(The author circa 1991 in her mom’s 24th and Harrison apartment.)
Words by Rebecca Bodenheimer
My mom constantly reminds me that the only thing she forced me to do as a kid was learn Spanish.
She always recognized the significance of California’s demographics and where they were headed. Sure enough, by high school, I was in AP Spanish and basically fluent. Both my parents spoke Spanish and worked with Latino communities. My mom was a professor of Latin American Studies who traveled to Guatemala for six weeks nearly every summer, and Univision’s nightly news show — anchored by the still dashing Jorge Ramos — was a constant in our household.
People have often asked me what got me interested in researching Cuban music, given that I have no roots on the island. I still don’t have a good answer, because really, how do we account for taste? How do we explain why certain genres of music move or inspire us?
I was 17 when Gloria Estefan’s Mi Tierra was released. I remember playing the album over and over again in my cassette player — I didn’t even own a CD player yet — in my mom’s apartment building at the corner of 24th and Harrison in the Mission. I played it so many times that 25 years later, I still know all the lyrics of every song on the album. There was something about the music, based on the traditional Cuban son (the style that would just a few years later be completely revitalized when the Buena Vista Social Club documentary and albums came out in the later 1990s), that just drew me in.
It had nothing to do with my roots. I’m the granddaughter of four German Jewish exiles who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s; it still blows my mind that two people with the exact same heritage ended up together, but maybe in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (where my parents met), there was an overabundance of highly-achieving children of German Jewish exiles. Perhaps I was drawn to Cuban music and culture because of my “red diaper baby” upbringing in San Francisco, where my parents sent me to elementary school in Hunter’s Point and raised me in the Mission and the Excelsior.
The building my mom lived in was inhabited almost entirely by Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants. Back then, the Mission wasn’t overrun by transplant hipsters and tech bros working in Silicon Valley. My mom and I were the only gringos in our apartment building. There were no trendy coffee houses or boutique ice cream parlors, just plenty of Mexican markets, panaderías, and taquerías. Right next door to our building was the legendary Latin record store Discolandia, owned by a Cuban immigrant and visited by the biggest names in Latin music (like Celia Cruz and Juan Gabriel) when they came to perform in San Francisco.
(A parade passes through the author’s neighborhood, circa 1991.)
There was definitely a romanticization of Cuba among my parents’ social and political circle in San Francisco — it was held up as the one Latin American country that was able to stick it to the imperialist monster to the north. During the 1980s, the US intervened in civil wars across Central America, funding and training paramilitary groups and contributing to thousands of deaths. The socialist group to which my parents belonged actually organized a campaign called USOCA (U.S. Out of Central America), which led delegations to Nicaragua — where the CIA was funding the counterrevolutionary Contras to try and topple the socialist Sandinista government — and lobbied Congress on US interventions into the region. Back then, Daniel Ortega was an anti-imperialist hero, not (as is now the case) an authoritarian dictator using state police forces to crush dissent.
I’m quite sure this idealized vision of Cuban socialism seeped into my consciousness and piqued my interest. And yet, I also know my attraction to Cuban music wasn’t just due to curiosity about a socialist society, because if the music hadn’t appealed to me, that wouldn’t have mattered. Also, while I was certainly exposed to Latino culture earlier than most white Americans were, the Mission was no Calle Ocho (the famous Cuban neighborhood in Miami). Cuban culture, music, and food is totally distinct from that of Mexico and Central America, so it wasn’t a given that my upbringing would lead me down the path of studying Cuban music specifically.
Back then, the Mission wasn’t overrun by transplant hipsters and tech bros working in Silicon Valley. My mom and I were the only gringos in our apartment building.
All I know is that the first artist that taught me about this rich and diverse musical tradition was Gloria Estefan. Looking back, I can see that Mi Tierra marked the birth of my interest in studying Cuban music more seriously. I eventually pursued a PhD in ethnomusicology from UC Berkeley — ignoring my advisors’ warnings not to pursue Cuban music as a research topic, given the political situation at the time (George W. Bush was president). They thought it would be too hard to get grants to do research in Cuba. They were right, of course. But I’ve always been headstrong, and have a knack for choosing the hard path.
It’s ironic, because Estefan and her husband Emilio never hid their disdain for Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, and their politics were in diametric opposition to the socialist ideologies with which I was raised. And yet, her first Spanish-language album changed the course of my life, not only professionally but personally: I ended up marrying a man I met in Cuba while conducting PhD research. I think the absence of explicit politics on Mi Tierra allowed for this cognitive dissonance. The album put forth a unifying message of celebrating one’s heritage and uniting Latinos, exemplified on the song “Hablemos El Mismo Idioma” (“We Speak the Same Language).”
I remember disliking the last song on the album, “Tradición,” upon first hearings, finding its African-sounding rumba too percussion-heavy. And yet the joke would be on me. A decade later, guess which topic I chose for a multi-year research project: contemporary rumba performance!
While a graduate student at UC Berkeley, I started studying Afro-Cuban percussion with one of the most versatile Cuban musicians in the Bay Area, Jesus Diaz, whose salsa group QBA still occasionally performs. Despite its small numbers, the Bay Area’s Cuban population boasts disproportionate numbers of musicians and dancers teaching Afro-Cuban percussion, folkloric dance, and rueda de casino (a wildly entertaining Cuban style of salsa that involves multiple dance pairs forming a circle and switching partners frequently while executing complex turns). In other words, Cubans have had an outsized cultural impact on the Bay Area Latin music scene. I also became a regular attendee and sometime performer at La Peña Cultural Center’s Sunday rumba event in Berkeley, which still takes place and is open to community participation.
(Resisting gentrification…two decades ago. Mural at 24th & Bryant, circa 2000.)
It was also at a Sunday rumba event — this time in Havana — that I met the man who would eventually become my husband. This year we celebrated both our 10th wedding anniversary and the birth of our second child. I never could have imagined this future for myself back when I was singing along with Mi Tierra in my mom’s Mission district apartment. At that point, all I knew was that I was headed to New York for college in the fall.
I can’t say that this album pushed me towards my professional or personal destiny in any deliberate way. But I can say that Mi Tierra was my first in-depth encounter with Cuban music and that it aroused in me a fascination with and love for its incredibly rich tradition. And it all started in a bright yellow building on the corner of 24th and Harrison.
Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and music scholar who has been conducted research in Cuba since 2004. She is the author of Geographies of Cubanidad: Place, Race, and Musical Performance in Contemporary Cuba and you can read more of her freelance writing here.