In the face of crushing brutality and oppression, history has shown us that creativity can blossom, like flowers sprouting relentlessly from cracks in cement. Musicians and artists have repeatedly risked their lives and brandished their talent as a weapon to fight for freedom in even the harshest dictatorships.
As conversations unfold about how Latinx artists can use their music as tools of resistance, Remezcla decided to look back in time at some of the radical genres that grew out of injustice. This list is by no means the complete story; one could argue that Latinx artists have found resistance in local articulations of hip-hop and electronic music, for example. While we’re focusing on movements that developed in Latin America, we included Chicano folk to recognize a longstanding history of musical resistance from U.S. Latinx communities.
This list serves simply as an entry point and introduction into a few styles of music that don’t always get enough credit, but that perhaps have the power to inspire more movements and fuel new fires.
Perhaps one of music’s greatest examples of resistance, nueva canción formed in South America during the late 1950s and early 1960s as a way to contest political dictatorships. On the surface, it was a genre of poetry and peace, but it carried subversive messages that resonated with political dissenters throughout the continent.
Ground zero for nueva canción is widely considered to be Chile. Artists such as Violeta Parra and Victor Jara combined their interest in traditional rhythms with activism, using music as a conduit to speak out about poverty, religious freedom, and imperialism. Additionally, the songs fought back against what many saw as U.S. manipulation in the country’s elections. Smithsonian Folkways also points out that social economic conditions forced native communities to move into cities, and new dwellers brought their history of indigenous musical styles to more central settings. Nueva canción is notable for its use of folk instruments, such as Andean flutes and charangos.
As one of the first arbiters of nueva canción, Parra began teaching music courses all over the country and composing her own songs. Her early recordings, “Que Pena Siente el Alma” and “Verso por el Fin del Mundo,” garnered her popularity. In the mid-60s, Parra and her children Angel and Isabel established peñas — creative workshops where folk artists could convene and compose nueva canción music. After Parra committed suicide in 1967, nueva canción traditions continued through her friends, fellow musicians, and her children.
However, into the 1970s, conditions worsened for nueva canción artists. After a coup in 1973, Augusto Pinochet tried to hamstring creative movements by outlawing Andean instruments. In September of 1973, authorities arrested and brutally murdered Jara at the Estadio Chile. Jara is still regarded as a martyr, and his songs remained influential to musicians in Chile and all over the world. In Cuba, nueva trova artists such as Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés drew influence from the style in their own local context, while Atahualpa Yupanqui offered his own poetic style in Argentina.
Before Chicano activist and civil rights leader Agustín Lira joined the United Farm Workers union at its headquarters in Delano, California, he had never even seen a picket line. He recently described his first experience at a farmers’ strike with NPR Alt. Latino, recalling how he instantly noticed that there was a “necessity for music.” He would bring his guitar to demonstrations and union meetings, and one of the early pieces he wrote was “Ser Como El Aire Libre,” an anthem that echoed the struggles of farmers.
“It was important to mirror what the farm workers were feeling, and what the strike was about. I started fooling around with a guitar, and before long, I had a song,” he remembered.
Lira, like so many other Chicano musicians, became one of the voices enforcing the movement’s quest for worker’s rights, economic justice, and social empowerment in the late 1960s. The movement focused closely on the conditions of farmworkers in the South, who were often denied pay and the right to unionize. Other Chicano activists/musicians made their own recordings during this time, reinforcing a folk sound charged with a fighter’s spirit.
At age 19, Lira cofounded El Teatro Campesino, which served as a repository for creativity in the Chicano community. Members of El Teatro Campesino recorded their own songs, such as 1966’s “Yo No Le Tengo Miedo a Nada” and “Llegando a Los Files.” Music from cultural icon Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez of Los Alacranes Mojados and Daniel Valdez of Los Lobos also emerged as the soundtrack to United Farm Workers meetings. In Austin, Texas, outfits such as the Conjunto Aztlan surfaced around the 1970s, playing with traditional conjuntos styles from Mexico.
When a series of Argentine military governments seized power in the 1970s, citizens got loud.
