“All forms of culture are continually in the process of hybridity. But for me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the “third space” which enables other positions to emerge […] the process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognizable, an area of negotiation of meaning and representation.”
Hommi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994, 211)
These are percussion driven, dancing rhythms reflecting the Afro-Caribbean heritage of this half country, half US commonwealth island. During my childhood, my hometown was a key distribution point for the petrochemical refining business, and executives, managers, and workers from the US, Caribbean, South America, and Europe settled in the area. I had the privilege of attending schools taught in both English and Spanish languages. I was also exposed to a variety of cultures. I had Spanish, American, and European friends. I listened to Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, Light Classical, and Rock music. Studied the literature of William Faulkner, Edmond Rostand, Julio Cortazar and Miguel Cervantes. But my hybrid upbringing although academically and culturally enriching, has always been a source of tensions and anxieties having to do with feelings of being in and out of social context.
Later in life, my early multi-cultural experiences proved invaluable as I traveled to far away places for business and pleasure. From the Portuguese Azores, Canadian Newfoundland and Moroccan Casablanca, to Italian Sardinia, Austrian Salzburg and Sicilian Siracusa, I realized that regardless of how different cultures can be, the “third space” (Bahka. 1994)) created by their inter-section is “the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space–that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.[…] And by exploring this Third Space, we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of ourselves.”
The study takes a brief look at the cultural world that comprises “La Musica Latina” from a cross-cultural perspective, by using hybridity to examine the “third pace” created by its intersection with Rock n’ Roll during the 1960s – 1970s. This will include issues of transformation, dislocation, and mediation that characterize structures, productions, and performances within their political, cultural, and historical frames of meaning.
The methodology for this project is also hybrid. We will touch upon several of the “high” traditions of hybridity theory; post-colonialism, remix, hybridity, and network theory. The primary goal is simple: to reveal patterns, the not so apparent, to identify networks and their nodal interconnections, and establish power structures and agencies within those networks.
Hybridity and identity
In 1970, Carlos Santana recorded the monster hit “Oye Como Va!” hitting #13 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. While rock fans in the US and around the world grooved to the killer tune, little did they know that the song was originally composed by the Puerto Rican mambo and salsa bandleader/percussionist Tito Puente back in 1963. A veteran of New York’s epic Latin music boom in the 40s and 50s, Puente borrowed the memorable riff of “Oye Como Va! from the beginning bars of a previous arrangement titled “Chanchullo”, composed by the Afro-Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez; of the Buena Vista Social Club fame.
This is hybridity in action; Puente created the song as another Spanish Caribbean mambo in his repertoire; but its stylistic ethnomusicology was grounded in Africa and Cuba, the composer born in New York, a muti-ethnic US metropolis, and influenced by an array of musical genres. Carlos Santana, unlike Puente, was an immigrant, born in Mexico and raised in Tijuana. He relocated to San Francisco with his parents when he was an adolescent. In his remix of the song, Santana distilled Puente’s Spanish Caribbean musicality through his hybrid brand of US rock, which he had mastered not in the US but in his Mexican homeland, where young people had embraced rock since the 1950s. 
In 2000, National Public Radio’s (NPR) All Things Considered named “Oye Como Va!” one of the 100 most important American songs of the 20th century, based on its profound influence on musical developments in the US . How ironic that an immigrant Mexican rocker, is pioneering the subgenre of Latin rock, and introducing the U.S.-born Puente’s Afro Cuban dance music to mainstream U.S. rock audiences. What stands out is a major characteristic of US Latino musical practices: rather than being tied to musical elements specific of national groups, Latino music making has always involved remixing musical, geographic, racial, and ethnic boundaries. The resulting mezcolanza1 has been a dazzling array of musical practices–of which many are not usually associated as Latino–each with its own intricate ethnomusicology and each giving voice to the multipolar traits that characterize the Latino experience in the US.
