Music for teaching Modern Latin American history

I’ve used music sporadically throughout my teaching, especially when a song proves to be a rich entry point into discussion of a social or political theme relevant to the discussion of that day’s material. This was easiest to do when teaching U.S. history, since the library of available audio is large and familiar. Last semester, teaching remotely because of the coronavirus, I pushed to make sure that I had a song for every class session, which I would play as the students logged in, and sometimes over the first couple of minutes of class to serve as an introduction to the day’s themes. The perfect song comes from the time period in question and comments or reflects on it directly. But sometimes I had to stretch a bit on one criterion or another.

This semester I’m teaching another of my staple courses that is organized as a series of lectures, a class on modern Latin America. So I’ve now done the same, finding musical accompaniment for every day. Not all of my students will understand the languages of the songs, so sometimes I provide translations of key passages. But I think there’s something to be gained even if understanding is incomplete, and it is not only the lyrics that matter. Part of the goal is to showcase the cultural diversity of the region–and some of its extraordinary music. So here are the selections I’ve used in 2021, always subject to revision.

For the introduction to the class, there’s Ana Tijoux, if you want your Eduardo Galeano to sound amazing.

Though the modern survey starts with independence, I do a very quick introduction to the colonial systems. This composition by Gutierre Fernández Hidalgo, a Spanish-born composer who becomes the chapelmaster of the Bogotá Cathedral, allows me to ask students what they can tell about the colonial system that produced it.

In discussing the wars of independence, here is the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar of Venezuela, used for a discussion of the legacy of the Bolívar and a foreshadowing of other themes.

To begin a discussion of post-independence nation building, we hear Brasílio Itiberê da Cunha’s “A Sertaneja,” a composition that tries to blend classical music with popular themes.

To discuss the 19th century economy and inequality, a clip of Caruso as played by Fitzcarraldo in Werner Herzog’s film: the cultural politics of the rubber boom, where anything you might find problematic about the movie plays into the point you want students to see.

As the discussion of the politics of the 19th century moves to Mexico, with liberal reforms and the Porfiriato, here is Juventino Rosas’s “Sobre las Olas.”

The discussion of the Mexican Revolution gives you many corridos to choose from. I chose La Adelita, sung by Amparo Ochoa.

To discuss the consolidation of the Revolution, I share a few minutes from a performance by the Ballet Folklórico de México.

For a discussion of neocolonialism and the Spanish-American War, we hear Celia Cruz perform Guantanamera, whose lyrics are taken from the poetry of José Martí.

For a discussion of the Great Depression, here is Víctor Jara’s “Canción del minero.” This and Guantanamera are anachronistic, but they make their points. And the story of Víctor Jara will come back later in the course.

For a discussion of World War II, I recommend the Walt Disney animation of “Aquarela do Brasil.”

For a discussion of Peronism and “populism,” here is the Francisco Fiorentino tango “Oro Falso.” The lyrics speak of a poor girl who becomes a cabaret dancer: “Mireya was never blonde / Because Mireya grew up without a moon, / Her youth of laughter and song / Filled the poorest barrio with tangos… The gold of her hair is fool’s gold,” matches well with the story of Evita Perón.

For a discussion of the democratic spring after World War II and the Guatemalan Revolution, I tried to find some songs. I was able to find lyrics for some pro-Arbenz corridos, but not recorded sound. Since I use the story of Pablo Neruda to introduce the dynamics of the Cold War in Latin America, I decided to go with Los Jaivas’ musical version of the Las alturas de Machu Picchu.

To begin a discussion of the Cuban Revolution, here is Mario Patterson y su Orquesta Oriental singing about the end of illiteracy (thanks to TA Andrés Pertierra for suggesting this excellent choice).

To talk about the longer-term consequences of the Cuban Revolution, here is the recent “Patria y Vida” collaboration.

To talk about guerrilla warfare, here is the Silvio Rodríguez elegy for Che Guevara, “Fusil contra fusil.”

For a discussion of Allende’s Chile, here’s a 1973 performance of Quilapayún’s “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.”

To talk about the Dirty Wars, I chose Caetano Veloso’s “You Don’t Know Me.” The English lyrics are a product of Veloso’s exile in London.

To talk about the end of dictatorship, I’ve included the Chilean band Los Prisioneros song “¿Por qué no se van?,” which became closely associated with the Campaign for the “No.”

To talk about the civil wars in Central America, I start with U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky,” to show the international importance of the conflicts.

To talk about Nicaragua and liberation theology, I included “El Credo” of the misa campesina by Carlos Mejía Godoy.

For the discussion of neoliberalism, I chose the Argentina girl group Las viudas e hijas de Roque Enroll‘s song “Tocando Fondo,” which centers around a pun about the International Monetary Fund.

For neoliberalism and the end of the PRI in Mexico, there’s Molotov’s “Gimme tha Power.”

For a discussion of the radical wing of the Pink Tide, the choice is Ana Tijoux’s “Somos Sur.”

For the next lecture on the moderate wing of the Pink Tide, including Uruguay, I chose La Vela Puerca’s “Zafar.”

The last weeks of the course are organized more thematically, so we move around more in time. To talk about issues with the international drug trade, I start with the Medellín metal band Kraken. (I confess this was a new one for me and required some research, I had a student specifically ask about metal from Latin America.)

To advance the discussion, talking about Mexico and the United States, I start with Los Tigres del Norte’s narcocorrido “Jefe de jefes.”

To talk about immigration and the United States, one possibility is “Ice – El Hielo” by La Santa Cecilia.

But part of me wants to choose something “I Like it” by Cardi B, Bad Bunny, & J Balvin, which makes a different point about different parts of the immigrant experience. There are a bunch of Puerto Rican artists (like Bad Bunny) who are simply among the biggest popular music artists in the world, and that’s significant. I’ll probably decide that morning.

For the final lecture, about the future of Latin America, we talk, among other things, about the environment. I love being able to finish with the Aterciopelados song “Rio.”

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