Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Latin American Protest Song

by Fr. Ronal Vargas Araya (English translation by Rebel Girl)
El Pais (Costa Rica)

“The Latin American protest song has been the basis of my priestly vocation”

The Latin American protest song has been a particular kind of language with which impoverished people, who are denied a voice but have not renounced their rebellious spirit, have identified, intending not so much to know the world as to change it; less a mere catharsis or exercise in resignation than a social transformation. And I not only say it at an international level but also from personal experience.

I was born in the coffee growing valley of Palmares 43 years ago today, on 10 January 1967, in the same year that the First International Encounter of the Protest Song was held in Cuba, the same year that Ernesto Che Guevara was killed, when the world had just suffered the consequences of the appaling gringo war in Vietnam ... I consider it providential that when I started to take my first steps, Liberation Theology (LT) also began its official journey with the Bishops' Conference at Medellín (1968), a Latin American adaptation of Vatican II to the possible transformation of the reality of injustice and oppression prevailing in the continent.

During my school years, one of the first songs I memorized and most enjoyed singing in its entirety was “El Cristo de Palacagüina” ("The Christ of Palacagüina" - Translator's note: An English translation of this song is available from the San Francisco Bach Choir) by Mejia Godoy ... his song helped me to discover the presence of Christ among the peasants and the poor. In 1978, upon entering the Salesian minor seminary in Cartago, I shared life with Nicaraguan religious and comrades who little by little injected the spirit of the Sandinista revolution into me. I particularly remember Foster Cerdas, now a priest, who as a year-end reward, took us on a trip to Nicaragua in December 1979, where the revolution had recently ended with the Sandinista triumph: the victorious and joyful air of the Nicaraguans, who sang above the remains and debris produced by both the earthquake in Managua and by that war, therefore they made my vocational journey more exciting. I do not forget that many weekends in the seminary the sound of an old tape recorder with the joyous songs of Mejia Godoy and Los Guaraguao of Venezuela woke all us seminarians.

It would not be a coincidence that during those years the link between protest music and the emerging Liberation Theology had already been growing. Our seminary Masses were never without the songs of the Peruvian J. A. Espinoza [Translator's note: Actually Juan Antonio Espinosa is Spanish] , among the ones I most liked to sing were “Danos un corazón” ("Give Us a Heart"), “Llegará la libertad” ("Freedom Will Come") and “Dolorosa” ("Sorrowful One"), the latter with strong social and denunciating content, while singing of the sorrows of Mary and Her suffering children. Nonetheless in those days my favorite singer was the Brazilian priest Zezinho, whose poetic and brave songs questioned the meaning I gave to my priestly vocation, so much that a verse of his would run through my veins for almost 15 years, turning me around inside until it settled along side my priestly motto: "I who want to live in truth, I beg you with all humility, do not let me give in, Lord."

At this time in the seminary my love of poetry was also born, particularly the social sort, such as that of Turrialban Jorge Debravo, Salvadoran Roque Dalton and other South American authors. In those days, the book of "Psalms" by Ernesto Cardenal fell into my hands: from reading it attentively I discovered a more humanizing and liberating meaning in the usual recitation of the Jewish psalms that even today I continue to do ... reading him also encouraged me to compose poetry, to release my existential angst.

I entered Francisco Marroquín University (the one with a more neo-liberal ideology) in Guatemala in 1983, just days before turning 16. I soon realized why rival students at the University of San Carlos (the leftist one) hated us, particularly when one of their most liked war songs, entitled “La chalana” ("The barge") fell into my hands, some of which's fragments read:

“No valen ni cuatro reales
en este país de traidores,
la venden los liberales
como los conservadores…
Vuestros curas monigotes
que comercian con el Credo
y patrioteros con brotes
de farsa, interés y miedo”

("Not worth four reales
in this nation of traitors,
Liberals sell it
as well as conservatives ...
Your puppet priests
who trade in the Creed
and jingoists in outbreaks
of farce, self-interest and fear")

