Orchard Beach: Where Sun & Sand Meet Salsa

(Photo by Humberto Arellano via El Diario)

(Photo by Humberto Arellano via El Diario)

At Orchard Beach, the ocean dances salsa, according to the seniors who meet up at the popular Bronx location, güiro in hand and radio blasting music by Conjunto La Perla de Ponce.

“Sun, sand and salsa. That is life,” says  Tomás Loyarte, 68, without interrupting his cowbell playing. His oiled skin glistens under the midday sun and his forehead is sweating, as he adds: “There’s nothing better than this.”

Loyarte, born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, says that he has spent more than 50 summers of his life dancing salsa on this stretch of artificial beach. Developed in 1930 by urban planner Robert Moses, it was originally bound to be called Bronx Riviera. However, the residents renamed it Puerto Rican – or Nuyorican – Riviera.

“The first Puerto Rican families who arrived in New York took this beach and turned it into a place for joy by bringing in salsa,” says Loyarte. “We, the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those newcomers, are keeping the tradition alive. This rhythm is something you carry in your blood.”

Olga Méndez, 60, born in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, says that she has been coming here every summer weekend up until Labor Day since 1946. The beach closes for the rest of the year after that holiday.

“I am a salsera at heart,” she yells out in order to be heard over the tunes by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico coming out of a speaker plugged to an old CD player. “The band came with me; the party can’t wait.”

On the other side of the beach, Luis Rodríguez, 57, carries a large speaker on his flashy bike, playing the music of Orquesta Costa Brava. Swimmers welcome him with applause, and the area becomes an improvised dance floor.

“I have been coming to Orchard Beach since I was seven. This is my home,” says Rodríguez as he sets up a beach chair under a tree. “There’s no beach without salsa. Salsa is the soul of the Nuyorican Riviera.”

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