Courtesy CUNY Dominican Studies Institute

Courtesy CUNY Dominican Studies Institute

Décima, a 500-year-old tradition for wooing a woman in the Caribbean

Can’t win over the woman of your dreams?

Perhaps try singing her a décima – a more than 500-year-old Ibero-African poetic tradition which has infiltrated the music of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic for centuries – most specifically in jíbaro and bachata. It is structured by having 10 rhyming lines with eight syllables each.

The City University of New York’s Department of Dominican Studies is hosting a workshop on Monday which will examine the ageless tradition which originated by poets in Spain. The event will be let by Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Raquel Z. Rivera, Dominican poet Dagoberto Lopez, and Dominican guitarist Yasser Tejeda.

“Décimas are very important – they capture the spirit of local communities,” says Professor Carlos Riobó, Chair Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at City College of New York. “They developed in the Golden Age of Spanish poetry. In the 1600’s poets used décimas to connect with the common man.”

Riobó explains there are two forms of décimas – the poetic and the son.

“The son form lends itself to a duo – very similar to the way rap started out,” he says. “It’s full of social criticism – you’re singing at your rival, and your rival has to sing back to you, and ultimately the community decides who won the dual.”

Dr. Ramona Hernandez, professor of sociology and director of CUNY’s Dominican Studies Institute, says the poetic form was traditionally used as a way for men to express their love to a woman.

She says the décima was used by both the upper as well as the poor classes in the Dominican Republic. It would even be used at a wake, when they were done in homes, prior to the existence of funeral homes.

“Usually people would spend a whole evening or night with the dead. It’s a way of spending the night with a cadaver,” says Hernandez. “Dominicans also used décimas for political criticism…or even something like the price of rice going up.”

There was even a woman decimera who was famous in the Dominican Republic in the 1850’s. Hernandez says she spent her life reciting décimas on behalf of Pedro Santana, the first president of the Dominican Republic, who was widely disliked by most Dominicans.

“It’s a dying form of expression,” says Hernandez about the tradition today. “The complaint of senior people is that they don’t have an audience anymore in the Dominican Republic…the young people are not interested in gathering around and using these expressions around a social issue or issue of love…It’s so sad men are not doing this anymore. Now it’s bloody Twitter.”

However, modern day singers like Dominican Juan Luis Guerra often uses décima in his music.

Hernandez says she’d like to see Latinos – Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Cubans – gather together in parks in the U.S. and break out in décimas like in the old days in their home countries. In the Dominican Republic, however, she says you can still find senior men in their predictable spots performing the romantic tradition.

“They’ll compose a décima just by looking at you,” says Hernandez.

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