as a mandatory language of instruction. That policy resulted in frequent public protests and strikes by teachers and students, which both Mason and Boas would have been aware of at the time of their field work through the island.

Q: You mentioned that school children were used as a source for various stories by folklorists, along with the fact that they often adapted the stories to their current situations. What is one of the more interesting changes that you've noted with a traditional story in adapting to present-day sensibilities?

A: I absolutely love that Cenizosa’s stepmother forces her to wash tripes in a nearby river in preparation for mondongo, or tripe stew. Another notable change is that the fairy godmothers are referred to as encantadas, or individuals under a spell, who must find a kind-hearted individual willing to free them from their sad existence. Yet another new element is Cenizosa’s varita de la virtud, which I translate as a “virtuous wand,” one of the fabulous gifts that she receives from one of three encantadas. The virtuous wand also links the Cinderella series with other colorful fairy stories. 


6)   Folk Tales from the Hills of Puerto Rico/Cuentos folklóricos de las montañas de Puerto Rico

Q: How do you think your work dialogues with the previous works of Lillian Guerra and Jorge Duany? They both make use of Mason's collection.

A: In digging deeper into the large correspondence with Boas, I came across Mason’s documentation of his relationship with Puerto Rican folklorists. On the one hand, Mason met Cayetano Coll y Toste, who served as an important contact with officers of the Puerto Rican government, who facilitated his field research. Mason often referred to Boas about plentiful well-known “tradiciones,” not coincidentally, Coll y Toste was also a writer of historic legends that at the time of Mason’s visit were published in newspapers. Coll y Toste was instrumental in Mason’s meeting Junghanns, who had also transcribed a rather large collection of oral folklore. The role of Junghanns was, as I mentioned earlier, rather decisive. Junghanns accompanied and advised Mason about anthropological and ethnographic field methodologies both at Capá and in Loíza.

Q: Are all the tales in the new book from the Mason collection, or are some from other sources? Were all published In the Journal of American Folklore series?

A: Yes, Folk Stories from the Hills of Puerto Rico/Cuentos folklóricos de las montañas de Puerto Rico (Rutgers UP, 2021) is an anthology of selected folk stories from the original versions published in Journal of American Folklore. Given that the original published texts were edited in the oral format characteristic of folk stories, in my editing of the stories I reduced the length of extremely long sentences and often clarified subjects of restrictive clauses. I maintained, however, the informal narrative elements of the original pieces. My English translations are based on my edited Spanish versions. A short introduction offers a panoramic view of Mason’s transcription processes, including information about the children as writers of the stories. Some rural elements of importance to the plot development and characterization are also explained. A Spanish translation of the anthology’s introduction is available free of charge at: https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/cuentos. 

Q: Thanks so much for this presentation. I am Puerto Rican and I loved it. My question is what is the oldest written source for the stories that we have?

A: Rafael Ramírez de Arellano published in book form Folklore portorriqueño:

Cuentos y adivinanzas recogidos de la tradición oral (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Históricos, 1926), although his field research preceded Mason’s visit to Puerto Rico. 

Q: Are you going to collect folklore on plantation life in Puerto Rico? I ask because my great grandfather left Puerto Rico to Hawaii after a hurricane destroyed the sugarcane industry in the early 20th century.

A: Great idea! I am open to continuing this type of recovery research. So much of the oral folklore collected in the early part of the twentieth century remains unpublished (for instance, Junghanns’ samples). You and I have something in common. My father’s family is from Manatí, the heartland of the Puerto Rican pineapple. I always wondered why my grandfather never left the island for Hawaii like so many of the local jíbaros did.

Q: The translation of the stories looks fantastic! It raises questions about the relation between oral and written cultures, which some people mistakenly believe always moves from the oral to the written. Do you have a sense of how some of the more famous literary tales--Cinderella, Snow White--made their way into "jibaro" oral culture?

A: Espinosa frequently expressed his doubts that the children wrote original stories; rather, he insisted that they had just copied from printed sources widely available to them. Although Espinosa never revealed titles, we can ascertain that he might have been referring to stories such as Cinderella or Snow White. In his correspondence from Puerto Rico, Mason had already entertained the possibility that the school children could have been tainted by popular short story collections. He reported to Boas his conversations with Junghanns, who corroborated that cheap children’s books produced in Spain by Editorial Calleja were indeed widely available on the island.     

Q: Around what time were the stories written by children created?

A: Mason started meeting with bureaucrats of the Puerto Rican Public system immediately upon his arrival in Puerto Rico. I was unable to establish a precise date of his arrival, but his first letters to Boas are dated early December 1914. Mason left the island on an undetermined date in 1915. Within this time period Mason collected an incredible number of samples.

Q: What reaction have Puerto Rican children had to these stories and have school systems opened their doors to share these pieces of our culture?

A: Boas was hopeful that the public school system would make use of the stories as part of reading materials, perhaps as primers. I did not explore whether this project eventually happened. However, folk tales have been traditionally pedagogical components in reading primers in Puerto Rico. As a child, my earliest memories of performing “literary analysis” while reading folk tales are writing down basic answers to questions like who are the characters, what is their problem, what is the message of these stories.

Q: Do your books include digital links to some audio excerpts of this research?

A: It would have been a good idea! You may access one of Mason’s recordings on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8gDBrRZuAg.

Q: I would love to hear one of your favorite stories!

