Theses Doctoral

Specters of Maelo: An Ethnographic Biography of Ismael 'Maelo' Rivera

Colon-Montijo, Cesar

Ismael ‘Maelo’ Rivera (1931–1987) is a foundational Afro-Puerto Rican salsa singer. Known among his fans, peers, and contemporary researchers as El Sonero Mayor (loosely, The Greatest Singer-Improviser), Maelo’s voice became inscribed in the aural tapestry of barrios in Latin America and the Caribbean, beginning in the mid-1950s. After his death on May 13, 1987, Maelo has gained a sense of sacredness amongst fans and devotees who identify themselves as maeleros and maelistas in places such as Panama, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. My interlocutors ascribe Maelo’s songs with a particular affective strength that for them differentiates him from other salsa singers. His music has become the medium for the creation of relational bonds that respond to their particular local contexts as well as their personal and collective histories. In both countries, maeleros and maelistas listen to his songs as stories where they find keys to endure the difficulties of day-to-day life in their respective socio-political, cultural, and economic situations. This dissertation studies the friendships and relational affinities maeleros and maelistas articulate through Maelo’s music and biography, examining the creative work they do in order to celebrate his presence in their everyday.
I argue that Maelo inspires a sense of secular devotion amongst his fans through the ways in which he mediates the crossing of the sacred and the profane through his repertoire and life by voicing multiple expressions from diverse Black Atlantic religions. I understand the sense of communion maeleros and maelistas share as a devotional sense of kinship in which friendship, and mainly male friendships, are central. I propose that such mediations of the sacred, and the Maelo-centered sense of devotional kinship I study, must be framed in relation to larger histories of the political definition of life in Latin America and the Caribbean. In such histories, the spectrality of the voice has served both as a tool for casting Black and indigenous groups as unworthy of citizenship and as a means for these groups to endure such marginalization. By examining the context-specific ways in which Maelo connoisseurs reinterpret his music and life in Venezuela, Panama, and Puerto Rico in his afterlife, this dissertation proposes that maeleros and maelistas enact a political theology that dramatizes the contemporary stakes of larger bio-political histories in which illness has long-been connected to delinquency as tools of power used to police and discipline modern citizen bodies. This is vital to one of the central theses of this dissertation: that Maelo’s stories of vocal illness, addiction, and imprisonment—what I call his wounded masculinity—are key to the sense of sacredness he has gained during his afterlife as a spectral figure whose songs, images, and myth accompany his fans, peers, and devotees in their everyday.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ochoa Gautier, Ana
Washburne, Chris
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 21, 2018