Barrio Couture: How Buscabulla’s Costumes in “Vámono” Celebrate Puerto Rican Artistry

In 2017, when a mass exodus of Puerto Ricans to the United States dominated the headlines of every major newspaper, the Boricua band Buscabulla decided to pack their bags to go home. For over a decade, the duo – composed of ponceño Luis Alfredo del Valle and trujillana Raquel Berríos – called Nueva York home, raised their daughter, and rose to mainstream attention with their tropical futuristic sound. 

But they always knew their time in the diaspora had an expiration date and knew their newfound platform would be of use in a post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. 

Their return is now the focus of their newly-released single and music video “Vámono,” the first rollout of their much-anticipated album, dropping in 2020. In the video, the duo is seen strolling the streets of Puerto Rico donning outfits inspired by the traditions of pueblo carnivals, like the Festival de las Máscaras de Hatillo. 

“We are super into these types of costumes but putting them in a different context,” Raquel Berríos tells Emperifollá. “I like taking bits of those cultural symbols to contextualize them through a contemporary lens.”

Berríos’s homecoming provided the singer with an opportunity to re-learn her island’s traditions. She found herself living in the west side of Puerto Rico – a world apart from her native Trujillo Alto – and quickly got acquainted with the local weekend festivals and carnivals she only remembered from her childhood. But one thing caught her eye the most – the costumes. 

The Festival de las Máscaras is a yearly carnival celebrated in the town of Hatillo, that’s rooted in Spanish and African traditions. The festivity – held in December – is mostly known for its brightly colored costumes, grotesque wooden masks, and ostentatious floats. 

While Berríos grew up familiar with this tradition, it wasn’t until her move in 2017 that she decided to dive into the history and symbolism of it. She geeked out on books and crashed every local carnival in towns like Ponce and Manatí to familiarize with the traditions. 

Photo by Supakid

One particular element seen in the video for “Vámono” showcases the extent of her arduous research. Toward the middle of the video, the band is mounted on a carnival float performing a “wheelie,” the term used to describe a motor vehicle on its two back tires. The ceiling then reveals the word “regresa,” alluding to the band’s return – both to music and its homeland. Berríos credits the scene to one of the books she read about the Festival de las Máscaras. She wanted to mimic a group of men who did a similar performance one year celebrating one of their late mother’s death. 

“It was a white float with roses and doves,” Berríos says. “The group took the float to the cemetery and they did a wheelie, and underneath the float they had written the words, ‘Para ti, mamá.’ There was something beautiful about combining a macharranería like the wheely with the sensibility of losing a mother.”

When the time came to work on costumes for the video, Berríos knew she needed to commission the seamstresses in charge of putting together this colorful display every year. Yet, she had a hard time finding one, she says, until her partner Luis Alfredo found one on Facebook. While Berríos tapped local artisans all over the island for the project, she insisted on sketching the costumes herself and collaborating with graphic artist, Franco Frontera

“I think I had a desire to learn how you achieved these ‘barrio couture’ techniques, it’s something I felt I had to do,” Berríos says. “A lot of these seamstresses are dying or moving to the United States, so it’s an art that’s disappearing. So I wanted to learn to do it myself.”

Berríos is no stranger to making her own costumes. When the band walked the 2017 Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York, she put together their outfits from old military uniforms, repurposed quince dresses and t-shirts with the help of Alejandro Lafontant. The same happened when Buscabulla opened for Café Tacvba at Terminal 5 the same year with Berríos sporting a repurposed t-shirt of Frankie Ruiz’s face. 

“It’s something I never want to stop doing,” she says. “As an artist, you’d want to focus on production or performing. But, one of the reasons I do this project, it’s because of all the artistic expressions the platform allows us.”

Featured image by Mara Corsino.

Frances Solá-Santiago

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