¡Sin Salsa No Hay Paraíso!
My earliest memory takes place on a Saturday morning.
I remember sitting on the living room couch, playing with some of my older brother’s long-forgotten action figures. I looked up from them for a moment, seeing the space around me for what felt like the first time. Bright early morning sunlight was filtering across the room, reflecting in rays off the glossy hardwood floors. The air around me was filled with the familiar scents of Fabuloso floor cleaner, that morning’s breakfast, and my mother’s perfume. My gaze shifted and I saw my mother standing in front of me. She was holding a mop and looking toward my father, who was standing across the room. He was next to these big speakers inside the entertainment console that I had never paid attention to before. He caught my mother’s eye and smiled. Unexpectedly, he turned and started doing something with the speakers beside him.
Seconds later, the room filled with sound.
I could hear my mother’s laughter melting with the music. I watched her swirling the mop like a dancing partner as she sensuously floated her way over to my father. As they reached one another, my father took the mop from her and placed it against a nearby wall. He pulled my mother in close, wrapping one arm around her waist and locking his other hand into hers. Both of their hands were grasped together high above my mother’s head. Their feet started to move expertly in unison, while their hips swayed in orchestrated abandon. I watched and listened as my parents performed an intimate connection, not just to each other, but to the layers of sound exploding around us.
The last thing I remember is my mother spinning into my father’s chest, tilting her head back with more laughter.
I only know that this memory took place on a Saturday because every Saturday afterward started in the same, beautiful way for years to come before my parents’ divorce. Like a magical routine, my brother and I would always expect to be woken up by the sounds of salsa or merengue floating down the hallway and into our bedrooms. While we were always slightly annoyed by having to wake up before noon on the weekends, we still looked forward to those mornings. What we knew started as our mother’s cleaning routine would always end in an expert performance of dance along with our father. If we followed the sound of music out of our bedrooms and into the living room, we would capture these fleeting, breathtaking moments that our parents shared dancing together. They would always stop soon after we made our presence known; though, their dancing lingered long enough for my brother and me to experience a piece of the Latino culture that our parents still retained – a culture that we have never been able to really experience for ourselves as third-generation, fully assimilated American kids.
After the divorce, my brother and I spent hours looking through old photo albums of our parents, their family, and friends. We felt the need when we suddenly stopped waking up to those moments of sheer dancing bliss, characterized not only by our parents’ love but also by a vivid picture of what it meant to be Latino. When our father moved out, he (both figuratively and literally) took with him the salsa, the merengue, and slowly but surely, the entire Spanish language. Despite this, my brother and I still deeply craved a connection to these things. So, we’d stack those photo albums up on the couch every day and search through them, picture by picture, desperately hoping for a glimpse into love and Latinidad.
Our favorite pictures were the ones from around the time that my brother was born, still too young to have any memories of his own. Ranging from the late ‘80s to the very early ‘90s, these pictures make up family house parties – Christmas parties, New Year's parties, birthday parties, and baby showers. As we flipped through, my brother and I had a silent understanding that this was our way of experiencing Latino culture. We had vowed never to live for ourselves anything like what was happening when these photos were taken. Namely, we would never enjoy dancing to salsa, listening to salsa, or merengue, for that matter. While we wanted to love our culture, these important musical and dancing experiences had long been tainted for us. After the divorce, we couldn’t help but associate it all with the long-lost happy past of our parents. We stubbornly reasoned that we couldn’t enjoy these things ourselves, otherwise we’d end up repeating history in some sort of twisted way.
Admittedly, it was a completely unreasonable way to think. After all, we ended up being two gringos who can’t dance for shit, speak Spanish, or enjoy damn good music because of this thinking. Realizing the importance of these things now that I’m older, I would go back in time in a heartbeat if it was possible, just so that I could convince my seven-year-old self that rejecting these cultural pleasures was truly, deeply stupid.
Nonetheless, at that point in time, my brother and I both decided to forge a quasi-connection to our heritage, albeit through an imagined understanding of its music and dance. Without putting ourselves through the pain of listening to the music and the act of dancing to it, my brother and I would look through these photos and talk for hours on end about how salsa must feel for people who could enjoy it, rather than actually find out for ourselves. We’d search for clues in the photos, picking out each smile, each bead of sweat, and the beautiful gestures and movements candidly captured in time. Without our parents knowing, we’d clip out these small parts of the pictures and carry them around with us. My brother would put them in his wallet, while I placed them safely in my diary.
