When the Spirits Dance Mambo


When the Spirits Dance Mambo: Growing Up Nuyorican in El Barrio

Marta Moreno Vega (2004)

Three Rivers Press
This is a 280 page memoir written by Afro-Caribbean Religions Professor Marta Moreno Vega of the City University of New York, who grew up in El Barrio during the 1950’s and 1960’s. She has also written Alter of my Soul, a book about Santería, and founded the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. You can find out more about her at her website and read an interview with her here.

When the Spirits Dance Mambo was also the title of a very well received documentary that Vega produced, a You Tube clip of which is available here.

Why you might buy it:

This is a wonderful memoir in which a young Vega beautifully articulates some of the contradictions, tensions and ignorance as well as the joy, love and revelations she experienced whilst growing up during times of great change in East Harlem. Superbly written, with herself as the central vehicle for describing change, events and associated emotions, this is a book that really brings home the difficulties experienced by young people caught between ‘old’ and ‘new’ cultures. Exploration of cultural identity and traditional values often occur most sharply when Abuela, Vega’s grandmother, appears. The way in which, the neighbourhood and wider NYC are brought into the story play an integral part in helping the reader see things through young Vegas eyes – though the sounds of East Harlem and the Palladium Ballroom are also utilised to great effect too. The unusual inclusion of a Readers Group Guide at the end of the book will help you, should you wish, to analyse how well you might have engaged with the material. Even if you can’t immediately identify with Vega as you didn’t grow up in El Barrio or are not Puerto Rican you will after reading this book.

Why you might leave it:

Difficult to find reasons to leave this one, but if you are looking for ‘books about music and musicians’ and autobiographical tales are not your thing then I suppose this might not be for you. But it is, really – even your friends who don’t understand why you listen to Tito Puente on you IPod and need to go out dancing three times a week will love this book.


1. In Abuela’s World
2. Carajo, Cotito, What’s Wrong with You?
3. Usted Abuso
4. Negrita Linda
5. Camina Como Chencha la Gamba
6. Una Mujer en mi Vida
7. What was Chango doing at the Palladium?
8. Amiga Mia
9. Voy a Apagar la Luz
10. Toda un Vida
11. Hechos…No Palabras
12. Conversacion en Tiempo de Bolero
13. Que Pena, here comes the Bride
14. Tecata
15. De que Color son tu Bembas
16. Joining the Spirits
A Readers Group Guide

Selected extracts (from):

1. In Abuela’s World

I grew up surrounded by the pulsating rhythms of Tito Puente and Machito and the teasing, sensual songs of Graciela. The deep, robust voice of Celia Cruz brought Africa to our home. In our cramped living room on 102nd Street, my brother taught me to mambo. There, too, my father took my mother in his dark, powerful arms and they swayed to the tune of a jibaro ballad. In the bed we shared, my older sister cried herself to sleep while the radio crooned a brokenhearted lament. And my grandmother, cleaning her altar to the spirits of our ancestors, played songs to the gods and goddesses. Imitating the motions of the sea, she let her body be carried by an imaginary wave, then, taking my hand, encouraged me to follow in her steps. In Abuela’s world, our hearts beat to the drum song of the thunder god, Chango, “Cabo e Cabo e Cabosileo . . . Cabo e Cabo e Cabosileo . . .”

A skinny girl with caramel skin—wide-eyed, wide-eared—I watched and heard and savored it all. As my body recalls my childhood, I journey back to meet family members who live now only in the spirit world but remind me always of who I am and of where I come from. Memories are the musical notes that form the composition of our souls. Feelings churned by memory connect us to the past, help us treasure the present, and can even reveal to us our future. My memories take me on a spiritual, musical voyage to El Barrio.

4. Negrita Linda

As we trekked over the hot sand, I looked around, noticing that the people here were very different from the crowd we were accustomed to at Orchard Beach. Orchard Beach looked like El Barrio on the sand. Rockaway Beach resembled a television commercial. Most of the people looked like my teachers. Their checkered red-and-white blankets held tidy baskets filled with food. Their color-coordinated umbrellas and chairs appeared picture-perfect. My brother, sister, and I looked at one another with uneasy glances, wondering why Papi had decided to bring us to such a place. Finally, our convoy came to a stop near the shoreline and we unpacked. What a relief to finally put down the heavy bag filled with a caldero of fried pork chops.

