Getting Down | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: Before we begin, a warning. There is explicit language in this episode. Discretion is advised.
[Daniel]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
There are two things you should know about Puerto Rican Patricia Velázquez. The first is that, at 28, she clearly knows something about herself.
[Patricia Velázquez]: If my life were a movie, the soundtrack it would begin with would be a reggaeton song.
[Daniel]: A specific one, the first one she ever heard, in 2002: “Gata Celosa,” a collaboration between Puerto Ricans Magnate and Valentino, and Héctor and Tito.
[Patricia]: It says, “If you want some of this, take it—I have whatever you want from me. Come on, twerking slow with the motion. Come, you jealous cat, come for me.”
[Song]: Coge el movimientooo, ven gata celosa por mí, por mí. Perreo, papi perreo… Azota…
[Daniel]: Ever since she was a child, Patricia has listened to a lot of reggaeton. But this song, Gata Celosa, transports her to her grandmother’s house, when she was about 7 years old and she spent her time watching music videos on a national television channel, mostly reggaeton. Her grandmother kept an eye on her from time to time so that Patricia wouldn’t imitate the movements of the girls in the videos, that is, so she wouldn’t start twerking.
Gata Celosa is just one in the long list of songs that remind her of specific moments in her life. Genres like salsa, merengue, bachata and of course, reggaeton, have always been a fundamental part of her identity.
And well, the second thing you have to know about Patricia…
[Patricia]: I do consider myself 100% feminist.
[Daniel]: She became interested in gender studies in 2012, when she started studying Secondary Education at the university. The more she learned about feminism, the more she felt that it resonated with what she had always believed. Especially when the discussion revolved around body autonomy. It was a topic of conversation in her classes, in her theater group, and with her friends.
She got her degree in the spring of 2017, and in the fall of that year she began a master’s program in cultural management. It was late October. Hurricane Maria had just passed, many public roads on the island had been cleared, but Patricia’s university was still without electricity. So one of her teachers said they would resume classes in another space, and since there wasn’t much parking there, Patricia offered to take some classmates in her car.
When they got in the car, Patricia, of course, played reggaeton full blast. And then a classmate of hers said:
[Patricia]: “I don’t understand how you can call yourself a feminist and listen to reggaeton.” That’s exactly what she said.
[Daniel]: Patricia was unable to answer. Although she had learned a bit about feminism and had heard criticism of reggaeton —such as that it is sexist and objectifies women—, she had never thought of it that way. It had not clearly occurred to her that feminism and reggaeton couldn’t coexist in one person. She became upset and defensive.
[Patricia]: Because no one had ever questioned me in that way, questioned my standards. I said, “Oh, my God.” (laughs).. I don’t remember what my answer was, maybe something like, “I listen to reggaeton, and I listen to reggaeton every day, and I’m a feminist, and I twerk.” I probably answered something along those lines.
[Daniel]: The conversation between them did not continue, but the question kept ringing in her head to the point of causing an identity conflict. How can you have so much love for a musical genre that can objectify women?
[Patricia]: That led me to begin asking myself that question, and I thought, “What can I answer the next time I’m asked about this?”
[Daniel]: She would find a way. And without knowing it, that attempt to reconcile feminism with reggaeton would lead her to create something unique.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Our senior producer Lisette Arévalo picks up the story.
[Lisette Arévalo]: I met Patricia in June 2022, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We’d had a call before I went to the island to interview her, and after that she gave me a text she had written with a list of over 20 songs. Her life—from childhood through adolescence and her college years—could be narrated through those songs. Each one reminds her of a specific moment.
So I asked her to start with one of the first ones.
[Lisette]: OK. Let’s start with Doncella, from 2004. What memories do you have of that song?
[Song]: Yo conocí a una nena, tan bella. Ella es como una doncella ella, ella, tan bella… [I met a girl, so beautiful. She is like a maiden she, she, so beautiful…]
[Patricia]: There was a girl who took care of us while my mom worked. And while her brother washed the car, he played loud music. And I heard that song. I relate it a lot to that house.
[Lisette]: Patricia was about 9 years old at the time, her older brother about 19, and the youngest about 7. Four years had passed since their parents had divorced and moved to different towns in the southeastern part of the island. Her mother lived in Juncos and her father lived just over 10 minutes away, in Las Piedras. She and her sister lived between the two houses, but spent more time at her mother’s.
“Doncella” was one of the many songs that Patricia listened to from the album “Motivando a la Yal” by Puerto Ricans Zion and Lennox, which was all the rage at that time and was heard constantly on the radio.
That year, 2004, was in the early days when reggaeton first began to be heard beyond programs dedicated to what was called “tropical music.” And it also began to be more heard outside the island—throughout Latin America.
But long before this, Patricia had reggaeton playing in the background of her day-to-day life. She would hear it in the morning before going to school. In the afternoons when she came back home after school. Or when she was at her grandmother’s and her uncle drove by in his car with reggaeton playing at full blast.
