We All Speak English Here: Identity, Difference and Commercialism in Salsa

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Two years ago, I received, as a birthday present, a new edition of Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa), the documentary of the concert at the New York City club the Cheetah that introduced the Fania All Stars to the world. The concert took place on the night of August 26, 1971. During the last scene of the video, the legendary disc jockey Symphony Sid introduced Johnny Pacheco, who then proceeded to present the members of the All Stars to the public.

Just as he’s getting started, Pacheco makes a statement, he shouts it actually, that, at first, feels shocking; someone in the audience demands that the introduction of the musicians be done in Spanish and Pacheco yells: “Qué en Español si aquí hablamos to’ Inglés; 'tate quieto; ¡no sea bruto!” This is Dominican Pacheco, fabled flute player, Pacheco the Caribbean percussionist, co-founder of Fania records, talking back to the audience at the Cheetah, saying, in effect: “Shut up you idiot, we all speak English here!” Pacheco’s reply was instant and reflexive, in fact, abusive: “¡No sea bruto!,” he says, i.e. “Don’t be stupid!” But why was it “bruto” to demand the use of Spanish?

When I first noticed this, I was dumbfounded. I found Pacheco’s reaction inexplicable. The correct response, to my mind, should have been nervous laughter, maybe embarrassment: the All Stars were playing salsa, most of them were Puerto Rican, Cuban or Dominican; the piano player, Larry Harlow, was Jewish; trumpet player Larry Spencer was introduced by Pacheco as “the all-American;” trombonist Barry Rogers was not Latino. But that was three English-dominant musicians out of 22, including Pacheco. All the songs were in Spanish and the audience must have been predominantly Puerto Rican. “We all speak English here!,” said Pacheco. Beyond its literal meaning, what did the assertion suggest?

Identity: Leave My Accent Alone
Somehow, I made a connection between Pacheco’s exabrupto, and some ideas that have been floating around for over a decade about the relationship between identity, difference, commercialism and salsa. I particularly remembered the work of Juan Otero Garabís, Nación y Ritmo (Ediciones Callejón). What kind of vehicle for cultural identity is salsa? Garabís suggests that “the nation that salsa invented reflects nostalgia for the homeland left behind” (p. 114). In this view, salsa does its work outside the island. But what about those of us who developed our Puerto Rican national identity while listening to salsa in Puerto Rico? And what do we make of the fact that for many of us, the prelude to a national identity was infused with the sounds of Rock and Roll? Was that prelude a moment of false consciousness that, after coming out of the cave and scratching our eyes until we got used to the light, we overcame?        

Garabís cites, approvingly, Salman Rushdie, who claims that being “out-of-country and even out-of-language” creates a sense of loss that forces those who feel it to create a fictional identity that re-claims “the thing that was lost,” in our case, la patria puertorriqueña, the Puerto Rican homeland. True, but only up to a point. After 34 years “out-of–language and out-of-country,” about nostalgia for the homeland, with Cavafy, I say:

            Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

            Without her you would not have set out.

            She has nothing left to give you now.

Even though, at a more visceral and profane level, what I really think about la patria but hesitate to say, with Clark Gable, is: Frankly, my dear... Not that Otero Garabís and Rushdie are wrong; it's just that in my case, their argument does not play out. So what? Am I a lone exception? 

Here Pacheco comes back to mind. At the concert that establishes salsa as a singularly important expression of Puerto Rican identity in New York during the 1970s, Pacheco shouts, forcefully, with a tone of exasperated scorn, “Forget Spanish, we all speak English here!” What was he thinking? To me, the riposte is emblematic of nothing like a sense of loss for being out-of-country and out-of-language. I think my Italian, Spanish, and even some of my Puerto Rican friends in New York will understand my meaning but let me make it plain: I may be out-of-country and out-of-language, but when I listen to salsa I’m not a la recherche du temps perdu. I do not feel nostalgia but exhilaration and my identity is reaffirmed musically not intellectually. It is not that I experience a mind-body split but that feeling and thought become one as passionate reason. To some extent, the homeland is involved in the experience but nothing about it is fictional. I remember listening to Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri at the Miramar Center, dancing to the music of Roberto Roena and the Apollo Sound at Hotel La Concha and to the sound of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz at El Normandie. When Ray Barretto’s album Together (1969) came out, he played it at a second floor dive on Avenida 65 de Infantería and I remember vividly Andy González shouting NO! NO! at the top of his lungs when someone requested “Tin Tin Deo.” All of this was in Puerto Rico a long time ago but my memory is not a graveyard. Those recollections are quite alive in my head. By remembering, I register the passing of time, the shifting of place, but I do not yearn for the lost homeland. When you lose something, you want it back; I don’t want to go back to any of those places, especially the one on 65 de Infantería, which was really a pigsty. And going back to Puerto Rico? Well, what can I say, the island is a nice place to visit.

