Dancing in the Diaspora
El Baile de los Negritos
Dance unites Yucuaiquín, a small town in eastern El Salvador, with the city of Somerville in eastern Massachusetts. Traditionally a city of Greek, Irish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants, the only quality Somerville had in common with Yucuaiquín before the 1980s was a population with vibrant Catholic beliefs and traditions. The hundreds of Yucuaiquinenses that found their way to Somerville in the past two decades brought with them a unique set of religious traditions—among them a dance in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, and of Yucuaiquín.
El baile de los negritos—literally the dance of the little black folk—has been a Yucuaiquinense tradition since time immemorial. Legend has it that Yucuaiquín was once a small hamlet hidden in a valley, until a group of hunters found a wooden figurine of Saint Francis of Assisi under an amáte tree up in the mountains. Their attempts to bring the figure back to the hamlet were futile; it reappeared over and over again on the mountain, under the amáte tree. Eventually, the entire town moved and established itself around the tree, honoring its newly found patron saint. Yucuaiquinenses then and now ask Saint Francis for favors, offering to dance el baile de los negritos if their requests are granted. They believe Saint Francis is generous to those who fulfill their obligations to him, but stern to those who fail to comply with their promises.
Since the 1980s, thousands of Yucuaiquinenses have migrated to the United States. While Yucuaiquín is a town composed of some 10,000 people, according to a Somerville-based Yucuaiquinense organization, an estimated 2,500 Somerville residents identify themselves as Yucuaiquinenses. Now they dance el baile de los negritos in order to fulfill promises to Saint Francis of a more contemporary nature: some thank their patron saint for safe arrival in the United States after an arduous journey; some follow the tradition in order to teach their U.S.-born children to continue to celebrate Salvadoran culture and religion in their new homeland.
The upbeat el baile de los negritos is danced during the months leading up to Saint Francis’ Day in October to the fast-paced music of el tambór (drum) and el pito (recorder), played by individuals in Yucuaiquín and a tape recorder in Somerville. Dancers swing el chin-chin (maracas) in one hand and hold un ramo (bouquet) behind their backs as their feet move fluidly from side to side; wooden masks covering the performers’ faces mockingly depict white men with big eyes and wide mouths. The explanation behind the name—los negritos—and the costuming, is unknown: they are traditions that have been evolving since pre-Hispanic times and now offer no clarification.
Following a performance of el baile de los negritos at the Somerville Museum last year, Somerville’s mayor traveled to Yucuaiquín to sign a sister-city agreement. Yucuaiquín’s officials travel often to Somerville to campaign and update Yucuaiquinenses in the area. Yucuaiquinenses in both countries are constantly in touch through telephone, e-mail, money transfers, and the time-honored dance they all share. For Yucuaiquinenses in both countries, el baile serves as a conduit between Yucuaiquín and their new homes, between past and present, and between generations. It has become a crucial component of the modern Yucuaiquinenses’ struggle to adapt themselves to a new land while remaining true to their roots. While their lives may be drastically different in U.S. urban centers than they were in provincial Yucuaiquín, el baile and its saint travel with the people of Yucuaiquín.
Sebastian Chaskel worked with the community of Yucuaiquinenses in Somerville as a component of his anthropology coursework at Tufts University. Sebastian is now Research Associate for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Alonso Nichols is a freelance photojournalist based at Tufts University interested in issues affecting Latin America and Latinos living in the United States. His travels and projects have taken him from México and Nicaragua to New Orleans, Los Angeles and Kentucky.
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