Narratives, representations, and performances of migrant music in contemporary Chile
During the last thirty years, the return to formal democracy and perceived economic growth made Chile an attractive destination for Latin American and Caribbean immigrants. Many of these immigrants are of Afro-Latin American or indigenous descent and have been received with racist attitudes by some sectors of the Chilean population. This violence relies on the fiction of Chilean “whiteness”, a narrative of national exceptionality built throughout the last century in the country. In response to this scenario, since the mid-2010s there have been diverse public and private initiatives aimed to promote the inclusion of migrants in the country that highlight their contributions to local culture, thus making migration a concept in constant redefinition in contemporary Chile.
My PhD research at the Department of Music of the University of Bristol, funded by the Chilean National Agency of Research and Development (ANID), addresses the practices of migrant musicians in Chile and the diverse narratives, representations and performances that emerge around these practices. It delves into the interactions between diverse agents of the Chilean cultural field, namely artists, producers, audiences, public officers, and authorities, among others. These narratives, representations, and performances both reinforce and challenge notions of nationality, race, and border, and require a critical reading of the diverse approaches to cultural diversity and exchange, especially in the context of global and regional migration flows.
With the support of the PG & PD Research Grant from SLAS I undertook a research trip to Chile between April and August 2022. There I had the chance to talk to Chilean and migrant musicians about their work, their experiences in Chile, the challenges of music-making in the country, and how the migratory experience influenced their work and identities. I was also able to accompany them in some of their artistic activities and performances, and gained a first-hand view of their expectations, challenges, and dreams.
One of the main conclusions I obtained from my trip is that migration is heterogenous since migrants experience diverse circumstances both in their countries of origin and in Chile. This translates into different strategies for their inclusion in the country, which locate them in diverse situations and positions within Chilean society, at times subordinate, other times relatively privileged. Often, any given individual can occupy these positions alternately during their biographies in Chile. This manifests in their artistic and creative activities.
For instance, I accompanied two Peruvian groups, música criolla trio Los Embajadores del Perú and folkloric dance company Perú Danza, in their preparations for the Festival de la Peruanidad, an event celebrating the Peruvian national holidays held on 31 July 2022 in Santiago of Chile organised by Peruvian gastronomy entrepreneurs. Their artistic work is decidedly grounded in Peruvian national identity, which they mobilise as a way to safeguard their traditions, to foster the integration of the Peruvian community in Chile, and also to promote their recognition within Chilean society. I talked to them about how their work constructs a transnational experience of being in Chile but connected to Peru, and observed the diverse places they appropriate to develop creative practices: from rehearsing in their homes or the street, to performing in small venues, culminating in the aforementioned Festival de la Peruanidad. Peruvian migrants were among the first to arrive in Chile in the 1990s, and although they are still mostly employed in lower qualification jobs, some Peruvian entrepreneurs have achieved economic success, especially in criolla gastronomy. Because of this, it is fair to say that Peruvians claim their inclusion in Chilean society precisely by emphasising their Peruvian identity and citizenship, which are included in the performances at the Festival de la Peruanidad.
But there are also strategies that develop a different approach to Chilean identity and the idea of the migrant. As stated before, many contemporary migrants in Chile are of Afro-Latin American or Afro-Caribbean ascent, coming from countries such as Colombia, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, and Haiti. Their presence has prompted debates on supposed Chilean whiteness and the deletion of Black communities from the official national history. Facing racism, artists such as Luta Cruz have taken a creative approach that openly challenges Chilean national identity. The daughter of an Afro-Brazilian immigrant woman, Cruz identifies herself as Afro-Chilean, thus connecting her experience with the re-emergence of Afro-Chilean communities of colonial origin in the northern regions of the country, although emphasising the challenges of being a lesbian Black woman in the capital city of Santiago. Cruz explores these challenges in her music, where inequalities of class, gender and race are actively discussed. She has a strong stage presence that includes a grown beard (due to
her hirsutism) and permanently addresses the audiences to explain the cultural and political dimension of her work. Cruz usually collaborates with Afro-Caribbean artists who migrated to the country, and together they perform in artistic, political, and even academic activities.
This is still work in progress, but it could not be undertaken without the support of SLAS. I look forward to share more of my findings and interpretations. I hope my work can contribute to a better understanding of the cultural complexities of migration in Latin America, and therefore to promote the substantial democratisation much needed in the societies of the region.
University of Bristol