The Afro-Latinx Experience Is Essential To Our International Reckoning On Race
FELIX CONTRERAS, HOST:
From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras. This week's show will be one of those in which we pause the music for a bit and talk through some things. We're going to have a conversation about how Afro-Latinx folks often get left out of the national discussions about Blackness in the Black Lives Matter movement. And we're also going to do a follow-up interview with Dominican musician and novelist Rita Indiana, who's going to address Afro-Caribbean Blackness and discrimination. And since this week is Independence Day, we're going to hear a story about a Spanish translation of a song and how it can remind us of the ideals that many folks in the streets are demonstrating about, but first up, that conversation about Afro-Latinidad.
A few weeks ago I went down to the side of the fence that had been put up along Lafayette Park that walled off the White House from the street demonstrations going on. And along H Street, the fence had become a street gallery of sorts. Thousands of signs supporting Black lives had been hung up on the fence. And one of the signs I saw read Latinx for BLM or Black Lives Matter. And it struck me that the sentiment behind the sign, while noble, kind of reflected a deep misunderstanding of Afro-Latinx communities, that it sent a message that somehow people can't be both Black and Latino or Latinx.
And this week we're going to have that difficult conversation that is avoided around kitchen tables and porches in Latinx communities around the country and in Latin America. We're going to talk about race. And to help facilitate that conversation, I brought in some help. With us today is Anaïs Laurent. She is a new ALT.LATINO contributor. She's going to co-host the show. She currently works here at NPR in another department. And Anaïs self-identifies as Afro-Latin with both Haitian and Venezuelan roots. Anaïs, welcome to ALT.LATINO.
ANAIS LAURENT, BYLINE: Hey, Felix, nice to join.
CONTRERAS: And our guests who are here to help us wade through all of this are Petra Rivera-Rideau who is the assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley College. Petra, welcome.
PETRA RIVERA-RIDEAU: Thanks for having me.
CONTRERAS: Welcome back, I should say - and also Omaris Zamora, who is assistant professor of Afro-Latinx studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Omaris, welcome back as well.
OMARIS ZAMORA: Thank you for having me.
CONTRERAS: OK, I guess the first thing we need to do is, how would you define Afro-Latinidad? Let's start with you, Omaris.
ZAMORA: That's a great question, Felix, that I think a lot of people ask themselves, especially in the moment that Afro-Latinidad is coming back into the conversation or back into the forefront in a mainstream sense. And, you know, I always go back to "The Afro-Latin@ Reader" that was edited by Miriam Jiménez Román and by Juan Flores, particularly in the introduction, right? - when I teach my classes to define what I Afro-Latinidad is - right? - to talk about, particularly the fact of Blackness or the fact of Afro-Latinidad - right? - and speaking about racially and visibly Black people - right? - that are descendants of folks who come from Latin America - right? - living in the United States, particularly when we're talking about the term Afro-Latino - right? - or Afro-Latina, Afro-Latinx. So that's one of the definitions that I always use and go by - right? - to really center the socioeconomic, political and lived experiences of Black Latinos in the United States.
LAURENT: So let's talk about how historically the racism and class construct has shaped Afro-Latinidad. Terms like pelo malo or mejorar la raza are very common in our communities.
RIVERA-RIDEAU: One of the things that's so striking, I think about some of those phrases and stuff is that, you know, Latin America is a large and diverse region of the world, and yet almost everywhere has that kind of phrase, right? And I think we have to think about Afro-Latinidad and this U.S. experience as also transnational. It's something that is also talked about in "Afro-Latin@ Reader," that Latinx communities are inserted into a kind of U.S. racial formation, but they're also informed by the kinds of racial discourses that happen in Latin America and in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, in this case.
And in South America, Latin America there historically was, you know, slavery and all of these things that we don't learn about in the U.S., right? So more enslaved people went south of the United States than came to the United States. And as countries that are based on both the colonization of these indigenous groups and also the slave system - right? - enslaving people of African descent, you have the creation of these racial hierarchies within Latin America in which whiteness and European ancestry becomes prioritized over Indigenous or African ancestry. And so we have to think about the ways that something like saying mejorar la raza - right? - so marrying someone lighter than you in order to produce - ostensibly produce lighter complexioned offspring is based on this larger historical system in which whiteness is the valued entity, right?
