Saturday, November 27, 2010

What we're listening to: Calle 13

UPDATE 11/11/2011: Calle 13 has received 9 Latin Grammys for "Entren los que quieran" and several individual tracks from the CD. In addition, Los Tigres del Norte have vowed to share the Latin Grammy they received for Los Tigres del Norte and Friends: MTV Unplugged with all artists who collaborated on the album. That would include Calle 13's Residente...

I think it would be safe to say that as a middle aged Catholic professional woman, I am not a typical Calle 13 fan and, up until now, I wasn't. Then I heard their latest album "Entren los que quieran" and fell in love with this pair of Puerto Rican rappers.

Most of the Catholic readers of this blog are going to be aghast that I am recommending an album with lines such as "no me hablen de carteles ni de Los Sopranos / La Mafia mas grande vive en el Vaticano" ("Calma Pueblo") and "Yo no creo en la iglesia, pero creo en tu mirada" ("La Vuelta al Mundo"). At best, there's the protagonist in "Muerte en Hawaii" who amusingly boasts that, for his girlfriend, he can go to church and sit through the Mass without falling asleep. These guys are militantly anti-organized religion but I think the bigger question is: why are such obviously intelligent, ethically sensitive young people as Calle 13 not able to hear the liberating message of Christ and feel included in the Church today? The shame is on us, not them.

Calle 13

The nucleus of Calle 13 is two stepbrothers who grew up together and kept in touch even after their parents separated. The lyricist, Rene Perez ("Residente") went to live with his mother, Flor Joglar de Gracia, in a house on Calle 13 in a gated community outside of San Juan. Eduardo Cabra Martinez, who writes the music to Perez's words, continued to live with his father but frequently visited his stepbrother at Calle 13. His stage name is "Visitante". Perez has a masters in fine arts; Cabra has a degree in computer science. About a dozen other musicians fill out the group.

"Entren lo que quieran" ("Let those who want to, come in") is Calle 13's fourth album. As they boast in their new album's "Intro", the group's first three albums -- Calle 13 (2005), Residente o Visitante (2007), and Los de atrás vienen conmigo (2008) -- have earned them multiple death threats, censorship on some radio stations and a dozen Latin Grammys.

In the past their lyrics have been relentlessly violent and raunchy (even according to aficcionados of their genre). There are still some sexually explicit verses on this album but much of the violence is gone and the bad boy posturing is balanced with a strong, well-articulated social message.

Clearly Calle 13 is trying to put some perspective on their 2009 Premios MTV Latinoamérica performance in which they took on multiple political leaders either verbally or via T-shirt slogans: linking then Colombian president Alvaro Uribe to the para-military groups, comparing Honduran coup leader Micheletti with the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, praising Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, and implying that Argentina's Cristina Kirchner uses Botox. Residente's most scathing words were reserved for Puerto Rico's own governor Luis Fortuño, who had incurred the singer's wrath by firing his mother along with thousands of other Puerto Rican public employees:

"América Latina no está completa sin Puerto Rico y Puerto Rico no es libre. Hoy 15 de octubre los puertorriqueños marcharon contra el desempleo, porque el gobernador de Puerto Rico los dejó sin trabajo y el gobernador de Puerto Rico es un hijo de la gran puta. Yo lo puedo decir porque sé y porque tengo influencia. Hoy los puertorriqueños estamos de pie."

Calling the governor a "son of a bitch" was over the top and Fortuño responded by accusing Residente of demeaning the honor of Puerto Rican women, Residente's mother (her image is one of Residente's many tattoos) defended him, Residente apologized and even offered to mow the governor's lawn if he would do his job right and reinstate the public employees, and the incident provided fodder for multiple news cycles and political pundits throughout Latin America. Several concerts were cancelled in protest.

On the new album, a quieter but largely unrepentant Residente comes back to the incident. In "Calma Pueblo" he writes: "Es normal que mi comportamiento no les cuadre / Y más cuando el gobernador desempleó a mi madre" ("It's normal that my behavior doesn't suit them / and more so when the governor fired my mother"). And to those who argue that he embarrassed Puerto Rico, he replies in "Digo lo que pienso": "No quiero ser tu artista favorito / Tampoco me interesa representar a Puerto Rico." Residente is not interested in being a favorite artist or representing Puerto Rico. He just wants respect and a freedom to speak his mind that cannot be bought. And yet: "Se equivocaron un par de novatos en la escena / Pero se disculparon no hay ningún problema..." Hey, he says, we were just newbies, we made a mistake and we apologized. OK?

Then, one of the greatest lines on the whole album: "Mis letras groseras son más educadas que tu silencio." My vulgar lyrics are more polite than your silence. For what can be more obscene than silence in the face of injustice? As Residente says: "Conformarse y dejar de insistir / Es como ver a alguien ahogandose y dejarlo morir." To go along with things as they are and stop pressing for change when it's needed, is like watching someone drowning and just letting them die. Residente can't...and we shouldn't either.