Alright, so Garabís published Nación y Ritmo in 2000. Maybe I am setting up a straw man. Does anybody take Rushdie’s dictum seriously anymore? If I suggest that Edward Said’s theory of exile is hokum, that exile is not the insurmountable gap between a human being and his birthplace, the gap between his self and his true homeland, am I a critical latecomer? I mention Said because Garabís also cites him to claim that in the case of Puerto Ricans in New York, the distinction between migrant and exile disappears in the fog of their lost identity and their need to restore it. Garabís also embraces the claim of Juan Flores that for Puerto Ricans in New York, the homeland has no territory, no borders. Salsa is the transcendental homeland but also the means to express a new “American identity.” Really? Ask Bobby Sanabria when he lost his Puerto Rican identity and how he feels about his induction to the Bronx Walk of Fame. What part of his shout “¡Que Viva Puerto Rico!” when he performs is out-of-language fiction and how transcendental is his award? Does he ever feel out of place on Freeman Street? Does he ever think of being on the Avenida Borinquen Walk of Fame? Is there a yearning for that? I may be assuming too much here. I haven’t actually asked Sanabria these questions but my point is that Puerto Ricans in the United States have never lost their identity. Also, while the Puerto Rico and the Bronx of the imagination have no territory, without Old San Juan and without the Grand Concourse, the actual Puerto Rico and the actual Bronx do not exist. And this “new American identity” that Flores and so many others talk about, I have no clue what it is. I do know what Salsa has done for me and it does not include turning me into a new Americano. With all due respect to the late Tato Laviera, I AmeRícan, but I’m not interested in taking the accent off the altercation.

Difference: No Es Stravinsky (Es)Trabacao
Pacheco says: Forget Spanish, we all speak English here! But everything that preceded his rude remark was suggestive of cultural amalgam: a mix of English and Spanish, Spanish lyrics, Cuban rhythms, African antiphony, a tinge of jazz harmonies and structure. The whole thing was different. Is it appropriate to say that this process of cultural miscegenation was an expression of resistance to assimilation, a cultural counterinsurgency against the politics of mass homogeneity, as Garabís and others claim? Was it different in that sense? What were Pacheco and Jerry Massucci trying to do? Were they subverting the Cuban blockade or taking advantage of it by recording songs from Cuban composers without the obligation to pay royalties? I think that, like the proverbial butcher in The Wealth of Nations, they didn’t care to “feed” the community but did so, musically, as if guided by an invisible hand. In the process, they mostly fed themselves, money-wise—Massucci got fatter than Pacheco, but that’s another story.

We don’t have to go blue in the face saying that salsa is different because it represents resistance to assimilation, to the homogenization of mass culture, that it is an expression of community, of coming together with others; many people are quite willing to believe all of that. If there is such a thing as a salsa imaginary, those ideas are certainly elements of its repertoire. But there’s a slight problem with the idea of difference in salsa. I will never forget walking to a music store on 48th street in New York City in the 1980s only to be greeted by Wilfredo Vélez, then alto sax player in the original Fort Apache Band, with very strong words for Pacheco and Fania. “I hate what Pacheco has done to our music,” he said. “Salsa makes everything sound the same.” Where I heard difference, he heard identity! I also vividly remember how, shortly before he passed away in 2006, Ray Barretto lit on me as I used the term Latin jazz in a conversation at the Blue Note in New York. "There is no such thing!," he said, almost in anger. "There is jazz with Latin and Latin with jazz but no Latin jazz!" Where I heard identity, he heard difference! In Barretto's mind there was actual group interaction rather than symbolic inter-group communion in music. To him music was all black and white: Latin was Latin and jazz was jazz. “El Nuevo Barretto,” from the Acid LP, was not the origin of a black-Puerto Rican musical hybridity but a song about a Barretto that was no longer playing pop music or film soundtracks; Acid was a bit emergence and a lot comeback. “El Nuevo Barretto” was the new old Barretto, the Barretto whose musical connection to blackness was already well-established and whose origins dated to 1946 when he first heard Dizzy Guillespie and Charlie Parker’s “Shaw’Nuff” as a member of the United States army of occupation in Germany.

