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The many contradictions of 'Latin Music'

A truck carrying Bad Bunny, Ricky Martin and Residente joins with thousands of other people as they call on Puerto Rican Gov. Rosselló to step down.
Joe Raedle
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A truck carrying Bad Bunny, Ricky Martin and Residente joins with thousands of other people as they call on Puerto Rican Gov. Rosselló to step down.

What exactly is Latin music? Since January of this year, when I started as an intern with Alt.Latino — NPR's indie "Latin music" podcast — the definition of the term has evaded my grasp. And for an embarrassingly long time, I avoided asking the question directly. How could I work for a show about Latin music and not know exactly what fell into the category?

But as I spent more time in my new role, I began to realize that Felix Contreras, who had been hosting and producing the show for more than a decade, didn't have any clear definitions himself. In fact, he was intentionally avoiding definitions; not defining the term meant not having to worry about certain boundaries. Can artists from Spain make Latin music? How about artists from Brazil? Is the music based on an artist's identity, or the music itself? Where does language come in?

If you never define Latin music, you never have to answer these questions.

And while there's beauty in all that expansiveness, I have to admit, after almost a year on the team, I still wanted some answers. So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I called up Petra Rivera-Rideau — she studies the intersection between race and popular culture with a focus on reggaetón. On this week's episode of Code Switch x Alt.Latino, she tried to help us puzzle out exactly what Latin music is. Spoiler alert: She had no definitive answers. But she did help me understand that Latin music – like Latinidad – is constantly being defined and redefined in fascinating, and sometimes contradictory, ways.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Anamaria Sayre: If you had to, how would you define Latin music?

Petra Rivera-Rideau: Part of what makes defining Latin music so difficult is that it encompasses a host of genres that are also quite complex. So for example, we might think of something like cumbia — there's many different styles of cumbia, many different ways the music has evolved over time, many different histories and geographies tied to cumbia, whether it's in Mexico or in Colombia or among Mexican Americans.

So if you are listening to a lot of Latin music, like I do, you recognize different genres. I recognize that reggaetón is a distinct genre from banda, which is distinct from cumbia, which is distinct from salsa. But the term "Latin music" homogenizes all of those things.

When you look at something like the Latin Grammys, what would qualify you for a Latin Grammy is, if you had lyrics in your song, the lyrics would have to be at least 51% in Spanish or Portuguese. That's a very linguistic definition that encompasses, for example, artists from Spain — who people in the United States may or may not consider part of this "Latinx community."

All of this social conflict around what defines Latinidad or Latino-ness is embedded in this question of what Latin music is. And there are a lot of people who have criticized this focus on language and linguistic definition, because, particularly in the United states, the idea that Spanish is the defining marker of Latinidad is also contested.

When you pull back and look at Latin music as a whole, it makes me wonder, who is it for? And who owns it?

Latin music can be a point of pride for many people. When I was growing up, I was attracted to people like DLG or Aventura or Marc Anthony, because they spoke to my experience as a U.S. Puerto Rican person. There was a point of pride in that, to say, "Here is this person that's an icon that I relate to."

So, I think there's this point of pride, and also protest. Sometimes we think you have to sing a song that's lyrically like, "Fight the Power!" to be a protest song. But I don't think that's true. In the 1990s in California, they're passing all these anti-immigration laws. At that time, banda was being innovated by Mexican Americans in Southern California, incorporating what some people were calling "Techno-Banda" – kind of modernizing it in a way. And then it becomes this symbol of Mexican American identity for teenagers in Southern California, who are navigating this time period full of anti-immigration rhetoric that's mostly targeting Latinx populations. With a lot of the songs, the lyrics are not necessarily the most profoundly political lyrics, but the cultural dynamics of being part of this community is what makes it political.

I often see with my students a sort of assumption that if something is super popular, it's therefore not political. I don't think that's true. I'm thinking of someone like, for example, Bad Bunny. What does it mean that in this pandemic, Bad Bunny stood on top of an 18-wheeler truck and rode around the Bronx singing his songs? I was in Wellesley, Massachusetts, eating dinner with my kids, watching this on TV, and the pride I felt about that was amazing. I couldn't believe that this guy shut down a whole bunch of New York City, was riding around in neighborhoods that had been under-resourced, neglected, segregated, precisely because they are the residences of working class Black and Latinx folks. So, here you have one of the biggest global superstars in the world, and yeah, maybe his songs are about girls and parties and fast cars a lot of the time — but just to be taking up that space was so profound for so many people.

I'm curious, though, if the way the Latino community perceived something like that Bad Bunny performance differs from how it was received more generally in the world. In doing something like that, is Bad Bunny seen as a Latino figure or is he just seen as Bad Bunny the star?

That's a really good question, and I'm going to answer your question focusing on the United States, because these huge Latin music stars like a Bad Bunny or a Daddy Yankee or Romeo Santos, they have audiences all over the place. They are global stars. But in the United States, because they sing predominantly in Spanish, they are always marked as others.

The United States has a very vexed relationship with the Spanish language. Technically, we do not have a federal law in the United States saying that we are an English-speaking country, but we certainly operate that way. And there are many people who believe that you need to be an English speaker to succeed in this country.

Spanish has been a very racialized marker, both historically and in recent times. If you think about the past several years, all these videos showing up on social media of someone getting attacked in the grocery store, being told to speak English because they're in America — I've never seen a video of someone speaking German or French and being told that. It's always Spanish speakers or maybe people from East Asian countries. And I think that's because language, for both Asian Americans and Latinx people, is such a marker of ethno-racial identity and difference.

So, in the United States, when has J. Balvin or any of these reggaetón singers just a star? I kind of feel like they're not. They are always Latin stars.

For more on "Latin music," check out this episode of the Code Switch podcast, where former co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji rejoins the team to talk about the many different elements of the genre.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.