Spanish speakers use the word latinidad to express solidarity among the vastly diverse peoples of Latin America, which spans two continents and ranges from Mexico to Argentina to the Caribbean. It’s less about legitimizing the melting pot analogy and more about celebrating each culture’s individuality.
The Portland Mercado oozes latinidad. The collection of Latin American businesses provides the city a vital avenue for collective connection. This week, the Mercado celebrates two years in the Foster-Powell neighborhood with a daytime anniversary party poignantly called El Pueblo Unido (the United People). Partygoers can expect kid-friendly activities like face painting and tabling from organizations like Hacienda, Causa, ACLU of Oregon, and Micro Mercantes, the Mercado’s sister project, which offers an affordable commissary kitchen for rent, and advising services to people of color interested in launching their own business in the food industry. All door proceeds will support local organizations fighting for immigrant rights.
The event’s organizers have curated a musical lineup as colorful and varied as the countries represented in the Mercado. Using blanket terms like “Latin” or “world” to describe the music of Latin America effectively erases the rich history and ancestral roots of latinidad, and lumping the region’s innumerable genres into these broad categorizations is simply lazy. Let’s retire “Latin,” and instead explore the cultural traditions of the local Latinx talent performing at El Pueblo Unido.
Paola Suculima is a vocalist from the state of Cholula, Mexico, who keeps healing traditions at the heart of her music. As Suculima, she performs folk songs using a variety of indigenous instruments, including seeded shakers, sikus (a South American panpipe), Andean rain sticks, and strum sticks. Utilizing harmonization and the natural percussion of claps and stomps, she commands listeners with melodies that are both calming and powerful. Though her folk music transcends borders, Suculima’s stringed instrumentation and melancholic vocals are reminiscent of Chavela Vargas and the Iberian-influenced folk brought to Latin America by European colonizers, which later evolved into Mexican corridos.
Fronted by Arlyn Montas and Brendan Deiz of Oleada with support from Michael Galen, Dusty Richards, Eric Johnston, and Aaron Peterson, Cilantro moves through genres all over Latin America, from salsa to merengue to bachata. Salsa music was created by Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants in New York City in the 1960s. It’s most heavily influenced by son cubano, Cuba’s most popular genre, and blends with North American jazz. Merengue is a fast-paced style of music and dance that goes back to the mid-19th century with origins in the Dominican Republic. The distinct sound of the tambora and the güira, a long metal sheet played with a stiff brush, are the genre’s key percussive components. Bachata originated in the Dominican Republic and has seen several stylistic evolutions since its beginnings in the 1960s. In true underdog fashion, it was originally scoffed at by elites as music of the poor due to its African roots and steamy lyrics that were deemed too vulgar.
PURA VIDA ORQUESTA
According to Costa Rica’s travel website, the country’s unofficial national motto is “pura vida.” In English, the phrase directly translates to “pure life,” but in Spanish, especially within Costa Rican borders, it’s a spirited expression that can mean several things depending on the context. In Portland, the phrase conjures thoughts of the beloved band Pura Vida Orquesta. Comprising folks from Cuba, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Portland, the eight- to 10-piece group is led by Costa Rican sax player Gabriel Martinez, and is best known for upbeat, dance-inducing salsa, merengue, and bachata tunes.
Named after the medicinal plant known to English speakers as aloe vera, Savila is a three-piece band blending cumbia with drony electric guitar. Vocalist Brisa Gonzalez coos in Spanish and English while shaking maracas to beats held down by rotating guest drummers like Papi Fimbres of Orquestra Pacifico Tropical (who will join them at the Portland Mercado) and Marian Li-Pino of La Luz. Guitarist Fabi Reyna (founder of She Shreds) strums slow, surfy sounds in a nostalgic nod to Peru’s revered chicha. Cumbia was birthed in Colombia in the 1940s with roots in indigenous, African, and Spanish music. The percussion-heavy style implements various drums, scratchy güiros, and my personal favorite: the cowbell. Of all Latin American genres, cumbia is considered to have the most widespread reach, and Peru’s distinct style is called chicha. Unlike the cumbia of Colombia, chicha implements Andean folkloric melodies against spooky organs and psychedelic electric guitar. With its rebellious and punky synthesizers, chicha was named after the fermented corn drink reserved for Incan royalty and was considered party music for the working class when it came to life in the 1970s.
Brendan Deiz, José Ponce, Rafael Otto, and Fabio Valentino of Oleada offer a more squarely chicha style and aren’t afraid to dip into surf and dub in the process. In a rare Craigslist success story, Deiz and Valentino met in the classifieds and roped in Otto and Ponce before they started playing around Portland in 2015. With members from Guatemala, Mexico, Spain, Cuba, and Portland, their implementation of Peru’s cajón, Cuba’s congos, and the Afro-Cubano bongos reflects the diversity of Latin America.
El Pueblo Unido’s headliner is Tito Amaya of Grupo Latitudes. During his sets, Amaya travels from the Salvadorian rock of his birthplace to the Andean mountains of Peru and Bolivia for traditional indigenous folk. A Portland Mercado staple, Amaya performs nearly every Sunday—with or without his band—and typically plays the charango, a small stringed lute thought to originate in the Andes. Similar to the histories of folk music throughout Latin America, Andean folk blends chants and rhythms from the pre-Hispanic indigenous communities that inhabited the Inca Empire—like the Quechua and Aymara—with Spanish strings. This genre is marked most prominently by its use of the charango, siku, and quena.