 Mezcolanza – Spanish slang: a confused multitude of things
Following are videos of the compositions referenced in the previous paragraphs:
him(Song begins after 2:00 min ET (Elapsed Time)
If we pay close attention to the mix of musical styles and inflections embedded in the previously provided sample versions of “Oye Como Va!” you can hear the turbulent political, social and cultural rumblings that typified the 60s and 70s. But more importantly, you can still hear their echoes resonating in the extraordinary assortment of blended sounds and styles–from Latin freestyle to hip-hop to reggaeton–created by US-born Latinos in subsequent decades.
More recent waves of immigrants have continued to enrich the Latino musical mosaic of the United States. They have contributed additional Latin American music styles such as bachata, banda, corrido, and vallenato. They have hybridized, remixed, and mediated themselves, their identities, and their musical practices, and during the process, added significant contributions to the “global village”. These styles produced and consumed in the US manifest the hybrid nature of Latin culture’s “third space” in their oscillation between their original Latin American roots, their US diasporas, the US mainstream, and global cultures.
Latin Music, post-colonialism, and the politics of race
The existence of a well known, predominant mixed-race category in Spanish America – and its lack thereof in the United States -underlines the deep cultural differences between the ways Spanish and English-speaking Americans have identified themselves. Latino Americanos recognize themselves and their cultures as products of the region’s rich cultural and racial blending. Conversely, in the United States, racial and cultural identities have historically been created and portrayed in binary terms–black or white. Fortunately, binary thinking about race is currently undergoing a period of change. Recent proposed changes in immigration laws and a growing population of high profile multiracial people, including US President Barrack Obama, are examples of how the US is beginning to embrace racial hybridity. Nevertheless, the steady stream of newspaper articles and television segments asking the question “is Obama black?” during the 2008 election season demonstrates the depth of discomfort generated by these new challenges to historical paradigms of racial identity.
In historical terms, taking for granted that race and cultural mixture has shaped US Latino musical practice has been controversial. In the past, for most of the global community, the idea of racial merging and the resulting third space with both its certainties and doubts have a history of generating inherent anxieties about boundaries, power, class, sexuality, and the body. The mix of Amerindian and African blood was considered the main source of inferiority for people of Latin American descent. To British eyes during colonial times, even the Spanish were believed to be similarly afflicted with genetic inferiority, causing them to be predisposed to treachery, violence and other vices, such as indolence, irrationality, and sexual promiscuity. This was reflected in their barbaric treatment of the natives in the territories of the Spanish Kingdom.
Genetic studies have demonstrated beyond a doubt that no races are “pure” and that racial mixture is universal. This universality does not mean it should be considered a neutral phenomenon lacking local significance or that it is disconnected from structural hierarchies. On the contrary, in terms of the quality of life of people throughout the Americas, mixed race peoples have historically had fewer rights and privileges than Continental Americans and Europeans although they consistently enjoyed higher status than unmixed Amerindians and Africans. These hierarchies of race and power have manifested themselves in the way Latin American popular musics have been produced, consumed, and valued in Latin America as well as the United States.
One of the terms used in Latin America for individuals of mixed descent is “mestizo”. Technically it is used to describe people and culture of mixed European and native ancestry. Generally, the related term “mestizaje” has commonly been used to refer the process of cultural mixing that accompanied biological mixing. But in practice what the term “mestizaje” really signifies is the resulting European/native hybridity.
Blood was considered the main source of inferiority for people of Latin American descent. To British eyes during colonial times, even the Spanish or believe to be similarly afflicted with genetic inferiority, causing them to be predisposed to treachery, violence and other vices, such as indolence, irrationality, and sexual promiscuity.
The above concepts are important in order to frame our thinking about the complexities of US Latino identities and cultures, and to also illustrate some of the problems faced when used in the context of Latin music. As an example, identifying the origins of African derived drumming rhythms does not have the same implication as trying to identify the origins of an individual’s hue of skin – particularly if the musician is white or light skinned. The contributions of African derived aesthetics to Latino music, particularly merengue and salsa, among others, have been widely recognized. The conclusion here is that the hue of a musician’s skin should not be tied to his proficiency, contribution, or mastery of a specific musical genre.
