By Oscar Mancinas
…didn’t know [music] would be what would begin to tell her what she remembers.
I have the (mis)fortune of belonging to a diaspora. My parents left their homeland and have yet to return—and probably won’t. Meanwhile, ever since I had a say, I’ve done very little to return to any homeland, imagined or otherwise; in fact, I’ve done the opposite and taken almost every opportunity I can to travel, to move, to resist calling anyplace “home.” However, I’m about to return, for a long-term stay, to the land that birthed and raised me, and, this return—the first time I’ll be back home for an extended stay in roughly a decade—brings with it a reflective mood. Channeling this mood into recollection, I decided, would be the best way to go about things. To that end, I’ve compiled my own “mixtape for diaspora,” made up of songs that have followed me—songs that evoke sharp, unmistakable moments but also transcend and take shape in new contexts.
Choosing music as the backdrop felt obvious. Music is memory. It’s personal yet communal; it connects and divides us, makes us feel when we’re numb, tells things about ourselves we don’t know, or don’t want to know, and, most of all, music tells us where we’ve been and what we’ve done. I divided my selections—or tried, at least—roughly into eras. To be clear, though, by no means do these songs fall along a clean chronology because: a) that’s boring, and b) if you’re part of a diaspora, you know time, history, and memory are anything but linear; rather, these three beats ebb and explode, seemingly at random, as though triggered by something said or left unsaid.
I. Early Fragile Nights
In my family, there are many of us, and when I was a kid, we took any excuse we could to gather at someone’s house, grill carne asada, and play the night away. The kids would chase each other around until we were too tired to do little else but sit and watch our parents dance and sway to music from their home. Always, the music opening the night was upbeat, a celebration of life and family. Those of us present were to bounce and cheer—nothing’s promised when you leave home, especially when you do so for another country, so vamos a bailar!
(Note: Of course we start with El Divo de Juárez)
As the night went on, though, the songs slowed and became melancholic. My parents, aunts, and uncles—all firmly entrenched in their respective marriages—swayed and crooned to lyrics of intense heartbreak and loss, like they were the protagonists in each song. Night blended with tender futility, and every grown up moved in their own space like only they knew, truly, the depth of the singer’s yearning. Separated from those nights by more than a few thousand miles and two decades—maybe this says more about me than them, but—I’m tempted to say, for the adults moving slowly through the summer night, the missing beloved in each song was their lost homeland. The pain, I imagine, came from how the land of their birth—present in music, food, and family, nonetheless—was utterly irretrievable.
2. “Como te voy olvidar” – Ángeles Azules
(Note: A lyric from this song inspired the first poem I ever published in print, which you can also read here)
II. Boppin’ Around the Barrio
When we were old enough to realize we were different from our parents—but still too young to appreciate what those differences meant—we were restless. The songs of lost love or describing the beauty of another land didn’t always resonate. What, after all, did those singers know about the hood? What could they tell us about being brown but speaking a mixed Spanish? These kinds of questions stirred within us, and we ran around hoping to find answers. Worse still, as we got older, and teachers took notice of me and didn’t take notice of many of my peers—at least not for positive reasons—it became clear that soon I’d have other questions to answer on my own. If I sound melodramatic or nostalgic, it’s probably because I am. Aside from the comradery of shared struggle, little is to be missed from adolescence in the ghetto—and, yet, it’s still home.
So, before we get too far ahead, we need to stop and appreciate what it was to be on the West Coast(ish), as hip hop from Los Angeles and Oakland became the soundtrack to every scene on a sun-drenched day on the streets. Kickin’ it in the park, cruisin’ down the street, or just chillin’ on somebody’s porch, when Chicano and Mexican artists got their hands on hip hop, it finally felt like somebody knew who we were and what we were going through.
4. “On a Sunday Afternoon” – A Lighter Shade of Brown
(Note: A Lighter Shade of Brown introduced me to the phrase “Brown and Proud”)
(Note: ¡El Cerro de la Silla presente!)
