— Bachata, Salsa and modern Latin American Diaspora books —
The summer between graduating university and starting my job in London, I joined my family on a cruise. It quickly transpired that agreeing to be crammed into one room with my family for a full week was a grave mistake. The one good thing that came out of that cruise, however, was attending an on-board salsa class. My mum and I had so much fun with that motley crew of passengers learning salsa that afternoon that we found a beginners salsa course on Groupon as soon as we got back on land.
I have since learned that the kind of jumping around we were doing on that cruise ship has about as much resemblance to salsa as a playground game of tag has to a ballet choreography. Not that I’m complaining – its what got me interested in the first place!
After our (proper) salsa classes, the teacher would play music for practice. Amidst the trumpets and percussion of the salsa songs, here and there would come up song that was so much more tender, slow, and romantic. I learned that this style was bachata, and I was captivated. With bachata, I found my home. It is a closer dance, slower, and asks for more subtle movements than the big swings and fast turns that got me dizzy in salsa class.
Bachata comes from the Dominican Republic and is a beloved genre across Latin America and Spain. It is also easy to find bachata nights now across Europe, and there are several bachata nights with lessons every night of the week in London.
Naturally, bachata led me to an interest in books about Latin America. I fell in love with the poems of Pablo Neruda and the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende as I brought my love of all things Latin American into my reading. It was the books by the modern-day authors of latin american hertiage, however, that really did feature a soundtrack of bachata. The characters listened to bachata, I listened to it, it played in the streets of New York in the stories, and the nightclubs of London in my reality.
So here are my favourite books and poetry collections with a Latin American connection.
Works of Sandra Cisneros – My cousin gifted me Loose Women, a book of poetry by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros. I enjoyed her feisty, subtly humourous poems, so I sought out her book The House on Mango Street.
When I watched The Godfather for the first time, it was so striking, so good, that I immediately rewound it to the beginning and watched the entire movie again. I did the same thing with The House on Mango Street. It is a short book, and as soon as I had finished it, I went back to the beginning and reread the whole book. I wanted to savour every page.
Works of Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This is How You Lose Her, and Drown. These three books are all worth reading, starting with my favourite: TBWLOOW follows the life and family of a nerdy, overweight, misfit Dominican boy whose family has immigrated to the States. He struggles to grow up in a family that does not know how to love well, and wounds are passed down the generations. TIHYLH is a series of short stories all told from the perspective of various Dominican men. Let’s just say you can clearly see the damage here of being raised in a macho, patriarchal society. And Drown was similar, with pespectives of a wider cast of women and others struggling to make it in America.
Angie Cruz’s Dominicana I found to be a similar, more gentle version of Junot Diaz’s Dominican immigrant stories. The highs are not as high, and the lows are not too low. Villains are just normal people that make mistakes, and heroes are also normal people trying to do their best. This makes sense when you learn that the novel was based on Angie’s own mother’s life story. This was a lovely, easy read.
In the Heights – first a Broadway and West End musical, and now a movie, by Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. Yes, this is neither a novel nor a poetry book. But it captures the world conjured by Junot Diaz and Angie Cruz in a crazy, colourful, musical way. I saw In the Heights when it came to London’s West End the first time. There is not much of a Latin American or Dominican diaspora in the UK which might be why this musical didn’t run for too long. It was brought back after the success of Hamilton, but again was short-lived. I think the evocation of the heat of New York’s Spanish Harlem in the summer, the latino grandparents gossiping, the bodegas serving up ice tea, just didn’t translate for a British audience. Nevertheless, if you enjoyed any of the books above, In The Heights is like watching the neigborhood you read about come to life – the characters may not be the same, but you get the sense they are living on the next street over.
Have you read any of the above authors, and what did you think? Do you have any books you would recommend for a latin dance lover? Please share in the comments below.