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The singers of décimas, or decimistas, are expected to perform like old blind bards on speed.

Related Gully Coverage

Puerto Rico at the Crossroads
Our complete articles.

christmas in old San Juan

Christmas in Old San Juan


Christmas Slams in Puerto Rico

by Kelly Cogswell

DECEMBER 18, 2000. My girlfriend and I were living in San Juan in the cusp of 1998 and 1999. Clinton was being impeached. Puerto Ricans had just used their toilet paper votes to affirm, by default, the colonial status quo, and David Sanes, blown up by an errant Navy bomb in Vieques the following April, still imagined he would live forever.

One thing I learned was that Nationalist and pro-U.S. annexionist fervor could co-exist in the same people. Equally astounding was the fact that Puerto Ricans, known for thriving on American cars, American TV culture, and Salsa Incorporated, can also be attracted in hordes by a kind of Homeric poetry slam.

The Golden Age
Every year in early December, the national finals of an improvisational "décimas" contest takes place at the Bacardi Artisans Fair. When we went, the rum factory across the bay from San Juan had been turned into a tent city selling everything from piña coladas to roughly stitched leather hats and cod fritters.

albizu-camposOne vendor sold new prints of old photos—like a man with rolled sleeves and a straw hat dragging a wounded man across a Ponce street in the 1937 massacre of Nationalists, and a bow-tied, pro-independence Albizu Campos in the boat that brought him home to Puerto Rico in 1947 after years in Atlanta's federal pen for trumped up U.S. charges.

We were half an hour early for the poetry finals, but by then the huge crowd had already filled all but a tiny space at the back of the green football-length field. We staked out our few inches, and in a peculiar tropical torture were roasted by a ferocious sun, soaked by sudden showers, and roasted again.

My only prior experience of the décima was in high school Spanish Lit. The class was studying el Siglo de Oro—the Golden Age—and we were all forced to write a décima in the style of the long dead poet Espinel, ten lines of eight syllables, and an intricate rhyme scheme.

Until Puerto Rico, I'd never imagined that the archaic form had survived its 17th century flowering, and there were living, breathing, singing, practitioners all across the world from Spain to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, even Louisiana, like fresh New World Jurassic Parks.

Slamming Rules
We were damp and sunburned when a few musicians finally crept on stage with their guitars, four-stringed cuatros and güiros, gourds that operate and sound like washboards. Once the musicians had scooted their chairs into a comfortable arrangement, the competition's rules were explained.

It all amounted to coming up with a Petrarchan sonnet to the tune of Turkey in the Straw in a couple of seconds—including working in an obligatory last line of the chorus (pie forzado) that the judges give you on a scrap of paper just seconds before the first chord is struck. In other words the singers of décimas, or decimistas, are expected to perform like old blind bards on speed.

Yolanda WilkinsonPoints are knocked off for faulty rhyme schemes, meter, meaning, diction, intonation, lengthy intervals between verses, and whatever else the judges think of. Compared to this, the solitary hours of composition, memorization, and practice make a poetry slam at New York's Nuyorican Cafe seem like a cakewalk for cream puffs.

Chasing the Words
The most commanding performance of the contest was given by Victor Manuel Reyes, a thin young man with baseball cap jammed on backwards. He glanced at the little piece of paper with his chorus, scrunched it up in his hand, and strode across the bandstand from one side to the other, as the musicians started up the tune.

Reyes was like a young wolf chasing the words, or a hunter chasing the word wolves. Sometimes it seemed like the words were chasing him. He grabbed the microphone with disdain and howled into it in a high lonesome voice that reminded me of bluegrass.

A big attitude and a voice are not enough. The audience waited expectantly for each rhyme. He nailed every one. There was the chorus to get to. He arrived with flair. While the band played a quick interlude, young Reyes stalked the second verse. It was another crucial moment. Even a mediocre poet can manage one good verse, but the second is key. Do you have your teeth in the song, or does it have you?

Beyond the rhyme scheme and chorus, there is development and meaning. The best singers to that point had developed their thoughts like salt water taffy, pulling meaning both towards and away from the repeated chorus like masters of the villanelle.

cuatrosWe were shocked when the iconoclast Reyes seemed to ignore his first verse, going in a different direction entirely. We held our breaths. The structures began unraveling. He didn't end thoughts at the end of the proper lines. The rhymes jarred.

But the final chorus, in a dangerous straining leap, pulled it all together. I couldn't say exactly how. The audience found itself both dazzled and uneasy. In the space of three or four singers we had grown used to conventions. Reyes had wrenched them to the breaking point. The judges, after much murmuring, gave him the top prize for it.

The Last Word
The contest ended with all the contestants gathering on stage to sing a final round of décimas together. Each took one stanza. The losers were funny and rueful, managing in a few words to thank the crowd for listening, and chastise the judges for not picking them.

Above all, they gave thanks to Puerto Rico herself for providing them the voice and the words. It seemed literally true. No matter what the chorus, all the décimas ended up being love songs to the emerald paradise, the gorgeous waning myth of Puerto Rico.

Related links:

To see and hear a Puerto Rican décima.

For more information about the Bacardi Artisans Fair at Cataño (usually early December) call 787-788-1500. Or, if you must, try the slow-loading, frustrating Bacardi website. In English and Spanish.

For Philip "Felipe" Pasmanick's Antología de décimas. From Calderón de la Barca's "La vida es sueño" to Cuban rumbas. In Spanish.

For info about Joseph "Chelito" Campo, a celebrated Louisiana decimista, and the local décimas tradition. In English.

For the Nuyorican Poets Cafe online.

For Complete Coverage Puerto Rico

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