Christina D. Abreu: In Honor of Professor Juan Flores

abreu_rhythms_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Christina D. Abreu, author of Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the Making of Latino New York City and Miami, 1940-1960. Among the nearly 90,000 Cubans who settled in New York City and Miami in the 1940s and 1950s were numerous musicians and entertainers, black and white, who did more than fill dance halls with the rhythms of the rumba, mambo, and cha cha chá. In her history of music and race in midcentury America, Abreu argues that these musicians, through their work in music festivals, nightclubs, social clubs, and television and film productions, played central roles in the development of Cuban, Afro-Cuban, Latino, and Afro-Latino identities and communities. Abreu draws from previously untapped oral histories, cultural materials, and Spanish-language media to uncover the lives and broader social and cultural significance of these vibrant performers.

In today’s post, Abreu celebrates the life of the late Professor Juan Flores, whose scholarship on Puerto Rican identity and culture has had wide-reaching effects in the field of Latino/a studies and on Abreu’s own work.


In Honor of Professor Juan Flores, More Than a Scholar of Puerto Rican Culture in New York

Like many others, I learned of the passing of Professor Juan Flores (1943–2014) through social media. Almost immediately, scholars, colleagues, and friends took to Facebook and Twitter to post their condolences, express their profound sadness, and give thanks to a man whose work paved the way for generations of writers who dared to tell stories about Latino/as, diasporic identity, and popular culture.

In his book From Bomba to Hip Hop, Professor Flores argued that Puerto Ricans on the island and in the United States hold an unfavorable and subordinate status because of the island’s colonial relationship with the United States. Puerto Ricans’ unique identity and culture—in the form of popular music, literature, and urban space—differentiate them from other Latino/a groups in the United States; consequently, his findings brought attention to the homogenizing effects of the racial and ethnic terms “Latino/a” and “Latinidad.”

Criticism and embrace of identity terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” have been longstanding in the field of Latino/a Studies. Puerto Ricans, Flores argued, share more in common with African Americans than with other Latino/a groups. He contended that Puerto Ricans and African Americans experience similar forms of racial and ethnic subordination in the United States because of parallels in their location in urban areas, their socioeconomic status, and their position as colonized subjects of the same nation-state.

Flores’s continued engagement with these debates crystallized in the publication of The Afro-Latin@ Reader. In this collection of essays, Flores and his colleague and wife, Miriam Jiménez Román, brought together the recent work of scholars who focus on identifying the presence and contributions of Afro-Latino/as in the United States. Many of the essays also examine the racial and ethnic discrimination faced and confronted by black Latino/as both within and beyond Latino/a communities in the United States. In fact, several pieces feature some of the very Afro-Cuban musicians and community leaders that I focus on in my book Rhythms of Race, including Graciela Pérez, Arsenio Rodríguez, and Melba Alvarado.

Another key element of Flores’s work was his emphasis on musical collaborations between Puerto Ricans—especially black Puerto Ricans—and African Americans in the development of rap and hip-hop in New York City. These relationships, he showed, are nothing new. For Flores, one of the best examples of shared experiences and interactions between Puerto Ricans and African Americans can be seen in the development and crossover popularity of boogaloo in 1960s New York City. This musical style showcased the mixing of Afro-Cuban styles with the popular sounds of African American music, namely blues, R&B, and soul. The New York Times reported that Flores had most recently been working on a biography of Eddie Palmieri, a Puerto Rican musician who openly complained of the short-lived boogaloo phenomenon but, nonetheless, helped popularize the music and dance, particularly among African American audiences.

Though most commonly identified as a scholar of Puerto Rican identity and culture, Flores has been more than that for scholars whose work has come to form the broad field of Latino/a Studies. In my work on Cuban musicians and Cubans in the diaspora, I draw from his interrogation of the multiple intersections of race, identity, and cultural expression, especially popular music. It is to Professor Flores that I must say, muchísimas gracias.

Christina D. Abreu is assistant professor of history at Georgia Southern University. Her book, Rhythms of Race: Cuban Musicians and the Making of Latino New York City and Miami, 1940-1960, will be published in May 2015. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaDAbreu.