For SoCal Girls Like Me, Romeo Santos and Bachata (Almost) Sound Like Home

For SoCal Girls Like Me, Romeo Santos and Bachata (Almost) Sound Like Home

When Romeo Santos walked offstage toward the pump fake ending of the first of his three Barclays Center performances last month, the crowd of Romeístas was unified in our ravenous desire for more. “PROPUESTA INDECENTE!” we all screamed, playing along despite knowing full well the King of Bachata wouldn’t let the night come to a close without engaging us all in that transgressive lovers’ dance.

The lusty single that propelled Formula Vol. 2 to the top of the charts, “Propuesta Indecente” translates directly to “indecent proposal.” A chronicle of a night spent convincing a woman to go home with him despite her boyfriend casually hanging around, the sensual track is prototypically Romeo: “Dígame usted si ha hecho algo travieso alguna vez / Una aventura es más divertida si huele a peligro (Tell me if you’ve ever done anything forbidden / adventure is more fun if it seems dangerous).”

Of course Romeo’s performance delivered. He is, after all, the undisputed “King of Bachata,” the mega-popular genre of music that finds its roots in the stylings of impoverished rural Afro-Dominican bachateros. After two minutes that each felt like millennia, the lights came back on to reveal a stage on which Romeo stood triumphantly alongside a woman… and a giant bed, from which he belted part of the final song. Romeo’s erotic theatrics—and the sensuality that pervades his music and persona alike—are nothing new. He’s been “so nasty” since his days singing lead for Aventura, the Bronx-based bachata band that rose to mainstream success in the late ‘90s and dominated Latin & pop charts alike until their 2011 split.

I didn’t know Latin@s could also be black when I first fell in love with bachata, but its sonic blackness always spoke to me. Bachata’s strings evoked the same deep expression I’d always associated with black percussion—even before I knew its sounds came from the Dominican Republic’s Afro-descendant bachateros. By the time I formally learned the country was home to a large (and consistently repressed) black population, I’d already heard and felt its visceral blackness.

The first time I heard Aventura, I was an awkward 10-year-old Ethiopian girl living about 45 minutes outside Los Angeles. I spoke only the requisite, remedial Spanish of all SoCal residents, but bachata and reggaeton were the soundtrack of my neighbors’ frequent house parties. The music that floated over the fence separating our backyards kept my parents up at night complaining about the noise of rambunctious young adults and the music whose decibels matched their energy levels. Ever the timid rebel, I spent my adolescence keeping my windows open or sneaking outside to soak up the parties’ vibrant sounds—laughter, stories, and the music of artists I would later recognize as Aventura, Wisin Y Yandel, Xtreme, and countless others.

I knew my neighbors’ parties were lit, and I delighted in the years spent experiencing them vicariously. The music became a bridge to the people around me, the conduit by which we exchanged culture and comedy, learned each other’s names and histories. I didn’t have words to describe the visceral connection I felt to this music as an outsider, nor did I have the diasporic knowledge necessary to understand how bachata’s strings may not be all too different from the Ethiopian kirar I grew up hearing at home. But by the time I entered a high school Spanish class, I’d been listening to music in Spanish for four years. Every class session felt like a new opportunity to piece together lyrics I recognized, but didn’t understand. With LA’s Spanish radio stations as my tutor, I outscored every other student in my sections. I’d always taken pride in getting good grades, but this was something different.

Spanish class and the act of actively immersing myself in a different language made me feel less like of an outsider in milquetoast Orange County, more able to extol the virtues of my own foreignness. A friend of mine, also a Los Angeles-born daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, often jokes that she grew up thinking she might be Mexican. “I just knew my parents didn’t speak English either,” she says. We bonded with our Latin@ classmates over language barriers, embarrassment about bringing our cultural food to school instead of having sandwiches like other kids, and how hard it was to feel like we belonged both here and “back home.” Immigrant kids learn the language of alienation early, and music was just one of the many things that helped us understand one another as children—even well after we knew we were different from one another.

My family’s neighborhood, a working class enclave of single-story homes at the crossroads of two major freeways and two major suburban cities, was its own cultural intersection. To our left lived a friendly German man and his hilariously racist wife, one other reclusive black family sequestered itself further down the block, but the vast majority of our neighbors were Mexican-American or Central American immigrant families. A quiet understanding pervaded these blocks: our families didn’t share one culture, but the shared language of immigrant sensibilities communicated how much family itself meant to us all. Days and years moved along, punctuated by the arrival of extended family members at almost every house on the block. We shared little interaction with our neighbors beyond warm smiles and waves from across the street, but we felt comfort in our shared difference. Bachata and reggaeton became the backdrop of our rare conversations, the soundtrack of birthday parties that presented opportunities for quick well wishes.