The point is that in salsa, identity and difference are opposites in the way two sides of the same coin are opposites. Salsa is different than Mambo and it is different than Latin jazz. But you can dance to all three in the same way. Eddie Palmieri’s “Puerto Rico,” (Sentido 1973) begins with an intro on the Cuban tres played by Barry Rogers but “Mi Sonsito,” (Azucar Pa’Ti 1965) is introduced by a trombone section and there is no bongó. Tito Puente used to say he did not play salsa, that he played Cuban music. And yet, in performance he would introduce “Pare Cochero,” by saying: “And now, we’re gonna play salsa!” Wilfredo Vélez could not hear difference in salsa whereas Ray Barretto subsumed salsa under Latin and only saw difference between Latin and jazz. For him, Latin and jazz were two worlds, separate and unequal. If salsa is different because it is countercultural, because it resists assimilation, because it fights homogeneity, why does Sergio George exist? Why did Palmieri record only one plena during his more than 50 years in the music scene? Why did Larry Harlow fight so hard to get a Latin category added to the Grammys? For each one of these examples, one can find an opposite illustration: the best one is Willie Colón’s Asalto Navideño (1972). That record was countercultural, it went against the assimilation grain. But also listen to Zaperoko’s Cosa de Locos (1983) or Barretto’s The Other Road (1973) or Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino’s Lo Dice Todo (1976). What’s interesting about those excursions in difference is that they were expressions of resistance to, and/or dissatisfaction with, salsa.

Commercialism: Sudando Chanel Number Three
In Nación y Ritmo, Garabís tells us that salsa is both a popular expression and a capitalist commodity. I remember reading that and asking myself: “is this supposed to be a revelation?” I wondered if maybe the reason why the connection seemed startling to him was because of the assumption that if culture is a reflection of community, it must be extrinsic to commerce. Otherwise, why would the duality be worthy of special attention? Is it really surprising that a cultural expression that was a “vehicle for the affirmation of a Puerto Rican identity” (p. 113) could also be a commercial product? In fact, we could ask the question: had it not been a successful commercial product, what would salsa be?

To me, the affirmation of my Puerto Rican identity in the late 1960s and early 1970s was inseparable from my ability to buy Fania records at Joyería Fénix in Barrio Obrero, my neighborhood in Santurce. Also, if Fania had not been commercially successful, I would have never been able to decry, along with Rubén Blades, urban dysfunction by singing:

            Era una ciudad de plástico, de esas que no quiero ver

            de edificios cancerosos y un corazón de oropel

or with Adalberto Santiago, backed by Ray Barretto, question the concept of race: Si blanco fué Adán y Eva también, entonces por qué es negra mi piel.

Progressive political identity and commerce: ¡De un pájaro las dos alas!
Commercialism may be crass but we can't live without it. As Peter, the protagonist in Michael Faber's The Book of Strange New Things (Hogart 2014) says: “The world looks nicer with man-made lights.” Without commercialism, what would we have? Peter continues: “Unspoiled nature is supposed to be the ultimate in perfection, isn't it, and all the man-made stuff is supposed to be a shame, just cluttering it up. But we wouldn't enjoy the world half as much if we—man...that is human beings...if we hadn't put electric lights all over it” (pp. 3-4). Right.

Now, according to the Bible, in the beginning “darkness was upon the face of the deep,” and God said: “let there be light.” But God did not eliminate the darkness, electric lights did. Without commercialism we wouldn't have electric lights and without them, the part of “the deep” that God decided to leave alone would still be darkness, except for the flickering of what the Bible calls “the lesser light.” For José Luis González, darkness was a catalyst of Puerto Rican humanity. In his story “La Noche que Volvimos a Ser Gente,” set during the 1977 New York City blackout, when the lights go out, Manhattan is gripped by fear and everyone recedes into the safety of their enclosed space. Puerto Ricans, however, take advantage of the darkness and under the sparkle of “the lesser light,” they climb up to their rooftops and party.

