El Jacalito wasn’t a bar, exactly, or a concert venue, or a club. Whatever its legal status (it was shut down by the authorities again and again), for twelve years, until it closed in 2016, it provided a haven for nostalgics of Latin rock, one of the few left standing in Mexico City. The one other such venue, Multiforo Alicia, which nobody thought would falter, closed this year after almost three decades. It appears we millennials were Latin rock’s last enthusiasts.
Electronic music and reggaeton have taken over Mexican nightlife, and fewer and fewer places play rock en tu idioma—“rock in your language,” as the genre was branded in the late Eighties—on repeat all night, every night, as they once did. After an evening of electropop or smooth techno in one of the posh cocktail bars of Roma Norte, a few blocks away, visitors would enter El Jacalito to the raucous blast—amplified by its shoebox size and the overblown bass of its cheap speakers—of Soda Stereo’s wild riffs, Café Tacvba’s strident vocals, Molotov’s brutal drums, and dance, drink, and sing along until they got too drunk or the place closed, whichever happened first.
The venue itself was an echo of the hoyos funky (funky holes), pop-up spaces that in the Seventies hosted illegal early rock gigs. The stinky urinal, the absence of an actual bar, the clandestine feeling—it was all there. What we would actually listen to in El Jacalito was not exactly underground, though; it was Latin rock’s commercially successful iteration, produced from the late Eighties onward, when the genre finally got picked up by the record labels and big-budget concerts and albums began to be produced. Still, even in this newer, more streamlined sound, one could sense the spirit of rebellion that made hoyo funky regulars feel like mavericks. It is present in the sweet voice of Gustavo Cerati, the frontman of Argentine band Soda Stereo, in “Cuando Pase el Temblor” (1985), a song both melancholy and uplifting, mixing new-wave influences with rhythms from the Andes: “Hay una grieta en mi corazón…Sé que te encontraré en esas ruinas…Despiértame cuando pase el temblor” (There’s a crack in my heart…I know I’ll find you in those ruins…Wake me up when the earthquake is over). It is there in “Gimme tha Power” (1999) by the Mexican band Molotov, in the stream of florid, partially rapped lyrics that address now their fellow Mexicans, now the Mexican government, which, at the time, was still in the hands of the party that had ruled the country for more than seven decades, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional: “Y si te tratan como a un delincuente (Ladrón), no es tu culpa, dale gracias al regente” (If they treat you like a thief, it’s not your fault, you can thank the president); then “Dame, dame, dame, dame todo el power para que te demos en la madre” (Give me, give me, give me, give me all the power and we’ll fuck you up).
To sing along to this stuff was, for a young person circa 2015 stumbling into El Jacalito, to commune with times and spaces distant from us yet linked by some inchoate sentiment. We still felt desperate, after all, still in need of release, not because we lived under a dictator or because a military junta had trampled our democracy but because something still oppressed us. Or we thought something did.
Throughout Break It All: The History of Rock in Latin America, a six-part documentary released in 2020 by Netflix, the word “freedom” recurs. Rock is “fucking freedom,” says the Argentine songwriter Fito Páez less than a minute into the first episode. “We didn’t ask for much…we just wanted a change for freedom,” says Armando Suárez, from the legendary Mexican band Chac Mool. “What do you think was the message or feelings of that era?” Norberto “Pappo” Napolitano, one of Argentina’s first rock guitarists, is asked in an interview. “Well, freedom,” he says without hesitation. “It was the main reason for everything. To live in freedom.”
Break It All is the first comprehensive documentary on Latin American rock, and it aligns with these artists’ view that the motivation for their music was political. The narrative presents the milestones of Latin rock—memorable concerts, the emergence of important bands, the release of seminal albums—not just against the backdrop of political turmoil but as direct responses to it.
The first half of the series, which covers the Fifties through the Eighties, explores the tension between dictatorial states and young people struggling against them through protests and artistic movements. Luis Echeverría’s presidency in Mexico and the military dictatorships led by Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina and Augusto Pinochet in Chile are given particular focus. The second half explores more specific conflicts and political-economic events—the drug wars in Mexico and Colombia, the signing of NAFTA, the 1990s financial crisis in Argentina—and the ways in which the later versions of Latin rock reacted to or, at times, profited from them.