But for all the cultural connections Aventura and our shared foreignness helped us forge as children, now there are all too many reminders that we—black girls who then became black women—ought to know our place in Southern California’s complex racial geography. The times we’ve walked excitedly into an open SoCal bar on merengue, bachata, or reggaeton themed nights without the company of Latin@ friends, hosts have issued a perfunctory “Ladies—it’s Latino night” alongside stern, unwelcoming glances. The statement always hangs stale in the air between us, like the scent of delicately prepared food left in the sun for a picnic canceled without warning. We entered regardless, but the weight of the words pinned our arms down and constrained the movement of our hips.

In the racial hierarchies of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, black people and Latin@s occupy distinct but overlapping—and sometimes colliding—positions. To be black or Latin@ is to exist as scapegoat for white anxiety, to be “gangster” or “job-stealer” or both. But that deep-seated resentment is multi-directional; Los Angeles has played host to unique forms of anti-Latin@ sentiment among non-Latino blacks and virulent anti-black racism among Latin@s. Anti-blackness exists as both fact and formative social construct across U.S. Latin@ communities, both despite and because of the fact that Latin@s can be black.

In LA, boundaries between blackness and Latinidad are rigidly enforced, despite the city itself being founded partly by Afro-Mexican settlers. To be acceptably Latin@ in LA is to be light or brown-skinned at most; anyone with skin too dark or hair too kinky is an aberration, too close to the black populations with which it’s not socially advantageous to be associated. It is amid this backdrop of quietly festering ethnic and racial tension that bachata and reggaeton animate LA’s clubs and house parties alike. Most popular among LA’s Central American populations, both musical styles still get spins on radio stations and in parties dominated more heavily by the area’s Mexican(-American) populations, for whom Afro-diasporic influence is less palpable (though certainly not absent). And yet despite the region’s tip-toeing around the intersections of blackness and Latinidad, it is Afro-Latino—and Afro-Caribbean—singers like Tego Calderón, Don Omar, and Romeo who are arguably its most prominent musical fixtures.

But where LA’s racial politics made my presence at Latin@ bars an anomaly at best, New York’s ethnic fluidity and inter-connected Afro-diasporic communities offer an entry point that feels more like an extended hand than a cold shoulder. New York’s racial tapestry is more interwoven, more blurred, more sprawling than the impossibly (and inaccurately) neat boundaries with which LA demands ethnic delineation. The Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn are all home to vibrant Afro-Latin@ communities, and the visual distinctions between blackness and Latinidad defy simple categorization. Here racial signifiers are more fluid, but the city is certainly home to its fair share of anti-black sentiment among Latin@s. This paradoxical tension—the hatred of the blackness that pervades the genes and genius of Latinidad—finds it artistic peak in bachata, which has risen to stunning success across all demographics of Latin@ consumers despite originally being derided as a class-less form of music because of its roots in poverty and African influence. It’s no accident that the King(s) of Bachata came up in the Bronx, that Aventura’s sound evokes the borough’s cultural fusion, or that Romeo sold out Yankee Stadium two nights in a row last year.

My best friend, an Afro-Dominican woman whose process of learning racial consciousness has both complemented and challenged my own, is also my partner in an ongoing game we jokingly call “Your Cousin or Mine?” Only partly facetious, the game is one we play while walking through New York, a nod to the fact that Dominicans and Ethiopians are often stunningly similar in phenotype (and in paradoxical denial of blackness). The game’s central premise is that any stranger we see who looks like they could be “related to” me may in fact be “related to” her and vice versa. We’ve been playing it jokingly the whole time we’ve lived in New York, most often guessing correctly but sometimes finding ourselves genuinely surprised when a person we’d both assumed to be Ethiopian ends up being Dominican or vice versa. (A trip to the Dominican Republic last year brought the game into stark focus: every person I saw who did indeed look like they could be my (black) relative was service staff; every white local I saw worked in a managerial role.)

In New York, I am a non-Latina black woman who loves bachata, but I am not stranger—more like potential cousin. To love bachata as a black non-Latina in this city is to be neighbor, to be invited over for proverbial pernil and plátanos and arroz con gandules. I am guest, but the scents travel to greet me before I enter. I am not home, but I am close.

At Romeo’s concert in July, no one told me I was out of place. No confused glances, no judging stares, no silent accusations of imposition met me at my seat. For four hours, the only label that mattered was Romeísta.

Hannah Giorgis is a writer and organizer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter @ethiopienne.

Illustration via Tara Jacoby.

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