Contact with many Central American comrades, many experienced in warfare, both with the army and the guerrillas, awoke in me a new vision of social reality in America. Upon entering the Salesian novitiate in 1984, we were introduced to the art of "Gregorian Chant" and even occasionally celebrated Mass in Latin ... we relived the nostalgia for a classical era of ecclesiastical hegemony. In those days, I repeated the pious folk songs that we would sing traditionally in Costa Rica, whose message was nothing more than to ask for forgiveness and resign oneself to the daily poverty and misery, with the consolation that soon everything would have a happy ending, when we would have "eternal life." Not infrequently, a strange thought distracted me in the midst of those solemn songs: Is it possible that this "eternal life" of happiness, peace and justice could start for the people NOW, from this daily life? Will there really be a new heaven and a new earth for the poorest some day?

Although the so-called "protest songs" were not welcome in the liturgical celebrations, we would sing one when we could. And better, in those years I directed the choir and sometimes even encouraged musically with the organ, which gave me some freedom to choose the musical repertoire. Where we did have full freedom was in the weekend pastoral work in the rural indigenous communities of Guatemala and with youth groups, where many songs of protest and social content rang out strongly, despite the risks involved, as the repressive military regime immediately accused anyone who listened to and promoted this kind of music of being a communist and a guerrilla. Several friends of mine were shot without trial, for these artistic and ideological sympathies.

In 1987, when I offered my pastoral services in the Colegio Santa Cecilia de Santa Tecla (El Salvador) I was able to experience up close the effects of a civil war that had divided the population between those supporting the military and the oligarchy in power and the anti-imperialist guerrilla; this division struck strongly in families, with siblings often facing each other in combat on different sides. The "curfews" were common and the final guerrilla offensive was coming. Meanwhile, well outside in the music and religion lessons I taught at the Colegio and in the vocations promotion for Central American youth attending a boarding annex, protest music could be heard, sung and openly discussed in both spaces. True to the received tradition, on weekends I woke the seminarians with the singing of Mercedes Sosa, Mejia Godoy, or other religious -- or not so religious -- composers...

In my first year of theology, back in 1989, a guanaco companion gave me a cassette on which he had made a rudimentary recording of the Misa Popular Salvadoreña ("Salvadoran Popular Mass"), climbing the mountain with a Jesuit priest from the UCA who occasionally visited the guerrillas. Then I gave myself the task of musically transcribing that literary treasure, putting onto staff paper the exact notes of those tremendous liberation songs. The scores of the Salvadoran Popular Mass soon became famous among students with greater social commitment. I still remember the words of comrade Humberto Flores, now a university professor in El Salvador: "Listening to these songs I seriously questioned myself about my future: 'Would I serve God better as a priest or by joining with the guerrillas in the mountains to free my people?'" The testimony of the priests Camilo Torres in Colombia and Gaspar Garcia in Nicaragua, who had chosen the second option, had struck him hard ... and more so would the cruel assassination of the Jesuits perpetrated by the army at the UCA in San Salvador on November 16, 1989.

Earlier that year, following research I did on the experience of sexuality among Salesian seminarians and a letter I wrote providing a basis for my views opposing the expulsion of several young fellows, by a few priests strangely called "major superiors", I too was expelled from the Salesian Order in Guatemala and forced to return to my parents' house in Costa Rica. That decision of the "superiors" made it clear to everyone else that "dissent was forbidden." Amid the desolation and uncertainty about that misstep on my future, music would be what would bring me comfort and courage.

After working in 1990 as a professor at the Colegio de Palmares I reentered the priestly path, but now with the diocesans in the Major Seminary in Paso Ancho, where I became more fanatical about the music performed by Mercedes Sosa and Silvio Rodríguez, among others. The misnamed "celebration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America" was approaching and the atmosphere was conducive to breathe the Patria Grande and denounce this and other invasions through which the empires of the past and present were tarnishing our people ... and what better than protest music to raise popular consciousness? The Guanacaste communities where I had just started my pastoral ministry, sang with me lamenting the consequences of 500 years of colonization and dispossession of our lands. I will never forget a Holy Hour I had to lead at the Seminary when I changed the traditional Eucharistic songs for that song from the Nicaraguan Mass “Vos sos el Dios de los pobres”, and "Gracias a la vida" and "Sólo le pido a Dios"... the negative comments from more than a few companions and priest trainers were swift. The tense situation became calm again few days later with the words of the rector of the seminary, Father Guido Villalta: "Although no one saw me, I also participated in the Holy Hour, praying from the top of the choir and did not hear anything unorthodox or contrary to the doctrine of the church."

