“El Derecho de Vivir en Paz,” a 1971 composition by revered folk artist Victor Jara, was already weighty with history when it emerged as a protest anthem in Chile in 2019. Jara had dedicated the song to Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War, and later, it was used to protest the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ordered Jara’s execution. So when thousands of Chileans revolting against rampant economic inequality and unbalanced social conditions brandished guitars and sang the song in the streets, it wasn’t merely about reaching into the country’s vast musical canon for inspiration. The song’s ubiquity reflects how music throughout Latin America and the Spanish-speaking diaspora continues to provide strength in times of struggle.
As the songs on this playlist show, Latinx artists have long been a force for positive social and political change—whether it’s through searing political commentary on a song like Molotov’s lacerating “Frijolero” in 2003 or by encouraging people to make themselves heard, as Gloria Estefan did in 1989 on “Oye Mi Canto.” Other songs of protest course with the rage and energy that comes from revolution; some bands have turned to the thrashing sounds of rock nacional and rock en español to blast oppression. Mexico City’s La Maldita Vecindad y los Hijos del Quinto Patio became rock pioneers in the ’80s and ’90s while also offering aching narrative-driven music. “Mojado,” from 1989, for instance, recounts the journey of a migrant who drowns while seeking a better life. But a rebellious bent has never been limited to rock: The beloved norteño band Los Tigres del Norte consistently gives voice to immigrant experiences in their groundbreaking corridos.
In recent years, less courageous performers have seemed hesitant to cross the line between entertainment and politics. However, in an era full of xenophobia, anti-Blackness, and government corruption, many musicians have made social issues an inextricable part of their artistry. Cuba’s Danay Suárez weaves conscientious reflections into songs such as “Flores,” a quiet plea against violence. The rapper Myke Towers showed the depth of his lyrical abilities on “Michael X,” which addresses police brutality. Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, and Residente were fixtures during the protests that led to the ouster of former governor Ricardo Rosselló, and their music—including their 2019 collaboration “Cántalo”—promoted unity on the island.
Then there are songs that serve as reminders that joy and celebration are in and of themselves acts of resistance. Perhaps one of the most enduring examples of finding power in life’s jubilant moments is Celia Cruz’s 1998 “La Vida Es un Carnaval,” a song about triumphing above anything else. When the horn line hits, it urges listeners to immediately join forces—on the dance floor. —JULYSSA LOPEZ