By Alessandra Rosa
In my previous post, I briefly commented on the role of art in (re)constructing spaces of resistance during the 2010 – 2011 University of Puerto Rico (UPR) student strikes. In the concluding comments of that post, I exposed some examples of how the student activists strategically and creatively utilized protest art to frame their collective identity, mobilize resources and build solidarity. Similarly, music can also fulfill and broaden these functions in social movements. As Eyerman and Jamison (1998) state, “music, in particular, embodies traditions through the ritual of performance. It can empower, help create collective identity and a sense of movement in an emotional and almost physical way”. For the purpose of this essay dialogue, I have decided to expand on another of the UPR student activists’ strategies of resistance by focusing on their use of music; specifically their cantos y consignas (i.e. protest songs and chants).
Prior to delving into this matter, I would like to provide a brief overview of the cultural context that created the musical background, known as plena, consistently used during civic protests in Puerto Rico. The plena although native to the island, has its roots in African traditions resonating with their religious rituals preserved during slavery. In the same way that our African ancestors used songs and chants to communicate and build solidarity in order to persevere through harsh conditions, the plena became the “sung newspaper” for the working class in Puerto Rico. Juan Flores (1993) states:
“the emergence of the plena coincided with the consolidation of the Puerto Rican working class…The first two decades of the century, when plena was evolving from its earliest traces and disparate components into a distinct, coherent form, saw the gravitation of all sectors of the Puerto Rican working population – former slaves, peasants and artisans – towards conditions of wage labor, primarily in large-scale agricultural production set up along capitalist lines” (89).
With its repetitive call-and-response structure, straight-forward and often satirical lyrics; accompanied by mainly percussion instruments and boisterous accented rhythms, the plena was paramount in forming part of the cultural and political life of Puerto Ricans. No wonder “the Puerto Rican plena has been compared to the German moritaten, the Mexican corridor, and the Spanish romance, for like them, it narrates historical events from the point of view of the masses, of el pueblo” (Aparicio 1998: 29). By voicing the life experiences of el pueblo, the plena was able to produce a counterhegemonic discourse that constructed spaces of resistance for the Puerto Rican working class.
Evidently, the plena has continued to reconstruct spaces of resistance as it was widely demonstrated during the 2010 – 2011 UPR student strikes. The UPR student activists used the plena and new media technologies to frame their protest, assert their collective identity and build solidarity by attracting new supporters. The use of music provided the cognitive and emotional praxis necessary to culturally express their opposition to the island’s neoliberal government policies. For student activists, protest songs and chants empowered them against police repression by framing their protest as a justice movement to guarantee accessibility to a public higher education of excellence as a human right and not a privilege. It also helped to reinforce member solidarity and encourage participatory democracy in the pursuit of social change by “projecting the past, present and future” (Collins, 2013:1; Eyerman, 2002: 446). For non-student community, protest songs and chants served to raise awareness and sometimes gain new supporters. In other words, the role of music during the 2010-2011 UPR student strikes went beyond mere entertainment; it inspired, educated, recruited and even mobilized people (Rosenthal, 2003).
In order to depict some of the possible effects of chants used during these strikes, I provide the following example:
Si tú te creías que la IUPI no venía na,
si tú te creías que la IUPI no venía na.
La IUPI en la calle con su último detalle
y su bomba Molotov! Ooohh!
Aaaaah, la IUPI ya llego!
Aaaaah, la IUPI ya llego!
If you believed that the UPR was not coming,
If you believed that the UPR was not coming.
The UPR is out in the street with its last detail
and its Molotov bomb! Ooohh!
Aaaaah, the UPR has arrived!
Aaaaah, the UPR has arrived!
This popular and evocative chant was originally created by the UPR student organization called “Federacion Universitaria Pro Independencia” (FUPI) during the student strikes in the 70s. Hence for most student activists that supported the recent strikes, this chant served to frame the ideological message that they were ready to fight and would not back down, it established their collective identity by greatly fostering mutual trust and solidarity, it empowered them against police repression and administrative sanctions, and further encouraged mobilization by developing a sense of commitment and continuity to the UPR student movement. However, this same chant could backfire with some of the non-student community given the known political orientation (pro-independence) and militancy of the FUPI and the direct mention of using violent methods such as Molotov bombs as part of the resistance.
When considering the central role that the plena has had throughout the socio-cultural history of civic protests in Puerto Rico, and in this case during the 2010 – 2011 UPR student strikes, one can acknowledge that cantos y consignas functioned as a catalyst for social change by reconstructing the existing political order and establishing networks that continue to create resistance on the island.
Watch the video below to experience some examples of the protest songs and chants used during the 2010 – 2011 UPR student strikes in the video called: “Marcha por la Educación Pública, Huelga UPR”: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTAZCgtqk0Y)
Aparicio, Frances. 1998. “A Sensual Mulatta called the Plena”. In Listening to Salsa: Gender, Latin Popular Music, and Puerto Rican Cultures. Wesleyan University Press. Middletown, CT.
Collins, Ross. 2013. “Songwriting and Activism: A Young Singer’s Efforts to Write Himself into the Traditions of an Activist Group”. In Social Movement Studies. Routledge.
Eyerman, Ron. 2002. “Music in Movement: Cultural Politics and Old and New Social Movements”. In Qualitative Sociology, 25( 3), Fall.
Eyerman, Ron and Andrew Jamison. 1998. Music and Social Movements: Mobilizing Traditions in Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Flores, Juan. 1993. “ ‘Bumbún’ and the Beginnings of Plena Music”. In Divided Borders: Essays on Puerto Rican Identity. Arte Público Press. University of Houston.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991 . The Production of Space. Cambridge, USA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.
Rosenthal, Rob. 2003. “Serving the Movement: The Role(s) of Music”. In Popular Music and Society. EBSCO Publishing.
Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University.
 The chant and information presented were obtained by interviewing Teresa Cordova, a student activist during the 2010-2011 UPR student strikes.
 For more information about the FUPI: http://www.fupistas.org/.
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