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Mexico’s Yo Soy 132 Sings Its Own Songs

Posted on Jun 29, 2012
::im0genes:: (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A protester at a Yo Soy 132 march in May.

By Josh Kun

A day before the second large march of the Yo Soy 132 student movement in Mexico City in May, the journalist Carmen Aristegui asked her audience to help create “the soundtrack for the marches.” Using the Twitter hashtag #CancionesParaMarchar (songs for marching), more than 10,000 people weighed in with political playlists. While there was plenty of support for international acts like Pink Floyd (“Another Brick in the Wall”) and Mercedes Sosa (“Sólo le Pido a Dios”), most of the votes went to homegrown favorites who know the inner workings of Mexican politics and social inequality all too well.

Ska populists Panteon Rococo were high on the list with their frenetic horn blast from 2002, “La Carencia” (they shout: “the poor have no place!”), as were alt-rock icons Caifanes, whose evergreen 1990 anthem “Antes de que nos olviden” (Before we’re forgotten) memorialized the 1968 massacre of student protesters by pledging “we will make history.” Yet the overwhelming song favorite (with 57 percent of the votes) was “Gimme the Power,” the sneering middle-finger singalong recorded by the Mexico City band Molotov in 1997. “We’ve got to cut the problem out at the root, and change the government of our country,” they sang during that final decade of 70 years of rule by the right-wing party PRI.

On the one hand, the picks shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Critiquing institutionalized poverty, fighting historical amnesia and bellowing regime change are all aims that resonate loudly with Yo Soy 132. Ever since an unexpected demonstration by private school students at the Ibero-American University forced PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto to take shelter in a campus restroom May 11, the movement has galvanized nationwide youth-driven opposition not only to the feared return of the anti-democratic PRI, but to chronic political corruption, media monopolization and electoral fraud. (The movement’s name, “I am 132,” stems from a declaration of allegiance to the first 131 students who put their faces on the movement.)

The movement’s rapid upsurge and viral spread—across social networks, across universities private and public—form a 21st century chapter of the ceaseless revolutionary cycle that John Gilber has called “Mexico unconquered,” an unappeasable “social hunger” for justice and equality that runs throughout the course of Mexican history, from the Zapatistas to Oaxacan teachers’ strikes to Yo Soy 132 forcing a nonofficial, presidential campaign debate on June 19 (among all the candidates except the missing-in-action Peña Nieto).

What was surprising about the #CancionesParaMarchar rankings, however, was that of the top 15 songs in Aristegui’s tweet roundup, not one was from the Yo Soy 132 generation itself. At first blush, the lack of a musical representative from Mexico’s millennials seemed to give credence to what Juan Pablo Proal, writing on the pages of Proceso in April, bemoaned as contemporary Mexican rock’s widespread political malaise. Proal looked for outrage and dissent and found nothing but escapism, indifference and apathy. Wielding a literal (and limiting) set of criteria, Proal argued that if lyrics don’t talk about the drug war or violence or unemployment, then the music is just a “reflection of a nation of fairy-tales.”

As flawed as his approach was, Proal’s larger beef still haunted the #CancionesParaMarchar results: Where was the music that would mobilize this generation that came of age under democracy, “free trade” and neoliberalism? If not overt protest tunes, then where were the love songs, folk odes and subterranean after-hours antro hits that would help teenagers and university students shape the social, creative and ethical consciousness of their generation? Or as Tijuana music critic Ejival mused in his own Twitter post: “I keep waiting for the musical revolution of the Mexican Spring. But no, I forgot that music is no longer the medium for new revolutions.”

Music has certainly not been the spark of the Yo Soy 132 movement, and certainly not its principal medium (that honor belongs most squarely to Twitter and Facebook themselves—this is a #movement after all). But as the British political scientist John Street points out in his new book “Music and Politics,” music’s political potential shouldn’t be limited to either sonic cause or measurable musical effect. “Music embodies political values and experiences,” he writes, “and organizes our response to society as political thought and action. Music does not just provide a vehicle of political expression, it is that expression.”

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