The more valid concern, however, is that the concept of mestizaje is being exploited to use the realities of racial mixture to deny racism and its structural manifestations. Some race theorists, in particular Ian Haney Lopez , has argued that celebrations of Latinos’ mestizaje ushering in a post racial society, where color does not matter, is a double edged sword because it justifies efforts to break down race sensitive policies that persevere long standing social inequalities.
In closing, the constant musical remixing that has always characterized Latin music practices is precisely hybrid because they are perceived as expressing the harmonious (literally and figuratively) outcome of racial and cultural blending. In addition, the individual components (musics of unambiguously African and native origins) would have never had the same access to and success within the popular music marketplace as their more audibly hybrid counterparts.
West Coast vs. East Coast
Cultural Nationalism and Latino Engagement with Rock and Roll
When Tito Puente wrote his now anthemic song “Oye Como Va!” in 1963, the United States was poised on the brink of profound social and cultural upheavals. In the seven short years between when this original recording and Carlos Santana’s 1970 rock version, would profoundly alter the context, nature, and meaning of Latino musical practices.
In the early 1960s, thousands of economically displaced Puerto Ricans including Puente’s family, arrived in New York in search of opportunity–just as the city was beginning to lose its manufacturing base. This led to the condemnation of many of the new arrivals and their mainland born children to lives of chronic unemployment, poverty, and racial discrimination. Increasingly negative images of Puerto Ricans and their culture began appearing in the media, such as John Frankenheimer’s 1961 film The Young Savages and the 1961 film West Side Story. From this perspective, most of the Latin American music production out of New York City on receptive ears in the local Puerto Rican community, whereas the rest of the nation was turning its back on the mambos and cha-chas they once used to dance away the night at the Tropicana, now preferring rock and roll. On the other side of the Americas, the anticipated economic restructuring was beginning to set in motion a series of events that would bring in millions of Mexicans searching for better lives into the United States. Among these was Carlos Santana’s family.
Keep in mind however that in the early 1960s the Vietnam War had not yet mobilized the country’s youth to rebel against authority. The 2nd wave of the feminist movement was just getting underway and psychedelic drugs an alternate visions of how society could be restructured which is beginning to touch the imagination of young people around the globe. More importantly, the civil rights movement was challenging racist structures, although the seeds of the race and ethnicity movements by Puerto Rican and Chicanos of the 70s had not yet surfaced.
Because of their mixed racial ancestries, both Mexican-Americans and New York Puerto Ricans was subjected to racial discrimination, and they often resided in segregated neighborhoods in close proximity to African Americans. Your, however as always bit more spatially concentrated but Los Angeles, with its characteristic metropolitan sprawl; the result Puerto Ricans, particularly in Spanish Harlem in the South Bronx, lived at work in close physical proximity to African Americans that did Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, where barrios have been comparatively more removed from African American neighborhoods. It is well known the biggest concentration of Mexican Angelinos reside in East Los Angeles.
Delving into the relationships between Chicanos and New York Puerto Ricans, that their respective musical developments in each other’s homelands as they relate to rock ‘n roll, both Mexico and the island of Puerto Rico had active rock ‘n roll scenes as early as the 1950s. Initially rock ‘n roll was associated with non-rebellious working-class youths there were light skin upper-class young people was assigned to participate in its modernity was perceived by nationalists as reflections of the colonization mentality. In Mexico however, Rock ‘n’ Roll was indigenized when a local rock scene developed encompassing elements of the US rock environment. This was one sided, as US rockers did not incorporate any elements of the emerging Mexican rock into their genre.
