Thursday, October 11, 2012

Latin American Protest Songs


Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
My parents lived through one of the most horrific eras in Argentina's history: a military dictatorship that began in 1976, ended in 1983 and left a toll of death and ruin with which the country is still coming to terms.

Like many children whose parents survived that era, I grew up amid relative peace and democracy, while overhearing painful reminiscences and sensing my parents' fears. In truth, I don't think they themselves could gauge the full mass of their horror: What made those dictatorships most appalling was precisely what couldn't be seen. The disappearances, the lack of bodies, the abundance of empty seats, the screams you didn't hear over the local police station's blaring of loud pop music during "interrogation" sessions — it all added up to a nothingness that crushed everything.

My generation inherited the remnants of that era — both the horrors and the human resilience. When I was a kid, I stumbled upon a book that detailed, case by case, the atrocities inflicted by the military government. They became the lexicon of my nightmares. But I simultaneously stumbled upon the music, art and writing of those who dared to oppose the powers that be. Musicians like Mercedes Sosa, Chico Buarque, Victor Jara and countless others had the courage to write songs — beautiful, musically infectious, lyrically stunning songs — that challenged power. When Buarque sang, "I want to scream an inhuman scream," he spoke for all those who lived whispering.

The power of music is real, and it shows in how the regimes reacted to it. These songs were banned from the radio, their singers forced to leave their countries; in some cases, as with Chile's Victor Jara, they paid with their lives. In this week's show, alongside guest host Gustavo Arellano — known for his work with the syndicated column Ask A Mexican! — we explore iconic political protest musicians, while also celebrating newcomers such as those who've put music to Mexico's student movement.

I often hear stories of Central American friends who survived civil wars and gang disputes not so long ago, or meet Mexican friends who've endured the unimaginable violence of the modern drug wars. Many have bullet wounds and interrogation scars, and all share deep sadness, anger and a yearning for an answer. Congoja is a Spanish word Gustavo and I use a lot this week; it means deep anguish. These friends simply learned earlier on what I didn't realize until I was well into my teens: In Latin America, violence and brutality are never left in the past; we all inherit it. On rare occasions in which my parents spoke of their dark youth, they never spoke of that violence as a fossil; it was always a pendulum which, in a matter of time, would swing back my way.

When I was a teenager, it did. It was 2001 when people took to the streets, a curfew was declared and the Argentine government collapsed. Of all my memories of that time, one always stands out: In the midst of the most heated clashes between protesters and police, a teenager around my age was being taken away by the hair and legs, screaming. He was yelling his first and last name and his ID number for anyone who could hear — in case he didn't come back and became part of that unimaginable nothingness. At that moment, he must have fully understood exactly what we had inherited, as if he'd been read a will. At that exact moment, thankfully, Buarque, Sosa, Jara and so many other Latin American musicians became part of my inheritance, as well.

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