I first heard "Entren los que quieran" over National Public Radio and the first track I clicked on was "Latinoamérica" which most people, including Residente himself, think is the best one on the album and, quite possibly, the greatest song Residente has written to date. This expansive musical panorama of the continent could easily have been written and interpreted by the late Mercedes Sosa and it stands in line with the great paeans to Latin America she used to sing such as "Canción con todos" (Armando Tejada Gómez and César Isella). I would even venture to guess that Residente had Sosa in mind when he wrote the song, as the group had collaborated with her in 2009 on a re-make of her ode to Latin America's street children, Cancion Para Un Niño En La Calle, but Sosa died before "Latinoamérica" went into production. The female vocal parts are ably interpreted by a multinational cast including Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca, Colombia's Totó La Momposina, and Brazilian singer Maria Rita, who sings the chorus in Portuguese -- a nod to Latin America's linguistic diversity. This musical portrait is:

  • geographic: "La espina dorsal del planeta es mi cordillera" (the Andes are the planet's spinal column); "El mar caribe que vigila las casitas" (the Caribbean)

  • socio-political: "Soy toda la sobra de lo que se robaron" ("I am all that's left from what they stole"); "soy la fotografía de un desaparecido" ("I am the photo of a disappeared person"); "La operación condor invadiendo mi nido" ("Operation Condor invading my nest")

  • literary: "el amor en los tiempos del cólera" (Garcia Marquez); "los versos escritos bajo la noche estrellada" (Neruda)

  • religious: a geography of faith that runs from indigenous shamanism ("Un desierto embriagado con peyote / Un trago de pulque para cantar con los coyotes") to folk Catholicism and/or santeria ("Haciendo rituales de agua bendita...Soy todos los santos que cuelgan de mi cuello")
In the song's chorus, we hear strains of theologian Leonardo Boff:

Tu no puedes comprar el viento , tu no puedes comprar el sol
Tu no puedes comprar la lluvia, tu no puedes comprar el calor
Tu no puedes comprar las nubes, Tu no puedes comprar los colores
Tu no puedes comprar mi alegría, tu no puedes comprar mis dolores

You can't buy the wind, the sun, the rain, the heat, the clouds, the colors, my joy, or my pain. Mi tierra, mi Pachamama, is not for sale.

When asked by NPR which line of his song best summed up Latin America, Residente said: "Soy América Latina / un pueblo sin piernas pero que camina." Latin America: a people without legs, but still walking.

La Bala:

Another important song on this album is "La Bala" ("The Bullet"). The song traces the physical trajectory of the bullet from the moment the gun is fired ("El martillo impacta la aguja / La explosión de la pólvora con fuerza empuja...") to the splattering of the victim's blood, lyrically described as "batida de fresa, salsa boloñesa, sirop de frambuesa / una cascada de arte contemporaneo color rojo vivo sale por el craneo." But don't let these rhapsodic comparisons of blood to spaghetti sauce and raspberry syrup fool you. This is not a song that celebrates gun violence.

The chorus makes the connection between poverty and bullets crystal clear:

Hay poco dinero pero hay muchas balas
Hay poca comida pero hay muchas balas
hay poca gente buena por eso hay muchas balas...

There is little money, little food, few good people around and that's why there are lots of bullets.

Further along in the song, Residente points out that those who don't have a good education are more likely to resort to violence to make their point ("cuando se lee poco se dispara mucho"). He reminds us that often the rich give the order to kill and the poor pull the trigger. He muses on how different the world would be if a bullet cost the same as a yacht instead of being as cheap as condoms and more plentiful. One would have to be a millionaire to be a mercenary. Finally, Residente highlights the futility of gun violence. He says: "No se necesitan balas para probar un punto / es lógico, no se puede hablar con un difunto." You can't talk with a dead person. His weapon of choice is the spoken word.

Social Content

Two other songs on this album merit special mention for their social content. "El Hormiguero" is an allegorical account of the immigration issue in the United States. The immigrants are the "hormigas" -- individually small and powerless ants, but invincible when they band together. They can defeat the "vaqueros" (the cowboys -- presumably Bush and Cheney) and have them eating Mexican food! It is a nonviolent conquest, waged through hard work and steadfast purpose. It is a vindication of the right to live where one works.

"Baile de los Pobres" brings two people of different social classes together on the dance floor. The similarity of their lives is "microscopic". "Tu tomas agua destilada y yo agua con microbios" (the bottled water of the rich versus the contaminated tap water of the poor); "tu comes filete y yo carne de lata" (steak vs. canned meat). The insistent refrain -- "No tengo mucha plata pero tengo cobre" doesn't just refer to silver and copper but stresses that although the brother may not have much money, he has plenty of hustle. In the end, Residente argues, the good thing about being poor is that "nobody robs us because we have nothing!"