I was fortunate enough that Bishop Héctor Morera agreed to ordain me as a priest in my home parish of Palmares, from where he also originated. I chose to receive the priesthood on December 11th, it being not only the eve of the indigenous Virgin of Guadalupe, but also the 15th anniversary of the death of the priest and guerrilla commander Gaspar Garcia Laviana, which occurred somewhere on the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua; the poems and songs in his honor were swift in coming from the pinolera soil. The choir that masterfully animated the Ordination Mass stood out not only when singing traditional melodies but a protest song never before heard in that traditional parish church, along with several violent songs from the "Misa Tica" by the group "Cantares". The solemn "First Mass", for which the interpretation of the most prestigious religious songs by the most renowned choirs of the parish is usually chosen, was for me a beautiful popular encounter instead: the musicians were some well-known drunks in the village, who left aside their bottles for a while to rehearse with several young people some strong Andean songs, others from the Nicaraguan mass and not a few from the Misa Tica, along with "Sólo le pido a Dios" and "No me dejes claudicar". All the people sang the chorus enthusiastically and listened to the verses while looking at some photocopies of all the songs that they had previously been given.

In my 16 years as a priest, protest music along with the Word of God have become two pillars of my personal spirituality. In recent years I have participated in some "Peñas Culturales" (cultural circles), where young unknown artists parade with poems, songs and reflections that help to awaken dried up consciences callused by indifference and excessive caution. I read in some book that at the end of the 60s, and resembling the French "boites de nuit" where they had performed, Isabel and Angel Parra in Chile founded the "Peña de los Parra", cradle of Chilean protest song and inspiration for many young revolutionaries of its time. No doubt based on that experience, along with the transformation that these "peñas culturales" received in Cuba, our Guanacaste has been seeing a swarm of these artistic experiences full of life and social commitment, enriched by the presence of the "storytellers" and young dancers.

"Tell me what kind of music you listened to in your childhood and youth and I will tell you what kind of adult you will become." If what protest music has done in my life has caught your attention and I really have earned your trust and friendship, I invite you to look among your music albums for some singer/songwriter in the Latin American trova (folk music) and give yourself a few minutes of supportive (and non-narcissistic) pleasure sharing with your family or friends these messages of these musicians of yesterday, today and forever, that are so current, convincing yourself, as Los Guaraguao sing, that

“No, no, no basta rezar,
hacen falta muchas cosas para conseguir la paz.
Y rezan de buena fe y rezan de corazón,
pero también reza el piloto cuando monta en el avión,
para ir a bombardear a los niños de Vietnam”.

"No, no, it's not enough to pray,
many things are lacking to achieve peace.
And they pray in good faith and they pray from the heart,
but the pilot also prays when he climbs into the plane,
to go out to bomb the children of Vietnam."

I still believe in the transcendental importance in my life of protest songs, as at about midnight I hear, with sincere gratitude to the God of life, my eternal comrade of song "La Negra" [Translator's note: the late Mercedes Sosa], who died recently, emphasizing to us that:

“Si se calla el cantor, calla la vida,
porque la vida, la vida misma es como un canto…
Los obreros del puerto se persignan,
¿quién habrá de luchar por sus salarios?…
Si se calla el cantor muere la rosa,
de qué sirve la rosa sin el canto…
No saben los cantores de agachadas,
no callarán jamás de frente al crimen…
Si se calla el cantor, calla la vida”.

"If the singer falls silent, life is silenced,
because life, life itself is like a song...
The workers in the port cross themselves,
who will fight for their wages?..
If the singer falls silent, the rose dies,
for what use is the rose without the song...
Singers never bow down,
they are never silent in the face of crimes...
If the singer falls silent, life is silenced."

Guanacaste, Costa Rica, 1/10/2010

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