The Subtle Degradation of Black Women in Latin Music
By Nicole Alvarez
Bachata, salsa, and merengue are all forms of music that originated in the Caribbean and spread to other parts of Latin America and the world. Bachata and merengue originated from the Dominican Republic, while salsa is a style of music and dance with Afro-Cuban origins that were later developed in New York City. These genres of music are a very important part of Latinx culture, but they are also genres dominated by male musicians, and these male musicians set the standard for how black Latinas are portrayed in Latin music. In these songs, black Latin American women have been hyper-sexualized while not being permitted the space to be feminine, delicate, and beautiful. Latin American music has also done Afro-Latinas injustice by not allowing them to be normal love interests; in short, these songs teach us that Afro-Latinas are only ever attractive when they are dancing and being promiscuous. On the other hand, female icons in Latin music such as Celia Cruz are reclaiming what it means to be morena and negra in their own musical ventures. Modern female artists such as Princess Nokia and Nitty Scott are also using other musical genres such as hip hop, trap, and rap to show their pride in being negra and Latina. In this post, I will use lyrics from several bachata, merengue, and salsa songs to discuss how black Latinas are degraded and reduced to being sex objects in Latin music. I will then discuss how Black Latina artists have reclaimed their lived experiences as negras via their music.
In Latin music, black Latinas are, above anything else, sensual, seductive beings. In the merengue song “La Dueña del Swing” by Dominican merengue group Los Hermanos Rosario, one of the lyrics says, “A mi me gusta ver con la sabrosura/con que esta morena mueve la cintura,” which translates to “I like to see the flavor with which that dark-skinned girl moves her waist” (links to all lyrics are included below). Immediately, one can see the mesmerizing and sexual nature of the dark-skinned, presumably Dominican woman; she entices the man who is watching her dance by gyrating, and she is described as having “flavor” as if she were a piece of meat. In another two lines, the singer says, “Y a mi me gusta ver su delicadeza” (I like to see her delicateness), and he describes the woman as dancing with style, like a figurine, which is why he says that “esa negra tiene swing” (that black girl has swing). This reference to the delicateness and mannequin-like nature of the dark-skinned Latina is interesting considering the fact that darker women are often constructed to be more sexually aggressive, witty, and seductive, rather than pretty, delicate, and feminine (Williams). These few lines could be argued as a kinder portrayal of black Afro-Latina women that pushes back against the stereotypes of them being clever temptresses; I personally think it could also be interpreted as an appreciation for the delicateness of this one particular woman. The speaker may not necessarily find this same delicateness in other dark-skinned women, and that is why he is particularly enticed by this one. This woman also has style, which connects back to the stereotypes that black women can be witty, seductive, and stylish, but not necessarily pretty as the singer never describes her in that way; the singer acts as if he is “under a spell,” indicating that this attraction to a dark-skinned Latina “cannot be natural” (Gosin, 92).
In addition, it is intriguing that the singer never talks about making advances towards or even dancing with the woman. The way the singer speaks about the woman, it seems to be that he’s talking about her as he observes her from afar. There is an evident distance and lack of interaction between the singer and the black Latina woman he is so mesmerized by, as he sings, “Cuando llega al baile llama la atencion/Y en el scenario ella se roba el show” (When she gets to the dance, she calls attention/And on stage, she steals the show). It is as if the singer thinks of the woman as unattainable, or maybe he does not actually want to attain her. Whichever mindset it is, it either exoticizes the black woman or makes her position relative to other women inferior since she cannot be considered as a normal love interest. “La Morena” by Oro Solido, a song by a Dominican merengue group based in New York City, takes a similar stance on making black Dominican women objects of lust rather than actual romantic interests. The entire chorus says, “Que baile la morena/Que goce la morena/Que brinque la morena” (Let the dark-skinned girl dance, let the dark-skinned girl enjoy, let the dark-skinned girl jump) . The woman is described as dancing “con sabrosura/bien sensual y con frescura,” which translates to, “with flavor/very sensual and with friskiness.” Once again, the singer Raul Acosta describes the woman as if she was food, and this particular song is more direct with targeting the sensuality of her existence. On the other hand, there is still that disconnect between Acosta and the woman, similarly to the song by Los Hermanos Rosario. Once again, the dark-skinned Latina cannot be a regular love interest.