She even heard it at the public school she went to. When there were parties at school, the teachers would place a speaker in the middle of the patio and play reggaeton. Patricia was 8 years old, more or less, when she had her first party and she remembers that all the children loved it.
[Patricia]: And I remember that the dances were arranged forming a line, one behind the other. And they danced going side to side. It was a good thing, even being separate. It wasn’t anything sexual. It was fun between little kids, having fun with reggaeton.
[Lisette]: The point is that reggaeton was present in almost every corner of Puerto Rico. In the neighborhood where her mother lived, in Juncos, for example, there were…
[Patricia]: Many cars with loud music, neighbors with loud music. These were neighborhoods, some suburban houses, that were a little more, less exclusive.
[Lisette]: She says her mom’s neighborhood was less exclusive, because reggaeton was too, in a way.
Before going on, I have to make something clear: Talking about the origin of reggaeton is like talking about the origin of pisco. A controversial topic of discussion. Some say it was born in Jamaica, others in Panama, in New York City, and of course, in Puerto Rico. The truth is that all these places have been crucial to the development of this musical genre. So, you could say that reggaeton isn’t technically from any one place. But what we can say—and others are already saying—is that its commercial force was established in Puerto Rico. So, with the permission of Panama, and of the rest of the Caribbean, we are going to focus on this place.
The reggaeton that was born in Puerto Rico in the 80s came out of the marginalized areas of the island. The fusion of the rhythms of American rap and the aesthetics of Jamaican and Panamanian reggae was heard in the neighborhoods and caseríos, the public housing for low-income families.
It was born as a cultural expression of social unrest, and young people created songs with rapped lyrics, sometimes sung, and what characterized it was its difference from the more commercial rap from recording studios.
This new Puerto Rican music was raw, confrontational, boisterous, and often violent. It was spontaneous, uncensored, and it talked about what was happening in the streets. But above all, it referred to the social conditions of the country: unemployment rates of up to 59% in some areas, schools in poor condition, government corruption, and violence linked to drug trafficking
Many songs sounded something like this Vico C song from 1990, “Recta final.”
[Vico C’s song]: Dinero puede controlar hasta la corte. Tanto en el sur como allá en el norte. Creen que lo lujoso es la salvación. Y ahí es que el corrupto entra en acción. Aplastando, abusando, asesinando…
[Money can control even the court. Both in the south and there in the north. They believe that luxury is salvation. And that’s where the corrupt comes into action. Crushing, abusing, murdering. With all their money, taking over. The poor always sit and wait. For justice to be done here in the final stretch.]
[Lisette]: By the 90s, this music was known as underground. Artists recorded their songs with DJs who were in charge of producing and distributing multiple copies of CDs in clubs, at the workplace, and in their neighborhoods. And those copies, in turn, were pirated and distributed throughout the island. It is not by chance that many consider DJs such as DJ Playero and DJ Negro as the fathers of the musical genre.
Around that same time, the word reggaeton was heard for the first time in Puerto Rico. According to DJ Playero, Daddy Yankee used it in a song he recorded with him for a mix tape they collaborated on in 1994. The song is called “So persígueme” and it’s on the Playero 34 album. It goes like this:
[Daddy Yankee’s song]: Este es Daddy Yankee que le canta a la gente. Y tiene que acercarse. Baila el reguetón. Me encuentro furioso en la pista. Y toda la gente ahora tiene que acercarse…
[This is Daddy Yankee who sings to the people. And they have to get closer. Dance reggaeton. I am furious on the dance floor. And all the people now have to come closer…]
[Lisette]: And although it was music that was being listened to more and more, it was far from being accepted by everyone. Because of the content of the vast majority of its lyrics, and its origin, some associated it with a criminal subculture.
Around those same years, a religious conservative group called Morality in Media led a campaign against reggaeton. They said this music incited young people to have quote-unquote “illicit” sex, and that it was a defense of violence and drug use. These statements were what predominated in the public debate on reggaeton.
And the local government responded.
[Patricia]: In the 1990s, there was a direct, heavy-handed persecution against crime, raiding or entering spaces such as poor communities and criminalizing them, as if it was a war on drugs. But it was directly in the neighborhoods and caseríos, not in other places. And since reggaeton is born from these spaces, they link it directly to crime.
[Lisette]: In February 1995, for example, the Vice Control Squad of the Puerto Rican Police and the National Guard raided six music venues in the San Juan area. Hundreds of underground cassettes and CDs were confiscated for violating local obscenity laws, which punished any action or activity considered lewd. These ranged from dancing and singing to distributing books or CDs. They were laws that are still in force in the Puerto Rican penal code to combat child pornography and obscenity, but they are subject to what are called, and I quote, “contemporary community patterns….” So their interpretation can be quite subjective.
And the persecution did not end there. Looking like a “typical” reggaeton performer or rapper—baggy clothes, big shoes, caps and sunglasses—was reason enough for the police to stop you and search your car for weapons or drugs.