The story begins in 1958 with Ritchie Valens, a dapper Latino singer who is crushing it in the United States with his rock-and-roll version of “La Bamba,” a traditional Mexican tune. Young people south of the Rio Grande also take a liking to it, in part because of Valens’s heritage, in part because this was the first evidence they had that rock and roll could be sung in Spanish. Commercial music was largely imported from the US until this point: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, big bands. Listening to Valens taught young Mexicans that they could translate the lyrics of those songs into their own language, appropriate them, and eventually write original lyrics themselves.
The result was music that shared the upbeat spirit of rock and roll but felt new to its fans and its makers. “A lot of musicians look down on our music,” Rafael Acosta, from the early Mexican band Los Locos del Ritmo, remarks. “They say we were just copycats.” Their preppy look, silly moves, and corny lyrics make it hard to disagree; but for all its blandness, this music was already channeling what young Mexicans saw in, or projected onto, Valens—a spirit of revolt, even if the target of their rebellion was just the dominance of English-language music.
Having traveled to Mexico from North America, rock and roll quickly spread farther south. The earliest South American rockers also tended to imitate the bands they liked. In Uruguay, Los Shakers became a sort of local Beatles. Their young, enthusiastic public was primed for their music, yes, but the imitation still required artistry, even flair. “They were able to extract the musical essence [of the Beatles], decode its musical DNA, and translate it into the Uruguayan culture,” says the Argentine musician Pedro Aznar.
As Break It All’s narrative has it, once rock and roll developed beyond its polite Fifties style and some bands started to become big in the Sixties, a division emerged. “At first, beat and pop went hand in hand,” says the Argentine Gustavo Santaolalla, one of the documentary’s executive producers and most recurrent interviewees. “And then a gap started to open. One turned into commercial or obliging music, whereas the other is the progressive one.” It is no surprise that Santaolalla endorses what he thinks is the noncommercial, nonobliging side: he himself was one of the most successful producers of this music throughout the Nineties and Aughts. It is the music that followed the path set by the Beatles, the one “associated with student protests, with drugs, with free love,” as the Mexican DJ Camilo Lara puts it. “We started having more of a social conscience,” says the Mexican musician Martín del Campo. “Some of us were interested in philosophy, in social and political issues, all that,” says Emilio del Guercio, who was part of the Argentine band Almendra.
Authoritarian governments all across Central and South America did not take kindly to these stirrings of hippie culture. “The police followed you everywhere and messed with you a lot,” says Litto Nebbia, from the Argentine band Los Gatos. “They put you in jail regularly,” Guercio says. “They let you go, but you had to spend a whole day in there. Once they cut [a band member’s] hair. For us, cutting our hair was like amputating an arm, you know?”
Graver harms were in store for young people. In 1968, ordered by President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz to quell student protests that threatened to interrupt that year’s Mexico City Olympics, Luis Echeverría, then interior secretary, sent in armed troops, and what followed became known as the Tlatelolco massacre, which left an estimated 325 dead and thousands wounded. What had been a “soft”—that is, covert—dictatorship (sham elections were duly held) could no longer be called that. The mask of democracy had fallen off; behind it was the party that had placed itself in the presidential office in 1929 and stayed there, carrying out “forced disappearances” of political dissidents—often followed by torture and murder.
Elsewhere in Latin America, authoritarianism had been spreading. A series of military coups—in 1955, 1962, and 1966—saw a parade of dictators seize power in Argentina. A military junta took over Peru in 1968. In Chile, a coup was brewing that would bring down Salvador Allende in 1973. Much of Latin America lived, in other words, at the mercy of some dictator or another, and would continue to do so until the late Eighties.
Rock’s last gasp for many years was a festival held on the shores of Lake Avándaro, near Mexico City, in 1971. Avándaro—the Mexican Woodstock, as people still call it—consisted of three days of drug taking, nudism, and rock. It was initially planned as a night of music to attract spectators for a car race the next morning. Organizers were expecting 25,000 people, but more than 250,000 turned up. Many of Mexico’s earliest rock bands played on its stage: Three Souls in My Mind (the ancestor to El Tri, which became one of the country’s most famous bands and is still active), Los Dug Dug’s, and Peace and Love. Most of this music, which had banal lyrics and derivative melodies, was nothing to write home about, but several bands played songs that directly addressed the government, led since 1970 by Echeverría. The most notable was Peace and Love’s “Tenemos el Poder” (We’ve Got the Power). “The catchy chorus of this rola—old slang for ‘song’—intoned by 300,000 mouths ended up scaring” the government, the Mexican music critic Federico Rubli Kaiser wrote in 2011. The government-controlled press denounced the event as promoting degeneracy and even satanism. Soon after, rock was essentially banned and had to move underground, to the hoyos funky.
