The Mess: Latin America is Darks – Don’t Let The Upbeat Tunes Fool You

Art by Alan López for Remezcla

The Mess is a new column from journalist Richard Villegas, who has been reporting on new, exciting sounds flourishing in the Latin American underground for nearly a decade. As the host of the Songmess Podcast, his travels have intersected with fresh sounds, scene legends, ancestral traditions, and the socio-political contexts that influence your favorite artists. The Mess is about new trends and problematic faves whilst asking hard questions and shaking the table.

We’re going there. We’re talking about it. Even if things get a little messy.

As you might have noticed in previous installments of The Mess, this column was originally conceived as a space for dissecting pop culture trends and their conundrums. But it’s Halloween season, and I’m not in the mood to poke holes in one of the few times a year when — with certain religious exceptions — most of us can find common, campy ground. Whether it’s a mutual love of classic horror films, costumes that run the gamut of hilarious to tragic, or just letting your sweet tooth run wild, Halloween fun can be as potent as a fistful of candy corn. So, instead of looking for glitches in the spooky matrix, today I’m choosing to celebrate Latin American artists who’ve conjured the spirit of darkness across a plethora of musical genres, and often from the unlikeliest of rhythmic corners.

First, we have to put some respect on the tropigoths, who’ve long challenged antiquated archetypes of a perennially sunny Latine experience. Boricua dreambow ensemble Balún has been spinning moody waist-winding gems for over a decade, while Tomasa del Real, Sailorfag, and legions of other neoperreo acolytes re-signified vampiric rave aesthetics into barely-there club attire. This nalgótica influence can be felt all over the Argentine perreo underground, and even more recently, the downcast visuals that accompanied Tainy’s spectacular full-length debut Data oscillate between gothy gloom and hikikomori anxiety. Also, don’t sleep on conceptual perreo albums such as Skeptic’s Friki 2 Nite, Mntjy’s Angelito, and Mula’s throbbing self-titled debut, which gleefully pushed reggaetón beats deep into the shadows.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, CA, cholo goth icons Prayers put a UV spotlight on a Southwestern scene of brown kids who loved Nine Inch Nails and New Order but were more often met with a side-eye. In a 2016 interview, the band’s singer Rafael Reyes, aka Leafar Seyer, told Remezcla, “I had to fight to dress this way, man.” He underscored the many contradictions of embodying somber sounds and aesthetics when Latine social expectations deemed he should be entrenched in diasporic genres like cumbia and música mexicana.

And though Reyes wasn’t alone at this sonic crossroads, many other artists have hedged their bets on genre-rebellious hybrids. Houston club staples Santa Muerte developed a signature cocktail of reggaeton, ballroom, and techno, while spectral Tijuana queen Dani Shivers paired warped vintage synthesizers with unsettling DIY short films. And the influential cross-border noise, punk, and cumbia collages of Ruidosón standard bearers like Los Macuanos and Tony Gallardo helped redefine how the Internet generation related to their parents’ record collections.

In fact, the Ruidosón movement helped elucidate another point: Latin America is darks and always has been. A region built on colonial genocide, economic strip-mining, and political impunity — all of which have rippled through history and still manifest today — will see that darkness reflected in its art. Damn, I was trying to keep this thing light. 

“Latin America is darks and always has been. A region built on colonial genocide, economic strip-mining, and political impunity — all of which have rippled through history and still manifest today — will see that darkness reflected in its art.”

Mexican goth-rock stars Santa Sabina took shots at political lies on “Olvido,” and even Caifanes, who got their start channeling a gloomy Cure-esque vibe, tackled institutional silence on “Aquí No Pasa Nada.” Peruvian darkwave band Varsovia has always taken aim at oppressive government corruption. And in the Dominican Republic, El Gallo Lester fused industrial synths and merengue tambora on “Lo 30” to highlight the spike in muggings around end-of-month paydays.

El Gallo is hardly the first to bring gothic motifs to merengue; just look at the droning, hair-raising concoctions of Colombia’s La MiniTK Del Miedo, and Rita Indiana’s ghoulish makeup across the promotional cycle of her latest album, Mandinga Times. Even viral legend Toño Rosario, also known to celebrity fans as El Cuco, dresses like the frontman of your favorite black metal band, clad in leather garments, satin masks, and steel hardware. His eerie transformation is not unlike that of Mexican pop icon Cristian Castro, who’s seen a major career resurgence after unleashing his inner darks. Cumbia also loves a danceable camp moment, and you’ll find cheeky B-movie winks everywhere, from Kumbia Queers’ “Kumbia Zombie” to La Sonora Dinamita’s “Las Brujas” and Mister Chivo’s many monster-mashing favorites like “Frankenstein,” “Llorona,” and “La Momia.”

Before wrapping this up like the aforementioned mummy, it’s important to underscore the collectivist aspect of goth. Nothing enhances the cathartic release of emotion as doing so safely and in community, and particularly on a dance floor. Colombian clubs like Bogotá’s Asilo and Medellín’s Club Libido have long hosted alternative revelers looking for nostalgic, synth-driven tunes. In Mexico City, El Real Under and El Centro de Salud oscillate between catering to punks and painted-up night creatures while also throwing DIY bazaars and community-oriented workshops. And in São Paulo, cult nightclub Madame Satã has operated for over 40 years, becoming unholy ground for Brazilian electronic music and legions of queerdos. DJ Magal is one of the club’s most beloved and influential residents, spinning a mix of techno and post-punk, helping to spread the gospel of Brazilian death rock and darkwave, which includes bands like Lupercais, The Knutz, Mãos Fúnebres, 1983, and Inês é Morta.

Remember, there is no one way to be a Latine goth or enjoy Halloween. So go out, find yourself a meme-inspired or unnecessarily skin-bearing costume, and live your best darks life… or death.