As a reaction to the ever-present political, economic and social inequities throughout Latin America, nueva canción emerged as a manifestation of resentment and discontent through music. Nueva canción merged traditional folk music with a wide array of popular social justice themes of the times. The movement began in Chile and Cuba, and spread throughout Latin America, eventually reaching Puerto Rico. As with all other Latin American countries, nueva canción had an important cultural role in Puerto Rican protests. These songs had essentially three purposes: as tools to record history, to promote anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist agendas, and to provide a common thread between problems occurring in various Latin American countries.
Here, we will do a brief overview of protest songs in Puerto Rico and in other Latin American countries since the 1950’s, and touch upon how music is used today in protests. All of the music that we will talk about can be accessed in a Spotify playlist by clicking on the image above.
Nueva canción was most prominent in Puerto Rico in the 1970’s and 80’s, in the protests of the University of Puerto Rico. In short, the students protested the presence of a United States Armed Forces training program on campus, and the prohibition of pro-independence activities on campus. Against this backdrop, Florida-born student and artist Roy Brown rose to prominence with the release of his songs of protest. In Míster con macana, Brown denounces police brutality that occurred against students that were protesting. In Antiguos baluartes and Señor inversionista, Brown criticizes the capitalist outsiders that came to the island and took hold of all the resources (monetary, natural, political, etc.). Finally, in Descarga #51 and in Monón, Brown alludes to interventionist policies that the United States had adopted in other countries, Latin American or otherwise. He expresses how Puerto Ricans are a part of them due to their United States citizenship, and laments our inability to do anything about it.
The movement was just as insightful and critical in other countries that were in conflict. In Playa Girón, Silvio Rodríguez of Cuba uses a clever analogy of his own work in a boat called Playa Girón to discuss the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion. Likewise, Víctor Jara calls out the Chilean Minister of the Interior, Edmundo Pérez Zujovic, for ordering his men to murder 11 peasant squatters in Puerto Montt, in his song Preguntas por Puerto Montt. Finally, Panamanian singer Rubén Blades uses Juan González to tell the story of a guerrilla fighter that died at the hands of the army. He emphasizes that, although his music was based on his experiences in Panamá, he explicitly writes his songs so that they can take place anywhere in Latin America.
Just as important as knowing the kind of music that was used in the protests nearly half a century ago is appreciating how protest songs have changed in the last 50 or so years. As it happens, using music as a revolutionary tool is still a present trend, although not as nueva canción. Perhaps the clearest example is the work of Calle 13, a group that devoted an entire album to protest songs. In Calma Pueblo, Calle 13 criticizes the current political environment that had recently laid off hundreds of thousands of workers. Extending their reach, Calle 13 uses El hormiguero to invite Latin American countries to unite in countering American interventionism. To finish off, Latinoamérica is a poignant, powerful narrative of an idyllic Latin America, and of the willingness of its people to move forward.
All of this goes to say that using music as a tool of protest is a deeply ingrained tradition in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in Latin America. It is because of this that any study of Latin American revolutions would only be complete by paying just as much attention to the music of the time.