This review only skims the surface of "Entren los que quieran", which will surely bring in more Grammys for Calle 13. I would encourage readers of this blog to step outside of their musical, and maybe even their ideological comfort zone and give these bad boys a listen. You may end up feeling as I do: Estos son nuestros hijos y nuestros hermanos.


  1. What a great post!, I'm Christian but I also love Calle 13!, this group is nowadays the voice of the voiceless. Even though at his beginning his lyrics were more sexual and empty, as you point out, he has growth in social content.
    Great group and great blog!

  2. A great review. Especially when it comes from a non-fan. I have been of Calle 13 for a few years.

    I was working in New York and decided to go to a concert they offered in Central Park in 2006 just before I returned to Puerto Rico. I was amazed that they sound even better in public than through the radio. From there on I have been a Calle 13 Advocate.

    On my side I am really proud Rene takes a stance many Puerto Ricans don't take. I was born in Puerto Rico and to this day live here working as much as possible to get things on right road. I might not agree with Rene but I do admire how he always stays focus and his message is the same.

    No matter what consequences they throw at him locally. He has been banned from many radio stations, venues which he could not perform (followers of other political ideals, and all the negative press he gets from local media in Puerto Rico he still fights for what he believes in.

    I think many forget the great deeds and how Rene is helping unite a continent who has been stepped on for centuries with his music. He is the Musical Jose Marti of our Era.

    Thanks for making such a great review and understanding the message Rene is trying to send out.

    best regards,

  3. oh wow, you are really open minded for a catholic... good to know there is people like you

  4. Excellent article, they are great guys with an amazing mind, with a retorical capability even bigger than old artistic poets, and with a bunch of musical skils. All their albums have been a short proof of the common scences they have, and the awarekness of being a lower class (monetary speaking) that can do more for the own benefits, that it has a voice to make the politicians worry!
    We wish to hear a lot more from them
    A.Sandrea from vzla

  5. awesome post, congratulations

  6. I totally agree with you, even though I am not a typical Calle 23 fan either. They have great lyrics that confronts us with our reality in a very strong way, in a combination with precious music and the best collaborations with Latin American singers I've ever witnessed. I recommend both the song and the video of "El Norte", which is full of Catholic symbolism, which enrich our understanding of the religious experience of migrants.

  7. Buenisimo. Y estoy de acuerdo "Latinoamerica" es definitivamente la mejor canción que han escrito hasta el momento.


  8. exelente !!!!! muy buena la nota y la toma de conciencia sobre calle 13 y la religion!

  9. You really do your homework, girl!! Really glad you're enjoying the mind and music of my boys! I'm very proud of them! Thanks for spreading the word!

  10. Grrrrrrrrrrrreat!
    Greetings from Colombia!
    And remember Calle 13's invitation.
    Come in if you want!

  11. Thank you so much for this article, I think it's about time people get out of their confort zone and start looking around for someway to really help the rest of society.I congratulate you for the marvelous way you translated and shared the real message of Calle 13.

    "Mis armas no son pistolas, ni picos, ni palas. Mis armas son las palabras y las ideas que por más que traten nunca me las podrán quitar"


  12. That's cool, awesome!

  13. Muy buen articulo, felicidades, es bueno que desde la perspectiva de catolicos (como yo) podamos rescatar el buen mensaje que nos puede dejar la musica de este grupo, asi este dentro de un entorno agresivo, es decir, este es un album que dice cosas para la liberacion de nuestras vidas, de nuestros pueblos, (como lo hacia jesus)

  14. ke buena reseña, me da mucho gusto ke haya gente catolica de mente tan abierta como la tuya, felicidades por darle una oportunidad a estos chicos

  15. I totally agree with you, even though I am not a typical Calle 13 fan either. They have great lyrics that confronts us with our reality in a very strong way, in a combination with precious music and the best collaborations with Latin American singers I've ever witnessed. I recommend both the song and the video of "El Norte", which is full of Catholic symbolism, which enrich our understanding of the religious experience of migrants.

  16. Do you mean Calle 13's "Pa'l Norte"? Video here:

    Lyrics here:

  17. Hi just wanted to say that I am Computer Professional Engineer and am working on a software development company and I'm a fan of Calle 13 from the first album I understood his message that the lyrics said so not only people who do not study is a fan of Calle 13 that you just cost you 5 years to understand this concept different

  18. So late to find this post, but great work. I am not a Catholic or a Christian but it is nice to find one who is and is still open minded enough to see past the religious differences to an important social message.

  19. I translated "Calma Pueblo" for my blog, Songlations (at Livejournal). I linked to you for the backstory of this line: "Y más cuando el gobernador desempleó a mi madre." Thanks for the album review!

    Also, to the people who are saying things like, "wow, you're really open-minded for a Catholic," take a step back and recognize your own biases. Catholics are not known for thinking as a block. There are conservative, centrist, and liberal Catholics of all kinds, on all issues. As a Catholic myself, it makes me sad when people assume they known my political views without asking me, just because they know where the Vatican stands on things.