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What’s the Soundtrack of Your Immigrant Culture?

Posted: Apr 28, 2012

Latino immigrants and their descendants have long struggled to define their identity. Like any community, economic and cultural hardships sometimes make them feel isolated and different.

That is why when a survey from the Pew Hispanic recently pointed out how little Latinos have in common with each other - Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Salvadorans, etc are of course distinct - I looked towards music to find something vital that brings our diverse immigrant cultures and experiences back together again.

The books you read, the films you watch, and the foods you eat, are often regarded as reflections of who you are. How you value these things, the way you rank them in your life and present them to others, reveals a small window into your personality. But in no cultural experience is that reflection more intense and sincere than in music.

Music is often connected with people’s heritage and pride. It can remind them of where they come from — and where they are moving towards. It can ease the pangs of nostalgia felt after leaving family and friends behind. A three or four minute song can at times feel like an epiphany, revealing an unexpected truth that changes the way you perceive yourself. While listening to a clip from Ray Barretto’s “Together” on World Cafe two weeks ago, I suddenly understood something different about being Hispanic or Latino, which for me is much more than a race or nationality:

“I know a beautiful truth and it’s helped me be free / I know I’m black and I’m white and I’m red, the blood of mankind flows in me / And so in every face I see, I see a part of you and me together…”

Barretto’s 1969 song captures the social unrest and positive spirit of the Woodstock generation, but for me, as the son of Spanish immigrants, I could hear how a Puerto Rican musician, who grew up listening to Duke Ellington and Count Basie, was able to incorporate elements of blues and funk with salsa and mambo to tell the story of millions of people who live between Spanish and English-language cultures in the United States.

“Together” can also remind Latino listeners how music is loaded with autobiographical references; how certain songs are part of a soundtrack that can help us reconnect with specific people, places, and moments in our lives. And by rediscovering that soundtrack, not only could we learn something significant about our identities, but also appreciate how we relate to other Spanish-speakers.

The first songs that I remember listening to as a boy were recorded on vinyl. The crackling sound of my parents’ records gave the music a weight and density that took up an emotional and cultural space in my life.

While the parents of my English-speaking friends listened to big band music like Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, or Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, my family listened to paso dobles like “Suspiros de España,” and coplas like Antonio Molina’s “Adios mi España querida.” The sad lyrics of those songs encouraged me to explore my Spanish identity. A possible soundtrack from my family in New York could also include Raquel Meller’s “La violetera,” and Imperio Argentina’s tango “Fumando Espero.”

As an adolescent in New York, I continued to grow in my Spanish identity, and listened to contemporary Spanish rock and pop. I heard Siniestro Total’s “Bailaré sobre tu tumba” around the same time that I saw the Christian Slater movie Heathers, and both were emblematic of that counterculture spirit, which was uplifting for outsiders and comic book readers like me. Other songs like “No mires a los ojos de la gente” by Golpes Bajos reminded me of the secret Spanish world that existed inside of my parents’ New York apartment.

Years later, music helped me explore the other side of my Spanish-American identity. Like the children of many immigrants, after living most of my life in my parents’ Spanish culture, I suddenly began to notice things about myself that were distinctly American when I moved to Spain. And for the first time I set out to compile an English-language soundtrack while browsing through British and American albums in music stores like the now defunct Madrid Rock.

In New York, for instance, Miles Davis’ “Solea”made me feel closer to Spain. But in Madrid, I became nostalgic for New York when I heard the subtle Jazz improvisations throughout the track. Similarly, Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” reminded me of the romantic character of a black and white New York.

When I returned to the United States, I found comfort in the idea that many immigrants and their descendants also catch themselves exploring the side of their hyphenated identity that is most distant.

For Paula García, a native of Valencia who now lives in New York, certain Spanish songs bring her closer to Spain and the beginning of her career as a journalist. When she listened to Nosoträsh’s “Voy a aterrizar” for the first time, García had just started working at a Murcia radio station, and for her, the song captured the wanderlust of her “alma viajera,” which drove her to move to the United States. Now in New York, “Voy a aterrizar” is emblematic of her continuous flight between two worlds -– the place where she works, and the place where she was born. But at least during the space of the song she can see herself integrated in both.

For another Spanish-speaker, flamenco has helped her find a home in Puerto Rico, Spain, and New York. When Consuelo Arias, associate professor of foreign languages and women’s studies at Nassau Community College, listens to Enrique Morente’s “La aurora de Nueva York,” she remembers her undergraduate professor Rafael Rodríguez at the City University of New York,who inspired her to study Spanish literature. Until then she had focused mostly on French and art history, but Rodríguez awoke in Arias a greater consciousness of Latino identity. He transmitted the magic of Spain, Puerto Rico, and other Spanish-language cultures through Federico García Lorca’s poetry. And now, when she listens to Morente sing Lorca’s poem, she can visualize her triangulated cultural identity—Rodríguez’s Puerto Rico, her family’s Spain, and how those two places converged in New York.

If I were going to compile a soundtrack today that is emblematic of my Hispanic or Latino identity, part of it would be from the U.S. indie music scene — The National’s “Conversation 16” and Spoon’s “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” — part of it would be from Latin America — Julieta Venegas and Ceci Bastida singing a cover of Rita Indiana’s La Sofi — and part of it would be from Spain — Facto Delafé y Las Flores Azules’ “Mar el poder del mar.”

But the title song would be undoubtedly reserved for Manu Chao’s “Me gustas tú.” Not only does it make reference to cities where many of my Spanish-speaking friends in New York are from — La Habana, San Salvador, Managua, Madrid, and my mom’s birthplace La Coruña — but more than anything, it reminds me about the way Chao, the son of a Galician parent like myself, fuses French, Spanish, and English to build a universal narrative that is emblematic of all Hispanics and Latinos who live geographically, culturally, and emotionally between two or more places.

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