by Michael Dowdy

The musical traditions of the Americas—from the Southern Cone to Mexico, from the Caribbean and the U.S. South to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—have been abundant sources for Latino poetry. Sometimes, to borrow Victor Hernández Cruz’s words in “Trio Los Condes,” these traditions have been the “bongos in the undercurrent” of Latino poems. An undercurrent moves beneath a visible surface—but sometimes, in Latino poems, the surface itself vanishes. In “Duke Ellington, Santa Ana, El Salvador, 1974,” William Archila imagines the legendary bandleader’s orchestra causing the “floors to disappear.” Similarly, in Cruz’s “Latin & Soul,” the pianist attempts “to lift the stage into orbit.”

Most often, Latino poems present surfaces that are much more than meet the eye (and the ear). Willie Perdomo’s “Arroz con Son y Clave” dramatizes a mysterious domestic scene starring the speaker’s enigmatic, musical family. The poem begins with an unusual phrase, “My father used to leave sharp sounds / By the door.” Did this happen when he departed from or returned to their apartment? Were the “sharp sounds” yells, horn blows, or, more mundanely, house keys?  Here, we should return to the poem’s equally unusual title. “Arroz con Son y Clave” underscores why I encourage students to linger on a poem’s title for two beats longer than they do on a novel’s. Perdomo’s title immediately subverts the reader’s expectations. Arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), the popular pan-Latino dish, is here served with substitutions: “Son y Clave.”

“Arroz con Son y Clave” demonstrates how multilingual wordplay becomes the synesthetic music of Latino poetry. This is often true even in a monolingual poem like Perdomo’s. In Spanish, “son” alludes to son cubano, an influential  music of the African diaspora. (It may also allude to the related son jarocho, from Veracruz, Mexico.) In  English, “son” is the father’s son, the poem’s speaker. “Clave” refers to the 1-2 pause 1-2-3 rhythm that Cruz calls “the undertow of any Latin tune.” A clave is also a wooden stick used for percussion. And, wait, there’s more. In Spanish, a clave is also a clue, often translated as “key.” ¡Y más! Clave rhymes with llave, the metal key the father drops in a bowl by the door. One “key” is literal, the other figurative. One unlocks the door, the second helps us understand what’s happening behind it.

Before spending more time on Latino poetry’s distinctive forms of play, let’s set the stage with some historical background on these musical influences. The following are some crucial wellsprings for Latino poetry:

1. “Latin”  music from the Caribbean, including Cuba, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, such as son, bomba, salsa, plena, rumba, mambo, and reggaetón. Many of these musical practices (frequently inflected with religious ones) emerged from the syntheses of African diasporic and Indigenous cultures. This music travels to New York, with the great migration of Puerto Ricans during the 1950s (see Cruz’s “Trio Los Condes”), and to Miami, with the arrival of Cubans (see Adrian Castro’s “When Hearing Bàtá Drums” and Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s “Last Mambo in Miami” in the Latino Poetry anthology). For a Colombian iteration, check out Jaime Manrique’s “Mambo.”

2. Indigenous Mexican poetry (“Flor y Canto” [Flower and Song]) and traditional Mexican ballads (corridos). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Chicano movement poets borrowed from and reinvented both of these traditions. The neologism “Floricanto,” which was derived from the Spanish translation of the Nahuatl (Mexica/Aztec) term for poetry (“Flor y Canto”), galvanized a community of poets and activists. See the poems by Francisco X. Alarcón, Alurista, José Montoya, and Ricardo Sánchez in the Latino Poetry anthology. For further background, consult Alfred Arteaga’s Chicano Poetics: Heterotexts and Hybridities and José E. Limón’s Mexican Ballads, Chicano Poems: History and Influence in Mexican American Social Poetry.

3. Black American  music, including jazz, blues, and hip-hop. Archila’s poem asks what it means to listen to “Señor Ellington” in an El Salvador on the cusp of civil war. He imagines Ellington as a family member: “He could be my grandfather” or a “black boy from Chalatenango.” This vision charts one of the many forms of hemispheric Blackness in Latino poetry. For one example of hip-hop’s influence, read the Afro-Chicano poet John Murillo (see “Santayana, the Muralist”), whose poems include a cheeky remix of the Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Juicy.”

These multiple musical legacies are institutionalized in organizations such as CantoMundo (“Song-World”). The national literary organization has a well-established mission to “cultivate a community of Latinx poets” and to celebrate “the worlds of song within Latinx communities.”

In Latino poetry, the poet plays the language the way a musician plays their instrument. Many Latino poets, moreover, play multiple language-instruments. The poems of Francisco X. Alarcón are superb examples. With a partner, try reading aloud Urayoán Noel’s bilingual poem “No Longer Ode / Oda Indebida.” This “self-translated” ode to Noel’s abuela after Hurricane María concludes with her “ache song.” One partner can read the English-language lines, the other one the alternating lines in Spanish. Even a place-name can be  music in the hands of a Latino poet. Consider how the name “Sonsonate” sings near the end of Archila’s poem.