In Puerto Rico, in contrast rock ‘n roll–irrespective of the ethnicity of the interpreters–continued to be perceived as an intrusive and unwelcome product of US imperialism, against which salsa became a symbolic antidote. This was basically a “Fuck me-Fuck you” attitude- a counter culture backlash from the social discrimination and ill reception that they received during their migration. Puerto Rico’s attachment with salsa as a symbol of authenticity and nationalism, and rock ‘n roll as a sign of US cultural imperialism, it is not surprising the musical elements from genre were not received enthusiastically from the working class and intensely nationalistic New York Puerto Rican community. Chicano nationalists could look at the Mexican Rock scene with pride. Carlos Santana, whose career as a rocker began in Tijuana, was a product of that scene.
Mexican Americans, Latin Music and Rock ‘n’ Roll
As previously mentioned, and an expanding body of research continues to affirm, African American musicians were most influential on their Mexican American colleagues. Both shared the experience of racial and economic injustices and the resulting segregation and marginalization in the urban landscape. Back then, African Americans were familiar with Mexican American culture, and reflected it in some of their music. In the 1960s The Penguins recorded a song called Hey Señorita, remixing musical elements from both African and Mexican riffs to the delight of mixed crowds. Then, in the 1970s the group War recorded Lowrider, paying homage to the customized cars closely associated with Mexican Angelinos.
Rock ‘n’ Roll produced by Mexican Americans from the 1960s to the 1970s was unusually successful because of its style variations. Those who attained national hits include; Trini Lopez (Texas born but discovered when performing in L.A.), Yaqui, Malo, and of course, Ritchie Valens La Bamba, based on a traditional Veracruzan folk song
Trini Lopez (1963)
Yaqui (Original Composition 1973)
Malo – Short Intro Clip
Malo (Original Composition 1974)
Another product of the scene was Ritchie Valens.
Ritchie Valens “La Bamba”
Later in the 70s, The Chicago movement, like any other movement, began to be stimulated by cultural nationalism and identity politics. To a lesser degree, it was also influenced by more nuanced views of ethnic identities generated by alternative Latino lifestyles (queer, feminist, and other). These contested monolithic ideas redefined what it meant to be Chicano. Chicano punk rockers such as The Plugz and The Brat reflected the desire to criticize the status quo. Other groups, like the The Illegals, would only sing Spanish lyrics, at the same time rejecting the nationalism and other symbolism consistent with their language choice in their cover art.
For New York Puerto Ricans, although a strong adherence to tradition may have deterred these musicians from venturing into the more lucrative rock arena in the 1960s and 1970s, it undeniably help the community maintain its cultural coherence and integrity in years when it was under intense social and economic pressures. It is important to acknowledge and understand that maintaining a strong sense of ethnic identity is not necessarily dependent on any particular mode of engagement with US mainstream musical practice. Communities and individuals was decided for themselves when and where it is appropriate to participate and when and where it makes more sense to withdraw and resist.
In summary, Mexican-Americans musicians from Los Angeles have a rich, colorful history of hybridization with Rock ‘n’ Roll and, by association, with US pop music. Although some of their musical productions have been bilingual and even fewer have been entirely in Spanish, most of them have been in English. From the 60s – 70s Mexican-American rockers have encountered barriers mainly created by the disinterest of the mainstream music industry. Artistic recognition and economic success have eluded most of them, but enough of them have achieved amazing success to be considered co-participants in the development of US Rock ‘n’ Roll.
NYC: The Sun of Latin Music
As a background, as far back as the 1950s, Puerto Rican musicians in New York had always engaged with U.S. popular music. However, their engagement occurred more often with their African American counterparts than with the mainstream oriented Tin Pan Alley music . Young PR teens were listening avidly to Rock ‘n’ Roll as well as to their parents’ Spanish Caribbean tunes. But as the next two decades evolve, their enthusiasm waned. With the exception of the short-lived Boogaloo and two golden musicians, Jose Feliciano and Tony Orlando, New York Puerto Rican musicians’ commitment to American music genres, including Pop, was lukewarm at best.
