I was sitting in my living room listening to salsa songs traditionally played at every fiesta, when I entered into a trance-like state, seeing the lyrics dance before me in a myriad of visions. The song? “Rebellion” from Joe Arroyo’s 1986 vinyl album titled Joe Arroyo y La Verdad. Though the song’s rhythm begged my body to dance, the lyrics brought tears to my eyes as I imagined Cartagena in the 1600s. To paint a picture, USC Professor Edgardo Pérez Morales explains, “By 1600 Cartagena was one of three ports of call for the famed Spanish treasure fleets. It became, furthermore, the epicenter of the slave trade to the Spanish Americas until 1640”. In this context, the narrative song tells about an African couple enslaved by a Spaniard, and how the husband protested against the Spaniard when he tried to hit his wife. The song emphasizes very painful but real history, uplifting African heritage in Latin America, and exposing the cruelty of colonization and the slave trade.
Fast forward to the following morning, I was listening to Natalia Lafourcade’s “Mexicana Hermosa” from her 2017 album Musas Vol 1. It starts with “Mexicana hermosa, bandera Latina” and though I am not Mexican, as a Latina from Managua, Nicaragua, I felt “hermosa” and valued. I, too, am the banner of Latin America.
Listening to music produced by Latinx artists is a powerful way to connect with our Latin heritage, current events, history, folklore, and culture. Read on to learn about some songs from various Latin music artists in different genres that can help you learn about Latin heritage through compelling lyrics and rhythms.
Bad Bunny’s “El Apagón” (Un Verano Sin Ti, 2022)
“El Apagón” by Bad Bunny begins with praising Puerto Rico, naming some admirable and often forgotten Puerto Ricans like Puerto Rican basketball player J.J. Barea, and Puerto Rican rapper, Tego Calderón. Then, the song goes on to the main point, which is calling out the catastrophic outages that disrupted (and continue to disrupt) Puerto Rican lives severely all due to a private company moving into Puerto Rico. Luma, a private company from Houston, took over the energy needs in Puerto Rico in 2021, and since that takeover, severe outages have affected the 1.5 million people the company provides energy for. Many businesses had to close down due to disastrous power outages, and during hurricanes, Puerto Ricans would be more vulnerable to power outages, putting people’s lives at risk.
To make matters worse, a major power plant caught fire in April of 2022 catastrophically causing an island-wide blackout. Puerto Rican journalist, Bianca Graulau has extensively reported this issue, including her collaboration on Bad Bunny’s music video for “El Apagón”. The music video explains the outages in detail, centering the issue throughout the video and in the title of the song. However, it’s not the only statement the piece makes. In many ways, “El Apagón” is a protest against the United States’ ill-treatment of Puerto Rico (currently a U.S. territory), and an outcry to regain Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans. In traditional Latin music style, the beat makes you want to dance, but the lyrics connect you to highly political and personal truths. The song ends with the words:
“Lo que me pertenece a mí se lo quedan ellos/Que se vayan ellos/Esta es mi playa, este es mi sol/Esta es mi tierra, esta soy yo/Esta es mi playa, este es mi sol/Esta es mi tierra, esta soy yo”
A beautiful and danceable reclaiming of land – “This is my land, this is me”. Though I’m not Puerto Rican, I feel seen. Coming from Nicaragua, a country that has had a long history of American military presence, I know what it’s like to feel as though your own land doesn’t quite belong to you. The song’s lyrics, from uplifting Puerto Rican figures to mentioning current events like the power outages, to reclaiming land in the final verse, have a way of helping us connect with Latin America and the Caribbean, specifically Puerto Rico.
Natalia Lafourcade’s Musas Vol 1 (2017) and Vol 2 (2018)
With Natalia Lafourcade, I couldn’t only pick one song. Her albums Musas Vol.1 and 2 are, as Natalia puts it, a homage to Latin American folklore. Throughout both albums, she either modernizes very old songs our grandparents would have learned from their parents or creates new songs that uplift who we are as Latin Americans.
“En Mi Tierra Veracruzana” is an upbeat song about missing home. It’s a song about longing to touch one’s land. “No hay un día que pase que no te piense, esta lejanía me hace extrañarte”. Being a Nicaraguan immigrant, I daydream about what it would be like to be in my other home, drinking my afternoon cafecito with my grandma, dancing barefoot, and resting on a rocking chair behind el portón under my grandparent’s shady tree. The song accurately explains what it feels like to be an immigrant, always longing to see home again.
Natalia’s rendition of “La Llorona” is a beautiful ballad, alluding to the folk story of La Llorona, popular across many Latin American countries. The song’s lyrics come from an unknown author, the words passed down for generations as a story, a poem, or a song. This reimagining of traditional folklore makes me feel closely connected with Latin America because these are the stories that my grandparents told me, my brothers, and my cousins, when we would all round up after a long day of playing. My friends from Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala have also told me these stories, all with a unique local twist, yet with the same underlying narrative, and that makes me feel so united with Latin America as a whole. The song brings up these memories, and in my mind, I am back home.
Kali Uchis’ “Telepatía” (Sin Miedo del Amor y Otros Demonios, 2020)
“Telepatía” by Kali Uchis draws inspiration from many musical backgrounds. The song is bilingual and unapologetic about it! So often, Latin music is translated into one language or the other. I remember hearing this song on Spotify and thinking, “She sings how I think!”. I think in English and Spanish because I’ve spent most of my life in the U.S., but my parents primarily spoke Spanish at home. I imagine lots of folks with Latin American ancestry who were born in the U.S. or immigrated here can relate to feeling seen when artists make bilingual content – it’s a loud message that the content is specifically for us, and it feels so good to be seen and prioritized. The song also exemplifies how our music is as diverse as Latinxs are, drawing inspiration from many different musical backgrounds.
Celia Cruz’s “Cuando Salí de Cuba” (Serenata Guajira, 1968)
Celia Cruz’s rendition of “Cuando Salí de Cuba” (originally Luis Aguile’s song), gives me chills. I close my eyes and let her powerful melodic voice transport me to Cuba in 1959, visualizing the 1.4 million people that had to leave Cuba after Fulgencio Batista was removed from power by Fidel Castro and his army. It was the largest refugee flow to the U.S. in history. The problem is, when we’re forced to leave home, home never stops being home, and there is no closure.
“Nunca podré morir, mi corazón no lo tengo aquí …. Cuando salí de Cuba, dejé mi vida, dejé mi amor. Cuando salí de Cuba, dejé enterrado mi corazón”.
So many Latin American immigrants can relate to the feeling of missing a home they had to leave. For me, this song brings up the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979 that forced over 150,000 people to seek refuge. Though I was not alive then, I can empathize with the grief that comes from having home stolen from you.
Our music has a way of connecting us with our roots, history, culture, each other, and ourselves. These musical moments inspire me to have a relationship with the music that is made by other Latinxs and also give me the opportunity to rest in Latin culture, music, and content made by other Latinxs for Latinxs. Music is powerful. We could all benefit from a little more salsa and reggaeton in our lives.