The Hidden Wonders of Latin America
By Josefina Salomon
When it comes to popular depictions of Latin America and its culture, shallow stereotypes of what is a profoundly diverse region abound. Which is why, to truly get Latino culture, you need to tune out of popular — and often sadly inaccurate — tropes and tune in to today’s Daily Dose.
Indigenous rappers, quinoa sushi and cannabis-infused teas are transforming Latin America’s cultural and gastronomic landscape even as brave activists work to preserve the region’s astonishing natural beauty. Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by diving deeper than just salsa rhythms, Caribbean beaches and pisco sours for a sensory journey to a stunning part of the world that’s in flux. I should know: I’m from Argentina.
Don’t Cry for Me
There’s a myth that we Argentines are smug and dramatic. Check out classics Nine Queens and Wild Tales and decide for yourself. The films are the closest you’ll get to a fly-on-the-wall perspective of Buenos Aires’ culture and the quirky personalities of its locals, the porteños. In Nine Queens, superstar Ricardo Darín (Google him) plays a professional hustler who tricks people to make a bit of extra cash as he trains his mysterious new protégé. The actor also stars in Wild Tales, a series of six stories in which Argentines take their deepest frustrations over everything, from unfair parking tickets to cheating grooms and abusive bosses to extreme — and hilarious, levels.
Mind the Mexican Gap
You might have watched Alfonso Cuarón’s spectacular Roma, a black-and-white sublime tale of how two women (one Indigenous and one of white European descent) separated by 500 years of brutal colonial history experience the political turmoil of 1970s Mexico. But did you know the award-winning director hid messages in the story? Here’s one: When Cleo, who works as a maid, tells her boyfriend, Fermín, that she is pregnant, he dismisses her and screams “pinche gata,” a derogatory word middle-class people use to insult domestic workers. His using the expression signals how he feels he’s moved up the social ladder as soon as he joined a right-wing urban militia group and immediately started looking down on her.
Landlocked Paraguay is not particularly well known for its film industry, which is why this rare, yet wonderful, thriller is a must-watch for insights into this Spanish-Guaraní bilingual nation. The story: A 17-year-old market seller is offered $100 (30% of a month’s minimum wage) to transport seven sealed boxes to the opposite side of town. The condition: He cannot look inside. What he doesn’t know is that by accepting the deal, he instantly becomes involved in a mysterious crime. The film takes you through some of the most marginalized (and tourist-free) areas of Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, for a glimpse of what life is really like for its residents.
Made überpopular by the likes of Maluma, J Balvin and Karol G, reggaeton’s dancehall-meets-hip-hop-with-a Latin-twist rhythm is having its moment. But some of its more noxious elements are also being challenged — from within. A tribe of feminist artists has taken the style’s contagious beats, scratched the offensive language and replaced it with lyrics that speak to a new generation of women and girls. Among them, Torta Golosa is one to watch. This Chilean duo has embraced a male-dominated music genre to sing about gay rights, sex, abortion and their country’s social uprising.
A new wave of Indigenous artists are also grabbing the microphone that’s long been denied to them, offering a unique take on old classics, elevated by their own new sounds. Take Kunumi MC. This Brazilian Indigenous artist mixes Guaraní with Portuguese and ancestral instruments with modern beats to sing about some of the many environmental issues affecting the Amazon. On the same train is 19-year-old Renata Flores, an artist who became famous for singing modern songs in her native Quechua, the language of the Inca empire that is still spoken in modern-day Peru. Now the queen of Inka trap, she raps about the struggles of Indigenous peoples, particularly women.
Counting soccer superstar Lionel Messi among his fans and amassing hundreds of millions of views on YouTube, 23-year-old Valentín Oliva — aka WOS DS3 — is the king of the Argentine music scene. Oliva is leading a generation of freestylers who have taken elements of the traditional payadores, artists who used to tell stories by improvising lyrics, and has added rap rhythms. His moment of glory came in 2019 when he released his debut album, Canguro, which criticizes the local political class and social inequality in his country. With a Latin Grammy nomination under his belt and a new album recorded during lockdown, you best get ready to hear a lot more from this trailblazer.
There are several long-standing culinary fights in Latin America, and the origin of these ground maize flatbreads is my favorite. Both Colombia and Venezuela fight over ownership of what has been a staple in both countries since before colonial times. But it is the millions of Venezuelans who fled their country’s economic and humanitarian crises over the past decade who have recently made the cornmeal cakes popular across the world. Now you can find this yummy yet healthy street food (it’s gluten-free) in most Latin American countries — with each giving it a local twist.
There is a Spanish saying that goes “as Uruguayan as mate,” and a short stroll around any town of this small nation will prove it right. Mate, a drink traditionally made by pouring water into an herb-filled wood pot and drinking it with a straw, is widely popular in the southern corner of Latin America. But no one can beat the Uruguayan appetite for mate. The average Uruguayan consumes nearly 20 pounds of the drink every year. Now a new wave of hipsters is reinventing the traditional beverage (whose origins go back to Syria and Lebanon) by adding new herbs and even mixing it with cannabis.
Forget Mexico and Brazil, Latin America’s kitchen is in Peru. The gastronomic powerhouse has established itself as the home of one of the most exciting fusion cuisines in the world. It’s much more than the sum of its parts. Nikkei, as the style is called after the Japanese word for migrants and their descendants, is a cuisine that developed over generations, mixing Peru’s traditionally rich dishes with Japanese techniques. Think sashimi with spicy Latin sauces, quinoa-based sushi and Japanese curry-flavored Peruvian empanadas.
Marina Silva (Brazil)
Growing up in a rubber tapper community in the Amazon forests, Silva (pictured above) taught herself to read and write at the age of 16, earned a university degree and began campaigning against deforestation. She later became Brazil’s minister for the environment before taking a seat as the first woman from her community in the senate. For a while in 2014, she even appeared poised to upset then-President Dilma Rousseff in federal elections. Frustrated with politics, Silva eventually returned to activism and is a leading voice against President Jair Bolsonaro’s lax environmental policies — in 2019, record-breaking fires turned over 17 million acres of Amazon rainforest into ash. She says the way to tackle deforestation is to combat illegal land occupation, create conservation areas for Indigenous communities, and invest in solar and wind power.
Luz Mery Panche (Colombia)
Defending the environment can be a dangerous job in Latin America. In Colombia, it can be lethal. But none of that discourages this Nasa Indigenous woman, who has been campaigning for decades to protect Colombia’s Amazon forests. Trained as an engineer, the 44-year-old says the problem is that authorities see the forest and land as a home to resources such as gold and oil to be exploited rather than protected. “As Nasa peoples, we see earth as our mother. It is our duty and mission to care for it,” Panche told Distintas Latitudes.
Bertha Zuñiga (Honduras)
Carrying one of the most respected names in the world of environmental protection, the 30-year-old is a daughter of Berta Cáceres, the activist who was murdered in Honduras in 2016. Today, Zuñiga carries her mother’s torch in a country that’s particularly dangerous for environmental activists. A descendant of the Lenca Indigenous people, she’s trying to draw the world’s attention to the crisis in Honduras, urging global firms to think twice before investing in a country with a troubling human rights record.
- Josefina Salomon, OZY Author Contact Josefina Salomon