Migration and Exile in Latin American Music

Oct 23, 2013
11:26 AM

Originally published by Luis Marentes at blogs.mass.edu

“A los mojados les dedico mi canción”, Los Tigres del Norte

On Sunday, October 20 Mexico’s La Jornada ran several stories on the US Latin@ experience. Among them was one focusing on migration songs. The piece focuses mainly on Mexican corridos, a genre which, as Américo Paredes and María Herrera-Sobek have shown in their groundbreaking works, has been a vehicle to document the experiences of migrants and borderlands inhabitants almost since the moment of the US occupation of northern Mexico. Within the limitations of a short newspaper article, it discusses a good sample of this repertoire. Inspired by it, I’d like to share some of the actual songs discussed in the article and add a new dimension to it, incorporating others about migration and exile from other Spanish-speaking traditions. The list of this kind of songs is very long and I will not do justice to all, but I offer this as a sample of the music that exists. Some of them appear as embedded videos, others as hyperlinks within the text.


As La Jornada’s article indicates, Los Tigres del Norte is perhaps the most popular band today that deals with the migrant experience in the US. They have a huge collection, and I begin with their performance of a song that has become the anthem of many migrants. “Canción Mixteca” is a melancholic song, expressing a deep desire to return to one’s homeland. Here they perform it with The Chieftains, a beautiful rendition from the album San Patricio:

Other songs by Los Tigres focus on the “mojado” experience, the undocumented worker who gets wet by secretly crossing the river. The theme is not new, and while today many of these migrants face very difficult situations, in previous years the trek was not as dangerous. Thus, songs like Vicente Fernández’s “Los Mandados” look at the experience with a sense of humor and defiance. Crossing the border is almost a rite of passage here, reminiscent of some of the experiences documented in Rubén Martínez’s Crossing Over, published at the turn of the 21th century, when border violence was just beginning to become a major concern.

The “migra” (border patrol or ICE), a central character in “Los Mandados”, is a preoccupation of many undocumented migrants today, and it appears in many songs. In fact, Santana recorded one called “La Migra”. This theme was presented this year in a more urgent way when theNational Day Laborer Organizing Network produced a video of Santa Cecilia’s song “El Hielo” as part of its #Not1More Deportation campaign:

While some consider the migra the final danger faced by those who have already crossed the border, there are many migrants who don’t make it to the US. Maná’s “Pobre Juan” addresses this human tragedy. Those who do successfully cross the border have to face the migra and, even if not captured, the very fear of it and the impossibility of moving back and forth freely to their countries of origin create other preoccupations that are eloquently captured in one of Los Tigres’ most popular songs, “La Jaula de Oro.”

Central American undocumented migrants have a more complicated experience. They have to cross several borders on their trek to the US and encounter different sorts of dangers all along their journey as La Bestia’s recent tragedy reminds us. Los Tigres del Norte have a classic song called “Tres Veces Mojado” that addresses this experience. It deals with Salvadorian migrants who must face three borders, crossing through Guatemala and Mexico before reaching the United States. This multiple border experience is the main theme of Guatemalan Ricardo Arjona’s song “Mojado:”

The previous examples address undocumented immigration, a central issue of concern for many of us in the United States these days, but one that is not limited to our country as Manu Chao’s famous “Clandestino” reminds us.

As Bernardo Vega’s memoirs attest, Puerto Ricans have been regularly migrating across the Atlantic since the mid-nineteenth century. This experience is present in some of the most classic songs of this nation’s repertoire. Sometimes, like in Rafael Hernández’s “Campanitas de Cristal”, the reference to life abroad is oblique. In this case the crystal bells are the icicles formed on the frozen windows of New York. One of Puerto Rico’s most representative songs, “En Mi Viejo San Juan” is much more straightforward. It presents a nostalgic remembrance of the island from abroad. I share here a version by the Mexican Trío Los Panchos with Javier Solís because it is, in my opinion, a beautiful version and it represents its international reach, as it is now part of the standard repertoire across the continent:

While some Puerto Ricans, like Juan Flores and Jorge Duany embrace the migratory experience, others, like René Marqués, have looked at this movement with suspicion. Marqués’ classic play,La Carreta, is a prime example of the fear of North American contamination. In this spirit we can listen to Roy Brown’s “El Negrito Bonito”, performed here with Gilberto Santa Rosa. Also by Roy Brown, “Boricua en la Luna” is a migrant’s elegy, but one that insists on the possibility of maintaining one’s identity despite the distance. In a more humorous vein, we can view “La Maleta” featured in Panamanian Ruben Blade’s first Fania album with Willie Colón. Here, the singer’s desire is to return to the island after experiencing some of the troubles of urban life in New York. Another Puerto Rican group, Calle 13, takes on the theme of migration and turns it into a continental anthem of defiance in their recent “Pal Norte”:

Like Puerto Ricans, Cubans have also been creating significant communities in the US since the nineteenth century, and I am certain that there are many songs about this long experience. I present two recent songs here that capture the Cuban exile experience. Gloria Estéfan’s “Mi Tierra” is representative of one line of the new cultural production of the Cuban exile population in Miami. Here, singing with Marc Anthony, Estefan evokes memories of an island she left in her youth. Singing from Spain, with “537 Cuba” Orishas take the Buena Vista Social Club’s now classic “Chan Chan” and turn it into a melancholic hip hop hymn of remembrance.

I close with another important tradition, that of the South American exiles, who were forced to flee the dictatorships that plagued the region during the 1970s and 80s. Written by one of the founders of the “Nueva Trova Cubana”, Pablo Milanés, “Yo Pisaré las Calles Nuevamente” evokes Salvador Allende’s government of Popular Unity, and condemns the brutality of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, as it awaits for the possibility of return for the thousands of South American exiles; a return that today has become possible as can be seen in this beautiful rendition of Chilean’s Julio Numhauser’s “Todo Cambia” by the great Mercedes Sosa. The song’s lyrics address both the nostalgia and the hope of the many people who, for one reason or another, have been forced to leave their homelands and live everyday longing the possibility of return:

Pero no cambia mi amor,

por mas lejos que me encuentre,

ni el recuerdo ni el dolor

de mi pueblo y de mi gente.

Y lo que cambió ayer

tendrá que cambiar mañana,

así como cambio yo

en estas tierras lejanas.


luisLuis Marentes is an associate professor of Spanish at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who wants to explore ways in which to communicate and learn through the new social media. His academic work has focused on Mexican and Latin@ culture in the first half of the 20th century. As a member of a Pars-Mex New England family, Luis also has a great interest in the Middle East, and would hope to help foster an international dialogue. Follow @marentesluis.