This post is also available in: Español
As we observed the Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I reflected on two books I read recently which pointed out racism in Latin music. Is there still racism in Latin music?
Note: I originally wrote this blog for Martin Luther King Jr. day in 2014. I’m republishing it and translated it to Spanish due to the situation we are living these days regarding #BlackLivesMatter.
Examples of Racism in Latin Music
In his book “1 Bala, 2 Combos, y 1 Vida“, the late El Gran Combo saxophonist Eddie “La Bala” Perez narrated how sometimes hotels would ask Cortijo y su Combo and El Gran Combo in their earlier days, to enter through the kitchen and not the main door as they were bands of black musicians.
Puerto Rican crooner Ruth Fernandez narrated a similar story in one of the Banco Popular de Puerto Rico Christmas specials and other interviews. Here’s a video of her story.
In both cases, eventually the artists decided they would not continue to comply and confronted the establishment requiring to enter through the main door. Sometimes racism needs to be exposed in the clear for all to see…
…and sometimes you can put it out there in the form of a song, using satire and a bit of humor to help the medicine go down.
Barbara Abadía-Rexach pointed some of the songs in Salsa music that illustrate this racism in her book “Musicalizando la Raza“. Abadía-Rexach points out several Salsa songs that serve to point out racism. Most of them, but not all, were written by black men.
Songs like Bobby Capó’s “El Negro Bembón” and “Piel Canela“, Roberto Angleró’s “Si Dios Fuera Negro“, Peter Velazquez’s “Carbonerito“, Tite Curet Alonso’s “Las Caras Lindas“, and Luigi Texidor’s “Tan Bueno Que Era” are some of the songs she highlights as examples of how racism is illustrated humorously or sarcastically. I’m not going to enter into Barbara’s arguments here, but will point out some other popular songs that highlight race differences. Francisco Alvarado’s “Naci Moreno“, “Muñeco de la Ciudad” who I don’t know the author but it was performed by Bobby Valentin, and “Ligia Elena“, by Ruben Blades.
From “El Negro Bembón” to “Ligia Elena“, its been a while since all those songs were written. I believe society has made some progress in terms of racial acceptance. But we are clearly not there yet regarding discrimination.
Black Bias Beyond Music
In last year’s Baseball’s All Star Game, white-skin Puerto Rican Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” only to immediately prompt many tweets about the outrage for having a Latino sing an American song! Of course this is a small minority of the population of the United States, where the majority elected and re-elected the 1st black President in U.S. history.
Yet, in my Puerto Rico, we have not come close to having a real black contender for Governor of Puerto Rico. The last real black leader I remember was Ernesto Ramos Antonini, a co-founder of the Popular Democratic Party. He was elected to be President of the House of Representatives as PDP co-founder Luis Muñoz Marín was elected President of the Senate in 1945. Ramos Antonini maintained his presidency of the House until his death in 1963.
But (in case you are wondering) here is where we come full circle back to music (the theme of this blog). It was Ernesto Ramos Antonini who wrote the laws that created the Symphonic Orchestra and the Music Conservatory of Puerto Rico.
Music is a reflection of society, and we have made progress towards racial equality. However, I don’t remember hearing any songs written recently that point racial differences. Although we are making progress, I still don’t think that we have completely realized MLK’s dream of a society where people are not judged by the color of their skin (or their country of origin , or their sexual preference), but for the content of their character.