Using Music to Teach Latin American (and World) History

By Dominguez, Daisy V. | Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Using Music to Teach Latin American (and World) History


Dominguez, Daisy V., Teaching History: A Journal of Methods


As a student of Latin American Studies and as a librarian, I have discovered that film is the preferred audiovisual teaching tool. Music did not feature in the classes I took; moreover, in discussions with librarians, I have found that those interested in audiovisual materials typically focus on film. (1) This void has long been a curiosity to me because I knew, even as a child, how the music of artists like Ruben Blades, Silvio Rodriguez, and Mercedes Sosa could help bring Latin American history to life. Long before I opened up my first Latin American Studies text as an undergraduate, I learned about the disappearances and murder of dissidents in Latin America by listening to Blades' song Desapariciones (Disappearances). And his song Tiburon {Shark) helped me reflect on how the United States is perceived in Latin America. These musical tales piqued my interest and would later reinforce what I learned in class.

Teachers in other areas of history have documented how effectively they have used music as a fun, immersive, and memorable way to introduce and discuss topics and concepts. (2) As the librarian for Latin American Studies and Spanish and Portuguese Literature at the City College of New York (CCNY), I became curious about whether faculty in these subject areas incorporate music into their instruction. I conducted two online surveys on the use of Latin American music in college-level instruction in 2008 and 2010. I shared survey links with faculty at CCNY and on the H-LATAM listserv, which is devoted to Latin American History, (3) as well as on Facebook and Twitter. What follows is a discussion of songs that survey respondents and I recommend for teaching particular themes and events in Latin American history. (4)

Indigenous People in Latin America

The Otavalo Indian group Nanda Manachi's spoken word song La Gran Marcha (The Great March) can easily be used to discuss the treatment of indigenous peoples, their history of resistance, and, interestingly, the relationship between the academic and Indian communities. This song begins not with an indictment of the usual culprits--generals, dictators, or the Church--but rather, academia:

   ... Anthropologists search our grandfathers' teeth. Sociologists
   take photographs of our traditional homes. Politicians formulate
   redeeming plans. And everyone multiplies bread on paper and reads
   the Declaration of Human Rights to us. But Juan still has no land.
   Pedro wears his only shirt ... Julian does not know how to write
   Julian. We know about the Alliance for Progress. We also know about
   the OAS and the UN. But signs and acronyms do not feed us. (5)

La Gran Marcha criticizes aloof academics, politicians, and intergovernmental agencies (both from the North and South) that engage in work that purports to help Indians but which has often been materially useless to them. The sarcastic reference to "grandfathers' teeth" brings to mind Indian craniological photographs and could be used to introduce scientific racism, while the organizations listed can lead to a discussion on American aid to and intervention in the region.

Afro-Latin American History

Survey respondents suggested several songs for lectures on Afro-Latin American history and slavery. I have selected the two that seemed most promising in terms of showing the nuances in the historical experiences of Blacks in Latin America. One survey respondent recommended the music of the San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble (SAVAE) to discuss "transculturation," by which I think the respondent meant the interaction between and the melding of African, European, and indigenous cultural expressions during the Contact period (and possibly in contemporary Latin America as well). SAVAE has produced four CDs of colonial music by using native instruments and codices, which have allowed them to reconstruct pre-Columbian and other early colonial music by assigning pitches and drum patterns to syllabic notations. …

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Using Music to Teach Latin American (and World) History
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