Rock culture

From outlaw status, genre comes of age in Latin America

Rock musicians in the English-speaking world have long considered themselves the voice of rebellion, a daring symbol of anti-establishment zeal.

rockin las americas book cover

For rock musicians and their fans in Latin America, this “outlaw” status was often far more than symbolic: For decades, rockers faced persecution throughout Central and South America. Mistrusted and reviled by both the right and the left, the rockeros and rockeras were targets of harassment and abuse from their governments and other social forces.

“They were criticized and ostracized,” says Deborah Pacini Hernandez, associate professor of anthropology. “There was this criminalization that dogged rock for a long time.”

Pacini Hernandez is the co-editor of Rockin’ Las Americas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latino America (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004), a volume of essays that explores the social, cultural, political and musical evolution of the genre in Latin America and within Latino communities in the United States.

“There really hadn’t been much scholarship in the field,” said Pacini Hernandez, whose previous work has examined popular music in the Spanish Caribbean and among U.S. Latinos. Among most Latin Americanists, “rock and roll was seen only as an import from the U.S. It wasn’t considered to be authentically Latin American.”

Now, half a century after rock and roll arrived in Latin America, the music is no longer viewed as the political or cultural threat it once was; it has become an integral part of the region’s musical heritage. “…rock’s long-contested status has finally given way to social acceptance,” Pacini Hernandez and her co-editors write in the book’s introduction. “It is now recognized as a legitimate form of popular music and has been incorporated within nationalist cultural discourses. Today, no nation—from revolutionary Cuba to indigenous Ecuador—is exempt from the cultural impact of rock.”

Time for rock
Pacini Hernandez came to the subject of Latin rock through a combination of scholarly interest and personal experience. “I was in Colombia [as a child] during the ’50s and clearly remember the arrival of [Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’]…I then grew up in the States, listening to rock and roll.”

After connecting with her collaborators, Eric Zolov, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Franklin and Marshall College, and Hector Fernández L’Hoeste, associate professor of Spanish at Georgia State University, and discovering their mutual interest in rock music, “we realized this was an idea whose time had come.”

editors of rockin las americas

Co-editors of Rockin’ Las Americas, from left, Hector Fernández L’Hoeste, Deborah Pacini Hernandez and Eric Zolov.

“Very little research or publishing had been done in English on rock in Latin America at that time,” Pacini Hernandez said. “We sent out a call for papers…and got a very unusual response.” Along with papers from established academics in the United States and Latin America, they also received contributions from practicing musicians, including Paulo Alvarado, a founding member of the Guatemalan rock group Alux Nahual, and Tere Estrada, a Mexican musician and author.

Pacini Hernandez and her co-editors received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation—“We put the ‘rock’ back in Rockefeller,” she jokes—and were able to arrange a one-week conference at the foundation’s study and conference center in Bellagio, Italy. There, the majority of the book’s contributing authors were able to gather and not only present their papers, but to play rock and roll together, often far into the night.

The three editors are now negotiating with a Mexican publisher that is interested in producing a Spanish translation of the book. “That would really open up the hemisphere,” Pacini Hernandez said. Rockin’ Las Americas is one of the inaugural volumes in the University of Pittsburgh Press’ new series, Illuminations: Cultural Formations of the Americas.

A new field
While early rock and roll posed some degree of threat to the U.S. social order—particularly through its popularization of African-American musical forms to a predominantly white teen audience—it did not carry the same political implications that it did in Latin America, where it was seen as a symbol of the “cultural, military and economic imperialism” of the United States during a time when U.S. intervention in the area was often forceful and unwelcome, Pacini Hernandez said.

Likewise, with its anti-establishment message, rock music threatened the stronghold of the authoritarian regimes that held sway in the region. And, many on the left saw it as a threat to the integrity and survival of indigenous musical forms.

Unlike the United States, where rock “grew from working-class African-American rhythm and blues and gradually moved up the social scale,” Pacini Hernandez said, in Latin America, the “elite” youth from the upper and middle classes were often the first to embrace rock “as a sign of cosmopolitan modernity. Now, it exists among all social classes, in diverse rock scenes.”

For many years, rock scholarship “just wasn’t considered a serious scholarly endeavor,” Pacini Hernandez said. “But it really took off in the ’80s, with the establishment of professional organizations such as the International Association for the Study of Popular Music and their associated scholarly journals. Pacini Hernandez is co-editor of one of these, the Journal of Popular Music Studies.

“Now, most rock scholarship in the United States is in a reasonably mature place, and that will enrich rock scholarship, which, until now,” she said, “has mostly focused on this country and the United Kingdom.”