In a way, these were political moves serving a middle class and an elite that rejected the music that had begun to come out of the caseríos. One that was danced by certain social classes and racial communities, and that was spreading through the rest of the island.
They referred to it in a derogatory way.
[Patricia]: For example, music of the poor, of the blacks, music with no class, or vulgar music.
[Lisette]: This continues to happen, of course. There are many people who consider it immoral, artistically deficient.
[Patricia]: They said that it was pornography, that it was harmful to the young…
[Lisette]: And that it was misogynist…
[Patricia]: Because of the content of those music videos that featured women dancing in G-strings, in thongs and everything.
[Lisette]: And especially, also, because of the style of the dance, what came to be known as twerking and which originated in the Jamaican rhythm called “dembow,” where the dancers rub against each other. But also, because of the style of the reggaeton videos. In their early creations, many artists were inspired by rap videos from the United States, where women came out in bikinis with their back turned, showing their buttocks.
For many, what would sell and ensure the success of reggaeton were women—their bodies and their sexuality. And that caused a lot of people to see them as nothing more than simple merchandise.
[Patricia]: And, well, that also had an effect on people suddenly seeing reggaeton as something bad; it kind of contributed to that.
[Lisette]: There was—and still is—strong criticism of the hypersexualization of women in these videos. But Patricia never saw them that way. Of course, she remembers seeing these women in the videos, but never with a critical eye.
[Patricia]: I just saw them as being part of this. It was simply like total admiration for these bodies, because they are obviously thin women, with large buttocks, tits, and they had very pretty faces and they continue to be the idea of a pretty woman, of what we understand by beauty.
[Lisette]: She wanted to be like them, dance like them, wear their clothes and use the same makeup. And unlike the skinny white girls in American magazines and TV shows, the ones in these videos were Caribbean women, just like her.
Meanwhile, in the middle of all this criticism, more and more young artists would appear and go to DJ Playero or DJ Negro to record their songs. One of them was Ivy Queen, considered the queen of reggaeton. She managed to break through in a musical genre then dominated by men. It wasn’t easy. Ivy Queen has said that when she confessed that she wanted to devote herself to this, the reaction was always critical—that she was too short, that her voice was too deep, almost masculine. But she has said that that difference was her weapon.
In 1997 she released her first album, En mi imperio, with songs that sought to move away from the macho content that predominated in the music of that time, because this is something she has said in several interviews: there really was reggaeton that did denigrate women. This is Ivy Queen in an interview at Billboard Latin Music Week 2022:
[Ivy Queen]: When I started, the videos were very disgusting. Literally, when I saw women in pantyhose and bras I turned my back on it… I felt bad because I was part of that genre, my genre.
[Lisette]: And that’s what she didn’t want. Her musical style sought to speak from a different perspective. She wanted women to feel identified when listening to her.
[Ivy Queen]: I based everything on defending women. On how women wanted to be loved. How when a woman is hurt and a man has failed her, how can you bring it out and say it and not have to hide it.
[Lisette]: Not only that: she has also spoken about gender violence on the island. She was inspired by the actual experiences of the women she knew.
But she was the exception. Opinion columns in newspapers, and entire television programs devoted to criticizing reggaeton, continued.
All this was one reason why, from the beginning, underground music and later reggaeton were distributed secretly. In the early 2000s, when Patricia was in elementary school, she and her friends would pirate CDs and trade them at school. It was known that when young people came home, many would hide the CDs under the mattress or pillow so their parents wouldn’t see them.
It was around that time, 2004, that the reggaeton scene began to change with the famous song by Daddy Yankee, “Gasolina.”
[Daddy Yankee]: Daddy Yankee… Zúmbale mambo pa’ que mi gata prenda lo’ motore’. Que se preparen que lo que viene es pa’ que le den duro… [Daddy Yankee… Shake the mambo so my babe turns on the engin’. Get ready for what’s coming (Hard!)…]
[Lisette]: Reggaeton, including this song, was played in the United States, passing through Europe and the rest of Latin America. It came to Ecuador, when I was about 12 years old, and I began to go to dance parties at school, and of course I remember it. You could say that “Gasolina” is my introduction to reggaeton.
[Daddy Yankee]: A ella le gusta la gasolina, dame más gasolina, cómo le encanta la gasolina, dame más gasolina… [She likes gas, give me more gas, how she loves gas, give me more gas…]
[Lisette]: The expectation that reggaeton could become what hip-hop was to African-Americans caused a wave of change in the industry. Hip-hop recording studios created Latin labels and began signing on reggaeton artists like Daddy Yankee. He, for example, began to earn millions from his music and from the contracts he made to promote products, create clothing lines and go on musical tours.
By 2006, reggaeton records were selling so well that several artists received one of the most important recognitions in the music industry—gold, platinum and double platinum records—for their successful sales. That same year, the music that began with rap from the boys in public housing reached the Latin Grammys, when “Calle 13” won three awards.
