Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spanish and Indian: Race in South America

I once had a family visiting from Argentina. Like me, they had an appreciation of music. I played for them some music of the group Inti Illimani, which is a group that plays "Cancion Nueva." They were a bit surprised at my musical tastes. In their circles there was less crossover between music with Indian and with Spanish roots. Here in New York, Quechua music has a strong following, as it has in France for years. Additionally, they were surprised at my fondness for a group with communist leanings. During the time they were with us, I picked up some music from them to which I still listen regularly.

Cancion Nueva is music indigenous to Latin America. It often draws heavily on Quechua and Aymara influences. It is laced with a message of leftist nationalist pride. A recurring theme in it is the idea that the people of South America should discover, celebrate and propagate their heritage rather than import pop music from the US. I have heard the same arguments in Jewish circles revolve around asserting one's Jewishness. There is African American pride as well. I find that people who are learning and celebrating their heritage often develop something to give the world.

Inti Illimani had the good fortune to be in Italy on tour in 1973 when Agosto Pinochet and the military junta he headed seized power in September of that year, overthrowing a communist led government that was feared by many to be turning Chile into another Cuba. Inti Illimani had a lengthy and artistically productive exile in Italy, where their music enjoyed a strong leftist following.

Victor Jara, a renowned Chilean singer, was not so fortunate. He was in Santiago when the coup occurred. He was brutally beaten and murdered in the Soccer Stadium where he and about 5000 others were held. His death set the tone for the next decade and a half, a time during which free enterprise flourished and political freedom was brutally curtailed. Arlo Guthrie did a song about Victor Jara that conveys well the horror of his death. My favourite song of Victor Jara was once a hit in Chile. "Ni Chicha Ni Limona" which translates approximately as "Neither Chicha Nor Soda Pop" is a metaphoric allusion in which chicha, a home brewed peasant alcoholic beverage and limona, which can refer to Coke, Sprite or any American style soda pop, symbolise native Chilean versus wannabee American culture.

A lot of Latin American politics is driven by the rift between Indians and people of predominantly Spanish ancestry. To a large extent, one's percentage of Spanish blood heavily influences one's social standing. The election of Evo Morales, for instance was as much a source of pride to Bolivia's Aymara population as was Barack Obama's election to African Americans.

Unfortunately, Latin America has a long way to go in bridging the gap between its different ethnic strains. In too many instances, fluency in an Indian language, be it Mayan in Mexico or Quechua in Peru is a marker of poverty. The strains of historical narrative differ widely when told from an Indian rather than a Spanish point of view. Such differences are far more intense than the difference between an American Southerner and a Northerner looking at the civil war.

Unique in South America is Paraguay. Paraguay is the only country in South America where both Spanish and an Indian language enjoy civic and legal equality. Both languages are taught in the Paraguayan schools. There are very many people there who are of Spanish rather than Guarani Indian ancestry who are fluent in Guarani. There is much speculation about the origins of Guarani. It is commonly thought that Guarani hails from Asia. A Paraguayan Jewish friend of mine is convinced that the Guarani Indians are one of the lost tribes.

South America offers an interesting point of comparison with the United States. However turbulent our race relations have been, we have evolved a great deal since the time the Republic was founded. With the large number of immigrants from Central and South America, it is certainly desirable to have some idea of their social frame of reference. My Argentinian guests informed me, for instance that most of Argentina's Afro Argentinians were wiped out in the 19th century in a calculated campaign of ethnic cleansing. There are many tiles in the South American ethnic mosaic, and a multitude of stories to go with them.

My approach to comparative cultures is like bringing my children to the park. I note how other families relate. Some of what I see is instructive, sometimes it is dysfunctional. Observing the family of nations is similarly instructive. I hope in our modern era of globalisation, that world music will achieve something approaching a mass following. The shrinking of the world is a great opportunity to see past our own driveways. There is a balance between being and developing ourselves and appreciating others. that is the dance of life.


The three videos with this article are as follows.
1) Guarani and Spanish in Paraguay (Link only, not the video)

2) VictorJara, Ni Chicha Ni Limona

3) Arlo Guthrie's Song for Victor Jara

Guarani and Spanish in Paraguay

Victor Jara: Ni Chicha Ni Limona

Arlo Guthrie: Victor Jara Song Sphere: Related Content

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