Most powerfully, like band members gathering across time and space, poets play off, and with, other poets. In Perdomo’s poem, the word “chops” signifies the kitchen task as well as the slang term for outstanding musical technique. Consider how music, food, and poetry converge as sources of both community and tragedy in Martín Espada’s “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100.” Espada’s poem is dedicated to the forty-three workers who died at the Windows on the World restaurant on September 11, 2001. The first stanza ends:

Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that  music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

In “Alabanza,” music is intimately related to work and  labor, those other common wellsprings for Latino poetry: “Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime / of his dishes and silverware in the tub.” Like Espada’s poem, Pedro Pietri’s epic poem “Puerto Rican Obituary” perceives food through the lens of Puerto Ricans’ ruthlessly exploited labor. Although

They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
[. . .]
All died
hating the grocery stores
that sold them make-believe steak
and bullet-proof rice and beans

Pietri’s poem of the colonized condition and the foreclosed American Dream ends with a vision of collective transcendence that emphasizes music. As in “Alabanza,” this utopian Puerto Rican space-time is “where beautiful  people sing / and dance and work together.”

“Puerto Rican Obituary” brings us to the topic of  performance in Latino poetry. Pietri’s poem reminds us that  performance has been as important to Latino poetry as music has. Pietri first performed the poem in December 1969, in the basement of Spanish Harlem’s First Spanish United Methodist Church, during a Young Lords rally. The fact that “Puerto Rican Obituary”  didn’t appear in print until two years later underscores the primacy of the poem’s performative dimensions. While the dominant poetry traditions in the U.S. have ascribed to a rigid hierarchy of value between print and performance poetries, Latino poets have validated (and elevated) oral forms while also bridging the divide between the page and the stage. In short, the voice and the body have been powerful instruments. As Cruz suggests in “Trio Los Condes,” the body “become[s] sound.”

When spoken word and slam poetry grew to national popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, it did so on the institutional groundwork laid by the Nuyorican Poets’ Café. Founded in 1973 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side by Miguel Algarín (see “Nuyorican Angel Papo”) and grown with help from Pietri, Sandra María Esteves, Miguel Piñero, and many others, the Nuyorican would later nurture the otherworldly talents of Edwin Torres (see “[noyoyo]”) and María Teresa Fernández (Mariposa). Mariposa’s “Ode to the Diasporican” exemplifies the creative energy of Latino performance. When she declares that “summer nights were filled with city noises/ instead of coquis,” she highlights the necessity of making music from noise and dissonance as well as birdsong and instruments. For further reading on this tradition, check out Urayoán Noel’s In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam.

Then there are the rare Latino poets who have drawn from all these musical and performance traditions and more. The Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herrera was the first Latino Poet Laureate of California and the first Latino Poet Laureate of the United States. His poems draw widely (and wildly) from blues, jazz, rock ’n’ roll (the guitarist Carlos Santana has been a muse), hip-hop, Latin  music, Indigenous song, and multiethnic performance traditions, among numerous other sources. And then there are the brilliant poets for whom music and performance aren’t central to their writing but whose poems make their own music: Lorna Dee Cervantes, Sandra Cisneros, J. Michael Martinez, and many, many more.

Discussion Questions

1. What are some of the specific musical effects achieved in these poems through language and rhythm? How do they compare with the experience of actual  music?

2. What is the effect of music on the body in these poems? What is its effect on the mind?

3. Choose one of the three poems, and imagine it being set to music (its words sung and/or spoken). What genre of music would you choose as its accompaniment?

4. Music has a social dimension, bringing people together to sing, to dance, and to listen. What are some of the ways music affects its listeners and their relations to one another in these poems?

5. In William Archila’s poem, set during his childhood in El Salvador, a visit from legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington leaves a lasting impression. What was Ellington able to communicate to Archila’s sixth-grade class, and why do you think it is important for the poet to share that memory?

6. Victor Hernández Cruz’s poem is named for the well-known Puerto Rican group Trio Los Condes, but it begins by evoking ancient music, “the a capella of the Greek /chorus, the Taino Areyto flute in the dance.” (The Taino were the Indigenous inhabitants living in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Caribbean when the Spanish colonizers arrived.) Why might the poet wanted to have begun his poem so far back in history?

Poems for further reading in the Latino Poetry anthology

Victor Hernandez Cruz, “Latin & Soul”
Adrian Castro, “When Hearing Bàtá Drums,”
Gustavo Pérez Firmat, “Last Mambo in Miami”
Steven Alvarez, “1992/ 5th sun / our present”
José Martí, “de Versos Sencillos / from Simple Verses
Jaime Manrique, “Mambo”
Emmy Pérez, “Laredo Riviera”
Sandra María Esteves, “Mambo Love Poem”; “Black Notes and ‘You Do Something To Me’ ”
John Murillo, “Santayana the Muralist”
Robert Vasquez, “At the Rainbow”
See also the song lyrics in the anthology’s “Corridos and Nostalgia Songs” section