But despite its recognition and popularity, reggaeton was still inadmissible to many people. Even in Puerto Rico. But the more they tried to censor it, the more its popularity grew.
Thousands of young people like Patricia listened to it actively. She remembers that when the era of iPods and mp3 players began—around 2006, 2007—her friends would download all the songs they wanted from the internet, and Patricia would ask them to load them on her mp3 player. She preferred not to download them on her home computer, even though it was not directly forbidden by her mom or her dad.
[Patricia]: But I know they didn’t like it. So, before they scolded me for listening or dancing to reggaeton, I just pretended that I didn’t listen to it, or maybe… I don’t know.
[Lisette]: Especially since some songs were very sexual. Like one that Patricia remembers hearing when she was 11 years old. It was a day that she skipped school with a friend to listen to a record.
[Patricia]: So we went to her house and she made me listen to it in a boombox, a radio. And we listen to La combi completa, which is by Nicky Jam and Daddy Yankee. It says, “que quiero la combi completa, que…” [“I want the full combo, that…”] And all those beautiful words that follow.
[Song]: Chocha, culo, teta… Yo, quiero la combi completa, ¿qué? chocha, culo, teta… [Pussy, ass, boob… I want the full combo, what? pussy, ass, boob…]
[Lisette]: The song is called “En la cama” and it came out in 2001, when Patricia was only 7 years old. Patricia was listening to it 4 years later because it’s not like they played it at the school events she went to. Perhaps—and precisely—because of the lyrics we just heard.
There is nothing new about music not written for child listeners and not recommended for that audience. Many psychologists have talked about the risks of children between the ages of 6 and 12 facing content that goes beyond their understanding of the world. It can confuse them, cause self-esteem problems, or lead to premature development.
Of course, this is not limited to reggaeton. It happens with soap operas, movies, series, books and music of other genres. But it is true that reggaeton talks about sex openly. And in part, that was what bothered many adults.
[Patricia]: I feel that people where this music comes from, and also since it’s a type of music that began with young people, to those young people it wasn’t necessarily something contemptible or bad. It was more the adults who saw it as bad.
[Lisette]: Patricia does not remember being shocked in her adolescence by the explicit lyrics of the songs. For her and her classmates, it was like mischief because they knew they “shouldn’t” listen to that music. At that point in her life, she was unaware of the hypersexualization of women in reggaeton songs, or of the aggressiveness of the lyrics towards them.
Besides, by that time there were no longer only songs of that type. In 2003, Ivy Queen released her song “Yo quiero bailar,” a complete revolution in music because it spoke about a woman’s consent.
(SOUNDBYTE IVY QUEEN)
[Ivy Queen]: Yo quiero bailar, tú quieres sudar y pegarte a mí, el cuerpo rozar y yo te digo si tú me puedes provocar, eso no quiere decir que pa’la cama voy. [I want to dance, you want to sweat and stick to me, your body rubbing against me, and I tell you if you can excite me, that doesn’t mean I’m going to bed.]
[Lisette]: In addition, it became increasingly clear to Patricia how contempt for reggaeton was a class issue, since she experienced it firsthand. When she started high school, her mom took her out of the public school and sent her to a private Catholic school.
[Patricia]: There the dynamics changed a lot, because those are people with more money, other means, lives that are a little more privileged. Well, there… It was the first time someone called me a cafre. And cafre is like a poor or uneducated person or from the hood.
[Lisette]: The same characteristics that were attributed to people who listened to reggaeton. In that school, they were not allowed to listen to that kind of music at parties, much less dance the way they did in public school. Even so, Patricia also saw her classmates there exchanging CDs, with the latest by Tito y Bambino, Wisin y Yandel, Alexis y Fido… Only they did it in a slightly more discreet way than at her previous school.
Over time, she adapted to her new school and made new friends. She went to classes, she kept discovering new records, and above all, she went to many parties in marquesinas, which are the covered garages of Puerto Rican houses. Reggaeton could be heard all the time.
[Lisette]: In 2012, Patricia entered the University of Puerto Rico to study History in Secondary Education. She joined a theater group focused on social issues and started to lean closer to feminism. And, as we said at the beginning, she began to further explore gender studies and the importance of equal opportunities between men and women. But, above all, she became interested in women’s freedom to make decisions regarding their body and their sexuality.
In the process, she began to question some of the lyrics of the reggaeton songs that she’d heard before but that had never made her raise an eyebrow. Like the fragment of the song “Mujeres Talentosas,” sung by Luigi 21 plus:
[Song]: Si Eva no se hubiera comido la manzana, la vida fuera sin malicia y mucho más sana. Pero como esa cabrona se comió la fruta por eso es que hoy en día hay mujeres tan putas. [If Eve hadn’t eaten the apple, life would be without malice and much more wholesome. But since that bitch ate the fruit, that’s why today some women are such whores.]