The story is a cute allegory for the mythically resilient, optimistic, and ebullient Puerto Rican character but we all know that the only thing that is good for dancing in the darkness is a bolero and that, otherwise, if the lights disappear, no matter where we may be or with whom, instead of dancing we all go for our wallets.[1] The point is, though, that without commercialism life is mere survival. Paradise lost is civilization born. But if you are nonetheless into Paradise, remember what El Gran Combo says: sin salsa no hay Paraíso. If El Gran Combo is right, then thank God for commercialism because it is through its works that we have salsa.

It makes sense that after shouting “We all speak English here, you idiot,” Pacheco would eventually lead the performance to a close with the song “Quítate tú.” But here’s a possible objection: the coroQuitate tú, pa’ ponerme yo” is a slogan that evokes one of the worst aspects of commercialism. The phrase suggests ruthless competition, winning at all costs, engaging in a zero-sum game of pulling others down and climbing over them to get to the top. Fine. But we must remember how in the Fania song, the process of quita y pon, the montuno, was actually a round robin. Each sonero had an equal turn to express himself, to brag and to shine, to laugh in concert with the others, to express admiration at the inventiveness of his peers, and in the end a great time was had by all.

I believe that "we all speak English here" was an expression of assurance, of certainty about being at the center rather than the margins. Pacheco and Massucci wanted fame and wealth; their means to get them was cultural expression, as they understood it. They loved Cuban music but their agenda was commercial rather than political. I don’t think they even had a cultural agenda in the sense of a conscious and purposive attempt to maintain a threatened cultural form. More than looking for a homeland left behind, they were looking to put money in their pockets. It is common knowledge that the label salsa was inspired by the desire to promote sales, not as a way to create or recreate a lost identity. But salsa did become an affirmative identity in a mix of culture and commerce that surprises Garabís and others, but that for Pacheco and Massucci was nothing to write home about in any deep philosophical sense.  For some intellectuals, in retrospect, salsa is an origin myth, a sociological mirror, or an imaginary of legitimation, but for Pacheco and Massucci, for promoters, and even for some artists, it was a business, a tool to make money and God bless them for it.

Mi Unico Amigo, El Dólar
When one of my New York City friends told me that the Puerto Rican Super of his building had a tattoo that said, “the dollar, my only friend,” I shook my head in sadness but also laughed thinking that it was bleakly funny that someone would embrace such a cynical and negative idea strongly enough to imprint it indelibly on his body. Although not as brutally honest, Pacheco’s impromptu riposte had a similar element of franqueza cruel that we could use when talking about identity, difference, and commercialism in salsa. I may be going out on a limb here but I believe that salseros and salsa intellectuals have been all too eager to play the identity, difference, and commercialism games, emphasizing being típico or evoking the homeland, being avant garde, and chasing the market, respectively. They all have done it for the sake of prestige, career advancement, popularity and/or profit. Money may not have always been the object, but it has always been, admittedly or not, the subject; without money, nothing happens.

Pacheco and Massucci played all three games successfully. Ralph Mercado got out of them as much as he could, whereas musicians like Johnny Colón, Joey Pastrana, Tony Pabón, and many others tried very hard, and were only briefly successful, if at all. Here Barretto is also an interesting case because his attempts to win the commercialism game through homogenization were more prominent than most others. Even though the distance between Señor 007 (1966) and Acid (1968) was not long, more than a decade went by before Rican/Struction (1979) cemented the idea in his mind that the Señor 007 model would never work; the last nail in that coffin was Can You Feel It? (1978), which invariably prompted his peers to tell him, “Hey Ray, no, we can’t feel it.”

It is still ironic, and this complicates things even further, that the song by Barretto that has been hailed by intellectuals as the essence of communal interaction between Blacks and Puerto Ricans, i.e. “El Watusi,” was considered by Barretto a “dumb tune,” a musical abomination, and the one that, at the same time, he gratefully credited for allowing him “to get out of the Bronx.” For analysts like Flores and Garabís, boogaloo is a cultural landmark but for Barretto, and many other musicians, boogaloo was musical irritation, cultural embarrassment, and financial blessing, an example of how commercialism, identity and difference (musical and cultural) work together but not always in harmony.[2] Not everyone understands that, when in a tone of surprise and incredulity Cheo Feliciano opens the song “Ay Que Rico,” (Eddie Palmieri, Champagne 1968) with the line: ¿Cómo? ¿Palmieri boogaloo? ¡Arriba con eso!,” he is basically saying that if you can’t beat them, you have to join them. Intellectuals are free to romanticize boogaloo, making it emblematic of a black-Puerto Rican communal alliance, but they also need to acknowledge the point of view of the musicians who hated it but played it grudgingly, like Palmieri, or who used it as their way out of the barrio, like Barretto, who is nevertheless known to have wished he could round up all copies of “El Watusi” on Earth so he could destroy them.[3]

