Liz Alarcón: Picture the scene: a humid summer night, dim yellow bulbs flickering around Old San Juan, lighting up the oldest cathedral in the New World. In the background, you hear a beat, that undeniable reggaeton beat you can recognize from a mile away. As it gets louder and more intense, people of all shades and identities swarm the square and start moving their bodies provocatively, with urgency, in protest of Ricardo Rosello, the now-ousted governor of Puerto Rico. That was the summer of 2018, when Perreo combativo was born. With it came the reminder that the music we get down to is more than just music. Music is how we cope. Latinos have to cope with hardships like leaving our home countries, losing people we love to healthcare inequities or standing up to governments that work for the few and not for us. We’re in the last quarter of an exhausting year, where we’ve dealt with all of that and more. It’s almost too much to bear. And when words alone fail to capture the depth of a moment in time, there’s always music. In this episode of the Pulso Pod, we’re taking you on a journey through hardship, protest and resilience and the music that carries us through.
Núria Net: Latin music through, through the ages, has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. It’s been in waves, right? Like the Latin fever and the interest of the general market in letter music. We’ve always been part of pop culture, but I would say in the past 10 years, it’s been remarkable how Latin music has moved from being a genre or a niche to just being mainstream. During times like you know, in the 70s, in New York city. where there was economic hardship, uh, hip hop was born out of that, and Latinos were part of that movement, along with African Americans.
Liz Alarcón: Throughout this episode we’ll be joined by Nuria Net, renowned music journalist and founder of her own podcast company La Coctelera Music. You may also hear her baby daughter who joined us for this conversation. As Nuria mentioned, Latino music is mainstream now. But what is it about our sounds that have captured the world?
Núria Net: Latin artists, there’s so much diversity and especially LatinX next artists. Right? So Latinos born and raised in the U S and second generation, uh, are expressing themselves creatively, you know, in Spanish and English and Spanglish. That authenticity.
Liz Alarcón: Yes. Authenticity, one of my favorite words…our music, by telling it like it is and letting raw emotion come out, gives us the permission to feel, and heal, especially in times of hardship. One of those moments of hardship happened 21 years ago. In December of 1999, a natural disaster occurred in Venezuela, where my family is from. Torrential rains caused flash floods that killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed homes, and led to the complete collapse of the state of Vargas. Franco de Vita, one of the most beloved singers in the country, put the right words and right tune to the pain. In that excerpt, he’s singing to the rain, and all the damage it caused. The flood of 1999 paired with the changing political tide in Venezuela is what sparked the first real wave of migration of Venezuelans to the United States in that country’s history. Migration, whether because of economic, political or natural causes, is intertwined with our Latinidad. Many of us are the first generation to be born in the US, or moved here as kids or teens. Many of you listening may have families who have been here since before the founding of this country, but are still made to feel like you’re immigrants on your own land. Of the 60 million Latinos in the US right now, 35% are immigrants. In this next song, Colombian singer Juanes and iconic norteno band Los Tigres Del Norte make a perfect duet. They joined their unique music styles to sing about their shared experience, the immigrant experience. The song starts with the story of a couple you’d find in any one of our families who came to the United States with their small children. After ten years of being here, they’re still undocumented, and unable to return to Mexico. So many of us can relate to that pain, el dolor de no poder regresar… If there’s one thing about us I know to be true, it’s that we don’t sit in our pain for too long. We transform our hardships into action. From organizing against the exploitative labor conditions in the western United States, to standing up to equal rights in US territories, nuestra gente always speaks truth to power with our voices, our actions, and our music.
Adriana Santoni Rodríguez: If it’s true, what the government’s saying, that these ashes aren’t toxic, then why are you depositing them in poor black communities in the South of Puerto Rico, instead of depositing them near the governor’s mansion? It was like two in the morning. The activists over there at the camp were being beaten down by police officers and we felt very helpless and we were trying to think of what to do. After that, we went down there like the next morning we decided we had to go. So we got in a car as many of us, as we, as we fit. And we went over there, we sang the song and it was, it was very powerful.
Liz Alarcón: We couldn’t think of more fitting guests to invite to The Pulso Pod to talk about the power of music as protest than Plena Combativa, a women’s ensemble from Puerto Rico that composes, writes and sings plena music that stands up to injustice on the island.