[Patricia]: And when I heard that song, I said, “How dare this guy sing that?” I kind of remember that I didn’t like that song, that it threw me off. But I sang it anyway.
[Lisette]: Because even though it seemed shamelessly macho and inappropriate, that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the music.
[Lisette]: Meanwhile, Patricia began to realize that her college classmates saw reggaeton as the opposite of intellectual. Although they danced it at parties and listened to it between drinks, they boasted that they only listened to musicians like Silvio Rodríguez or Jorge Drexler. But not Patricia. Reggaeton continued to accompany her during those four years of her undergraduate degree at the university and when she began her master’s degree, in the fall of 2017.
This brings us to the moment when one of her classmates got into her car, heard reggaeton coming out of the radio speakers, and…
[Patricia]: She questioned me, “How can you be a feminist and listen to reggaeton?”
[Lisette]: In the days that followed that conversation with her classmate, one of the first things that happened to Patricia was that she began to stop and think even more about the content of the reggaeton lyrics she was listening to.
[Patricia]: And yes, there were songs that made me uncomfortable, but… But sure, I feel like it made me a little more aware of reggaeton lyrics or how this can contribute to the perspective of how women should be treated.
[Lisette]: It is not an exaggeration to say that she began to suffer a sort of identity crisis. She felt upset.
[Patricia]: Because it was something I had never considered and because, uh, maybe that made me less of a feminist. And I’m listening to reggaeton because I don’t know that much about feminism, and it was like, I don’t know, it affected me a little bit, maybe thinking I didn’t know anything. Like that fear of… like I didn’t know what feminism was, or I’m not really a feminist.
[Lisette]: It is not an infrequent doubt in some people who identify as feminists. What should a quote-unquote “good” or “bad” feminist think or do in the eyes of others?
Do you like pink? You lose points. Do you want to have children and stay at home? You are not a feminist. Do you like makeup and fashion? You are not deconstructed enough. And so on…
As if there were only one way to be a feminist. And maybe that was what bothered Patricia the most.
While she kept all these questions to herself, she continued to pursue her master’s degree. One day, in one of her classes, the teacher gave an assignment: find a topic that upset them and investigate it. Patricia immediately thought about what had happened to her with that classmate.
[Patricia]: And I tell my teacher, “This happened to me and I have this, it made me angry, it kind of shook me a little because once again it’s questioning my standards.” And she said, “That’s your topic.”
[Lisette]: So Patricia began to investigate. She started by researching something crucial: how Puerto Rican women related to reggaeton and how they saw themselves represented in that music. She formulated several questions that she wanted to answer. And she would start with the one that had triggered it all: How can you be a feminist and enjoy reggaeton?
[Patricia]: How can they be a feminist collective and have a reggaeton party?
[Lisette]: How does reggaeton make women feel?
[Patricia]: What is there about reggaeton that makes you want to include that enjoyment in your feminism? And break that down a bit.
[Lisette]: It was 2017, and she started reading books, essays, and research on reggaeton. But at first she had a hard time finding information. She searched the official website of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture for the word “reggaeton” and nothing came up. Some texts she found were critical of the music. They described it as simple, repetitive, offensive and lacking in quality. She found almost nothing in favor.
Until she came across readings that talked about how the violence of the reggaeton lyrics is a reflection of the violence on the island. That clicked with Patricia.
[Patricia]: It’s not that gender violence exists because reggaeton exists, but rather, gender violence exists and is reflected in reggaeton and in many other aspects of society. Not just in the music, but on television every day, in the newspapers, on Instagram—we see gender violence everywhere.
[Lisette]: Patricia also read an argument that grabbed her: That precept that tells you what someone who considers herself a feminist could listen to ends up being paternalistic. It dictates what women should like, what they should listen to, what should bother them, what they should wear or what it is acceptable to enjoy.
Furthermore, in many of the reggaeton songs the women are not passive but sexually active. They say what they like, and men give them pleasure. And for Patricia, this is exactly what makes many people criticize reggaeton.
[Patricia]: And it’s kind of like when we say what we feel and want to do, such as the autonomy I was talking about; that’s where disgust and annoyance come from.
[Lisette]: That is to say, there is also a rejection—a little more veiled—of women expressing their sexual desires directly. It’s as if the area of sexual desire belonged only to men.
That is why the relationship that Patricia has with reggaeton also includes perreo [twerking] and the meaning that she and other women attach to it.
[Patricia]: The dance is linked to liberation and the desire to move because of desire, just because, because you feel sensual and you feel good.
[Lisette]: Twerking has become much more than a dance for many women. Especially with the music of Ivy Queen, like the song we heard before, “Yo quiero bailar.” The lyrics opened up a space on the dance floor where women can twerk without having to owe anything to anyone. A type of perreo where they are the ones in charge, who decide how far they will go and with whom. A dance that can be done alone or with friends. And that is empowering.