Victims of racial discrimination, and sharing living accommodations with African Americans in the projects of N.Y. City, brought NY Puerto Ricans and African Americans closer socially, culturally and physically. In addition, many of these Puerto Rican had African American ancestry, so the interactions between the groups facilitated the assimilation of the ancestral culture as opposed to the dominant white mainstream. Nevertheless, these relations were not without problems, and NY Puerto Ricans have resisted the degradation of their cultural heritage when misidentified as Afro-Americans, a confusion not experienced by Mexican Americans, who were usually identified as mestizos.
During this era, New York was the country’s premier immigrant city and the center of the nation’s recording industry. As such, it was the magnet for musical talent from the Caribbean and Latin America. An accumulation of African American and whites from throughout the continental US had already been taking place, making it the ideal “third space” for musical experimentation and creativity. So NY-based Puerto Rican musicians were living the dream of being embedded within a dynamic, music scene, solidly grounded in Spanish Caribbean styles, but with access to other music genres; jazz, funk, soul, swing. Being in close proximity to the record industry offered the professional advantages of being able to obtain steady work recording music in the Spanish Caribbean styles.
In the 1960s some of New York’s more established Latino musicians attempted to revitalize the Spanish Caribbean music of the 50s with new energy by infusing it with R&B inflections, and scores of flute and violin. Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria, and Ray Barreto were the emerging stars of this period. The musical subgenres of pachanga and charanga where characteristic at the beginning of the period, but later, guajira and guaguanco became predominant. These were the new styles that would predominate and contribute to the Salsa explosion.
The emergence of Salsa was tied to the rise of Puerto Rican cultural nationalism and deeply rooted in Spanish Caribbean Musical traditions. Its intense symbolic importance was directly proportional to the appalling social conditions that Puerto Ricans and African Americans lived under in New York City. In addition, changes in immigration policies in the mid 60s opened up doors to hundreds of thousands of new immigrants globally. The “white flight’ to the suburbs drained city budgets at the same time demand for public services was rising, contributing to the decay of New York’s once vital Puerto Rican neighborhoods. A series of counter movements, social, cultural, political, inspired by the black and Chicano civil rights movements, brought together PR militant cultural nationalists, seeking to defend their communities by protesting the city’s neglect and promoting a sense of community empowerment. Using their own cultural resources as a source of strength and pride, Salsa rose as the battle cry, and the lullaby of the Puerto Rican community, angry at their deplorable state of existence, and tired of the constant oscillation between who they were, and who they could be.
Salsa can be deconstructed as an assortment of contemporary musical styles; R & B, jazz, and various Latin American and Caribbean genres, but at its heart is a remixed form of the celebrated Afro-Cuban-Spanish musical elements that had flourished in NYC in the 40s and 50s. The emergence of salseros, from Willie Colon through Tipica 73 to Larry Harlow, all shared the aggressive, dynamic energy and stinging lyrics that reflected their struggles growing up in New York’s barrios.
Rather than present the reader with multiple video clips covering the music described above, the clip below is a PBS documentary covering the “Salsa Revolution”:
Another look (In Spanish, with an awesome soundtrack!):
- Bhabha, H. K. (1994). The location of culture. Routledge.
- Foucault, M. (1966). Les mots et les choses.
- Hernandez, D. P. (2010). Oye Como Va!: Hybridity and Identity in Latino Popular Music. Temple University Press.
- Lipsitz, G. (1994). Dangerous crossroads. D. Diederichsen (Ed.). London: Verso.
- Flores, J. (2000). From bomba to hip-hop: Puerto Rican culture and Latino identity. Columbia University Press.
- Lopez, I. H. (2003). White Latinos. Harv. Latino L. Rev., 6, 1.
- Loza, S. J. (1999). Tito Puente and the making of Latin music. University of Illinois Press.
“The fact that in the US most musical styles were at one time associated with a particular race left little space for those Latinos like myself, confortable with “bridging the gap”, living in that “third space”, not wanting to choose on aesthetic or identity over another.”