Relearning an Ancient Craft: Paths to Indigenous Land Rights in Boriquén (Puerto Rico)

Here are excerpts from the third installment in a series of essays commissioned by PROTODISPATCH. For full article, photographs, and footnotes, please visit Artnet News. “In the wake of hurricane Fiona, PROTODISPATCH offers Jorge González and Angela Brown’s photo essay and correspondence about their ongoing collaboration on a series of events and engagements in Santurce, Boriquén (Puerto Rico), organized via Jorge’s on-going project Escuela de Oficios. They have embarked on a collective memory and healing project which engages local elders, crafts-people, and drum-making, as well as traditions of group celebration, chanting, and dancing.” [Many thanks to Colin Torre for bringing this item to our attention.]

“Relearning an Ancient Craft” by Jorge González and Angela Brown, was commissioned by PROTODISPATCH, a new digital publication featuring personal perspectives by artists addressing transcontinental concerns, filtered by where they are in the world. It was originally published by the international nonprofit Protocinema and appears here as part of a collaboration between Protocinema and Artnet News.

[. . .] Their exchange below, paired with the accompanying images and extensive captions, reveals a journey towards excavating the past through the joy of celebration and music, communal making, and building collective meaning. These are experiments in reinventing education and memory, a field in crisis in many geographies, but here focused on the potential for Boriquén (Puerto Rico), as claims to Indigenous land rights are under constant threat from local authorities.

The tracing of contemporary cultural practices back to ancient Indigenous knowledge is evidence of the connection between deep pasts and the present, supporting arguments for land back claims today. The significance and urgency of these claims is particularly powerful in light of increasingly extreme storms regularly battering the island due to climate crisis.

Importantly, the point of departure here is deeply interpersonal, intimate, and utilizes not only Indigenous, ancestral knowledges, but also oppressive, colonial structures, reimagining them for alternative, liberatory purposes. 

Here I was being taught hand-carving of hammock weaving shuttles, with Don Eustaquio Alers, a master hammock-maker, from Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Don Eustaquio’s ideals of autonomy and independence for Puerto Rico are expressed with fervor and hope for the future, while sharing his knowledge regarding his trade as weaver, one that compliments cultivation of the land. His loom is mobile. At the Alers family home, in Lomas Verdes, Aguadilla, two tall wooden rods are suspended with tied rope that is affixed to an iron gate, a window frame, and a nail on the wall. In Puerto Rico, hammock weavers tend to have a wooden loom structure in a space dedicated to their trade. Eustaquio shares that, living in New York City with his family prompted him to constantly set up and rollup the loom in their living room in their apartment.

This photo was taken around 2016, at a time when we were initiating our platform called “Escuela de Oficios,” in different spaces around Puerto Rico. If we are to reflect upon hammock-making in the archipelago, the craft is cultivated in two towns, San Sebastián and Las Piedras, one in the west, the other in the southeast. Over the years, we have traced these routes, among others, with a focus on fibers and weaves, and the passing on and continuity of these knowledges.

Our friend Chiro built a stilt house as a symbol of protection for the wetlands, and as a way to show that someone lived there, mainly to prevent arson. These unfortunate incidents of attempted destruction happen often, as people struggle for the use of the coastal forests of Canóvanas, Piñones, and Loíza, rich ancestral lands for Indigenous and Black communities. 

The most accessible entrance to these wetlands is through Pueblo Indio, a self-organized community that attained ownership of their parcels by claiming their rights to the land and communal recognition. José Manuel “Chiro” González was one of community leaders involved in the cause and continues to be a voice in his neighborhood.  

We met Chiro through harvesting cattails, a central fiber to the Escuela de Oficio’s weaving work. This plant has been very generous to us. Its generosity extends to our relationship with Pueblo Indio, which represents a path towards attaining a broader awareness of the diversity of the land and the waters. Prior to having Chiro’s support, our cattail harvest happened in Santurce, close to our studio, a densely populated area, far from the cycles of life of wetlands. [. . .]

About 20 years ago, Chiro planted various palm trees of the Roystonea borinquena variety, commonly called palma real. We spent a moment meditating upon the lives of these palm trees prior to taking one down. We marked our intentions to continue learning from them. At that moment, we were committed to making a first drum as an instrument to heal and open paths. This action has transformed our relationship with what we take from nature, it is an element of offering that also took the life of a resource. Of one palm, we made three drums, and kept the remaining wood for later use, to continue making musical instruments.

Eight years ago, as part of Escuela de Oficios, I started working with fibers as a response to provide a direction towards engaging in the creation of a mutual learning space, in a regenerative manner. At an early stage, in those first meetings with knowledge-holders, the master weavers, I remember a basket-maker, Edwin Marcucci, talking to us about the permission he requested to harvest and work with a plant. [. . .]

Significant labor is required to cut down and process a palm tree for making an Afro-Boricua drum. Alejandra Ferreras, pictured here, helped with the construction of our first drum, with the guidance of knowledge-holder Don Rafael Trinidad. Alejandra, a social psychologist, together with her partner, photographer Javier Piñero, immersed themselves in the process and relationships of Escuela de Oficios in order to reflect upon the continuity of ancestral knowledge in the context of colonial oppression. [. . .]

“When a student is ready to receive, the same as the teacher is to give.” These were the words of Rafael Trinidad as he shared his method for painting drum hide. Rafael Trinidad is a maker of percussion instruments and a master metalsmith. Don Rafa has dedicated his life to music with a sense of transmitting a natural sound, as he calls his interests in making percussion instruments. [. . .]

This was the first palm drum made with the guidance of Rafael Trinidad. He ceremoniously presented it, transmitting wisdom. From his words I share: 

“This drum, right, has manifested itself, it has manifested itself with its presence doing the perfect thing. And I thank you, those who are linked to Rafael, for doing this work, so that the first piece, well, has achieved success. It means that success is already manifested in the future, right, and I thank you again, because it has freed me. And that sound was as I requested. As we ask. Make it sound how he likes it. And that tuntun is the beating of a heart. As I say the tuntun of a drum is the beat of a heart. And now I want you to think about your heart and think about the heart of God and think about the heart of all humanity, of all people. And beat that drum like it’s a heart. Go ahead.” [. . .]

For full article, photographs, and footnotes, please visit  

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