LAURENT: Yeah, and I mean, all of that really perpetuates a sense of erasure or simply being invisible. It's like you look at me, but do you really see me? And society doesn't seem to know how to perceive us. We don't really fit in their neatly constructed boxes, and I think that's something that people are trying to figure out how to navigate.
ZAMORA: One of the things that we often - I guess, comes - leaves the conversation of Afro-Latinidad is that, you know, with the historical, we're also talking about the afterlives of slavery - right? - and how Blackness and Afro-Latinidad is experienced systemically, institutionalized. Even though there might be the term of, you know, like, pelo malo, mejorar la raza, the comments in our culture as people say, oh, that's a cute baby because it's white and has blue eyes or - so I think one of the things that I really want to emphasize in the conversation for our listeners is that Afro-Latinidad or Black Latinidad that is not just about skin color - right? - and that, oh, people are just ignorant. They don't know.
This is systemic, right? We're living in the afterlife of slavery. What comes after is not just the comments. What comes after is also the fact that you show up to an interview, and you don't get the job at the predominantly Latino place because you're a Black Latina, Black Latino or Black Latinx. This is also systemic in that in some way, shape or form we tend to - you know, Black Latinos still tend to fit into certain kind of boxes as we move from one room to the next - right? - from one job to the next and the ways that microaggressions are still very much present.
Like, being told that my hair is the most exotic in a predominantly white town is the most microagressive thing I can hear. And I'm just like, oh, and I'm hearing this from another Latina - right? - who is a non-Black Latina. And it goes beyond just skin color, which is one of the things that a lot of folks who are bringing the Black Lives Matter movement and experiences, for example, of Blackness in Puerto Rico and - right? - and merging the two as part of the same conversation is about pointing out - right? - that this is systemic.
CONTRERAS: Let's make that pivot to the Black Lives Matter movement. Anaïs, you mentioned something about the idea of invisibility within both the general population as well as Latino population. Do you think that there's an inherent understanding, and therefore Afro-Latinos are not included when they're talking about Black Lives Matter? Do you think that the general population just sort of forgets - again, forgets and doesn't see that population when they talk about a person with dark skin being harassed by the police department?
ZAMORA: I really like your question, Felix, because I think in general, public tends to understand Black Lives Matter as being predominantly about Black Americans in the United States. And so Afro-Latinos may not necessarily be at the forefront of that conversation in the media. We do know that locally and regionally, when we're talking about major cities, people are talking about Afro-Latinos being part of Black Lives Matter. But I don't think that the media on a national level is doing the work to understand that Blackness is heterogeneous - right? - that there are black Latinos, that there are Afro-Latinos who are very much a part of Black Lives Matter and those experiences that we're talking about when we're talking about police brutality.
I think we need to make that push because what happens is that I end up having conversations with family members or friends - right? - who are Latino and will ask me questions like, well, are we really part of Black Lives Matter when Black Lives Matter isn't talking about children in ICE detention centers and cages. That will be their pushback. And my response to that is, well, that is a good point. But the question is that when we're talking about children and people who are in ICE detention centers, a lot of times Afro-Latinos are still also being invisibilized out of those conversations. We're not talking about Black people who are at these detention centers when we're talking about abolishing ICE - right? - or abolishing the police period. So there is an invisiblizing that happens on both ends nationally speaking in terms of Afro-Latinos in Black Lives Matter, but we're also talking about Afro-Latinos and other Black immigrants in the conversation around Latino immigration, abolishing ICE and - right? - children in cages.
CONTRERAS: I flash back to a video of a conversation I saw with the performer, Amara La Negra. And she was on a radio show. I think it was a hip-hop show. And the African American hosts - they were asking her, OK, are you Latina, or are you Black? And they had a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that she's both.
RIVERA-RIDEAU: I mean, I feel like that's a constant story that we hear over and over again, which is what - exactly what Omaris was talking about, this kind of invisibility that makes it difficult for people to think in these more complex ways that somebody could be both in ICE detention and also part of - you know, subject to anti-Black policing, right?