It was easy to see in this reaction a threatened regime. But some questioned whether young rockers truly had the power—or the intention—to scare a murderous government. In her pioneering essay on Latin rock and the culture surrounding it, published the same year as the festival, the Mexican writer Margo Glantz examined the movement she christened La Onda, or “the Wave” (“estar en la onda” was Mexican slang of the time for “getting it,” for being “in”), a collective of artists—mainly writers and musicians—whose style expressed a countercultural sensibility. She felt that by taking their cue, as they did, from American rock and Beat culture, these artists were not so much fighting for a political ideal as putting on an affectation.
The motivation to fight for a cause typically stems from the experience of oppression, Glantz observed, from having a stake in the outcome of the struggle—which these young rockers did not. Mostly made up of urban, middle-class young people, the phenomenon of La Onda did not include indigenous, peasant, or even small-town adolescents. “The rebellious youth, opposed to their society, critical of the older generations, is in fact a common phenomenon in history,” Glantz writes. “These young people use the slang they borrow from the lumpen and dress it up with the rhythms of rock music.” Hoyo funky and Avándaro attendees did not want political change, in her view; all they wanted was to be en la onda.
We did too, a generation later. El Jacalito allowed those of us who didn’t live through the Sixties and Seventies to delight in our imitation of their zealous rebelliousness. Paco Ayala, Molotov’s bassist, has said its song “Puto” (1997)—in which the title, a homophobic slur, is angrily shouted at an unspecified addressee—was written not with gay men but “cowardly and corrupt politicians” in mind. The clarification came as news to me. Was that in fact the reason El Jacalito’s walls trembled with our unified putoooo every time the word appeared in the song? Were we really reacting to politics? Or were we channeling some sort of blind, fuck-you energy? Glantz’s answer would be unambiguous. This was music for rebels without a cause.
Eventually, Latin rock moved into the mainstream. The turning point was, improbably, the British victory in the Falklands War in 1982. Embittered by its forced surrender, the Argentine government, still led by a military junta, put a ban on Anglophone music. This prompted local broadcasters to seek Spanish-language material that would be innocuous enough to play on public radio yet popular enough that listeners would still tune in. Latin rock was the obvious choice. To kick-start the introduction of the genre into the official culture, the government restarted the Buenos Aires Rock Festival, which had last been held ten years earlier. The bands in the lineup seemed comfortable working with a government against which they had claimed to be in dissent. Commercial avenues to local rock were opening in Mexico as well, the result of the election, that same year, of Miguel de la Madrid, the first of a series of internationally minded, market-oriented presidents. Democracy returned with a similar commercial bent in Argentina in 1983, when the country had its first elections since the dictatorship had installed itself in 1976, and in Chile in 1990, after a referendum ended Pinochet’s rule.
A point was made of opening the region to global trade and foreign investment. American entertainment businesses soon came storming in. In 1990, the only record label to sign rock bands in Mexico was a local company, Arrabal Producciones; by 1998, 86 percent of the market was controlled by a handful of labels, all but one foreign: BMG, Warner Music, Polygram, EMI, Sony Music, Universal Music, and the Mexican company Fonovisa. The arrival of MTV in Latin America in 1993 was a milestone, both for the entrenchment of American business in the region’s music industry and for the internationalization of local rock. The channel helped popularize locally successful bands everywhere. Soon Mexican rock was filling stadiums in Chile, Argentine rock in Mexico; Latin rock of various stripes was selling abroad, in the US and Europe. Rockers could not maintain their image as outsiders now—they had become celebrities.
The money pouring in raised production values, too. Success, in turn, brought Latin rock closer to realizing its own essence. As a direct descendant of the most popular American acts, Latin rock was always a music meant to spread. Earlier bands sound bland, mellow, and dated to our hyperstimulated ears. The bands from the Eighties onward met a new standard. They did not just record in professional studios with imported instruments but indeed played more energetically, shouted louder. One could not listen to them and stand still.
This update was by design. Santaolalla, who worked with such labels as Sony BMG and Warner Music, had an ear for bands’ potential to pull crowds. “I called him the guru,” Molotov’s Tito Fuentes says early on in Break It All. Santaolalla was almost single-handedly responsible for many of the genre’s big names in the 1990s and 2000s: Maldita Vecindad, Molotov, and Café Tacvba in Mexico; Juanes in Colombia; Los Prisioneros in Chile; Bersuit Vergarabat in Argentina; and many others. Criticism of the documentary has largely focused on this selection—especially on what is not in it. There have been complaints about the exclusion of women, of important if less commercial bands, of entire countries’ music scenes, such as Brazil’s, Ecuador’s, Venezuela’s, Panama’s, and Peru’s. “The passion of rock according to Santaolalla,” the critic Macarena Polanco dubbed the series.
However fair these grievances, it is inevitable that a documentary so broad in focus would provide a selective history. Indeed, while the series may or may not have selected the most musically interesting acts, it did include the most representative—which is to say, the most popular. These, given his commercial savviness, are often Santaolalla’s.
There is a more serious omission, if the story Break It All purports to tell has at its core the way music resisted authoritarian politics in Latin America. It is the exclusion of a more seriously engaged, and more severely repressed, genre.
Nueva Canción bloomed, just like Latin rock, in the Sixties and Seventies, but followed the opposite trajectory, spreading from the south northward. It too was an international movement, but made with the local in mind. The main instruments were the Spanish guitar and the human voice, with frequent use of indigenous instruments—the charango, the quena, the zampoña. To listen to it was to enter into contact with rural Latin America: Mercedes Sosa’s thunderous voice carried the rhythms of San Miguel de Tucumán, in northern Argentina, where she was born—deep, almost primitive percussion accompanied her ardent singing, landing together in one’s gut. Inti- Illimani’s multifarious ensemble—bombo, strings, quena—was a literal product of the Andes woodlands, from which the instruments traveled to the band’s first gigs in the late Sixties in Santiago. There was no pursuit of musical virtuosity or aesthetic sophistication here. The experience of Nueva Canción hinged on the lyrics—which spoke of gauchos, of justice, of the social reality of the country—and on a sense of performing for, and connecting with, suffering people.
Nueva Canción originated in the clandestine meetings—peñas—that young people organized in their homes or, sometimes, at local churches during the dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. (The clergy, protected to some extent from state violence, was often involved in left-wing movements.) Friends met in these spaces to compose and play Nueva Canción, share food and drink, and educate themselves politically, especially in the “philosophy of liberation.” Developed by Latin American intellectuals such as Enrique Dussel, Rodolfo Kusch, Arturo Roig, and Leopoldo Zea, it merged Marxist economics and theology to shed light on the political life of Latin America and to examine the authoritarianism it was suffering under. Their work included literacy and consciousness-raising among the poor—in Brazilian favelas, remote villages in the Argentine north, secluded communities in the Andes—and though the liberation movement had been born in the academy, it quickly took root among marginalized sectors of society. Its advocates were not middle-class children of lawyers or bankers but members of the socioeconomic extremes: peasants and workers, on the one hand, and on the other, the intellectual elite—poets, philosophers.
Here were distinctly disparate ways of making music as a response to oppression. Where Latin rock is strident, escapist, Nueva Canción is forbearing, almost soothing. The voices of Latin rock throb with desperation; Nueva Canción tends to be even-tempered. Rock lyrics speak of individual experience; Nueva Canción addresses itself to the collective. Rock tends to be an expression of desire; Nueva Canción often feels like a declaration of principles. The best-known song from Nueva Cancion’s heyday, “Gracias a la Vida,” stresses the value of distinguishing right from wrong and of relying on one’s own labor. Most readily recognizable in Sosa’s voice but brought to American audiences by Joan Baez in the early Seventies, the song was written by the Chilean poet Violeta Parra one year before her death by suicide in 1967. The words are both sweet and sour, mellow and charged with the tragedy ahead—in the poet’s life as well as in Latin America after 1968, the year of the student massacres.
