Track 4: Where does America begin?

Where does America begin?

M.C. Mallet

 

“Where are you from?”

“I was born in Germany.”

“Wow. What’s it like there? Do you speak German?”

“I don’t remember it; we left when I was about two.”

 

“Where are you from?”

“Kansas.”

“They have Black people in Kansas?”

I am a Black man, a U.S. citizen by birth, though born in Europe, whose first words (according to family legend) were in German. I am the child of a Black American Southerner and  an Afro-Panamanian immigrant  and native Spanish speaker with roots in Jamaica and St. Lucia. I was reared in the Roman Catholic church, not the Black church. The first 13 years of my life were spent in motion—Germany, California, Utah, Kansas, Colorado, Panama—living on Army bases with Army families similarly transient and ethnically/culturally mixed. At the beginning of my teenage years, I fell into what we conventionally call “America.” Kansas, to be specific. The middle of the middle. Landlocked. Predominantly white. Population about 35,000. A small town in general terms, but a city in that region of the country.

Where does America begin?

Around the world, “America” conventionally stands for that fat continental swath sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, stretching from Atlantic to Pacific. In the U.S., we claim for ourselves not only a continent but an entire hemisphere

Ironically, I don’t remember exactly when I first listened to Live: Rubén Blades y Son de Solar. I know it was in the mid to late 1990s, when I lived in Iowa and taught at a small college nearby. I can see the cassette tape case: an image in black and deep red of Blades, fedora tilted back on his head, singing. I had come across the cassette in a local used music store and remembered hearing about the 1980s for a film, Crossover Dreams, in which Blades starred as a salsa singer trying to break into the mainstream U.S. market. Later, I’d watched a 60 Minutes profile of him: lawyer, Harvard graduate, salsa singer, and Panamanian, like my mother.

But I do clearly remember sliding the tape into the deck of my blue Honda Civic wagon and hearing for the first time the force of the sound and rhythm. I remembered the way it lifted me, the way it made me want to move, a texture in the language, even though I understood only bits and pieces of the Spanish in which he sang. And I remember a kind of shock of recognition I felt when he said while introducing a song, “Anyone born on the continent of America is an American.”

“Where are you from?”

“All over. Nowhere.”

As a brown-skinned man raised in the U.S., a nation which “Latino” means light skin and flowing hair, I thought of my with aunts and uncles and a grandmother who spoke Spanish fluently when I visited their Panamanian homes. What was my tradition? The so-called melting pot of the U.S. has always felt alien to me, especially after the four years of my childhood that I spent in the Panama Canal Zone. At times I located my alienation in race; at other times I attributed it to my being a black boy in what in the US is a largely white church; at other times I blamed the “partial” foreignness of my birth and parentage and upbringing on the displacement I have felt in U.S. culture. My time in Panama had suggested to me how deeply the blackness ran in Latin America. My time in the United States told me this was an aberration: to be Latin or Hispanic was to be light brown or white.

Where does America begin?

Geographically, it starts with the line of islands that bow out into the Atlantic like a smile turned on its side, past which lies the wide mouth of the Caribbean yawning between the North and South American land masses. This mouth into which Europe poured commerce and ships and armies, slavery and disease, Christianity and genocide, colonialism and expectations of wealth. And out of what Europe perceived as cultural emptiness and unfettered economic opportunity has flowed visual art, literature, theater, dance, film, and music. From the enslaved, betrayed, and condemned erupted transcendent sounds that speak vitality—even through the colonizer’s tongue.

Live: Rubén Blades y Son de Solar was recorded in New York City, where Blades first became a professional singer in the 1970s. It is shot through with the violent political struggles of the region dominated by the shadow of the United States, caught in cultural rip tides. Blades uses salsa to broadcast calls for action and justice, to highlight the disparities between rich and poor. In his performance, he code switches between Spanish and English to his mixed audience, introducing each song and engaging in between-number patter in both languages.

Porque en latinoamerica, matan la gente pero no matan la idea…”–Rubén Blades

“Where are you from?”

“I’m an Army brat. I lived in Panama for four years.”

“Really? Me too! Isn’t it a shame they’re giving the canal back to those people?”

(“Those people.” My mother’s people: Panamanians. The young white female student—my own age—who said those words didn’t know that. To her, I was American, one of  “us.” But I didn’t know how to respond, because my Panamanian mother had at times expressed the same sentiment.)

Blades’ music began the slow recognition of the fullness of my American identity, but not as people in the United States casually use that term. Instead, my origins lie in the place where America was born, where European and indigenous and African and even East Asian first collided and co-mingled and contested, and where colonies and slavery and cultural eradication and struggles for liberation began in this hemisphere. I realize that every American, from the Bering Straits to Tierra del Fuego, lives in a world that sprang from the womb of the Caribbean. It took Ruben Blades’ Afro-Cuban music drew me in search of that American-ness that is in my DNA. The European language and instrumentation, the African beats, the Caribbean landscapes and flora and fauna, the Caribbean Sea itself, embody the history of conflict and promise that define this hemisphere.

The Caribbean

As if to remind us of the source of our force, of the price brown bodies paid and the prices paid for brown bodies, Africa sends her annual messengers across the ocean in the form of hurricanes, wild winds whipped by whispered voices of those lying like a paved path along the sea floor of the middle passage: those whose bodies gave out in the bellies of ships; those whose spirits drove them to leap into the waves rather than surrender to degradation; those who, even while chained, chose to die fighting their captors. The rest were delivered into the mouth of the Caribbean.

