"Nos tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo" ("They are scared of us because we are not scared"), sings Argentina's folk icon Liliana Felipe. I heard that chorus a lot when I was a kid in Buenos Aires in the late '90's. I remember the first time I realized my mother was afraid of me. Mami had found out I wanted to participate in one of the many protests that were starting to shake the country up. "Do you know where people who get involved end up?" she asked me, in a tone that oscillated between a terrified whimper and a snarl. "Right over there. At the bottom," she continued, pointing in the direction of the River Plate, whose waters separated us from Uruguay, and eventually threaded into Paraguay and Brazil.
Somewhere in my mom's house there is an old picture of her wedding party, held at a friend's house. She looks like a Latina Farrah Fawcett with that caramel colored skin. I can imagine what music was playing: The Mamas and the Papas, because "California Dreamin'" is Mami's favorite song and she still sings it to this day; and Argentine folk, because my father was a homegrown hippie who eyed English language acts suspiciously.
Shortly after that picture was taken, the host of the party was abducted by military agents, never to be seen again. He'd joined tens of thousands of people who vanished forever, many of whom did, indeed, end up in the river that periodically rose and flooded my neighborhood.
Much like the river, that same terror flooded all of Latin America during the '70s and '80s. To the north, Brazil also drowned in the violence of an oppressive dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands were abducted or forced into exile.
In this week's Alt.Latino, singer Sergio Dias, frontman of the legendary Brazilian band Os Mutantes says no one knew what to make of the band, what box to put them in. But the authorities knew to be worried: he tells us many times they were told not to leave our hotel because the secret police would be waiting. Dias cited The Mamas and the Papas as a band that revolutionized his view of life and music. I asked him how it felt to listen to "California Dreamin'" while living a Latin American nightmare. He responded that they didn't understand the lyrics, only the feeling. And that young people always feel brave and invincible.
The band's music was goofy, psychedelic and irreverent. Though they were not always overtly political, they still refused to buckle to the propriety demanded by the dictatorship. Don't be fooled by the quirkiness of songs like "Cabeludo Patriota" (Long Haired Patriot), whose line "My hair is green and yellow" — colors of the Brazilian flag — was censored.
It's important not to make the celebration of artists and thinkers who rebelled against Latin America's brutality solely a retrospective. Latin America continues to deal with violence and injustice today — and artists, musicians and everyday people continue to put up a fight.
During our interview Dias addressed the protests now rocking Brazil. He says what the dictatorship set in motion is the corruption, inequality and injustice that is still deeply rooted in Brazil today. Back in 1977, Argentine journalist Rodolfo Wash wrote, in an open letter to the dictatorship: "These [atrocities] are not the worst of your human rights violations. It is your economic policy that is a larger atrocity, for it punishes millions of human beings, it is the blueprint of misery." Walsh was killed the day after the letter was published.
I asked Dias if he was surprised at the present protests in Brazil, and he responded that he is relieved they are finally happening.
I remember what that relief feels like. The first time I experienced it was as a kid, when I heard Sex Pistols for the first time. While Dias didn't understand the lyrics to "California Dreaming," when Johnny Rotten belted out "God save the queen, she ain't no human being" I understood very well. Just like I understood when my favorite homegrown rock group, Los Redondos, sang "In the darkest night, it is daylight in your heart... you are going to steal the devil's hat."
Sometime in 2001, when my countrymen took to the streets rioting, it looked a lot like Brazil does today. After one argument with Mami, I stormed out of the house with no ID, and was stopped by a policeman demanding to know why I was out on the streets while a curfew was in effect. The rioters had moved downtown, and my neighborhood was on lockdown. I suddenly tuned into the absolute silence. No music. The officer leaned over until his face was almost touching mine. "What?" I stuttered. "I want to see what color your eyes are," he responded. I think back to that moment, and the best way I can describe it is that the world felt like a giant room, like the sky was the roof and if I kept walking, there would be walls, too. It was so impossibly quiet.
Weeks later we took whatever savings two teachers can have, and went to live in a motel in California. California dreaming, just like Mami always sang. I listened to a lot of music — obsessively. I filled in the silence. I listened to Os Mutantes too. And to so many other people who make beautiful noise in times of unbearable silence.