[Patricia]: And at the end of the day, the relationship that I have or that women want or can have with reggaeton is their own.
[Lisette]: With all this, Patricia thought, for example, of the women who appear in those reggaeton videos she watched as a child. She knew the most common criticism was that women were objectified and hypersexualized. And she came to the conclusion that she doesn’t have a problem with that as long as they are the ones who set the terms of their own participation—getting paid well, feeling comfortable twerking in front of the camera.
She had learned a lot, and with everything she’d read, Patricia wrote an essay that was a kind of catharsis. But that was only the first step. From there she became completely immersed in the study of reggaeton.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Our producer, Lisette Arévalo, continues the story.
[Lisette]: After that first essay, Patricia began to associate reggaeton with all the topics she saw in her master’s courses. It even became the subject of her thesis. But it didn’t just remain academic.
While she was working on her thesis, Patricia managed to intern at the Smithsonian Center for Life and Cultural Heritage, in Washington DC. It was the summer of 2019 and that’s when she met her…
[Ashley Oliva Mayor]: My name is Ashley Oliva Mayor. I am a historian and curator of Latin music.
[Lisette]: Ashley had been working at the Smithsonian since 2016. And at the time, 2019, she was part of the Latino Center. Because Patricia was interested in connecting with different people who studied Latin music, she sought out Ashley for a chat.
[Ashley]: She tells me, “Listen, I’m really interested in talking with you. I’m interested in music, reggaeton.” I said, “Wow, I love it too…”
[Lisette]: They sat down in a museum cafeteria and talked for a long time about reggaeton.
[Ashley]: I tell her that one of my goals is to broaden what Latin representation is in the museum’s music collection, and I wanted to draw attention and start to include more stories and more objects that represented what the experience of the urban genre of reggaeton is, because I feel that it is important for people to know that history too.
[Lisette]: Such archives create a memory of a country and its people. But that was something they had not seen for reggaeton. And therefore, neither had the people who created it.
[Ashley]: Reggaeton is not yesterday’s genre; it is a genre of more than 30 years now.
It’s also important to recognize the origins of that music, where it comes from, the communities where it developed. The people who were influential in the development of the genre.
[Lisette]: Patricia thought the same as Ashley. And the two were amazed at each other, at what they thought, and their passion for reggaeton.
A few days later, Patricia was invited to a tour with the group of interns from the Latino Center, and Ashley was the guide. She showed them different items from Smithsonian’s collection of the history of Latin music, such as Celia Cruz’s costumes and even the shoes she wore during her concerts.
Patricia was amazed at what she saw, but she was also surprised by something else. With all those objects, records and posters of Latin music in the Smithsonian, there was not a single thing about reggaeton.
[Patricia]: I was left with the thought that, “Hell, this is missing something about reggaeton.”
[Lisette]: And after seeing so many objects with so much memory in the Smithsonian, and after the conversation she had with Ashley, Patricia thought:
[Patricia]: Well look, maybe I can make an archive with stuff about reggaeton.
[Lisette]: Once on the plane back to San Juan, Patricia began to dream of having a giant collection of objects and a tour of the milestones of that music. Maybe one day even having all those things she had seen in the Smithsonian. But instead of Celia Cruz’s shoes and costumes, it could be the buffoons’ costumes that appeared in that first reggaeton video she saw as a child, “Gata Celosa.” Or maybe a pair of glasses or one of those gold chains that singers wore in the 90s.
It wasn’t a matter of having these items for the sake of having them, but because of their historical content, their memory, and the influence they had on the way she and so many young Puerto Ricans think, speak, and feel. Because for Patricia, reggaeton is Puerto Rican culture.
And that would be the motto of her thesis project: reggaeton is culture. She decided to call it the Hasta Abajo Project, after one of the phrases that was shouted out and sung most often in the fun of reggaeton parties. It was November 2019, and her first step in making the archive was to create an Instagram account.
The first post said that Hasta Abajo is a collective that seeks to safeguard, educate, and showcase reggaeton in order to highlight its value in Puerto Rican culture. That its goal was to create a museum through a series of projects. And it went on…
[Patricia]: One of them, for example, is the creation of a historical archive. In order to get started with its creation, we need your help.
[Lisette]: Using the hashtag #SomosHastaAbajo, Patricia asked people to send photos of concerts, cassettes, flyers, or any other reggaeton object they had kept. She did the same on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. And while the response wasn’t massive, she did get some replies. One person sent her a photo of a collection of CDs he had bought and traded with his friends during the early release years. The post was accompanied by a message that said that every time he listened to that music, it transported him back to his youth.
Another person sent a photo of a CD his father had bought before leaving the island to live in the United States. He said that when he returned, he found the CD and remembered a time that he treasured with his father and the visits they made to the record labels. She received photos of concert tickets, posters with artists’ signatures and a lot of pirated records.
Patricia was moved when she received these photos. It was the start of the archive she wanted to create. But in the middle of finishing her master’s degree, she had less and less time left for follow-up on posts and social networks. So she left the project stranded for a while.