These ideas and perceptions of dark-skinned Latina women, specifically dark-skinned Dominican women, are further pushed by another song by Los Hermanos Rosario called “Morena Ven,” or “Come, Black Girl” in English. In this song, while the singer calls the woman “hermosa” (beautiful) and claims to be “enamorao,” or in love with her, there are still some problematic sentiments such as when the singer says, “Atácala que ella cae” (Attack her so she falls) . The woman is being described as a sort of prey which is disturbing. Also, similarly to the song by Oro Solido and the other song by Los Hermanos Rosario, it seems that the environment in which the morena is most attractive is in a party or dancing setting when she is moving her “cinturita” (waist). The dark-skinned Latina is not described as an attractive woman or as a love interest outside of these environments. The singer does not even care to approach her. He wants her to make the first move, saying, “Morena ven, ven donde mi” (Black girl come, come towards me). There still exists that distance between the man and the woman, since one lyric even states, “No me voy de aquí/yo vine a gozar,” meaning, “I am not leaving here, I came to enjoy myself.” It is once again, not a love story, but a story of sensual dancing and sexual attraction.
The song “Esa Morena” by Anthony Santos, a bachata song, is different from the previous three songs in that the morena in question is actually a love interest this time. Even so, the song still perpetuates stereotypes about black women and their aggressive nature. The first verse states, “Yo tengo una morenita/que ella me sabe entender/porque cuando tú no has visto/ ella me da su querer” (I have a little black girl who understands me; when you’re not looking, she gives me her love) . This lyric shows that the black woman is thought to be naturally cold, and therefore the singer Anthony Santos, her partner, feels like he has to prove that she does, in fact, love him. Another lyric states, “Yo le dije a mi morena/A mí no me ataque mucho,” which translates to, “I told my black girl to not attack me so much.” So, not only is Santos portraying his romantic partner as cold, but he is also portraying her as someone who tends to be aggressive or violent. Just because this song is actually about a love interest does not mean that it portrays dark-skinned Latinas in a positive light. Nevertheless, it must be noted that in the song, Santos actually maintains a relationship with his Afro-Latina love interest until she leaves him, and afterwards he genuinely laments her leaving.
These previous examples of Latin songs are examples of songs that sexualize and degrade dark-skinned Latinas. That being said, there are songs within Latin music that show appreciation for Afro-Latinas and allow them to be portrayed as feminine. What is fascinating, though, is that a portion of the songs that praise Afro-Latinas are commonly sung by male musicians who simultaneously also recognize their own Afro-Latinidad. One example that comes to mind is the salsa song “Mi Negrita Me Espera” (My Black Girl Awaits Me) by Ismael Rivera. The entirety of Ismael Rivera’s song is about him trying to leave from a party or gathering because his partner, a black Latina, waits for him. In contrast to Anthony Santo’s “Esa Morena,” though, the lyrics of this song do not portray the woman as nagging or aggressive. Throughout the song Ismael Rivera states, “Déjenme irme ya, me quiero ir ya,” which translates to, “Let me leave already, I want to leave.” This is a man who wants to leave out of his own volition because he cares for his love interest and because he wants to be a good man, as he says, “Yo ando por buen camino y en mi soledad” (I travel on a good path and in my sunshine). In addition, Rivera shows that he is aware of his blackness as he refers to himself as a black man multiple times, such as when he is recalling his wife’s words and when he says, “Como yo soy negrito bueno” (Because I am a good black man). The man respects his partner and respects her womanhood because he sees his own blackness reflected in her.
Another example of a song in which the man genuinely cares for his Afro-Latina love interest is “Que Vuelva Mi Morena” (Return, My Black Girl) by Hector Acosta. Throughout the song, Hector Acosta is lamenting that his woman is gone, and he actually talks about pursuing her, as the lyrics state, “Mandale flores, mandale besos/envueltos en cartas de amores” (Send her flowers, send her kisses wrapped in love letters) . Within these two songs, one can see a genuine affection and love for the black Latina women talked about in the song; it is not just sexual desire.
In the extremely popular salsa song “Rebelión” by Joe Arroyo, the singer is not only acknowledging the blackness of the woman and the man, but the history of blackness and African history in Colombia as a whole. The song is an ode to Afro-Latinidad, as he says, “Quiero contarle mi hermanito un pedacito de la historia negra/de la historia nuestra” (I want to tell you, my brother, a piece of the black history, our history) . The lyrics that follow describe a love story about “el negro guapo/tomó venganza por su amor” (the handsome black man [who] took revenge for his lover). The man takes revenge for his lover because their Spanish master mistreated them and “a su negra le pego” (he hit his black woman). This song is therefore about love and revenge, but also about acknowledging the African ancestors of the Colombian people that were brought to Cartagena.
