Spirits that spin

When the Spirits Dance Mambo is a vivid autobiographical journey through the Puerto Rican diaspora in Spanish Harlem


When the Spirits Dance Mambo: Growing Up Nuyorican in El Barrio
Marta Moreno Vega
2004, Three Rivers Press
273 pages

Reviewed by Vanessa Knights

“OUR MUSIC had a beat that penetrated our hearts, calling spirits down and elevating our souls. Our clave rippled through our blood, creating kings and queens that soared beyond the limited borders of our neighborhoods.”

Marta Moreno Vega dedicates her vivid autobiographical tale of coming of age in Spanish Harlem in the 1950s and 60s to the young of her community in the hope that they will learn from the past in facing the challenges of the present and future. Founder and president of the International Caribbean Center/African Diaspora Institute, and an associate professor in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies programme at Hunter College, New York, Moreno Vega is clearly passionate about imparting a cultural legacy. This memoir is steeped in the popular traditions of the Puerto Rican diaspora community, from the flavours of beans and rice, fried pork rinds and plantain, through the vibrant music that permeates the text, to the Afro-Caribbean orishas worshipped by her grandmother. Customs are documented in a detailed fashion which can slow down the pace of the narrative at times, but provides a fascinating insight into the cultural heritage of the island in the city.

World of the spirits

As the title indicates music is indelibly bound up with the world of the spirits so integral to the Santeria/Lucumi religion of which Moreno Vega is a priestess and internationally recognised advocate. Spirit lives in music and dance. Alongside other key rites of passage such as her first days at school and High School, her period, and her first crush, Moreno Vega relates her first experience of giving herself over to the creative power of Latin music at the Apollo and the importance of music for her soul. Music is omnipresent in this novel – in the chapter titles, in the lyrics cited at the beginning of each chapter (ascribed to the artists who popularised them), in the nostalgic records that spin on Abuela’s Victrola or the seductive rhythms of the Palladium that Marta listens to in secret when her brother Chachito calls her on the pay phone at night. It is music that offers her a vision of who she is and who she might become. She is initiated into the spirit world by her grandmother who teaches her that the spirits dance mambo (also the title of a documentary made by Moreno Vega about Santeria in the US and Cuba which premiered at the Havana International Film Festival in 2002).

However, this is more than a nostalgic memoir. Moreno Vega does not shy away from depicting the cultural and social problems faced by the inhabitants of the Barrio whether imposed from within – for example the stifling adherence to outdated machista norms which keep her mother at home, force her sister Chachita into a loveless marriage and occasionally explode into domestic violence – or without, such as the racism encountered by Marta at school. Considerable attention is paid to the descent into drug fuelled theft and street violence in chapters devoted to the tragic waste of the tecata plague.

Following in the rich tradition of personal narratives such as Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Silent Dancing and Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican, When the Spirits Dance Mambo is a revealing window into an in-between community straddling two dynamic cultures.

Vanessa Knights is a lecturer in the School of Modern Languages at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne