On a still-warm September night at this year's Global Citizen Festival, reggaeton artist Yandel took the stage just as the sun began to set over Central Park. My friend Joseph and I jumped up and down, thrilled (and, honestly, shocked) to finally see a Latino artist invited to perform at such a major event. We popped our booties and sang at the top of our lungs to his hits — this was a moment for us. But from the corner of my eye, I noticed a man standing a few feet away. His fingers were plugged into his ears, a look of disgust written on his face. "What IS this?!" he yelled over the beat. "Who can LISTEN to this?!" By the way: This man happened to be white. He stood there, fingers in ears, for the rest of the set, scowling and shaking his head. Joseph and I laughed and rolled our eyes at each other, posting him on Snapchat with the caption, "When white guys hear reggaeton." I proceeded to put homeboy in the back of my mind and continued to enjoy myself. And then last Saturday, I found myself dancing my ass off once again, this time with my cousin in the middle of Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena at iHeartRadio's Fiesta Latina. Cuban reggaeton duo Gente de Zona was performing "La Gozadera," a salsa-reggaeton mix that's become a feel-good anthem for Latinos over the last few years, both for its infectious beat and because it's like a rallying cry for countries across Latin America to declare their pride. I took a second to look around at the nearly 20,000 other Latinos in the arena. Like me and my cousin, every one of them was showing off their best salsa and reggaeton moves, smiling, laughing, sweating — giddy, joyful, and proud. Goosebumps rose on my arms at the sight of so many Latinos, of different shades and backgrounds, brought together by the one thing we all agree on: music. The solidarity-inspiring force of music has been an important staple in our culture for decades, whether it's salsa, merengue, bachata, or more recently, reggaeton. The way its rhythms have brought together millions of people who share a common language and similar traditions, despite living thousands of miles from one another, is a powerful thing.
As a kid who grew up biracial in a mostly white environment, music was one of the things that helped me stay in touch with who I am.
Suddenly, I found myself thinking about the man from Central Park who had plugged his ears with disgust. Seeing the way our music inspires so many of us to exude pure, unadulterated pride (in a packed arena) made me realize exactly how much of a jerk that guy was. I realized that he wasn't just being rude (though, he was, because I would never turn my nose up at the music or food of someone from a different background than me in front of them), but completely disrespectful to an entire culture. Of course, that wasn't the first time I'd experienced a white person being less than culturally sensitive about Latino music. I've often heard comments like, "Ugh, it just all sounds the same to me" and even, "Oh! I know reggaeton! That's that Daddy Yankee song 'Gasolina,' right?" But for Latinos, our music isn't simply the hit songs on the radio that "all sound the same" or that end up on the playlist in your Zumba class. The first notes of a song can transport me to Sundays at my grandmother's house eating pasteles, or dancing merengue on the beach at 3 a.m. in Puerto Rico, or singing Celia Cruz at the top of my lungs with my mom and sister during long car rides. As a kid who grew up biracial in a mostly white environment, music was one of the things that helped me stay in touch with who I am. And for all of us — but especially those who may be homesick, living thousands of miles away from home — it helps us stay in touch with where we come from. Our music also isn't something you get to criticize or dismiss right up until the moment it gets sampled by Drake or Justin Bieber, when the sounds of the Caribbean suddenly turn "cool." Each individual genre has roots in the history of our ancestors and has been transformed into something for us, by us. And that music is the soundtrack to our lives, the backdrop to birthdays, weddings, holidays, baptisms, even funerals. So before you turn your nose up at an entire genre of music or downplay its significance, consider this: What you're hearing isn't just a song. It's a representation of who we are. And it's no one's place to judge that. Especially not yours. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play "La Gozadera" on blast.