It is also important to note the use of “negra” and “morena” within each of these songs that have already been mentioned. In Joe Arroyo’s song, he only ever uses the term negra, and the listener understands that he is using that term to specifically refer to an African woman, specifically one who is a slave in the context of the song. On the other hand, in the other songs mentioned, morena is the term often used to refer to a black Latina, and negra is only used once in one of the songs by Los Hermanos Rosario. This shows that the word negra is associated with a certain, concrete blackness, rooted in African ancestry. The fact that the word morena is used to describe black Latinas instead is a way of being polite as the word negro or negra is associated with former slave status, but it can also be seen as a denial of the blackness and African ancestry that plays a part in the identities of these Afro-Latinas (Godreau, 6). The blackness that these women possess is what causes them to be sexualized in these Latin songs in the first place.
Modern Afro-Latina artists are now reclaiming their blackness and their femininity by giving the words morena and negra new value. Popular salsa artist Celia Cruz’s “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” (The Black Girl Has Style) is a song in which she embraces and reclaims her blackness. One of the lyrics state, “La negra tiene tumba’o/Y no camina de la’o,” which translates to, “The black girl has style, and she does not side-step.” The black girl in this song embraces her identity instead of side-stepping and walking around it; that is why Celia Cruz says, “Si quieres llegar derecho/mejor camina de frente” (If you want to get there straight, you better walk head-on). For Afro-Latinas whose blackness is readily visible and can be an obstacle for them in their daily lives, walking with confidence and facing life head-on is really important. That is why an important theme of the song is enjoying life regardless of what other people think. One lyric states, “Disfruto bien de la vida/aunque tomando medidas” (I enjoy life well, even while taking measures), and another states, “Cuando la gente la va mirando/ella baila de la’o” (When the people are looking at her, she dances sideways). Even though Cruz understands that she has to be careful when she is making her way through life, she is still going to have a good time, and if people want to stare, she is going to give them a show.
In addition, another important thing to note is that Celia Cruz uses the word negra instead of morena to describe the woman; morena is not used once in the song. More often than not, calling a woman morena is just a way of softening the fact that she is, in fact, a black Latina. Celia Cruz does not find the need to hide or soften the blackness of the woman that she is singing about, in contrast to her male musician counterparts. In reality, Celia Cruz wants herself, and other people, to be more honest about their identities, as she says, “Que a mí vengan a decir la verdad/No aguanto ya mas mentiras” (Come to me and tell the truth, I can’t handle any more lies). Moreover, this song is not about emphasizing the sexuality of the black woman, but about emphasizing the fact that the black woman is a leader in Latinx culture, and she has the ability to mesmerize people and keep their eyes on her. When Celia Cruz sings, “Todos la siguen por su camina’o” (Everyone follows her in her path), she is stressing the idea that the black woman is a leader, that people want to be like her, and that she should be confident in who she is. Even the rap part of the song, vocalized by a man, emphasizes the power the black woman has, calling her a “diosa” (goddess). The woman’s beauty and femininity is also emphasized when the rapper calls her “dulce” (sweet) and “linda” (pretty). This is important in the context of cultural appropriation because a lot of people, such as other Latina women, want to have black facial features, wear black hairstyles, and participate in black culture, but they do not actually appreciate blackness and black people in themselves, and Celia Cruz is confronting that idea in this song. She is looking directly at the negrita and saying, “Hey, people want to be you.” Even the very title of the song, “La Negra Tiene Tumbao,” is an acknowledgement of Afro-Latinas’ blackness because tumbao, though it means style in this context, is actually a conga drum rhythm pattern that is Afro-Cuban in origin.
Afro-Latina artists are also venturing into hip hop and rap as a way of embracing the blackness that makes up part of their Afro-Latinidad. Nitty Scott, a rapper of African American and Puerto Rican ancestry, is one of these artists who are revolutionizing the use of morena and negra in music. What is fascinating is that Nitty Scott and other artists such as Princess Nokia reclaim their Afro-Latinidad by emphasizing the mysterious and religious aspects of it, which plays into the mythification of black women (Gosin) and may seem counter-productive, but their choice to make music about these aspects of their blackness is used to further emphasize black Latinas’ power.
