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The Nostalgic Music That Cures Our Homesickness

Music is a powerful catalyst in evoking memories of a time and place that’s far away. In the 2017 Oscar-winning animated fantasy “Coco,” it’s the song “Remember Me,” a lullaby that the late Hector wrote for his daughter Coco before he passed away, that helps the now great-grandmother remember her father and keeps him from being forgotten in the Land of the Dead. Like in the big-screen darling, music is what keeps many Latine communities connected to land and loved ones across borders and lifetimes.
As first-and second- generation Latines, music plays a profound role in our association with home and nostalgia. For decades, Latine artists forced to migrate to the U.S. and other parts of the world have used the art form to transport them back to a land they miss, a land they may never return to because of imaginary borders or political, economic, and natural upheaval
Take Celia Cruz’s career-defining “Son Con Guaguancó.” In 1966, six years after she left Cuba, the Queen of Salsa released the album as a sonic love letter to her Caribbean home and all its indigeneity. Created at the onset of her life in exile in the United States, Cruz took audiences along with her to Havana, a home she remained banned from until her death in 2003, with her lyrics and chords. 

"Music is what keeps many Latine communities connected to land and loved ones across borders and lifetimes."

Marjua estevez
According to a study published in Scientific Reports, music, more than photography, has the ability to dredge up one’s own nostalgia or yearning for what’s familiar by triggering “autobiographical memories” — memory from one’s personal history — even if the content is experienced as unpleasant, sad, or bittersweet. Scientists believe that songs from the “reminiscence bump,” an age of identity formation that extends from adolescence to early adulthood, are the most likely to trigger music-evoked autobiographical memories. This explains why our parents, uncles, and tías throw on the tunes of their time to feel reconnected with their home of origin; these are the sounds they consumed during their most formative years and, often, before migrating to a foreign country.  
Unsurprisingly, it’s music that so many of us – U.S.-born and expatriates alike – continue to turn to when we yearn for or want to recall the source of who we are and from where we come. For me, I’m transported to Santiago de los Caballeros, a home I, as a child of the Dominican diaspora, first learned about only through folklore, when I hear popular bachata records of my youth, irrespective of its pervasive melancholia.
Understanding music’s power of conveyance, countless favorites from around Latin America have dedicated a great deal of their catalogs to songs for the homesick. Whether timeless records or contemporary gems, these songs celebrate culture and pride, honor origin and indigeneity, evoke a particular time and place, or do a combination of it all. From Milly Quezada’s navideña classic “Volvio Juanita” to Rafael Hernández Marín’s “Lamento Borincano,” these songs take us all the way home — eliciting memories of another time on another land, or a longing for a home that isn’t in reach.

"Volvio Juanita" by Milly Quezada

The emblematic merenguera of the Christmas season, Milly Quezada’s navideña classic “Jolvio Juanita” is about returning to the island of Kiskeya with a suitcase full of new stories and dreams. It’s consistently played both at Dominican parties and in festive Latin American households during the holidays, a time many typically long to return home to their families. 

"Mojado" by Ricardo Arjona

The renowned Guatemalan singer and composer Ricardo Arjona narrates the story of an immigrant who is ready to embark on his journey to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in this norteña track. It features Intocable, the Tejano band from Zapata, Texas, that’s beloved for fusing folk rhythms with pop balladry. Here, melancholy and sadness serve as strong engines for social realities, yet pull at heartstrings for many Mexican families who commonly experience the perilous journey of crossing the border. Because strength is one of three main feelings associated with pleasure while listening to music, this record is liable to draw pride in and affinity for home for many immigrants near and far.

"Lamento Borincano" by Rafael Hernández Marín

The story goes that Puerto Rico’s Rafael Hernández Marín wrote “Lamento Borincano” inside a Harlem restaurant circa 1929. Aguadilla’s native son writes from the melancholic point of view of a campesino, or country folk, and sings to the daily practice of earning life necessities through harvesting and manual labor. The beloved bolero laments a desolate isla del encanto while holding dear to heart the treasures of her soil. It’s been covered by several artists, from Marc Anthony to José Feliciano to Luis Fonsi

"Mi Tierra" by Gloria Estefan

Illustration by Ricardo Diseño
Gloria Estefan’s gorgeous “Mi Tierra” is a song about all the powers her darling Cuba possesses. Although lyrics beautifully reference sounds and rhythms specific to her homeland, the iconic salsa is an anthem of raizes for many Latin American countries. For Cubans, though, “Mi Tierra” is both a joyful and emotional call of remembrance for generations of exiles who could never return home.  

"Orgullosa Soy Raíz" by María Reyna

Repping Mixe indigenas from Oaxaca, Mexico, María Reyna’s moving “Orgullosa Soy Raíz” masterfully blends traditional bolero with jazz and opera vocals. She waxes elite poetics about the joys of belonging to an Indigenous thread of Mexican ancestry that “overflows” in her country as she sings. In a country that only recently recognized its Indigenous Black population, “Orgullosa Soy Raíz” stands as a shining example of remembrance. 

"Cuando Pienses En Volver" by Pedro Suárez-Vértiz

Peruvians across borders and generations find solace in “Cuando Pienses en Volver,” by Peruvian rocker Pedro Suarez-Vertiz. A tropical remastering by Tony Succar earned Suarez-Vertiz the honor of authoring a national anthem that invites Peruvians from all around to come back home.  

"Raíz" by Bomba Estéreo

Illustration by Ricardo Diseño
The electro tropical group has made a career of making off-kilter music for the universal dancefloor. “Raiz” closes out Bomba Estereo’s fourth LP Amanecer, which is meticulously laden with Afro-Caribbean elements and carnival rhythms. According to singer Liliana Saumet, “Raiz” pays homage to the Indigenous people of her native Santa Marta, where it is believed that the Sierra Nevada is the heart of the earth.

"Dominicano Ausente" by El Zafiro

Associated with the golden years of merengue, El Zafiro’s “Dominicano Ausente” is another quintessential reference to homegoing during the holiday season. While it specifically underscores the diasporic woes of Dominican displacement, its core message of reclaiming or defending one’s land transcends borders and cultures. 

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