Another thing I wanted to mention based on Omaris' point about the media representation, too, is to think about Spanish-language media. And what I have seen has promoted a lot of, like, Latinos should support Black Lives Matter but again and totally invisibilizing the Afro-Latinx experience so that there is a push for solidarity with a group that is imagined as fundamentally distinct from the Latinx population, even though Afro-Latinx people are a large percentage of the Latinx population, right? And so even in Spanish-language media but even in some more progressive Latinx spaces, we continue to see this invisibilizing of the Afro-Latinx experience through expressions of solidarity that don't account for anti-Blackness within Latinx communities. You know, it's important to point out that it's not just CNN or these mainstream U.S.-based media outlets that are making this invisible but also ours.
CONTRERAS: OK, Anaïs, I think you had a question.
LAURENT: Well, speaking of the media, I think we should pivot to music. Do you think that reggaeton can be a bridge builder that heals and empowers different communities of color throughout the world simply because it's - of its expansive reach? You know, it's a global phenomenon. You hear it all around the world. And I'm just curious if you think that in a sense, this can just be a way to heal and really let people know about its culture and its rich history.
RIVERA-RIDEAU: Yes, I think potentially it could be. I also - I'm not sure, you know? I mean, I don't think it's going to end systemic racism. I do wonder, you know, some of the kinds of ways that Afro-Latinidad is trending - right? - in our society and also in academic circles, I think - I always wonder if that also has to do with, like, this popularity of this music that people know is associated with Blackness. And so I think it can be a window for people to start learning things. Like, I've seen it even in - amongst my students sometimes. You know, it becomes a window into learning about the history of the African diaspora in even places like Mexico or Central America, where we don't think about the Black populations that live there. So I suppose in that sense, it could be a form of healing. But there's - as Omaris was mentioning before, there is all these systemic institutional forms of racism that are impacting Afro-Latinx communities. And, you know, I don't know how to change that (laughter). I don't know. Omaris, what are you - I'm interested to hear what you have to say.
ZAMORA: Yeah, I agree. I don't think that the musical genre itself will create change in that way. I think it has the potential to create awareness because I think that scholars like you, Petra, and others - right? - who bring these musical genres - we bring it to our classrooms, and we use it as a form of analysis, teaching tools that really bring it to students.
You know, my preoccupation's also like what does the music do for people who don't make it to our college classrooms? And how can reguetoneros who have that impact - I don't expect a whole lesson from them. But it's like, you know, you have this platform, and what would it mean to say one thing? What would it mean - because, you know, we have social media. They have major followers in social media and Twitter, right? We know that this is how they make their money, right? They're celebrities. This is the work that they do, right? So I don't expect that Latino popular music, particularly reggaeton at the moment, is going to be a space where these artists are going to be honest about their own appropriations of Blackness - right? - and Black aesthetics. Like, I don't think they're ever going to do that, even though there is - in some ways that is what they're doing - right? But I don't expect it.
If there was a moment in which something like that happened, I think that could be something, right? We're not ever going to forget Tego Calderón, even though he's not as famous as Bad Bunny or, you know, Daddy Yankee. But we all know that Tego Calderón was always very voiceful - right? - about Blackness and the genre and Black history and culture, right? But - right? - that comes with what? You know, maybe some - you know, some of our college students now probably don't even know who Tego Calderón is, right?
CONTRERAS: I got to say it's a remarkable time right now, I mean, 'cause so many things at least on the surface are changing. I think the big question I'm sure a lot of people have is, like, how long will this wave of change last? How long will this wave of commitment from nonethnic communities, you know, basically from white people - how long will that last? And how will it manifest going down the line? But I do got to say in - you know, in the years of watching all this stuff - and things are changing. I mean, I got to check the phone every day to see what has changed, you know? The whole - you know, everything from a Black NASCAR driver to, you know, the statues being taken down - I mean, things is happening on the regular.
LAURENT: The energy is different this time. Like, being in D.C. and just being in the heart of it, I mean, I know a lot of people are paying attention because obviously it's like now the white people are out in solidarity with us. So that's why a lot of people are paying attention. But it's - I have never seen something like this before.
ZAMORA: I mean, it's unfortunate that sometimes these natural or health disasters happen, and then, you know, like, when we think about, like, Hurricane Maria and then, you know, last summer - right? - in Puerto Rico - right? - with all that, you know, a lot of times there's these things that really put the pressure and the reminder - right? - on people's everyday life of this sucks. And we have to - you know, and the anger builds up, right? I think the pandemic - it was a catalyst for the boil point, the boil over - right? - because this is something that people have been feeling and experiencing for a very long time.