Still, try as we might to shake off some of the old country’s cultura, we couldn’t deny its power. Being a Southwestern Latinx, especially, means also being tuned into Norteño Latinx flavor—that border can’t do anything to stop culture from crossing both ways. Tejas, then, and Tejano music was never more than a track or two away, and even though we didn’t know her for very long Selena made all of us dance like we belonged.
(Note: I won’t fault any reader for pausing the article to go down any number of youtube/spotify rabbit holes, but I especially can’t discourage anyone from watching every single Selena video out there. She’s majestically singular.)
III. Foreigner in a Familiar Land
Then I went away. In a very white place, in a very white school, I was severed from everything I knew. Never was I more distant, yet hyperaware, of my Latinidad than when I went to college. I tried, nonetheless, to make do. Like a lot of my classmates, who also felt their own brands of disaffection, I relied on emotionally-drenched indie folk and pop music to try to work out where I fit in this suddenly-isolating world, and it helped, a little.
At times, though, the new music on which I depended for survival and guidance felt like using a blunt instrument to self-examine almost microscopic wounds. I could relate to artists and bands singing in English, but they couldn’t always relate to me, not all of me, at least. Uncared for went the parts of me that speak almost exclusively in Spanish whenever I’m on the phone with my folks, or shares a joke with complete strangers in a bodega, barbershop, or bus stop, or sits somewhere and reads Reinaldo Arenas or Guillermo Rosales or Elena Poniatowska or Federico García Lorca, or…you get it. Anyway, I craved something and didn’t realize it until it smacked me upside the head and said: “¡O’e we’on, ya p’e, deja de joder!”
In the colonial capital of Lima, Perú, I had my horribly-belated introduction to Rock Latino. I met, and fell in love with what it meant to be young, Latinx, and frustrated. Thanks to the friends and family I made in Perú, I found the sounds of resistance and desire in my mother tongue. These artists sang of longing, alienation, and primal anger with how, still, the world was not better for us or our people. Intoxicated by it all, I became, momentarily, a howl—freed from a mouth normally forced shut. Time bent and compressed as though I’d snapped back into an existence I was meant to be leading all along, and suddenly it felt like loved ones I’d lost or left behind could join the loved ones who’d found me, and we could have it all. Nights in bars, friends’ houses, clubs, cafes, and parks crashed into and caressed us like the Pacific does Lima’s coast, and I swore I never wanted it to end.
8. “De música ligera” – Soda Stereo
I imagine, or I hope, everyone feels something like this in this in their early 20s. For me these songs, and the memories of that momentary liberation—or belonging—still bring me a small, quiet peace. For once, diaspora and I could dance, almost, in harmony.
10. “Bicicleta” – Kanaku & El Tigre
(Note: On Kanaku & El Tigre: I saw them open for Andrew Bird in a bar in Lima at 2 am, so don’t ever try to step to me or my indie cred, fool.)
IV. Bring It All Home
Back in the country of my birth, I’ve learned to carry these songs, and the feelings they conjure, wherever I go. Being, once again, back in an overwhelmingly white space—as many grad schoolers can relate—I have a newfound sense of belonging and focus. Doubt inevitably creeps in, but I know for whom I do the work I do. I know I have a pueblo—several, in fact—out there who hunger like I hunger, and I delight in our chances to connect and give each other a knowing nod when our colors are flourishing in full force.
As I said before, I’m preparing to end my self-imposed exile and get back to the land from whence I came. A mixture of angst and relief accompanies me, so I’ll resist trying to tie this all together because, honestly, I’m all over place. This is all so personal—as music should be, I think—and I want to believe my journey is nowhere near finished. Instead, then, I’ll encourage whoever reads this to reflect on, recover, and share the music that’s propelled them. I’m always down to learn about the songs people hold close, and how they push and protect you, especially when it seems like loneliness and pain are around the next corner. What keeps us going? Maybe the answer will find us in the next song.
14. “Leña de pirul” – La Santa Cecilia
If you want the mix in its
entirety, you can find it here.