In the 1960s, the country already had a fair amount of exposure to rock music through exports from North America. Homegrown bands, such as Manal, Almendra and Los Gatos, had a place in the Argentine music scene, too. However, as Roberto Avant-Mier points out in his 2010 book Rock the Nation: Latin/o Identities and the Latin Rock Diaspora, it was during an era of dictatorship that the genre began to take on a new, nationalistic role in the lives of young people. “Because rock music was so intricately connected to political issues and resistance to military dictatorship throughout most of its early existence,” Avant-Mier writes, “rock nacional has been extremely important to the lives of young people and their political identity.”
The government had silenced opposed views and rival opinions — and rock offered a new form of resistance, even though it wasn’t as obviously political as the popular genre of nueva canción. And there were conflicts within the scene: Early rock fans were split among lovers of acoustic sounds and electric aficionados, and questions about what truly constituted rock music lingered. But scholars explain that artists began to find middle ground through music that communicated feelings of frustration universally. The influence of Charly García, the imitable musician behind Sui Generis, took hold of the country’s younger generation and united them over often-ambiguous themes of prevailing against an unnamed oppressor.
Feelings of defiance and relentless candor filtered their way through other kinds of rock music. Punk slowly sprouted in the 1960s, as bands like Los Voladores (later Los Violadores) found inspiration in Great Britain and Germany. Small heavy metal scenes also churned out rebels — V8 famously refused to participate in a government-sponsored concert in the 1980s. The more the military attempted to censor these artists, the more defiant the music became.
Brazilian Tropicalismo was groundbreaking on multiple levels. An entire artistic movement, it smashed musical boundaries while also tackling some of the most pressing political issues of Brazilian society in the late 1960s.
The writer Marcelo Ballvé traces the origins of Tropicália to a single concert: Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, young musicians in their 20s, performed in a 1967 song festival in São Paulo, showcasing a unique blend of Brazilian samba and bossa nova, psychedelic rock and experimental music that would define the movement. Veloso and Gil were students in search of new, countercultural frameworks after encountering the work of visual artist Hélio Oiticica and writer Oswald de Andrade. They had lived through a 1964 coup that had curtailed radicalization and propped up a military dictatorship, and wanted to protest in their own small way. They named their musical revolution after an art installation by Oiticica, modeled after a Brazilian shantytown. Then, they used the music to push back on arrests and injustices of the dictatorship.
Tropicália was met with ambivalence and confusion. On one hand, it was a challenging new riff on tradition; on the other, some young Marxists in the country believed, it was drawing too heavily from western musical styles. But that didn’t deter Gil and Veloso. They kept evolving the sound and inspiring other Brazilians, with loud, discordant sounds — as writer Chris Nineham explained, “so much guitar feedback was to disguise criticism of the dictatorship.”
The tropicália party didn’t last long. Veloso and Gil became more flagrant risk-takers. The New York Times recounts that after a series of state killings, Veloso went on television and performed while holding a gun to his head. The military had the duo thrown in jail and, after two months of imprisonment, they were exiled to London. They returned to Brazil in 1972 and, 20 years later, released an album commemorating the movement they started.
Son jarocho today is one of the most notable examples of regional Mexican music, but its history as Afro-Mexican resistance music is not as well known.
A 2013 paper by Micaela Díaz-Sánchez illuminates son jarocho’s roots and describes how in the 16th century, ships full of enslaved Africans came to Mexico through the port city of Veracruz. This is the region where we find the first evidence of son jarocho music in the form of a 1779 colonial decree prohibiting the song “El Chuchumbé.” The edict describes how in 1766, a European fleet that had brought “El Chuchumbé” after stopping in Havana and encountering black populations. The song was outlawed because “the lyrics and dance movements associated with the son were considered vulgar by religious authorities” during the Spanish Inquisition.
The Holy Inquisition in Spain punished anyone participating in what the church considered subversive dance or art. People of African heritage had their drums taken away, and anyone caught singing or dancing to sons was thrown in jail.
And yet, despite the severe punishments, people continued to play the music, and men and women even perform the banned “El Chuchumbé” courtship dance. As Díaz-Sánchez explains, “the sexually suggestive dancing of ‘El Chuchumbé’ was a creative expression of resistance during the Holy Inquisition.” Catholic forces continued to prohibit the style, but the genre proliferated under colonial rule, despite restrictions. It was viewed as a “larger social revolt against fundamental colonial power structures,” Díaz-Sánchez writes.
“El Chuchumbé” remains a symbol of protest — it’s become a staple of son jarocho performances, and can be in the repertoire of ensembles both in the U.S. and in Mexico.