Salsa and Sexism: Are You Mouthing Misogyny?

By Guest Contributor Rachael Kay Albers, cross-posted from Latina Fatale

It is after midnight and I’m in a taxi on the way back to my barrio, mouthing the lyrics to a song on the radio that I’m proud to know the lyrics of when, suddenly, I stop (fake) singing. Spanish is my second language and memorizing song lyrics doesn’t come as easily to me as it does in English—if I can successfully sing along to a song in a café or on the radio, I wave the useless ability like a flag. But, as I silently croon in my cab tonight, I realize that, in my quest to hone my dual language lip syncing abilities, I have paid absolutely zero attention to the content of the lyrics I’m not singing.

The song on my cabbie’s radio is “Lamento Boliviano,” (Bolivian Lament). You may know it for its famous chorus:

Y yo estoy aquí
borracho y loco
y mi corazón idiota
siempre brillará
y yo te amaré
te amaré por siempre

(And I am here
drunk and crazy
and my stupid heart
will always shine
and I will love you
I will love you forever)

As I listen carefully to the lyrics, I imagine the scene being described: a drunk, desperate man declaring his undying love to his wronged mujer after saying, in earlier lyrics, that he feels there is a volcano of rage inside of him. I have lived this scene. The drunk, desperate man “in love” is not nearly as romantic as the Enanitos Verdes — the Argentinean rock band that croons “Lamento Boliviano” — make him seem. He can be, in fact, quite dangerous, especially when he says he has an, um, “volcano” inside of him.

Ugh — sexist lyrics glamorizing alcoholism and violence in Spanish, too? I think, dumbly. How has the thought never occurred to me before? I mean, what did I expect from the music that just happened to be playing the many times I have been fondled or — I’ll just say it — humped on various dance floors across Mexico? Hip hop gets the rap in the United States for violent, misogynistic lyrics with country music coming in at second place—both deservingly. But, what about the music I’m listening to in Latin America?

I decide to survey the music I have been deafly enjoying for the last few years, focusing on salsa, bachata, and reggaeton— genres I enjoy socially as well as for lip syncing purposes. I learn that salsa, a descendant of Cuban son, developed in the 1960s in the Latino barrios of New York City as an expression of the urban working class experience. Bachata was coming of age at the same time in the Dominican Republic—music many say was born out of the frustrations of Rafael Trujillo’s oppressed masses. Reggaeton, largely influenced by hip hop, developed later in Panama and, like salsa and bachata, the music has political roots, as well. Many feminists theorize that the emphasis on salsa, bachata, and reggaeton’s role in Pan-American working class resistance has obscured the genres’ treatment of women.

Working class resistance or not, under a microscope, the songs ooze sex—the ruling class sponsored kind that either idealizes or demonizes women while simultaneously objectifying them. Females across these genres are cast in three main roles:

  • The young, virgin fruit, ripe to be plucked—by the song’s protagonist, of course
  • The experienced seductress who drives the song’s protagonist to sexual desperation
  • The deceptive, transgressing bitch who wrongfully broke the protagonist’s heart

She is usually anonymous— unnamed— and identified only by her physical characteristics and/or sexual desirability. That, or her wickeness and sexual impurity, as in the “scorned lover” songs so popular in bachata. In all cases, she is the victim of pre-meditated violence on the part of the protagonist, who vows in his lyrics either to use her sexually or abuse her violently.

For example, take these bachata lyrics: “Sabes que soy tu dueño / Y que vengo prendi’o’” (You know I’m your owner / And that I’m inflamed) and later “Yo vengo a partir brazos / A rescatar lo mío” (I’ve come here to break arms / To reclaim what’s mine). Or what about the salsa song “Cuando fuiste mujer”? “Conmigo aprendiste a querer y a saber de la vida / Y a fuerzas de tantas caricias tu cuerpo formé” (With me you learned to love and to know about life / And I molded your body with the power of my caresses). I’ll spare you the stuff about trembling and “moaning love.” Still, reggaeton is worse. Here’s one of my favorites: “If you wan’ me to take you, you must taste my yogurt.” I’m pretty sure someone has yelled that one at me in the street. And there are hundreds more like it.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about, anyway. After all, if I wasn’t paying attention to the content of these songs before, why bother now? And if I am so unhappy with salsa, bachata, and reggaeton, why don’t I just stop listening? No one is forcing me to lip sync these lyrics.

The thing is, what first caught my attention about the lyrics of “Lamento Boliviano” was their eerie familiarity. The angry, drunk, amor-stricken man at one’s door is not a musical folktale, but a reality, both in the Americas and across the world—and it is one that I have lived. Popular music informs and reflects how we see ourselves and relate to one another as a society. That a music’s lyrics are violent and misogynistic is troubling and telling in a time when man on woman violence is so prevalent in the places where it is popular. I could easily go back to ignoring the content of the songs I listen to—in Mexico or any country—but I would be ignoring key landmarks on the worldscape of oppression.

In “Así Son’: Salsa Music, Female Narratives and Gender (De)Construction in Puerto Rico,” Frances R. Aparicio writes about “the underlying connections between sexuality and listening to popular music,” especially in countries like Puerto Rico — or Mexico! — where music and dancing are so influential in the years when a young person is constructing his or her sexual identity. The same was true in the suburb of Chicago where I grew up listening to pop, rock, and country music—not without their own elements of machismo. I still remember the lyrics of the Dave Matthews Band song I was dancing to when I met the first boy I ever “loved” (at the wise age of fourteen): “Crash Into Me,” with its closing line, “Hike up your skirt a little more and show the world to me.” Listening to that song on repeat over the course of my adolescence, I imagined myself as that elusive love interest, tempting men with my mysteries, hoping they would, as Dave insinuated, unlock some earth-shattering secret with our sexual intimacy. And sometimes I still feel that way! Looking back, there’s no denying that the Dave Matthews Band — and many similar bands — had a hand in shaping my early sexual self.