Barretto was ultimately happy, at ease with his Puerto Rican identity, only when he devoted himself completely to jazz. The idea behind his last recording, Standards Rican-ditioned (2006), was not to play jazz with a "Latin side," and least of all to perform "Jíbaro jazz," a category that he scorned, but simply to have a group of Puerto Rican musicians play jazz. He was never interested in "out-of-country, out-of-language" nostalgia and never placed that condition as the basis of his creative impulse; his piragüero bit part in Our Latin Thing was nothing but shtick. I remember asking him if I could interview him for a special issue of CENTRO Journal on Puerto Rican music and he dismissed me with a simple “Puerto Rican music? I can’t help you.” When I explained that I wanted his perspective as a Puerto Rican who played salsa he said: “Oh, I see. Ok, but don’t call me, I’ll call you.” When Symphony Sid asked him how important it was to get together with his fellow salseros at the Cheetah, Barretto gave him a pat answer: he was honored and he hoped the film would make Latin music known throughout the world. When Sid asked Cheo Feliciano how he felt about being in New York after a two-year absence, Feliciano said, in English, that he was happy to be back with his people.

Out-of-country and out-of-language? For Barretto, that meant fame and money; he was more popular in France than in the United States. For Cheo, the notion was meaningless: New York was an extension of Puerto Rico. The reader may say, “of course, that makes sense, we live in a global world!” But keep in mind that Cheo made his statement in 1971.

Aquí Hablamos To’ Inglés
After all is said and done, in my opinion, salsa boils down to this: it is vacilón and earnestness; commercial pop and hardcore guaguancó; it is liminal and clearly referenced, simplistic and complex, misogynistic and emancipatory, a mix of cultural integrity and faddish mass reproduction; it is an identity in which a relatively fixed shell interacts with a kernel that changes over time; thanks to commercialism it is identity and it is difference. Is salsa a vehicle for nostalgia? When Bobby Sanabria introduced Kenya Revisited Live (2009), the first thing he said was: “This is not nostalgia, this is the music of yesterday, today and tomorrow, here!” Of course, the original Kenya (1958) and Kenya Revisited are not salsa, but the generic connection is indisputable. There is an even better set of examples: Ralph Irizarry’s Tributo (2006) and Los Viejos de la Salsa (2012) are salsa recordings and could be construed as exercises in nostalgic recreation. But listen carefully and you will hear in those records the echoes of both the present and the past; further, they are Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Panamá, España, Denmark, Japan, Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx…anywhere and everywhere salsa has made its mark; they are also hard-core Puerto Rican.

Salsa intellectuals may think that salseros are resisting the cultural powers that be but in effect they help reproduce the existing cultural order: Quitate tú, pa’ ponerme yo. And going back to Pacheco’s riposte, I think that its meaning, while maybe unintended, was simple. It suggested reproduction rather that resistance, affirmation (good and bad) and change: “We all speak English here!” For Puerto Ricans at the time, HERE, was mainly the United States; now it could be anywhere in the world. We are not in mourning for country or language, inventing what we have allegedly lost, but buying CDs or vinyls wherever we can find them, downloading music from iTunes and subscribing to Pandora or Spotify; in other words, we are deeply enmeshed in a global commercial network while singing and dancing away, with Cortijo, en la máquina del tiempo.


[1] Some accounts of the blackout could easily be titled “La Noche que Volvimos a Ser Delincuentes,” see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts85TH-jaD4/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_nEGZpXeZg/.

[2] This idea of identity and difference working in tension in boogaloo is neatly expressed by several of the musicians interviewed in the clips of the video Boogaloo to Salsa. Richie Ray best expresses the irritation the boogaloo caused among an earlier generation of musicians. My thanks to Xavier Totti for reminding me of this video reference.

[3] Thank you again to Xavier Totti for this tidbit of information.


© José E. Cruz. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 14 January 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.