A: The Cenizosa series are without a doubt my favorite stories. I knew some versions through the literary renditions by Judith Ortiz Cofer, who as a child traveling back and forth between Hormigueros and Paterson, New Jersey, had heard them from her maternal grandmother. The first Latina nominated in 1989 for the Pulitzer Prize, Ortiz Cofer was a good friend and a mentor of my exploration of Puerto Rican folktales. To my delight, she often shared with me her unpublished “re-interpretations of Puerto Rican fables.” I dedicated to her memory my book presentation at the American Philosophical Society on February 17, 2021. I so much wish she could have seen both of my books in print!

With permission from Rutgers University Press, I reproduce “María, Cinderella,” originally published as “La Cenicienta,” Journal of American Folklore 38, no. 150 (1925): 511–512. Hope you enjoy it!


“María, Cinderella”

Once upon a time, a married couple had a daughter, but shortly afterward the mother died, leaving her husband a widower. There was another old woman who had a daughter called Cinderella. The widower’s daughter had a little goat, and every time the girl set out to move her little goat to another pasture, the woman would say to her:

“If you persuade your father to marry me, I’ll give you honey soup.”

But every time María told her father, he would always answer:

“Today she gives you honey and tomorrow, bile.”

The daughter kept on insisting so much that the father married the woman.

The old woman bought a nanny goat for Cinderella, but the very next day, María, the widower’s daughter, became Cinderella, and Cinderella was known as María.

One day the stepdaughter had a whim to have Cinderella’s little goat killed. No matter how much Cinderella wept to keep them from killing it, there was no way out. The woman beat up her stepdaughter and killed the nanny goat. She sent Cinderella to the river to wash its entrails, but she counted the tripe, telling her stepdaughter that if even one bit of it was missing, she would be punished.

Since Cinderella greatly feared the woman, she began to clean the tripe with much care. When the girl was turning to leave, one piece of the tripe fell into the river. She threw herself forward, saying:

“River, river, downriver, give me my little tripe; if you don’t give it to me, my stepmother will kill me!”

She kept running while saying:

“River, river, downriver, give me my little tripe!”

While she was searching in such great anxiety, she came upon a very dirty palace. Some enchanted women lived there. They had gone out for Mass, leaving behind a very dirty little dog. As soon as the girl arrived, she began to clean the palace; she threw the garbage into the trash can, and she also bathed the little dog. Later, she hid behind the door.

When the enchanted women arrived, they shouted:

“Who could it be that did this work for us?”

The little dog started barking:

“Bow, wow, wow, she is behind the door!”

But since the girl did not come out, one of the enchanted women said:

“My gift to you is that each time you speak, rubies and diamonds will fall from your lips.”

Another of the enchanted women said:

“My gift to you is that every time you comb your hair, you will sprinkle pearls and gold!”

And yet another said:

“I give you the eastern star upon your forehead.”

The last of the enchanted women said:

“I give you a magic wand!”

They gave her the tripe, and the girl left.

When Cinderella got home, each time that she was going to speak, she made the sounds “Blu, blu, blu!”—but she spat out rubies and diamonds.

The mean stepmother immediately gathered the diamonds and the rubies. She was now well pleased with her stepdaughter.

Just as before, the old woman told her daughter to kill her little goat, which was done at once. Then her daughter gathered the tripe, and she left the house. The mean girl dropped the piece of tripe into the river, and while jumping into the river, she began to shout, “River, river, downriver!” She was doing as her stepsister had told her she had done.

When she arrived at the palace, it was quite clean. The evil stepdaughter started trashing the palace until she made a huge mess. When the enchanted women arrived, one of them said:

“Who could have done this evil deed to me? Once they did me a favor, but now they have played an ugly prank.”

Another of the woman said:

“I make you the gift of the growth of frizzled donkey’s hair on your forehead!”

The next woman said:

“My gift to you is that when you speak, you will spit out horse manure!”

Yet the last of the enchanted women said:

“My gift to you is that every time you comb your hair, you will fling out ticks and lice!”

Immediately, the mean girl left.

When she got home, every time she spoke, she spewed horse manure from her mouth. If she combed her hair, she hurled ticks and lice, and always the frizzled donkey’s hair grew out thicker each time her mother cut it.

One day an invitation came to a dance that a prince was hosting. Cinderella said at once:

“Oh, I am going!”

The two women kicked her; soon Cinderella stopped talking.

The night of the dance, the old woman and her daughter got dressed and went to the ball. Cinderella was left alone, huddled by the fireplace. At about ten o’clock that evening, the time announced for the dance, Cinderella said:

“Little magic wand, by the virtue that you have and the virtue that God has given you, I want you to place me at the dance in a glowing gown that I can illuminate without the need of lights. I want you to take me there in a coach with wheels of gold and a horse handsome beyond comparison.”

When Cinderella opened her eyes, she was there. As soon as the prince saw her, he fell in love with the beautiful woman. The charming prince asked Cinderella to dance. At four in the morning, Cinderella told him that she had to leave because it was so late. The prince asked her:

“Are you María, the Cinderella?”

She answered:

“Yes, I am.”

The prince told María Cinderella that he was going to get her something to drink before she left. While he was gone, María dashed out, leaped into the coach, and vanished.

It was all over right then. The prince went mad; he began to beat the musicians and their companions with sticks. Just like that, the dance ended.