In honor of AfroLatin@ Heritage Month, I want to pay tribute to two of my great loves: Salsa music and racial justice! Two dynamic personalities empowered a nation of AfroVenezolanos (AfroVenezuelans): Oscar D’León, one of my favorite salseros, and Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, who died at age 58 in March 2013.
Oscar D’León, affectionately known as El Sonero del Mundo (“the Son Singer of the World”), was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 11, 1943. He is internationally known for his song, “Llorarás,” considered one of the greatest Salsa songs of all time and recorded in 1975 with his group La Dimensión Latina. D’Leon has recorded over 60 albums, and although a proud Venezolano, he has worked with big names from other Latin American countries, including Tito Puente, Arturo Sandoval, and Celia Cruz. D’León was strongly influenced by famous Cuban musical legends such as Benny Moré and La Sonora Matancera.
D’León has generally avoided discussing politics. In a 1996 interview with the Chicago Tribune, he insisted, “My message is not about ecology or politics, but it’s simply that people have a good time and remember me as someone who loves them.” Yet, D’León sang music that both uplifted AfroVenezuelans and supported a PanLatino movement across the world, motivated by a shared passion for Salsa. In an interview he did with Sabor Magazine, D’Leon explained, “Cuban music was influenced from the roots of Africa and, in turn, [it] spread that influence on the rest of the world’s music.” When D’León was in his 20s, Salsa became part of the local popular culture, particularly for working-class youth. Venezuela experienced rapid urbanization during this time and the resulting social problems – poverty, violence and the destitution of living in barrios (“ghettos”) – were echoed in what became the preferred music of the “lower classes” in Venezuela. Salsa was denigrated by middle and upper-class teenagers, who referred to it as música de malandros (music of lowlifes) or música de monos (music of apes) because of its class and racial associations.
Racism has been entrenched in Venezuela’s culture and social and political institutions since the 17th century, when African slaves were brought to the territory to work on coffee and cocoa plantations. In the late 19th through the early 20th century, the Venezuelan government deliberately promoted immigration from Europe into Venezuela to try to whiten the country – a practice that was common in many Latin American countries, including Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Colombia. Elites claimed that Venezuela needed to have a more European mixture in the population to advance; intellectuals were deeply involved in this Mestizaje project. Interestingly, many claimed at the time that racism did not exist in Venezuela.
Meanwhile, in the 1970s, through meetings of working-class and middle-class intellectuals at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Salsa began to be adopted by the middle class as a symbol of an authentic music of the people and a means to establish a PanLatino identity throughout Latin America. Oscar D’León’s Salsa group La Dimensión Latina is credited with bringing Salsa music out of the barrios of Caracas and into the mainstream. Salsa soon gained international acclaim because of superstars like D’León. Furthermore, La Dimensión Latina’s invocation of the term “Latino” in its name drew upon a term signifying how intermixed people of diverse Latin and Caribbean heritages created a pan-Latinness that crossed national and regional boundaries. Prior to this newly formed movement for unity, in Venezuela (and in other Latin American countries), identity was based on national affiliation as opposed to the notion of Latinidad.
Throughout the late 20th century, AfroVenezolanos mobilized and began to elect officials sympathetic to their needs – case in point, the late president Hugo Chávez. Chávez came from a poor family, with both indigenous and African ancestry, and proudly drew attention to his heritage. In 2005, Chávez influenced lawmakers to establish May as Afro-Descendent Month and May 10th as AfroVenezuelan Day, in honor of José Leonardo Chirino, a Black revolutionary who led an insurrection against Spanish colonists in 1795. Chavez’s efforts to recognize and include AfroVenezuelans in the advancement of the country was the start of a movement and was followed by a 2011 law against racial discrimination, as well as, an option on the national census for people to identify as AfroVenezolano. Black people were drawn to Chávez because of the changes he was making to reduce poverty and to break down barriers to progress.
Today, Chavez’s legacy lives on and Salsa has become both a contemporary global and transnational phenomenon connecting diverse peoples of Latin@ descent with audiences around the world.
Personally, I have fond memories of performing Salsa in Russia, England, Spain, France, Guadeloupe, Canada, Australia, Puerto Rico and many U.S. states. People continue to love and dance Salsa throughout Europe, Asia and Africa.
In light of D’León’s recent accident, I will leave you with some amazing footage of him, looking super Afrocentric and rocking some rarely seen choreography. Pa’lante, negro. Que recuperes rapídamente!
by Samantha E. Erskine, Nonprofit Management M.S. degree candidate at the New School for Public Engagement