It would be untrue to say that Latin rock and Nueva Canción never bled into each other, but it would also be untrue to say that they are the same thing. Break It All conflates them in an episode that touches on one of Nueva Canción’s main figures, the Chilean singer Víctor Jara. He is introduced not as an artist whose music we are meant to appreciate in the same way as the rock music in the series (his singing voice is barely noticeable in the background during the few minutes he is given) but instead as Latin music’s martyr. We learn his name only to be told he was assassinated by the military regime that brought down Allende in 1973. Because we don’t really hear the music, we can’t know that this event was not a casualty of Latin rock.
The final episode of Break It All presents Latin rock as being politically reinvigorated by the indigenous Zapatista uprising in 1994, in which the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a collective of mainly Maya people in Chiapas, the poorest state in Mexico, declared their independence from the country. After the implementation of NAFTA, indigenous communal landholdings—ejidos—lost the legal protection from sale they had enjoyed. The uprising was the Zapatistas’ final resort. “All of a sudden, our whole generation, which we considered to be a little nihilistic, adopted the Zapatista cause,” says Camilo Lara.
Café Tacvba and other now classic bands like Santa Sabina, La Lupita, Botellita de Jerez, and Maldita Vecindad held a benefit concert on the esplanade of UNAM, Latin America’s largest university, in Mexico City, part of the proceeds of which were sent to the Zapatistas. It was an appealing way for rockers and attendees to get back in touch with the genre’s original spirit. Animated by the sense of political momentum, the performances were even more blaring than usual. Café Tacvba’s Rubén Albarrán reflects, “I think that filled us with energy and good vibes. We said to ourselves, ‘Wow, our music is serving society!’”
Meanwhile, Óscar Chávez—the man with a claim to be Mexico’s preeminent Nueva Canción singer-songwriter—turned up in Chiapas himself, and continued to visit over the years. In 2000 Comandante David, one of the Zapatista leaders, wrote an open letter to him apologizing for the leadership’s absence at a concert Chávez gave in Oventic, the capital of the Zapatista territory. “It is not common for an artist of Óscar Chávez’s moral stature and prestige to perform on insurgent land,” he wrote from his hiding place. “Believe us, we feel you closer than these words can express; we feel your singing will be echoed in the way hope is always echoed here.” Chávez continued to perform until his late years in the last remaining peña in Mexico City, Peña Tecuicanime, where entry cost about ten dollars and where musicians would, following tradition, share not just music but also food—molletes, included in the cover charge—and time and conversation with the audience. He died of Covid in one of Mexico’s grossly underfunded public hospitals in 2020.
It might be unfair to indict rockers for becoming rich and giving only “energy and good vibes” to the cause of political resistance—rather than, as some Nueva Canción artists did, their lives. From where rockers were standing, making rock music may have felt connected to the struggle of activists and intellectuals. But to claim, as Break It All does, that the value of Latin rock lies in its alleged political importance is both to obscure its real merits—it gave the youth an escape valve; it turned an imported piece of culture into local experience—and to forget that others genuinely fought and suffered in pursuit of progress.
Years ago, in Buenos Aires, as the only Mexican at a karaoke party, I was asked to sing something close to the Mexican heart. There was plenty of Mexican rock on the list of available songs, some awful, some wonderful, as well as some Nueva Canción I love. I couldn’t help picking the most obvious and in some ways most unexpected thing of all, the Argentines Soda Stereo. Latin rock gave us a way to channel our sense of shared experience. Even Nueva Canción cannot do that, precisely because of its radical, and thus divisive, politics. Yet at their best, both genres reacted, however differently, to a feeling of powerlessness.
Latin Americans do not light up to the sound of Soda Stereo, Caifanes, or Los Prisioneros because they say things we might believe in, as Víctor Jara, Mercedes Sosa, and Óscar Chávez do; that is not what we expect of them. Latin rock moves us because we are still in need of catharsis, because we still feel suffocated by deeply repressive societies, and because even if dictatorships are now in our past, we still know ourselves to be locked in the globe’s periphery. We want to be free, yes, but also to occasionally join others not in changing our circumstances but, just for one night, many beers in, feeling free of them.