Until almost a year later, in September 2020, when Ashley came across Patricia’s posts on social media. After their meeting in Washington DC, they had followed each other on their personal accounts but were not in constant contact. Ashley was very surprised to see the beginning of a possible first reggaeton historical archive, but with something in particular: By calling for the submission of personal photos of reggaeton objects, Patricia was uniting the cultural history of this genre with people’s intimate stories. Their memories. Their culture.
Ashley wrote to Patricia right away, saying that she would love to be part of the project. She happily accepted.
[Patricia]: I have a professional from the Smithsonian next to me. What the fuck. It’s like it got more real.
[Lisette]: Because, while the Smithsonian wouldn’t be directly involved, Ashley had all the knowledge she’d learned from years of working there. With her personal participation, the project ceased to be a master’s thesis. The dilemma that had led Patricia to go deep into studying reggaeton had now allowed her to create a team.
They began meeting via Zoom—Patricia from San Juan, Puerto Rico and Ashley from Washington DC—to plan activities. The first was a celebration of the anniversary of the first post that was made on the Hasta Abajo Project account. It was November 2020.
[Patricia]: We did countless panels that were titled “Reggaeton in fashion,” “Perreo in academia,” “Reggaeton is memory.”
[Lisette]: Some 90 people joined the virtual panels. They did so well that they held another one in March 2021. And in a kind of follow-up to the question that had prompted her to create her project, they held the panel discussion on reggaeton and feminism and called it “Without women there is no reggaeton.”
[Lisette]: It was also very well received. That was incredible for Patricia, and from that moment on, there was no turning back. The project was working.
[Patricia]: It stopped being a thesis a long time ago. The Hasta Abajo Project is an organization, it is a project, it is an initiative. It’s people working every day.
[Lisette]: More and more people talked about them on social media and found out about their desire to create the first reggaeton archive. In addition, around that time they began asking people to donate their objects, if they could, in order to create the physical archive they wanted so much. And that same year, something incredible happened.
[Patricia]: That’s when Juan Arroyo contacts us. He writes to me, “Look, I am Juan Arroyo. I was the creator of Reggaeton Lyrics, which later became Reggaeton World.” And I went… “What??”
[Lisette]: Reggaeton Lyrics was a website that divulged music and lyrics.
[Patricia]: “And look, I have a lot of CDs at home, a lot of things, and I’m going to give them to you.” And he gave us over 300 items, including magazines, CDs, press kits. And that’s how we officially have an archive, we have material.
[Lisette]: Patricia couldn’t believe it. Very grateful to Juan Arroyo, she told him that she would pick up the items once she had a place to store them. She didn’t want to have all those objects there in her house, collecting dust; she wanted to do it correctly from the beginning. In a professional way. So she got ready:
[Patricia]: I took archiving classes. We are not a bunch of crazy people putting together an archive.
[Lisette]: In that class, she learned techniques to preserve objects the best way, to handle them with gloves, how to clean them, under what conditions to store them.
After a few days they found a space to rent: a large warehouse that was climatized and had the necessary conditions to preserve the objects. Patricia called Juan and they agreed that she would go to his house to get the material. He had everything ready for them. The CDs, the magazines, everything was bubble-wrapped in boxes to protect them.
[Patricia]: I got very excited. I never thought I would receive such a donation. I couldn’t believe it. I still cannot believe it. And every time we go and I see all those CDs that basically contain almost all the reggaeton music there…
[Lisette]: She stored everything in that place. And after a call they made on their networks, other people also donated various items such as concert tickets, posters, magazines…
Although it is not nearly so sophisticated as the Smithsonian, for Patricia it is the beginning of what she hopes it will become in a few years: a museum of reggaeton. Although it will be a long road, she feels that it will be worth it.
While in San Juan, I met Ashley and Natalia Merced, another member of Hasta Abajo in charge of social media. They took me to see the archive.
[Ashley]: Welcome. You have arrived at the Hasta Abajo Project warehouse.
[Lisette]: It’s cold.
[Ashley]: Yes, well, it’s better that way because everything we have needs temperature and humidity control.
[Lisette]: The place was huge and had several storage units with metal doors. Behind one of those was the archive they had collected so far in 7 boxes. Boxes that held a lot of Puerto Rican history.
Little by little, they were removing the objects and placing them on a table located in the center of the room.
[Ashley]: Here are some boxes of what we have in our archive at the Hasta Abajo Project. We have movies, concert DVDs, visuals, there are some documentaries…
[Lisette]: They put on gloves and showed me one by one the records they had. They taught me that there are several ways to analyze the cover of a CD. For example, how the graphics and design speak of the visual identity of each artist. And they even had some DVDs with lessons to learn perreo.