And so to be - you know, the economic downturn that's happening, people losing their jobs, people dying - right? - and then, you know, it's - this isn't like people are being killed by the police just now. No, people have been killed by the police for a very long time. But a pandemic was not happening at the same time as those moments, right? And now that people are also forced to be at home - right? - they also have the time all of a sudden to, like, slow down a bit and listen - right? - to what's happening and feel their anger - right? - because you're not in the go, go, go, go, go. You have a moment to sit with that.
CONTRERAS: That's true.
ZAMORA: And I think that the pandemic was - has been a catalyst for people to take the streets.
LAURENT: It's in their face, and I've been just trying to figure out - it's like, how do we use that rage constructively, you know? So...
ZAMORA: And productively and be protective of that rage, right? Like, I - I'm upset when I get all these statements of Black Lives Matter from companies that I know don't give a s*** about Black people. And it's upsetting me because it's the same thing that has happened with even Black music - right? - of being co-opted and capitalized and monopolized that I feel like these corporations are also trying to do with our rage.
RIVERA-RIDEAU: I know. I was thinking about that because, like, even, like, Amazon was caring about Black lives. And I was like, no, you don't, you know? You don't care about them.
The other thing I was going to say about the pandemic - when we're in this moment where the systemic inequality is so in your face, it's much harder to make the argument that someone like George Floyd was an individual who needed this, right? It's easier for people to see all of these things, I think, happening together and easier for them to see it as a system 'cause all these other systems are starting to fail at the same time.
RIVERA-RIDEAU: And so I think that also - I agree with you. I think it's partially people are home, and they have more time. Or they're sick of being home, and they're going to check it out, and then they're going to listen more. And I think also we - the narratives that we've fallen back on when people get killed by the police that, like, oh, this person was acting this way, and this person is a bad apple 'cause of XYZ - they don't hold water anymore.
CONTRERAS: Thank you again for being with us today. Petra Rivera-Rideau and Omaris Zamora, thank you both for taking time to talk to us today.
ZAMORA: Thank you for having me.
CONTRERAS: OK, Anaïs, one of the things that we need to talk about is why this conversation is so difficult to have in Latino households.
LAURENT: Yeah, I mean, I think it's difficult because it's so complex. You know, it's like Afro descendants in countries south of the United States all had a very different history that led to a very different nuance around race. And, you know, we look at messages portrayed on the media, and they're all a consequence of colonialism. You know, you look at music videos. You look at telenovelas. And you rarely see Afro-Latinas or Afro-Latinos at the forefront. You know, I can count on my hand. It's like, oh, man, like, I spotted one. You know, it's kind of, like, a fun thing if I'm able to see one. And it's 2020, you know? We need to see more of that at this time.
CONTRERAS: Another important thing to remember is that just as with music here in the United States, there's a lot of music throughout Latin America that ultimately has its roots in Africa.
LAURENT: Definitely. You know, and the DNA of so much music is Black. And I think there are a lot of contradictions in the Latino community because we honor icons such as Celia Cruz, Oscar D'León, Joe Arroyo, El General, you know, and I'll throw in Tego Calderón there. And they're all loved. They're celebrated. And they're clearly Black, you know? And that's why I gravitated so much towards reggaeton because it was Black music in Spanish, and it gave me a strong sense of belonging.
CONTRERAS: At the beginning of the show, we mentioned that you self-identify as Afro-Latina. Talk to us a little bit about some of your experiences and how that's influencing how you see things now and what's going on here.
LAURENT: It's interesting. I look back at being, you know, in elementary school where you're taking a test, and you have to check a box. And it's, you know, trying to figure out who you are. But I never fit neatly into those boxes. You know, it's Black, not Hispanic in parentheses or Hispanic, in parentheses not Black. So do I check other? You know, which box do I check? But I also want to honor where I come from, which is both. I am both.
CONTRERAS: As I mentioned, this is a topic that's not discussed very openly and very often, especially among my generation. I'm just a few years older than you are. So it's not discussed very often.
