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Members of La Fania All Stars. 1980. Judy Morales/Fania Records.
Members of La Fania All Stars. 1980. Judy Morales/Fania Records.

Back to the identity crusade

Like the rhythms, we are many and the same.

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Let's think about three iconic Latin American musical genres: cumbia, tango, and salsa.

Cumbia, which today floods the entire continent, was born from the encounter between indigenous flutes and African drums in the context of the Spanish colony. It originated in San Jacinto, in northern Colombia, from where it went on a pilgrimage through the Andes to Argentina and climbed up to Mexico.

The tango has African influences in the turns of the couple's hips, and in their embrace, creates the characteristic style of the dance. It finds its guitar brought from Spain (with Arab origin) in the bandoneon: a German instrument, initially designed to be a portable organ for rural funeral services but ended up being the characteristic sound of the music we think of as painful, nostalgic and sensual.

Salsa began in New York, with competitions in dance halls between black big bands and groups of Cuban immigrant musicians in the second decade of the 20th century. In the competition for the audience, both groups began to complement each other. There, the Antillean rhythms found the aggressiveness of the copper winds and salsa took on its characteristic trombones and trumpets. The combo cooked in the fire of the Hells Kitchen and thus the children of the poorest Latinos in the Bronx gave the world the miracle of salsa brava.

We can all agree that these three rhythms are Latin rhythms, but with this brief account, it is already clear that none of them are exempt from the influence of other regions and communities. Latin identity –like any other–  is not made out of anything, but in the coming and going of our encounters and disagreements and in the way we tell and are told of those unions.

This week we have asked ourselves how the way we tell and learn our stories impacts our lives, and how and in what spaces we decide to make ourselves owners of those stories to define the Latino identity, which is so much ours and, at the same time, of so many others.

Ethnic studies is one of the possible routes for that exercise of empowerment and authority over our memories and future encounters. This issue is one of the many moments when we are going to ask ourselves again what it is to be Latino and about all the unexpected and rich mixes that have led us to be ourselves in so many different ways.

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