[Ashley]: And here are other examples of the things we collect. For example, newspaper articles that deal with reggaeton. Also concert posters… This one is from Bad Bunny…
[Lisette]: It was a poster of the first concert that Bad Bunny gave in Puerto Rico in one of the most important venues on the island.
They showed me magazines from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies with historical articles on reggaeton. And a very special object: a yellow thong or G-string that was created to promote Wisin’s song that goes by the same name. This is Natalia Merced:
[Natalia Merced]: One of the most iconic reggaeton songs is the one that talks about the yellow G-string. And I think it’s great that there is literally a yellow G-string as part of the archive. The chorus says, “El corillo, enséñame el gistro amarillo” [“Homies, show me the yellow G-string.”]
(SOUNDBYTE Wisin y Yandel)
[Wisin y Yandel]: Vélala, que esta fronteando en el corillo, enséñame el gistro amarillo. Es sencillo, guaya el calzoncillo. Se siente bien…
[keep an eye on her, she is up front of the homies, show me the yellow G-string. It’s simple, it scratches the underpants. It feels good…]
[Natalia]: ¡Bien a fueguillo! [On fire!]
[Lisette]: This G-string is one of their favorite items in the Hasta Abajo archive. So far. For Natalia, for example, the object of her dreams would be Bad Bunny’s glasses, the ones he used at the beginning of his career. And who knows, at this rate they are likely to get them.
Now there are eight people working to feed the archive. And creating memory. They give talks at schools, universities and even at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. They have made themselves available to anyone who wants to study reggaeton and use Hasta Abajo as a bibliography of the musical genre.
But it has not all been activities in the classroom, and not only about reggaeton. They have begun twerking at parties organized by them. Perreo workshops and lots of dancing. And in general, their work has been well received.
I accompanied them to an artist fair where they went to sell their t-shirts, CDs and stickers to raise funds and self-manage their project. Patricia and Ashley were wearing the iconic Hasta Abajo Project t-shirt that reads, “Reggaeton is culture.” And at one point in the afternoon, a lady in her 50s stood near the table, saw the shirt, and shook her head with a cynical smile.
“See what happened there?” Patricia asked me. It was not the first time they received a gesture like that.
[Patricia]: The “Reggaeton is culture” t-shirt is a very forceful statement and I know that it can make many people as uncomfortable as it can delight others.
I feel that it has to do with… how the mental chip that I was talking about, the taboo that surrounds reggaeton, that is, is an attack of many years. And it still goes on. I feel that this taboo sometimes doesn’t allow people to say reggaeton and culture. “No! Culture is the Puerto Rican peasant, culture is the flag of Puerto Rico.” I mean, but no, culture is much more. Culture is not what the government tells us is culture.
[Lisette]: Despite the level of fame of Puerto Rican singers like Bad Bunny, Daddy Yankee, Ozuna, there are still many judgmental looks at the music and, well, perreo. There is still the idea that it is the devil’s music, as I heard so often in my teens. There is still the question of whether you can be a feminist and like reggaeton.
But that doesn’t matter to Patricia. Because after all, the work she has been doing has taught her a lot about herself—about her identity, her culture, and the relationship she has with feminism. And she has taken the latter to her project. They publish posts on their networks about feminism and sexuality, and are constantly seeking to fuel the discussion about it.
This is how Patricia has achieved a kind of reconciliation with the doubt that was once eating away at her.
If that same person asked you the question right now—or me in this case—“How can you be a feminist and like reggaeton?” How would you respond?
[Patricia]: Because I can. Because my feminism allows me to. It allows me to decide what I like, what I listen to, what I dance, what I don’t dance, and it gives me that authority over my body and my decisions.
[Lisette]: It is not surprising that now there are many women, people from the LGBTIQ+ collective and feminists who have found a tool for liberation in reggaeton. Furthermore, it is a genre that has not neglected its roots: social protest at all levels. And women have been there, giving new meaning to the songs, talking about the pressing issues that run through them.
It is not by chance that the most famous names in the industry are those of the very women who have demonstrated that autonomy. Like Colombian Karol G with her song “Bichota,” which comes from the Puerto Rican word bichote, used to talk about drug bosses. But Karol G has given it a new meaning: she uses it to refer to a powerful, daring, sexy woman.
And there is also Bad Bunny himself who, although many of his older songs can be considered chauvinist, now has several songs that are the opposite. One of them, one of the most famous, is “Yo perreo sola,” a song about women’s freedom to twerk whenever they want, with whomever they want, and without anyone getting too close to them. As Ivy Queen had already put it.
And for this and many more reasons, Patricia told me something that she once heard a feminist collective say: “If I can’t twerk, it’s not my revolution.”
[Daniel]: Lisette Arévalo is a senior producer at Radio Ambulante. She lives in Quito, Ecuador. This story was edited by Camila Segura, Natalia Sánchez-Loayza and me. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri with original music by Ana Tuirán.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Nicolás Alonso, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Cassasus, Diego Corzo, Emila Erbetta, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Rémy Lozano, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.