CONTRERAS: But that seems to be changing with folks in your generation right now. That's a topic that's open for discussion.
LAURENT: Totally. You know, and I think it's the browning of the world. You know, you see younger generations, and they're mixing, you know? Their friends are of all different cultures, and it's a melting pot. And it's - you know, you see a lot of people of color breaking barriers. And I think that especially right now, it's not enough to not be racist. You have to be proactively anti-racist. And that's speaking up, you know, using your privilege to create change and educating others. So I have a lot of admiration and hope in our future, and I think the tolerance for racism is very different now. So I think that we will see a paradigm shift, and it's exciting to see that through different mediums like fashion and music.
CONTRERAS: I want to believe in it, too, just like you, so hopefully things will change. Anaïs Laurent, thank you so much for joining us on the show, and welcome to the family of ALT.LATINO contributors. Were really, really happy to have you join us.
LAURENT: Thank you so much. This is great.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONTRERAS: Three weeks ago, former ALT.LATINO co-host Jasmine Garsd interviewed Rita Indiana. The interview took place before the streets here in the U.S. erupted with demonstrations against police violence. So Jasmine caught up again with Rita Indiana for the following interview. And be advised - she asked to answer Jasmine's questions in Spanish.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Dado todo lo que está pasando, era importante volver a hacer unas preguntas. How are people reacting to it where you are - in Puerto Rico?
RITA INDIANA: Se está destapando una olla de grillos - ¿no? - en todas partes con esto. O sea - I think people are waking up everywhere. I mean, we watch - we saw it in Europe this weekend, and it's happening in the DR as well. Like, people are talking about race problems and race issues. And I think it's long overdue, you know? And at least it's - to me, it's - I get very emotional to see this, like, to see people just - these waves, like, seas of people just in every city. It's been really muy - very inspiring.
GARSD: Yeah, I was wondering - you know, I went to a protest in Washington Heights in Dyckman because a couple of nights before the protest, I went to report. There had been kind of a standoff between Dominicans and Black Lives Matter protesters. I was just wondering - you know, it led to a really interesting conversation among those protesters about this is not a uniquely white American problem. This is also a problem in Latin American culture and in Caribbean culture. And I was wondering what you think of that?
INDIANA: El problema racial dominicano es muy complejo. Somos un país que ha desarrollado su identidad racial a partir de una negación, a partir de lo que no somos. No somos haitianos. No somos negros. No somos africanos. No practicamos vodú - una fantasía total porque sí somos un país 85% afrodescendiente. Y esto un tema que he trabajado mucho, que me interesa mucho y que ahora - yo creo que hay una generación que se ha educado de otra forma, que está viendo también - se ha educado no solo de la forma tradicional académica sino a través de la cultura, a través de hip-hop, una cultura que nace de los afroamericanos. Y entonces, pues, hay una - hay como una visión un poco distinta y más abierta a pensar ciertas cosas de la raza en República Dominicana.
Yo creo que es un momento muy importante de que esto se ramifique en el mundo entero porque yo creo que esto es un problema, es un problema mundial - ¿no? - el racismo y que no afecta solamente a una porción de la humanidad, sino que nos afecta todos. En Dominicana es importante que se empiecen a abrir espacios de educación y de conversación sobre estas cosas porque no podemos - no es todo igual. No poder a, bueno, Black Lives Matter, ahora este movimiento lo ponemos como un Burger King, y lo llevamos a Santo Domingo. O sea, hay que replantearse las cosas o sea, entender también cuáles son los problemas nuestros como país, así en cada país latinoamericano son distintas mecánicas, distintas - distinto trauma, distinto en cada país.
GARSD: Yeah, I think - and that was something that, in "El Juidero" and, like, for example, in "Da Pa Lo Do," that was, like, one song that was just, like - people were telling me over the weekend - I was, like, I'm going to catch back up with Rita. And a lot of people were like, I thought "Da Pa Lo Do" was, like, just this really great song about, like, Haitian-Dominican relations. You don't hear a lot of songs about that.