Connecting my experiences to those of my Latina sisters, I have to think that many of my tocallas were similarly influenced by the music they have been listening—and dancing—to since adolescence. What songs do young women who grow up with salsa, bachata, and reggateon listen to on repeat? I wonder. Which images influence their social and sexual formation? I think, remembering the female figures they have to choose from—the ripe, young virgin; the experienced seductress; and the deceptive, transgressing bitch. (They are a busy bunch, well represented in popular music, literature, art, and theater spanning centuries of cultural history). How can women resist the roles carved out for them by patriarchal pop culture? I ask myself.

In the conclusion of “Así Son,” Aparicio, while critical of the violent, chauvinist attitudes expressed in salsa music, urges readers like me not to despair—that Latina women have become active participants in the way gender is constructed in their cultures and they do this by engaging with chauvinist song lyrics and reflecting upon them, privately and publicly. Lise Waxer’s essay “Las Caleñas Son Como Las Flores: The Rise of All-Women Salsa Bands in Colombia” examines this deconstruction in action as Colombian women shatter the glass ceiling of the music industry and seize salsa as their own in orquestas femeninas, directly engaging in the cultural conversation on gender and sexuality. Indeed, wasn’t my own lyrical awakening during “Lamento Boliviano” an example of “reading” music and simultaneously deconstructing the gendered language within?

But, is dialogue and deconstruction enough to drown out the macho male voices on the radio, in the bar, or at a party, singing about sexism in all its glory? Pumping millions of dollars into the ongoing North American campaign against misogyny in hip hop hasn’t stopped rappers from portraying women as high-end prostitutes or punching bags. From that angle, all this dialogue ends up looking like lip syncing. If feminists really want to make some noise, they’re going to need to write new music. Come on, ladies! Let’s sway to the sound of women organizing to overthrow the patriarchal system that is all but thanked in misogynist musicians’ liner notes. Let’s write the lyrics to our own liberation. Then, and only then, can the human race truly begin to make beautiful music.

Top image courtesy of vdrg danceschool

  • VanDenHoogenband

    Flavia, ChocQuibTown is brilliant! And that’s the best video I’ve ever seen for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”!

  • Intocablepati

    This is definitely true of the afro-Carribean music I was surrounded with as I grew up, but Lamento Boliviano came as a total surprise, which sucks because I love Enanitos Verdes. Nevertheless, great article, thanks for this.

  • Ladyguerita

    Makes me grateful that I was a goth  indie music loving  Latina. hahahaha but seriously, it something we should discuss and change.  From supporting female punk rock bands like Las Ultrasonicas to  rapper Ivy Queen. There are many wonderful and talented feminist artists out there. But also there has to be a change in the culture itself
    since art  reflects the culture  that the artist belongs to.

  • http://twitter.com/SeanJamesOliver SeanOliver

    Nice piece. Reminded me very much of a book by Frances R. Aparicio: “Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto
    Rican Cultures.”  Right up your alley.    

  • http://www.redlightpolitics.info/ Flavia Dzodan

    I laughed when I read the lyrics because I’ve seen this band live a couple of times and I remember how I always struggled with them and the culture of “latin bros” (through lack of a better definition) around them.

    I am a big fan of Calle 13 and I face a similar issue with them. While their political songs are beyond amazing, some of their “gender related” songs are truly awful. They have improved throughout the years and I have seen them live and believe they have realized these past “misdeeds” no longer fit their current consciousness. However, when I listen to some of their songs I cringe.

    For some awesome, non sexist tunes, I have some recommendations:

    Princesa Vale – Mas Fuego (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ej8s1wgGMIQ)

    Anything by Kumbia Queers (here’s one example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oGLVWnqY_LY ) though I really recommend you read about them because they are one of the few (if not the only) cumbia band that openly reclaims the Queer label and writes lyrics accordingly. They became popular sometime in 2007 or 08 (cannot remember right now) when they did a queer cumbia version of Madonna’s song “La Isla con Chikas” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9m2ELLw-_Dw)

    Anything by Miss Bolivia (here’s one good tune http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ly3M3qfgFsU)

    Anything by Bomba Estereo, here’s one of their most popular songs, Fuego http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZXlgNMDK3E

    I haven’t listened to *everything* by ChocQuibTown but the songs I did listen are for the most part, sexism/ misogyny free. Here’s one I like http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMS4J6Gp6e4

    La Mala Rodriguez specifically writes about women’s issues in difficult environments, such as this one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yMZhfzvRKo

    Anyway, I could continue with this list for ever but this comment is getting huge already. As you can probably imagine, I am quite interested in this topic :)

  • Chris Little

    Great thoughts! This comes a day after I heard a story on the radio about young African American women and Chris Brown.  It touched on the same questions of lyrics, acceptance of identity created by others, and the structure of pop culture in permitting repression.  My students will be reading this and commenting on their favorite songs!

  • http://www.facebook.com/cosettefromjupiter Cosette Paneque

    Thank you for writing about this; Latin pop culture rarely gets any attention in discourses about race, sex, and gender. I enjoy salsa and merengue also from time to time, but it often makes me cringe. Hispanic local television with its common use of blackface and exaggerated gay characters is terrible as well.