Toxic Salsa: When Latin Romance Music Glorifies Sexist Violence
Male dominance and violence is often encouraged in popular Latin American music, and particularly in genres like salsa or bachata. The more memorable the songs, the bigger the harm they will have done to generations of women.
BOGOTÁ — In Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America, misogyny is often deeply rooted in culture — and that means in popular music too.
In the romantic world of Salsa music, lyrics can reveal sexist attitudes and provide clues as to what some men are thinking when they lash out.
Colombia's state prosecution service registered almost 48,000 cases of domestic violence in 2022, or 128 every day. These cases include 614 women murdered by partners or former partners — sometimes for having dared to reject them — as well as horrific acid attacks. They are the fruit of a culture that believes women do not control their own lives, but instead belong to men.
In a recent open letter to President Gustavo Petro, a group of artists called for socio-cultural change, focusing particularly on children and young people.
When we listen to music we love, we often barely listen to the lyrics and what they may teach. All our lives, we've listened and danced to so many songs without considering how they degrade women. As I have written before, critical reading of texts and discourses isn't our forte in Colombia. But we can and should start listening critically to many songs that should never have been written, sung or danced to.
They have been performed time and again by some of the hemisphere's best-known bands, and are regularly broadcast, heard and enjoyed today. Let me cite but a few:
#1: "If I Catch You" by Ismael Rivera
Puerto Rican Ismael Rivera's song Si te cojo is a classic of male oppression. In Si te cojo, the woman must have Ismael's clothes ready when he wakes up, and dinner made when he comes home. He warns he'll leave her "with a black eye" if she fails, or if he catches her flirting with anyone or if "the potatoes aren't done" when he's back from work.
In another song, No te voy a dejar ir ("I won't Let You Go"), the woman is told she can't leave the house, not even to go to mass or to visit relatives.
#2: "Women Are" by Ismael Miranda, and "Indecent Proposal" by Romeo Santos
In Las mujeres son, Ismael Miranda, also Puerto Rican, says women "came into the world" to wash underwear and cook. They can't keep any money they make, he adds.
Another song, No me dejes solo ("Don't Leave Me") by Rolando La Serie, asks "What'll happen if you leave? Who will wash the clothes, and the plates? Who'll make the bed and care for the children?"
In "The Jealous Boyfriend" (El novio celoso), the Argentine Carlos Argentino, singing with the Cuban band Sonora Matancera, tells his girl he's "the only one" who can see her, and wonders where he could take her on a Sunday "where nobody else will see her."
In Suegra ("Mother-In-Law"), the Dominican Bachata singer Romeo Santos "exotically" toys with killing "our problem ... your damned mother," by poisoning her coffee. Once the mother is unconscious, he sings, he plans to load her into his car and throw her over a cliff. The Dominican Republic has banned the song because of its violent lyrics.
In Propuesta indecente, he wonders whether a girl might enjoy forceful sex, or even rape: "What would say if I seduced you in my car tonight, showed you no respect and then blamed the alcohol?"
#3: "Bad Woman," by the Sonora Matancera
Who hasn't danced to Sonora Matancera's Mala mujer? Also performed by Puerto Rico's Sonora Ponceña, it's a great song for its rhythm and melody — but not so much for its words, which describe killing an unfaithful woman: "The bad woman is heartless. Kill her, kill her, kill her, kill her."
#4: Roberto Cantoral's "Prisoner Number Nine"
Mexico's Roberto Cantoral is well known for writing songs, including El preso número 9. Colombians will have heard Alci Acosta performing the song, in which a convicted killer confesses to a priest that he does not regret killing his wife and her lover: "Certainly Sir, I killed them, and if I were born again I'd kill them again. Father, I do not repent nor fear eternity."
Puerto Rican singer-songwriter Ismael Miranda performing on stage.
#5 and more...
The Sonora Matancera's Yo la mato ("I'll kill her") has its lead singer Daniel Santos, who married 12 times, singing "If I catch her one day outside town, I'll kill her ... or she'll apologize."
Words have consequences.
The Ramón Orlando band's 1993 song "Sell Me Your Girlfriend" (Te compro tu novia) has a man offering to buy his friend's girlfriend "whatever the price," and hoping that "her mother will make me another one just like her." The girlfriend is said to be "pretty, passionate ... with money" — which she saves rather than spending — and is always at home and able to "do everything" there.
Cuban singers Miguel and Óscar (with their band La Fantasía) sang that women needed a "little slap" to "gather their thoughts."
Many of these songs sound quaint now, which has helped them to elude censure directed at more brazen Reggaeton music. But the aggression is still there.
Today, it is up to artists, as well as parents and teachers, to step in and counter negative ideas with the right words on the need to respect the human dignity of women.
Words have consequences, and are entwined with those big changes many seek in Colombia.
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