INDIANA: No, es un poco un tema tabú en República Dominicana. La gente que se atreve hablar de ese tema desde una perspectiva de unidad, de hermandad, de diálogo son tachados por una parte de la población, una zona muy nacionalista y xenófoba como que estábamos vendiendo la Patria, que estamos, porque, bueno, nuestra independencia fue una independencia de los - de una invasión - tras una invasión haitiana de varias décadas, pero eso pasó hace tiempo, ya han pasado de todo, o sea, tenemos que empezar a dialogar de otra forma con estos vecinos que tenemos al lado y que vienen a trabajar a mano forzada en nuestro país. Y que todos sus descendientes que son dominicanos, porque nacieron en República Dominicana, y han vivido en Dominicana y trabajan para República Dominicana y pagan impuestos en República Dominicana. No es un - es como te digo, es un tema que es un campo minado, la conversación sobre las relaciones dominicanas y haitianas es un campo minado en mi país. es un tema que si lo tocas y lo tocas dese la justicia social, vas a ser tachada de que tú lo que quieres es acabar con la República Dominicana, anti dominicana, o sea, yo viví - he tenido que fregar con eso desde que empecé a tratar ese tema en literatura y en mi música.
GARSD: And speaking of campo minado, you know, a couple of people I spoke to over the weekend were like, hey, could you ask her about her decision to - in the video for "Da Pa Lo Do," to darken her makeup? It was controversial here in some circles, and I was wondering how you came to that decision.
INDIANA: Sí, esa es un, es un, no, es el único video que realmente no me gusta mucho, looking back fue una decisión que no fue buena, era una decisión del director, yo me sentí incómoda desde el primer momento, pero no tenía, tal vez, no tenía las herramientas para comprender lo que estaba haciendo desde otra perspectiva, para mí, en mi perspectiva naïve de ese momento, porque todos tenemos siempre hay que seguir educándonos, en mi perspectiva naïve, yo estaba vistiendo, yo era una mujer queer afro descendiente, caribe que tenía derecho a pintarme así porque estaba haciendo un homenaje a una, a un ADN que me pertenece y que le pertenece a la mayoría de la gente de donde yo vengo, la idea era pintar a la Virgen de negro, no era pintarme yo, si no que estábamos pintando una Virgen que viene de toda esta cosa judío-cristiana de Europa, esa era la idea, pero a veces las ideas se quedan cortas y no uno mira lo problemático tal vez de la idea o la ética que tiene que tener detrás una idea y pues debimos haber en ese momento buscado una actriz negra, dominicana que hiciera ese papel, esa hubiese sido la mejor - la idea más justa y más ética, y pero a la vez de que te digo eso también te digo que nosotros no tenemos una tradición de black face ¿entiende? El black face es una tradición estadounidense en la que un blanco se viste de negro para burlarse de los afro americanos, para animalizar a los afro americanos, entonces es otra, es otro lugar, es otra cultura, es otro contexto. Igual, como te digo eso también, debí haber tomado, debí haberle dicho al director: "Mira, no me voy a pintar, vamos a buscar a una actriz." Y eso lo he tenido - esa conversación la he tenido con gente también en las redes sociales y eso les he dicho que sí, que tienen razón, en verdad.
GARSD: Rita, can I also ask you - like, you're touching on something important, which is you as an artist - a Latino artist, a queer artist - like, initially when you started with your career, like, I know you stepped out because there was a lot of stuff that made you uncomfortable. And it's so difficult to, like, own your voice when you have so many pressures. Do you feel like that was also a learning experience for you, like, to be able to say, like, this makes me uncomfortable; I don't want to do it? And, like, you're in a different place.
INDIANA: Yo creo que eso fue uno de los turning points para - yo estaba ahí ya empezando a - yo creo que fue cuando por primera vez empecé a pensar que no quería estar haciendo eso, no quería estar de aquel lado de la cámara, durante el rodaje de Da pa lo do, y eso fue, yo me convertí un poco en un "Yes person" pues al final de esa etapa, un poco ¿no? Estaba tan agotada, drenada por la tocadera, por la - el faranduleo que no tenía una, o sea, me fui debilitando, mi voluntad se fue debilitando mucho y es una razón por las que, de las que - muy poderosas que dejé la música, o sea es, uno se desgasta tanto que empieza a darle, a decir que sí para salir, tú sabes, "Está bien, dale, vamos a hacerlo, esto va a ser bueno, sí, vamos a hacerlo." Otra cosa que te quería decir, antes de, de la pregunta anterior, sobre el tema de raza en El Caribe. Si nosotros aplicamos, es muy complejo el tema racial en El Caribe, porque si nosotros aplicamos la - esta cosa de Estados Unidos, el one drop of blood, tú sabes, que si tú tienes una gota de sangre afro - africana en tu ADN ere African-American, en El Caribe pues todo el mundo, así que imagínense, es de descendencia africana, entonces qué te, qué puede, qué cuáles, que, que agencia te da eso, ¿qué te permite hacer? ¿Entiende? Es muchísimo más - hay todo un abanico de contextos y colores y está el tema de la clase también que es muy fuerte allá, es la xenofobia también, o sea es un, es una cosa como una molécula bien compleja, el tema racial.
