You might be forgiven for thinking that Latin songs are all about love, about partying, or about a combination of the two. And certainly those themes do appear quite frequently. An English-speaking friend of mine would always joke that there isn’t a Latin song without the word “corazón” (“heart”) somewhere in the lyrics. But this is, of course, an unfair simplification. There are Latin songs about all sorts of topics and issues. One that is often on the mind of Latin Americans is work: the need to work to survive, the meaning of work in the life of the individual, the family, the community. Two very popular tunes from Argentina approach work from very different persepctives. “Las Manos de Mi Madre,” written by Peteco Carbajal and Jacinto Piedra, and popularized by the great Mercedes Sosa, is about how the most mundane, menial work can become glorious and beautiful when seen through loving eyes. “La Guitarra” by Los Auténticos Decadentes appears to be the exact opposite, an anti-work song. In fact, the two are not as different as they initially seem. They both stand against the middle-class, bourgeois version of work: putting on a suit and going to do work that you hate so you can make money and buy things. Both songs imply that a life of such work is shallow and meaningless, and propose instead their very different alternatives.
“Las Manos de Mi Madre” translates as “My Mother’s Hands.” It is also known as “Como Pájaros en el Aire” (“Like Birds in the Air”). Both titles are appropriate since they come from the first two lines of the lyrics, but also because both express the vision of work that the song is trying to convey. Written by the famed folklorists Peteco Carbajal and Jacinto Piedra, from Santiago del Estero in Argentina, the song is told from the perspective of a child who narrates a regular day in his (or her) mother’s life. The dominant simile is that of hands that move back and forth like birds, quick and skillful and beautiful. This is a poor family, in which the father is presumably working outside the house or perhaps absent altogether, and so the mother must do all the work of the home. She cooks and kneads the dough, she washes and works the garden, she carries the wood and molds the clay. The life depicted in the song is hard, hunger and cold always threaten, but the hard work of the mother brings hope and warmth to the child’s heart: “The everyday becomes magical,” thanks to the mother’s sacrifice and abnegation. In the incomparable voice of Mercedes Sosa, the song carries the weight of an entire continent of poor workers who struggle to get past every day, but who still look up at their hard-working mothers and fathers with admiration and love.
A completely different tone pervades “La Guitarra,” by the Argentine ska band Los Auténticos Decadentes. While “Las Manos de Mi Madre” is hopeful but melancholic, “La Guitarra” is lighthearted and very funny. “La Guitarra” is, first and foremost, a dance song with a fluid rhythm that invites the hopping-up-and-down style of dancing preferred by Argentines of all ages. It is also a busy song: sung in chorus by the band members, accompanied by a large ensemble of wind, string, keyboard, and percussion instruments. It’s the story of a young man who is being pressured by his family to grow up and become respectable. That means go to work. But this is not what the youngster wants: “My rebellious spirit laughed,” he says, “at money, luxury, and comfort.” And so he decides to reject work and live the life of the artist: “I don’t want to work. I don’t want to study. I don’t want to get married. I want to play my guitar all day and have people fall in love with my voice!” There’s something very bohemian about the song, in its embrace of the rootless life but also in its mockery of adults. While the child of “Las Manos de Mi Madre” idolizes the mother, the young man of “La Guitarra” has nothing but contempt for his father.
And so the songs seem like complete contrasts of each other, but they are not really. What both narrators want is a life in which the everyday feels important and meaningful. They see in the work of the privileged classes, who work for money and luxury and comfort, something empty, something that alienates us from real life and ultimately crushes our soul. Not so the work of the poor mother, who makes even the lowliest task seem magical and alive, or the rebellious young man who wants to follow his calling and bring happiness to the world with his music. If these two were to meet in real life, they would probably tell each other their stories and discover how much they share.