In the Caribbean, the Africans encountered Europe’s feckless seventh sons, spinster daughters, the ministers and priests and nuns with healing hands, and those wielding swords to sever the limbs linking Taino, linking Carib. Orphans and exiles and outcasts and fortune hunters, as well as businessmen and bureaucrats, swarmed from Europe’s belly into the warm basin of clear waters dotted by emeralds of land.

Afro-Cuban music comes from the survivors, the music of captives and capturers, our blood blended—sometimes willingly, often not—by the confluence of domination and the will to survive. The relentless rhythm of memory that persists beneath the waves, hidden but never forgotten.

Swirling winds of language that sent pidgins flying. America as America—as an empty, wild, resource-rich space to be exploited, civilized, colonized, claimed—began in the Caribbean. There first contact occurred. There Europeans took what they found as theirs. There, from Columbus’s initial voyage, enslavement began. Oppression. Resistance. Freedom. Culture. Self-determination. Race. What it would mean to be “human,” and to whom that term could be extended. The primacy of property and commerce. The justification of violence. Each of these dramatic, tragi-comic storylines started in the Caribbean basin, radiated outward, and embedded themselves in the main land masses of the continents, where they exist to this day.

“They call that ‘salsa,’ but that’s Afro-Cuban music. Those drums are African drums.”–Mi madre

This isn’t Ricky Martin or Gloria Estafan pop salsa—no offense to either of those singers. On the album, Blades travels back and forth among the roles of poet, exhorter, and storyteller, sometimes blurring the lines within an individual song. He gives us songs such as “Muevete,” in which he calls for people across Latin America and Africa to rise up, to move and act and seek justice. He presents songs of longing, such as “Todos Vuelven,” about the desire for all of use to return to the place of our birth or origin, a place where we can feel we can belong, but that is lost to us.

Some of the songs offer vignettes. In “Decisiones,” we glimpse three sets of lives: a young woman and her boyfriend who wonder whether he’s gotten her pregnant and what will happen if her family finds out; a married man who decides to embark on an affair with a married woman he knows, unaware that rather than his love, her husband waits for him at the assignation with a baseball bat; a drunk, convinced that alcohol makes him more suave and a better driver, who meets his fate at a late-night traffic light and an encounter with a truck. In “Cuentas del alma,” a young man watches his mother’s life shrivel as she grieves over the loss of the husband who has abandoned them.

 

“Pedro Navaja,” a massive hit in Latin America, tells the story of a fatal encounter between the title character—a knife-wielding hood—and a desperate prostitute armed with a gun. All of these are delivered with irony and a dark humor.

But from my first listening to my most recent one a few minutes ago, two songs anchor Blades’ album for me emotionally. He originally released both on his 1984 album Buscando America; one of these is the title song, in which he sings of his search for America, for justice, for a peaceful future for this hemisphere:

Estoy buscando America y temo no encontrarla…

Estoy llamando America, pero no me responde…

This was the song that shattered my cramped sense of what America encompassed, of how far it reached not only geographically but in time and in spirit, an America that had room for all the parts of me that could find no space in which to ground myself in the narrow turf of the United States.

The second song, “El Padre Antonio y el Monaguillo Andres,” has an even more visceral hold on me. It tells the story of a priest who leaves the bureaucracy of the Vatican to preach peace, salvation, and justice among the Latin American poor, and of his 10-year-old altar boy (monaguillo) Andres, more concerned with soccer than with memorizing his Rosary. And it tells of their common fate: shot to death in the middle of Mass by a gunman never identified or caught. The story’s echo of the murdered Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, and of other Latin American nuns and priests killed in the 1970 and 1980s by death squads for daring to call for economic and political justice, clutches at something in me, in my gut.

At the same time, Blades delivers “Padre Antonio,” as he does all the songs on the album, with music that affirms even while the lyrics point to the ironic, painful, even at times bleak realities of life for so many in the Americas. The album’s heart is its relentless beat, driven not by a singular base thump with one or two drums from a standard pop music set. Instead, the music emerges in a furious onslaught of percussion: drum set, congas, cow bell, maracas, bongos, vibes and more, all rhythmically interwoven in a deep conversation that dares the listener to remain still. “Padre Antonio” is the only song I’ve ever known that simultaneously makes me want to dance with life and weep with grief. Every time I hear it. And only with effort can I play it once without having to hear it two or three more times in succession.

Where does America begin?

My America begins sitting in my car, listening to Rubén Blades.

It begins in blood and rhythm, patience and persistence, a tumult of cultures contending, exchanging, amending, rewriting themselves and one another. It begins in destruction and denial, deliberate amnesia, an opulent cathedral next to a mansion, both built on open secrets and half-buried bones. It begins in that most American of seas, the Caribbeans, from which it sends its music forth.

 

M.C. Mallet is a freelance writer in Minnesota. For nearly 20 years, he taught college level composition, rhetoric, and literature. Mallet has also worked as a journalist and technical editor. He holds an MFA in fiction, and a doctorate in rhetoric and composition. Mallet blogs at Romance Language and can be found on Twitter as @mar_de_palabras.

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