GARSD: Tu trabajo es muy - esta es mi última pregunta, pero tu trabajo es mucho sobre esto y me imagino que el álbum que viene también es mucho sobre este tema, ¿cómo sentís, o sea, en este momento que tu música importa dentro de esa conversación? Que como decís, es casi un tabú tener esa conversación en la isla. Te lo cuento desde el punto de vista, yo, mi ex pareja es dominicana, y en un momento, yo me acuerdo cuando fuimos a conocer a su familia, y en el avión me dijo como quien confiesa un secreto: "Quiero decirte que mi mamá es haitiana." Y fue como una confesión de un secreto, ¿entendés? Entonces era de entrada, como este es un tema súper tabú. ¿Cómo es, cómo la música puede llegar a influenciar o a iniciar una conversación?
INDIANA: Bueno, yo creo que todas las artes nos ayudan a de alguna forma, a normalizar, en el buen sentido de la palabra o más bien a visibilizar cosas que son tabú pero que realmente son tabú porque son injustas y porque permiten, ese tabú permite que la gente siga instaurando ese régimen de la injusticia, entonces pues visibilizar esas cosas, hablar de esas cosas, decir esto (inaudible) esto hay que revisarlo, miremos esto a los ojos, veamos esta mierda está mal, pues a mí por ejemplo, yo hablo mucho desde mi, desde mi experiencia como lesbiana, como una niña queer, si yo hubiese podido ver a una persona como a un Ricky Martin cuando yo tenía siete, ocho años con sus hijos, con su pareja salir del closet, mi vida hubiese sido mucho más feliz, hubiese tenido una vida mucho más feliz, más saludable, tendría una salud mental muchísimo mejor ahora que la que tengo porque sufrí mucho por esa diferencia, por tener que esconderme, por tener que, como pareja dijo, salió del closet, como quien dice, sobre, sobre su ascendencia haitiana, o sea, eso te causa una herida, ese silencio y ese estar ahí, tú sabes, asfixiado con tu realidad, con tu verdad, con quien tú eres y con quién tú quieres ser, entonces yo creo que sí, que es importante, ahroa en medio de la pandemia y todo esto que ha pasado, a veces oy me pregunto, ¿cuál es el sentido, tú sabes, de este arte? Esto es absurdo, pero sí tiene un sentido, tiene una, un potencial liberador y tiene un potencial también de refugio, el arte. Para los que nos hemos sentido marginados por la sociedad de muchas maneras.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONTRERAS: And finally, this week, I wanted to end the show with something that might help put all of these conversations into perspective because at the core of it all is how some try to exclude others for being different when, in fact, celebrating the differences is what makes our society great. What follows is a meditation on that idea in the form of a single song. And believe it or not, it's "The Star-Spangled Banner." ALT.LATINO contributor Marisa Arbona-Ruiz is going to tell us a story about a Spanish-language translation of the song that just might get you thinking about pride and patriotism through a different lens. Her original essay is included on Palabra, a digital platform for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. But before we hear from Marisa, here's that Spanish language translation performed by Puerto Rican vocalist Jeidimar Rijos.
(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "EL PENDÓN ESTRELLADO - OFFICIAL SPANISH VERSION OF THE NATIONAL ANTHEM")
JEIDIMAR RIJOS: (Singing) Mirad, podéis ver al sutil clarear, lo que erguido se alzó, cuando el sol se ocultaba. Y sus franjas y estrellas en el rudo luchar, sobre recio baluarte, Gallardo ondulaba, y la bomba al lanzar su rojiza explosión en la noche dio a ver que allí estaba el pendón. El pendón estrellado, tremola feliz, en la tierra del valor, en libre país.
