When history is told only by those in power, people resort to music and other forms of expression to leave their testimonies out for the world to hear; to expose their everyday reality. When it comes to Latin America, these experiences have been constant and harsh, but so has been the resilience and strength of its people, who have always found the way to fight those who have oppressed.
The following songs might not give us that many specific details about the historical episodes they talk about, but they portray something more important: the pain, the struggle, and sometimes even joy and mockery used as resilient weapons. They talk about heroes and rebels, dictators and massacres, but more importantly, about the human condition.
“La Rebelión” – Joe Arroyo
It would be hard to find anyone who hasn’t danced at least once to this mega-popular salsa song. But behind its joyful beat, the song tells a story about the horrors of slavery. It starts by telling us it’s going to tell a story about black history and a couple of slaves brought to Colombia in the seventeenth century. When the husband sees his owner mistreating his wife, he forgets about everything and jumps to defend her in a heroic and also rebellious act against a dreadful system that lasted for centuries.
“Yá Yá Massemba” – Maria Bethânia
Like the previous one, this song also talks about slavery, specifically about the experience of slaves being transported to the New World. The voice talks about how their story starts in the dark belly of a slave ship and how the only thing they could do to forget about their reality was listen to the sound of the waves and be entranced by the beam of moonlight that slipped through the gaps in the wood. A really moving song about resilience and pride.
“Anacaona” – Cheo Feliciano
This song pays homage to Anacaona, the Taino princess who chose to be hanged before accepting to become the concubine of a Spanish conquistador. Praised as a hero and a really smart leader and analyst, her story has become a symbol of rebellion and heroism.
“La Cucaracha” – Unknown Artist
This one’s probably one of the most well-known Mexican songs in the world, and it’s much more than just a catchy tune about a cockroach that can’t walk. Though it’s believed to be a nineteenth-century Spanish song, it became highly popular during the Mexican Revolution when the lyrics were changed to talk about the different stages of the conflict. There are so many lyrics to the song that it’s fascinating to see how people adapted the tunes constantly to keep it relevant to the course the movement was taking.
“Latinoamérica” – Calle 13
Though this song doesn’t talk about a specific moment in Latin American history, it’s become a modern anthem about the general experience and essence of Latin American people. It talks about our folklore, landscapes, cultural richness, and unique flavors; but it’s also about the pain of our history, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the political disappearances of the past century, the fight against injustice, and so much more.
“Hasta Siempre, Comandante” – Carlos Puebla
Written in 1965, this song was Carlos Puebla’s response to Che Guevara’s farewell letter when he left Cuba. The song is an homage to Guevara and the role he played in the Cuban Revolution. Though the song is a glorifying gift to Che, it’s become an anthem for many revolutionary causes and has been covered a lot of times by musicians from all over the world.
“Canción Por La Unidad Latinoamericana” – Pablo Milanés
Also in response to the Cuban Revolution, this song by Pablo Milanés talks about the oppression the Cuban people lived during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and how, in his view, Fidel’s revolution liberated the country. At the end of the song, he says that people always say Simón Bolivar was the spark that, along with José Martí, liberated Latin America, but for Milanés, Fidel was the one who gave people their dignity back.
“Mataron al Chivo” – Negrito Macabí y la Orquesta de Antonio Morel
El Chivo was the nickname given to Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic for over thirty years. After his assassination in 1961 by a group of revolutionaries, the people were ecstatic, and songs like this one were sung happily on the streets of the island. With a festive merengue rhythm, the song literally celebrates his assassination as the end of an era of repression, death, and disappearances.
“La Masacre en Tlatelolco” – Oscar Chávez
Chávez is known in Mexico for his protest songs that deal with social subjects. This particular song talks about the protesting students in 1968 who were massacred by the government. The song urges people not to forget the tragedy, but also to keep up the fight and the movement, a very important message that resonates to this day.
“Los Dinosaurios” – Charly García
This protest song by the iconic rock musician talks about the thousands and thousands of people disappeared by the government during the Argentinian dictatorship of the seventies and eighties. It talks about how, at any moment, a friend, a family member, or the love of your life could disappear without any explanation.
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