American or Latin American?

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What is “America”? What is denoted by that name? What does it mean, and who is it for? For many English speakers, “America” is short for “The United States of America.” In that country, the continent discovered by Christopher Columbus and named after Amerigo Vespucci is called “the Americas”: two continents, North and South America. For the peoples south of the Rio Grande, though, “America” stands for the entire continent. They distinguish, of course, between North and South America, and between Latin and Anglo (and French, and Dutch, and Afro) America, but they don’t see why English-speaking North Americans get to claim the name for themselves, when anyone can see that there is just one continent, one America.

In “De América Yo Soy,” the Mexican band Los Tigres del Norte express this annoyance: “If those born in Europe are European, and those born in Africa are African,” they argue sensibly, “I was born in America and I don’t see why I am not an American.” So, is America one, or are North and Latin America different and separate? And where does Mexico, which is both North and Latin, end up? Music has been key in trying to come to terms with these questions. So far, though, no definitive conclusion has been reached.

One way to deal with the problem has been to focus on the natural beauty and wonder of the continent, leaving the historical and cultural differences aside. Two classic songs by Spanish singers, both titled “América,” paint a very romantic, and unrealistic, picture. “An immense garden, that is America,” croons Nino Bravo. “When God created Eden, he thought of America.” In his love letter to the continent, José Luis Perales adopts a very similar tone: “You smell like the prairie, like eternal spring. You smell like the future, and freedom.” Both songs nod towards the continent’s more complicated past – Bravo mentions “a people who has not yet broken its chains” and Perales recalls the “peasant blood spilled for your freedom” – but neither is really interested in going there in a serious way.

This attitude is not just naïve but insulting. How easy it is for Spaniards to think of America as a pristine paradise that they found during their adventures over the sea. How easy to brush aside the suffering of the original inhabitants of the land. Romantic songs about the beauty of America, such as “Canción de América” by the Chilean folk group Quilapayún and “Soy Loco por Tí, América” by the Brazilian Caetano Veloso, are wonderful, because they come from a place of understanding and respect for the past.

Understanding the American past must begin by acknowledging the immense historical crimes perpetrated by the European conquerors on the native peoples of the continent. Latin American musicians working in every genre have fought to keep that past from oblivion: folk, salsa, pop, rock, and hip hop, and many others have been used to keep alive the memory of the depredations and destruction inflicted on the many Indigenous civilizations. “The wound is not yet healed,” says the Colombian salsa star Hansel Camacho, in “500 Años Después.”

The Panamanian Rubén Blades, in “El Puente del Mundo,” reminds Europeans that the rebirth of their culture after the Middle Ages was paid for with American gold and silver, “a fountain of youth for the old empires.” In “Huelga de Amores” the Uruguayan folk composer Rodrigo López remembers: “They came to cover us up. They found our dancing gods and said ‘close your eyes, give me your land, take this Bible.”

Since the 1980s, this anger has found a perfect conduit in punk rock and heavy metal, especially in Argentina. In “La Revancha de América,” a furious screed by the rock band Hermética, nothing is forgotten or forgiven: “The native peoples of my land have been raped and confounded by the sinister claw of the bitch mother, who is proud to celebrate five hundred years of her arrival.” Other examples include “Sentir Indiano” by Almafuerte and “Sólo por Ser Indios” by A.N.I.M.A.L., which includes this powerful and beautiful rejoinder: “No mercy, no reason, killing in the name of God. Silver burns their souls and the air smells of shame.”

Such unapologetic rejection is off-putting to some, but it is merely the new incarnation of the same sentiment in protest songs from the 1960s and 1970s, such as “Amutuy Soleded” by the folk group Hermanos Berbel and “Cinco Siglos Igual” by León Gieco. Few can match the righteous indignation of Amparo Ochoa. The Mexican singer’s music boasts more mellow rhythms than her hard-rock successors, but her lacerating lyrics, accompanied by her signature trembling voice, are haunting and unforgettable. In “Maldición de la Malinche,” Ochoa rails against the conquerors – “like evil demons they came with fire in their hands” – but she saves her most fulminating barbs for those who welcomed them in. Malinche was the Christian name of the Indian woman who helped Hernán Cortés destroy the Aztec Empire. For Ochoa, singing in the ’60s, Latin America was teeming with Malinches: “In the twentieth century the blond people keep coming and we open our homes to them and call them friends.”

Who are those blond people today? Given the strong influence that the United States has exerted over its southern neighbors since the time of independence, it is all too easy to connect the Spanish conquerors with the imperialist Yankees (or gringos). “Yesterday, mirrors for gold,” says Argentine punk band Los Violadores in “Mercado Indio,” “Today, dollars for cheap trinkets.” As the Spaniards came to steal gold and silver, so do gringos come to steal what’s left.

In “América Sí,” Chilean singer Evelyn Cornejo complains: “we’re all outside the system, which marginalizes and takes away all that we have.”

The Argentine heavy-metal band Tren Loco sums it up in “500 Años de Qué”: “The outsiders are in charge!” The power of multinational corporations provokes resentment and fuels the long-seething anger.

“You can’t buy the wind, you can’t buy the sun,” admonishes the Puerto Rican hip hop group Calle 13, “you can’t buy the rain, you can’t buy warmth.”

The Chilean folk rock group Los Jaivas, in “Indio Hermano,” agrees: “I will not change. My destiny is to resist this civilization of power and ambition.”

“Yankees! Out of Latin America!,” concludes the Chilean rap star Ana Tijoux in “Somos Sur.”

This reflexive hatred of the United States is, in its way, as simplistic and naïve as the image of America as an eternal green garden. Certainly the U.S. sought to control the actions of Latin American governments for over a century, and to take advantage of the continent’s resources for its own purposes. But is that still the case today? The U.S. has not intervened in Latin America since its invasion of Panama in 1989. In fact, many of these protest songs do not distinguish between multinational corporations, many of which are American, but also European, Japanese, and also Latin American, and the U.S. government. Latin Americans are plenty guilty of keeping those borders in place and continually fighting against each other.

Some musicians dream of a return to America’s indigenous past. It wasn’t the peaceful Eden full of noble savages that some people imagine, but it was its own place, with its own peoples and their own cultures. “I come to sing the prophesy,” proclaims the Argentine Victor Heredia in “Taki Ongoy,” “The Indian is not dead.”

In “Canción para Mi América,” the Uruguayan Daniel Viglietti sees the future: “The skin of the Indian will show the path.”

“Wake up, aborigine!,” call Los Fabulosos Cadillacs in “Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina,” “Respect your origins, the open veins of the wise shaman.”

But these songs are just pining for a past that will never return. America today is something completely different. In “Carabelas,” the Guatemalan pop star Ricardo Arjona decries the “messengers of traps and colonization, bringing demons and a new religion,” but ends his song on a positive note, because, after all the suffering, “the black and the Indian and the Spaniard have all mixed, to God’s delight.” And he’s right.

All one needs to do is listen to Latin Music: North and South, Anglo and Spanish and Portuguese and African and Native, modern and traditional, salsa and folk and rock and hip hop. For many centuries now, the past, present, and future of Latin America, of America, is one of diversity and change.

“I didn’t color my continent,” mused the Peruvian poet Nicomedes Santa Cruz fifty years ago in “Abrazo Latinoamericano,” “I didn’t paint Brazil green, Peru yellow, Bolivia red. I didn’t draw borders that separate brother from brother.” Who did? The Europeans, and the United States, and also Latin Americans themselves. But what for?, Santa Cruz is asking.

All Americans are brothers – “thick-lipped blonds, bearded Indians, straight-haired blacks” – and all are the same.

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