6. Una Mujer en mi Vida

One Wednesday night my sister and I huddled under a cave of blankets, praying that our parents wouldn’t hear the phone ring. The moment it did, we grabbed the receiver and pressed it as close as we could to our ears. The smooth voice of our older brother accompanied the rhythms of Tito Puente’s sizzling mambo band. “Listen to the timbales rip the place apart,” Chachito crooned. “Puente is swinging and the place is rocking! The timbales smoke from the force of his drumbeats.”

From a public phone at the Palladium, our big brother placed us smack in the middle of the dance floor, bringing the pulsating rhythms of Tito Puente’s magical solo to us live. Chachito loved the sound of his own voice, and on these nights when he called us from the Palladium, so did we. “I am not kidding. Puente’s on fire. The floor throbs with the movement of the dancers. Listen! Listen! Tito is playing with all his heart.” In the background we heard the roar of the audience as they pushed the master musician, encouraging him to reach the highest of heights. “Toca, Tito, toca, toca, toca.” Play, Tito, play, play, play!

8. Amiga Mia

Their arms moved above their heads like the open wings of eagles suspended in midair. Tito’s voice encouraged them with his throbbing words: “Mama Guela, Mama Guela, Mama Guelona,” he sang. The vibrations of the music and their dance steps trickled from the floor into my feet and up my legs. I watched with envy, I, too, wanted to dance the steps of the young warriors.

I studied Reynaldo. His high cheekbones, his cleft chin, and his height, together with his nonchalant elegance, pulled like a magnet. When the record ended, he leaned carefully against the wall, trying not to wrinkle his jacket and to keep the crease in his pants.

My heart stirred, and my body swelled with desire. But I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed by my physical reaction to him. An uncommon feeling of shyness dominated my normal exuberance. I sneaked peeks at Reynaldo, then redirected my eyes to my brother.

11. Hechos…No Palabras

The girl next to me had bright golden hair and blue eyes. She was chubby, and her wide smile reminded me of Howdy Doody. Her mouth was full of silver metal and rubber bands designed to straighten her teeth. The braces weighed down her mouth and squeaked when she spoke.

“Hi, my name is Lauren Carey. I live in Manhattan on the Upper West Side, at Seventy-ninth Street and Riverside Drive.”

“Marta Moreno. I live in Manhattan, too, in El Barrio on 102nd Street.”

With a confused frown, Lauren said, “I’ve never heard of ‘El Barrio.’ ” Her pronunciation mangled the name of my neighborhood. “Are you sure it’s in Manhattan?”

Immediately alarmed, I felt my attitude change from cautious clam to one of defiance.

“Yes, I live in El Barrio.” I gave the r’s a distinct roll as I looked contentiously into her eyes. Mami’s words immediately jumped into my head: “Tue res una negra. What are you doing going to a white school? What will you do with an arts education?”

15. De que color son tus bembas

In a husky voice, his mouth close to my ear, Rolando sang, “Chango ta venire, Chango ta veni, con el machete en la mano, tierra va temblar…” Immediately, almost against my will, our bodies fell into rhythmic step. He kept the beat, imitating Machito’s voice, and wrapped his arm around my waist, drawing me so close I could feel the ripples of his body. Then, comfortable with our rhythm, he swung me out and twirled me like a spinning top, dancing around me and bending at the waist, his shoulders grinding to the silent beat that pulsed between us. Completing my turns, I again fell into step with him as he swooped me into his arms. He guided us into the counterturn and then to a dramatic stop. Rolando dipped me low, his arm wrapped firmly around my waist. My heart leaped to my throat. Despite myself, I smiled.

“Marta, my sweet thing. We got it made,” he whispered, smiling broadly as he raised my body from the dip. What he didn’t know was that my mother would never consent to my dancing mambo in public.

A Readers Group Guide

2. Cotito is fascinated by the photograph of her grandmother as a young woman, sailing alone to New York. In the photo, Abuela wears a borrowed dress, carries a borrowed suitcase, and watches her gorgeous country slide away from the hold of a ship built “like an enormous metal coffin.” She describes this young Abuela as “the woman at the crossroads.” In what ways is Cotito herself a young “woman at a crossroads”? What borrowed burdens does she carry, and which ones does she shed in the course of the memoir? What is her “coffin”?