Adriana Santoni Rodríguez: What our job is is to document our activism and the activism that goes on around us, through our music. And I sought out those that I thought were the most talented and, that also were activist, feminist activists that you know, that they didn’t only play the drums, but they lived what we were talking about in our songs. It’s revolutionary, that we’re, we’re all women playing, Plena. We compose our own songs. We play them, we sing them, everything. We’ve tried to cover a variety of social justice, uh, protest if it’s for, accessible and safe abortion. if it’s because of gender violence. You know, we want to take down the patriarchy, but we also want to take down racism and capitalism and colonialism and the binary and that’s the perspective that we take on when we compose and with the other types of work that we do. We’ve been present, in big, massive protests, but we’ve also been in specific, um, situations. I can recall a song we wrote, which is called Quanto Más. How much more are we going to tolerate? about racism in Puerto Rico, and the song was written because we were at a protest outside of a courtroom where a young Black girl from an elementary school was being tried in trial because of a bullying case that was not resolved correctly. She was being bullied for being Black and was also a special ed student. And instead of resolving that conflict in the school, she was taken to court. We went there with this song to share it. With plena In Puerto Rico. If you play it, people are going to start dancing around you and then they’ll listen to what you’re saying. Like it’s something that we have in our system. Okay. So that’s why it’s such a great vehicle for us to communicate because it’s already wired in us. This is healing music, it’s accessible music because the vibration of the drums is something that connects us with, with our history, with our heritage. And also it’s, it’s loud. We make ourselves be heard.
Liz Alarcón: For our last theme, we’re talking resilience. Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficult times, and, yes, we have Latin music to help us do that, too.
Núria Net: So many moments in our history, in our musical history that I think we should celebrate more because if we think about it, it’s like, wow, they were ahead oft their time. You think about a Fania in the seventies, in New York City. And just by existing and just by singing it in Spanish, and it’s talking about the struggles of the immigrant communities. And Celia within Fania. You know was the only woman, only black woman, so powerful living.
Liz Alarcón: Nuria is right, we can’t talk about resilience without talking about Celia Cruz. One of the most popular Latin artists of the 20th century, she was the epitome of joy even as she carried the burden of being exiled from her home. Her music was loud and proud, about Cuba, about her Afro-Caribbean identity, about making a statement with her signature Azucar, and about how life is meant to be lived like an eternal Carnival, where you sing your pain away, and celebrate. Another song that comes to mind when I think of resilience is Color Esperanza sung by Diego Torres. This is a resilience anthem of all anthems. The song talks about how creating change is within you, and the most important line, Pintarse la cara color esperanza, which means, to color yourself hopeful! Because hope is the last thing we lose. Color Esperanza came to life during an emblematic year. It was September of 2001, and Argentina was facing a tough economic time. Here in the United States, we were mourning as a country after the horrible terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. The timing was aligned, so this song traveled quickly over to our side of the American continent. I was in 7th grade in South Florida that year, and I remember hearing this song every time I got in the car and turned on the radio… the song always brought a smile to my face and still uplifts me whenever I hear it today. Before wrapping up, we had a final question for Nuria…Are there any songs for you that, that are soundtracks for your life or your moments that you’re like, Oh, this song just hits me every time.
Núria Net: Well after hurricane Maria, you know, it became also like an Anthem and for us in the diaspora, we’re far away, um, you know, it was also a way of saying this is going to be okay. it just became like the song that captured the moment.
Liz Alarcón: San Benito’ dedicated “Estamos Bien” to hurricane Maria victims. With this song he was telling Boricuas everywhere that they’re alright, even after a devastating storm that ravaged the island, they were going to be alright. With his colloquial lyrics and gender bending style, he’s become a Latino icon. His videos have billions of views and his music spans every corner of the globe. From trap to reggaeton to salsa, from pop to nortenas, across genres and nationalities, Latino music help us cope. In english, spanish or Spanglish, our music is what gets us through. The tempos of our songs, the passion of our artists and the realness of our lyrics makes Latin music a universal language that lifts our spirits, speaks our truth, and carries us into the next day.