Written By: Edenized Perez
(an extended yet memoir like version of article published on Remezcla)
I was one of the many people in New York City who attended Aventura’s month-long residency at United Palace this past February. I was content with the performance but I left the venue thinking, where the women at? I mean the whole room was occupied by women who were huge fans yet their presence wasn’t being reflected on stage? I caught a passionate vocalist on the platform but it was hard to catch a glimpse of her behind the band’s orchestra. Instead of becoming fueled with anger I decided to do some research and try to find women who were showcased in bachata and merengue. This research took me to New York City during the 1980s and 1990s and made me think of the politics and gender of that time. My findings not only connected me with bands where Dominicanas showed off their talents but it also made me reminisce coming of age in New York City.
The first time I witnessed Las Chicas del Can live, through videos shown on Supercanal Caribe and the group’s archival package on Youtube, I became thrilled by what I saw. Every Sunday my mother would blast Miriam Cruz from the speakers as she mopped our living room and I kept busy washing the dishes. She would passionately recite Cruz’s tune Yo No Soy una Loba or Las Pequeñas Cosas along with La Diva de Merengue’s powerful vocals but the visual representation gave me goosebumps. In each video viewers were given care-free Dominican women playing trumpets, congo drums, and electric guitars. They dominated these instruments with power as they playfully looked at the camera and the bandmates around them. While the women of the orchestra played their instruments they also sang along with the lead singer, emphasizing their relationship not only as a group but as a collective full of sisters. As a Dominicana raised by a single mother who was given support by other ladies within the family and neighborhood, I saw how much the visual portrayal and oral depiction of Las Chicas del Can impacted the setting they were inhabiting.
Other than witnessing how empowering it is to see a group of women dominating a space heavily influenced by men while affirming other young Latinas to do the same, scholars have emphasized how this image and oral aesthetic is possible because of the Dominican diaspora and migration to cities within the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. It’s stated that Las Chicas del Can’s “mere presence of women like the group’s trumpet player and leader, Maria Acosta, and vocalist Miriam Cruz and Eunice Betances onstage in merengue challenges the hierarchies of the past and has served as an inspiration to women throughout Latin America to take up instruments and join musical aggregations.” I was coming of age when Anthony Santos was the go-to artist in every family party (he still is) and Aventura was constantly on my cousin’s living room television screen clothed in their white tank tops singing about their obsession by the beach. Growing up I always heard men talk about their issues behind guitar riffs and la güira. This constant trend acknowledges the sexist history that bachata and merengue have by “remaining decidedly male-orientated [musical genres] celebrating the macho tigerete ideals of Dominican society” but because of migration, the Dominican diaspora during the 1990s, “female merengue and bachata artists signals at least the potential for change in the music’s sex and gender coding.”
Que Es Lo Que Quiere El Negro(WakaWaka)
Las Chicas del Can wasn’t the only group challenging the status quo; merengue enthusiasts also had Los Vecinos, a group in where the lead women vocalists were placed in the center of the stage. In a time where “new economic opportunities for women, who outnumber male migrants by at least a three-to-two ratios” came Los Vecinos to shift gender roles. Jocelyn, Milly Quezada aka La Reina del Merengue’s sister and fellow Los Vecinos bandmate, acknowledged the command the female duo has on viewers when she expressed “when we [Milly and herself] stood in front of the band, women in the audience would identify with us. And in the songs we used to sing, we were attacking men: If you don’t take care of your woman, you’re going to lose her.”
Gender equality and women’s empowerment weren’t the only reasons why I became attached to Las Chicas del Can. I was fascinated by the group’s diverse representation of the Dominican Republic, an island filled with multi-racial individuals. Before we talk about the group’s rendering, it is important to acknowledge the history of merengue and bachata. Merengue “has been the emblematic music of the island nation” whereas bachata “identified with the dark-skinned poor and working-class majority of the nation” but due to migration there was a racial shift and change in how these genres were exhibit. One music historians writes, “the change from merengue to bachata, from light skin to dark skin, from lyrics about the island of Hispaniola to lyrics that might well be construed as referring to the island of Manhattan registers profound changes in Dominican national culture and subjectivity.” Even though merengue was used as a musical propaganda tool by dictator Trujillo, who commissioned 500 merengue songs for his regime, women in Las Chicas del Can, Anthony Santos, and Luis Vargas acknowledged the island’s African diaspora and Afro-Caribbean roots; the same genres that incorporates a dance developed by enslaved Africans during the Slave Trade. While watching a video performance of Las Chicas del Can, viewers will become aware of the different skin tones and hair textures shown across the screen. As a young woman seeing Las Chicas del Can embrace different images of the Dominican women, from hair textures, body size to skin tones, always gives me life. Seeing their performance of Ta Pillao via Youtube as they’re clothed in bright yellow jumpsuits holding their instruments will always bring a smile to my face. When listening to Las Chicas del Can’s Que Es Lo Que Quiere El Negro (Waka Waka,) listeners will hear Golden Sound’s, a makossa group from Cameroon, Zamina mina (Zangaléwa). The group introduces their song Waka Waka by chanting lyrics in Fang, a language found in southern Cameroon (Central Africa).
Las Chicas del Can (Ta Pillao) – (MERENGUE CLASICO), (MERENGUE DOMINICANO) (MERENGUE ’70, ’80, ’90)
Las Chicas del Can and Los Vecinos were always playing in the background but it isn’t until my need to find women who look like me and talked about women empowerment and sexual liberation in connection to genres I grew up with that I’ve immersed myself within their music. In a time where bachata and merengue pioneers are usually men and well-known male bachata groups are profiting in sold out shows, I thought it would be important to remember the women and remind music enthusiasts like myself that like these women we could pick up an instrument and occupy the space while challenging the status quo.
Lipsitz, George. “Merengue” Footsteps In The Dark: The Hidden Histories of Popular Music,