MARISA ARBONA-RUIZ, BYLINE: When I first heard Jeidimar Rijos' stirring a cappella solo of our national anthem in español, I was struck by waves of emotions. My first reaction was mad delight over the brilliance of the stripped-down power of the song "El Pendón Estrellado," which was produced to raise money to aid Latino essential workers. Next came a flood of memories about how this historic yet little-known translation of our national anthem came to be and my small role in helping bring it to life.
The history of the song is this. In 1945, the U.S. State Department under President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned Clotilde Arias, a Peruvian immigrant, to translate the anthem to Spanish. The U.S. was reeling from the effects of the Second World War, and Roosevelt was keen on spreading U.S. values and patriotism throughout Latin America in the hope that new immigrants would assimilate and embrace all things American, including the national anthem.
In 1945, Arias was a woman ahead of her time for any ethnicity. She left her home in the remote city of Iquitos, Peru, two decades earlier and immigrated to New York City to study music. She became a working musician, composer, copywriter and an advertising manager in the 1940s, holding her own in a world of men. She wrote jingles in Spanish for the likes of IBM, Campbell's Soup, Coca-Cola, Ford and others. She was also a single mom.
Fast-forward some 50 years later, in 2006, her grandson, Roger Arias, found her drafts of the anthem tucked away in a storage box in a garage. His father's boyhood memories of listening to his mamá working on the song at the piano had come to life. He was staring at a piece of history that he couldn't let die. He eventually caught the attention of the late Marvette Pérez, who was a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Marvette was a cultural anthropologist from Puerto Rico who had made her mark in the rarefied world of museum curation by focusing on Latino history and culture, including a remarkable exhibit about Cuban vocalist Celia Cruz that was seen by millions of visitors to the museum. She was blessed with a larger-than-life persona, was an accomplished Afro-Caribbean percussionist with a wicked sense of humor and an unforgettable booming laugh. She was also my friend.
And here is where my path intersected with Clotilde Arias and her historic translation. By the time Marvette got the green light to curate an exhibit about Arias translating the anthem, I was performing alongside Marvette with a D.C.-based acapella ensemble called Cantigas, a multi-ethnic group dedicated to uniting communities through the music of Latin America. By 2012, Marvette was about to launch the exhibit "Not Lost in Translation: The Life of Clotilde Arias," and Cantigas was commissioned for the first-ever recording of "El Pendón Estrellado" to be included within the exhibit and to perform it live on opening day.
For the recording, some 20 of us cantigueros gathered under the direction of artistic director Diana Sáez. Our hearts and vocals synchronized into a beautifully textured body of sound. The music itself was amazing, but the purpose - honoring Clotilde Arias - made it even more special. I got chills as the harmonies flowed. Full disclosure - I don't like war anthems. But that melody, which was originally an old British beer-drinking song, holds a bittersweet place in my heart. My American experience is full of so much joy, but also the pain of racism, oppression, toxic masculinity, exploitation - the kinds of things that have so many people taking to the streets. We're far from the ideal of independence for all. But what's happening now across the country is that a light is being cast upon the nation's darkest shadows. And while "The Star-Spangled Banner's" lyrics were written by a man who owned slaves, the fact that an immigrant woman from Peru was chosen to translate those words remind us that the ideals of the land of the free and the home of the brave apply to us all. For ALT.LATINO, I'm Marisa Arbona-Ruiz.
CONTRERAS: To read Marisa's essay and find links to video performances of "El Pendón Estrellado," go to palabranahj.org. That's palabranahj.org. Thank you so much for listening to this special edition of ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. I'm Felix Contreras.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL PENDÓN ESTRELLADO")
CANTIGAS: (Singing) Mirad, podéis ver al sutil clarear, lo que erguido se alzó, cuando el sol se ocultaba. Y sus franjas y estrellas en el rudo luchar, sobre recio baluarte, Gallardo ondulaba, y la bomba al lanzar su rojiza explosión en la noche dio a ver que allí estaba el pendón. El pendón estrellado, tremola feliz, en la tierra del valor, en libre país.
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