In her song “Negrita,” Nitty Scott says, “Ni***s really scary, but they only temporary/Santeria heavy, have them seeing little fairies.” This shows that one of Nitty Scott’s claims to Afro-Latinidad are the religious traditions that are based in the Caribbean and originate from Africa; furthermore, the religious power her ancestry gives her makes her mysterious but also a threat. That being said, she is still beautiful in her blackness, as she says, “Muy bonita, they calling me negrita” (Very pretty, they calling me black girl). At one point, it even sounds like Nitty Scott says, “Siguela, sigue la negrita” (Follow her, follow the black girl). This portrayal of the negrita as someone who has followers connects back to Celia Cruz’s portrayal of Afro-Latinas as leaders. Nitty Scott further emphasizes the black Latina’s power when she says, “She got Spanish Harlem in the palm of her hand.” Negras in Latinx culture are therefore shown to be women with influence wherever they go.
In Nitty Scott’s song “La Diaspora,” Nitty Scott raps about being the daughter of the African diaspora; the title itself is important because the African diaspora is a significant part of understanding Afro-Latinidad. After all, the displacement of African peoples is what led to there being black people in Latin America in the first place. One of the verses states, “Freed all my people, from here to Montego/Dale morena, like this Puerto Rico.” This line is Nitty Scott claiming all black people as her people, as Montego is referring to Montego Bay, Jamaica. When she says “here,” she could either be referring to the United States or Puerto Rico, but either way all of these locations are connected by the African diaspora. Nitty Scott is the child of displaced African peoples who came to both the United States and Puerto Rico because of her parents’ ancestry. The line “Dale morena” is therefore referencing her Latinidad and her blackness at the same time. Also, in a following line, Nitty Scott says, “Got that sofrito, that primo, that negro.” Primo means cousin in Spanish, and sofrito is a Latin American cooking base that is a major part of Puerto Rican food and culture. However, in contrast to the other words, “negro” is not pronounced how it would be pronounced in Spanish. Nitty Scott pronounces “negro” like nee-gro, as in the outdated English term for black people in the United States. This is another way in which Nitty Scott connects her Puerto Rican culture to the history of the displacement and enslavement of black people. Nitty Scott ends the song with, “Yo soy negra y Latina” (I am black and Latina). When she uses negra in this line, the listener knows that she is not merely calling herself dark-skinned, but she is directly acknowledging her blackness, in contrast to the salsa, bachata, and merengue songs that walk around the idea of Afro-Latinas' ancestry.
While Nitty Scott uses the words morena and negra in her songs, Princess Nokia steps away from making that decision and chooses to just say “black” instead. In her song “Brujas” (Witches), similarly to Nitty Scott, Princess Nokia draws influence from Santeria and Yoruba religions to express her blackness, and she calls herself a “black-a-rican bruja straight from the Yoruba” (Russo, 20). This may be because Princess Nokia is expressing her blackness using English or through a U.S. lens; regardless of the choice of words, though, Princess Nokia is unwilling to hide her blackness just like Celia Cruz and Nitty Scott. Furthermore, she is powerful in her blackness; she claims to have the ability to “vanquish all evil.” On the other hand, Princess Nokia makes it a point to note that she is still good-natured even though she is powerful. She claims to not be a “queen of the night”; despite being a bruja, she will still “dress in all white,” the white symbolizing an innocence and benign nature. Dressing all white is also another reference to Santería. Even though it can be argued that Princess Nokia’s song still adds to what Monika Gosin refers to as “the mythification of black women” to a certain extent, she evidently goes out of her way to remind that Afro-Latinas can be powerful and virtuous as well.
The sexualization and degradation of Afro-Latinas in Latinx music is only one problem that is part of the larger issue of how anti-blackness manifests itself in Latinx culture. It manifests itself through the regulation and devaluing of black bodies, especially black female bodies, as can be seen in the previous examples of salsa, bachata, and merengue songs. Ultimately, it is up to black Latinas to embrace their beauty and reclaim their femininity within their own music. More Afro-Latina artists, especially those functioning as figures in the Latin music industry, have to use their platforms to remind their listeners to have pride in being morenas and negras because at the end of the day, the music has become inseparable from the culture.
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