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Latin Music and Society

Latin Music's Relation to Issues of Identity, Race and Poverty

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Photo Courtesy Spencer Platt / Getty Images
Photo Courtesy Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Very often, when we think about Latin music we probably think about music in Spanish language, a night of dancing, romantic songs or the hits of popular stars like Shakira and Daddy Yankee. However, Latin music goes way beyond these common perceptions.

Latin music is, in fact, a reflection on a whole culture and the environment where it has evolved. Because of this, there is a huge repertoire of Latin music songs that has touched important social issues in the region. The following is an overview of the way Latin music has created a connection with issues of identity, race, and poverty through the Americas.

Culture and Identity

Since the arrival of Columbus, Latin America has been struggling with its own identity. From the very beginning, the imposition of European standards affected millions of people in the region mostly through social and racial discrimination. There is one element, however, that has played an important role in the construction of culture and identity in the Americas: Latin music.

The main reason why Latin music has played this role relies in the fact that it has been an inclusive experience. In other words, Latin music has never been touched by the imposition of particular standards. It has been, indeed, a popular phenomenon that has been defined by people of all races and social backgrounds.

Latin music is by itself a defining element of culture and identity. It has reinforced identities among people in Latin America as well as Latino communities in the US. This is why a classic Tango song touches the soul of an Argentinian person in a similar way the notes of a Ranchera tune touches the heart of a Mexican person.

National and Regional Identities

Latin music has also played a significant role in the construction of national identities. By exalting the natural treasures of Brazil, Ary Barroso's "Aquarela Do Brasil" is only one of the many hits that show us the way music has entered into the realm of national identities. Something similar happens with songs like "Guantanamera" in Cuba and "La Pollera Colora'" in Colombia.

Very often, however, Latin music has moved beyond the national sphere embracing a regional cause. There are many songs that deal with the identity of Latin America as a whole. For instance, the song "Por Que No Se Van" by the Chilean Rock band Los Prisioneros, is a strong call to be proud of Latin American culture.

More recently, the famous Urban/Hip-Hop band Calle 13 has enjoyed enormous popularity thanks to the song "Latinoamerica," which offers amazing lyrics about big and small things that are unique to the culture, history and people of the Americas. In this sense, Latin music has become a channel that is constantly reinforcing national and regional pride.

Racism

For many centuries, racism has remained a taboo topic in Latin America. This is in part because of the cultural mix that occurred during the colonial times. With so many skin tones resulting from that mix, color became less important than class in terms of assigning individual social status.

This assumption became even bigger during the independence period when a new flow of democratic ideals promoted the value of mixed societies. In spite of this, race remained an important element of discrimination in the region neglected by the fake victory of those ideals over the real world.

Latin music has produced many songs dealing with this kind of discrimination. This is, in fact, particularly strong when dealing with Afro-Latin music such as Salsa, Merengue or Samba. One of my favorite tracks in this field is "Etnia," a powerful track recorded by Colombia's legendary Salsa band Grupo Niche that reminds us of the fact that we all share the same blood and origin.

Another song dealing with racism is "Ligia Elena," a single written by Ruben Blades that describes the social scandal produced by a rich, white girl who falls in love with a poor, black trumpet player.

Rising Latin music stars have continued to touch racial issues in their songs. One of the most outspoken bands in this field is Colombia's Urban sensation trio ChocQuibTown. To this regard, their song "De Donde Vengo Yo" describes the struggles of black people in a country that still believes racism does not belong to it.

Poverty

Besides racial inequality, poverty represents the economic side of the same coin. Because of its impact, poverty and the struggles of all of those who suffer from this social imbalance have become a recurring issue in Latin music. One of the best singles dealing with this topic is "El Costo De La Vida," a song recorded by Dominican superstar Juan Luis Guerra. This track denounces the never ending increase of the cost of living in economies that have been always in trouble.

Poverty, racism and the construction of identities are some of the social issues that Latin music has confronted. There are many more topics Latin music has touched including politics, criminality, human rights, gender, and environmental issues. This article is just a brief introduction to the relation that exists between Latin music and society. If you listen to it carefully, Latin Music can tell you many things about Latin America and its people.

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