You can read the full guide here.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

School Library Journal by Sandy Freund
Adult/High School–”Cotito” was the favorite of her grandmother, a high priestess of the Yoruba religion, whom she helped tend her altar. She accompanied Abuela to the botanica in East Harlem and witnessed the occasional possession by spirits. As she grew older, Vega found that these traditions could suffocate as well as nurture. Her parents’ acceptance of machismo led to a double standard in the treatment of brother Chachito and his sisters. Mami, a trained nurse, was not to work outside the home because such women “get ideas” and cheat on their husbands. When she disobeyed, Papi’s anger and violence were said to be the result of his love. Cotito silently decided that she didn’t want such a love, just as she refused to lie to cover for her brother’s philandering. Racism was found in the outside world (school, police) and at home: the children were expected to marry lighter-skinned Latinos, and Chachito jokingly called Cotito a “real African.” Smart and perceptive, she became a strong young woman, and worked steadily toward her goal of becoming a teacher. At the mostly white arts high school, she and an African-American friend demanded that music from their cultures be included in music appreciation class. While rejecting the negative, she embraced the many positive aspects of her heritage and the love of her family. Cotito is as frank about her own shortcomings as she is about those of others. A vibrant, honest coming-of-age memoir that celebrates culture and community.

Amazon.com by Alyssa M (2004)
Kudos to Marta Moreno Vega for this beautifully written, heartfelt memoir. When the Spirits Dance Mambo brings to life the hopes and dreams of Puerto Ricans living in East Harlem in the 50s and 60s. The book opens with young Marta and her sister Chachita huddled under the bed covers with a telephone. Their brother is on the line, and he’s at the Palladium club, listening to live mambo music by some of the worlds best musicians. He holds up the receiver of the pay phone so his sisters can experience the music. In Marta’s world, the mambo, and the other songs and rhythms of the Carribean, is everything. Her elderly grandmother–the most extraordinary character in this book–tells her that music is the connection between people and the spirits who guide and protect them. Her parents–a hard-working immigrant couple–are transformed into an elegant lady and gentleman when they dance together in the family’s living room.

This memoir is an excellent coming-of-age story that reminded me a little of Esmeralda Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican, but the emphasis on music, and on the mystic Santeria religion, makes it a much more rewarding read. You come to know and love the Morenos and especially Marta’s abuela. It’s an amazing portrait of one author’s past told through words and music. I highly recommend this book.

Amazon.com by Elizabeth Hernandez (2004)
I actually cried at the end of this book. I bought it the day it went on sale and read it pretty much into the night. Marta Vega’s story is both unique and universal. This book tells the story of her growing up in Spanish Harlem (El Barrio) and portrays the loving, close-knit working class who raised her. Her mama and abuela come across as very strong, resilient women, particularly her grandmother, who was an amazing soul. The book’s title takes its name from the Latin/Island music that played everywhere in their neighborhood and home, and the orishas–spirit guardians–who Marta learned about from her grandmother. This is a very memorable, moving book. READ IT!

by Susan Taylor
“Viva Marta Moreno Vega! With honesty, humor, and love, she relives her coming-of-age in Spanish Harlem—the highs and the lows—eloquently documenting how deeply rooted West African cultural traditions are in her rich Puerto Rican heritage. Marta Vega’s memoir makes me want to mambo.”

Publishers Weekly
In this vivid work, which shares its title with a 2002 documentary Vega produced, two tales flawlessly merge: one recalls an Afro–Puerto Rican girl’s upbringing in 1950s Spanish Harlem; the other explains the background for the author’s eventual status as a priestess of the Santeria/Lucumi religion. What could have been a familiar coming-of-age story is made fresh with Vega’s painterly detail and use of background music (Celia Cruz, Machito and Tito Puente’s sounds are present throughout). The sorrows of early school (“the classroom was a joyless cell”) give way to double-dutch jumping, puberty, Vega’s first crush and her emerging interest in preserving her family’s traditions. “Music,” her grandmother Abuela, an espiritista (a sort of spiritual psychic), tells her, “is the food of the soul, and the right music calls the spirits.” At Abuela’s apartment, Vega learns of the orishas (gods and goddesses) and observes Abuela’s bóveda (altar); together, they visit the botánica for healing oils. Lovelorn at 14, Vega confides in Abuela, who summons a spirit named Juango to command her body. “Trying to understand Juango was difficult enough, but talking about sex with a spirit possessin
g my grandmother’s body was startling.” And thus the author’s future path begins. The spiritual and musical journey Vega takes readers on is informative and inspiring, even for the uninitiated.


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