When we clipped out these moments, we’d spend some time wondering which songs were playing – were they love songs? What were the lyrics like? We tried to imagine it all as best as we could, using the already fading memory of the songs that played in our house just years before to inform our imagination of these parties. I often looked at each picture and then closed my eyes, making the still image come to life in my mind. I would pretend that these pictures were taken right as the syncopated improvisations of the drums suddenly met with the flourish of a horn, or for softer moments (like in the picture to the left,) I would imagine the sweet, lyrical intonation of precisely timed vocals. Most importantly, I tried to think of the beat of the clave as best as I could. My brother and I knew that the clave, otherwise known as ‘the key,’ was a beat which was essential for the dancers to form their movements. While we never really felt this same relation to a beat or rhythm ourselves, we still grasped what it was from past observation. There was a strong, interconnected relationship with the clave, one which was palpable in the energy of these photos and in the memory of our younger years. The clave could inhabit those whom it touched, allowing a recognition and return across songs, across bodies, and across time unlike any other beat.
In looking at these pictures and remembering our parents dancing in the living room, we imagined there to be this corporeal communion with the sound, one that we were both jealous and desirous of. This desire, of course, led to our jumping up and down like maniacs when we soon discovered pop-punk. Until then, however, my brother and I had to draw a conclusion about salsa and merengue, and in turn, our connection to both. We agreed on an understanding of salsa and merengue as being these contagiously passionate musical and communal dance forms, with one form being unable to be enjoyed without the other. Essentially, to enjoy salsa without dance, to enjoy dance without salsa, to enjoy either form without the company of another person, was not the way it should be. According to these photos, it would just never be right to experience these forms as lonely kids who didn’t want to dance. When we understood it this way, it didn’t make us feel so guilty for not participating. After all, we reasoned that there was no use in experiencing something the wrong way.
This past summer, I was digging through my mom’s closet looking for a purse. By this point, I had searched everywhere else for it and couldn’t find it. I knew it had to be in her closet – like a black hole, her closet is a space which sucks up every lost article of clothing or accessory of mine. It’s apparently the place where other lost things end up, too.
I was on my hands and knees on the floor of the closet when I came across a small wooden jewelry box. I opened it, hoping for there to be some earrings inside that I could “borrow” forever. Instead, there were a bunch of cassette tapes inside. I started pulling them out one by one, turning them over to see what music was on them. The back of each tape was blank – no one took the time to write down the track listings. Some of them had salsa or merengue written over top – but others still were blank there, too. Some just had my parents’ names written on them, as though friends of theirs had made them the mixtapes as presents.
I still don’t know quite what drove me to it, but a sudden intense animal need to immediately find out exactly what was on those tapes came over me. Reading salsa, merengue, Angie + Victor over and over again just felt too empty, too general. Over ten years had passed since my parent’s divorce and my resulting renunciation of their beloved shared music and dance. I felt ready to finally embrace it and enjoy it – maybe not in the same way they did, but nonetheless, in at least some way for myself. Instead of being rational and simply waiting to ask them what their favorite salseros and merengues were, I ran out of my apartment with only my wallet and keys to go buy a tape player. I ended up spending an atrocious $60 for a tape player at an even more atrocious Urban Outfitters just because I was so desperate. When I finally got home, it took me a decent hour to figure out how to get the thing to work. When it finally did, I was both overjoyed and disappointed. Overjoyed because I finally could listen to the tapes, but ultimately disappointed because the result was not what I expected.
The first song that played was Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. I recognized the song from my childhood. Listening through, I felt absolutely nothing. I wanted tears, or happiness, or anger – but no emotions came up. I was expecting to have some affirmation of my childhood rejection of the music, or rather, to suddenly fall in love with it anew. I yearned to have some sort of connection to it again, even if it was the same non-participatory, false sort of connection that my brother and I shared through our photo album days. But, it just didn’t do anything for me. I was completely indifferent. I listened through to about five more of the tapes, waiting for some sort of special moment in a song. Instead, I sat there emotionlessly, eating Doritos to pass the time.
I gave up on the tape titled ‘Jun’s Tape – Salsa ’90.’ I was expecting something intense from that one – ‘Jun,’ I knew, was an abbreviation for my uncle Junior who passed away before I was born. He’s one of those passed relatives who everyone always talks about, telling me time and time again how much I would have loved him. I was surprised to just now find this tape from the year he died, then. I wondered if it was coincidentally put together before his car accident, or arranged with his favorite songs and given to my mother afterward. I wondered how she felt about it, if she ever listened to it – especially since I still felt nothing. Though, it did feel wrong to feel nothing.
I haven’t told my mom about the tapes I found in her closet. Now, they’re sitting in a drawer in my room with the tape player. I often pull them out, just to look at them. I try to search for answers in staring at a bunch of old cassette tapes. They remind me of those dancing living room mornings and the photo album raids. Most of all, they reaffirm a third-gen Latina identity crisis that I am always trying to piece together.
El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico said that there is no paradise without salsa. Sometimes, I wish more than anything that this statement could feel true to me. Maybe, one day, it will.