Explaining 'Patria Y Vida,' The Song That's Defined The Uprising In Cuba
Cries for Cuban liberation reverberated throughout the world this past week as protests took over Miami and the Caribbean nation. On both sides of the Florida Strait, one phrase rose above the noise again and again, coming to stand as a unifying cry for the largest uprising in recent Cuban history: "patria y vida," or homeland and life.
The phrase comes from a hip-hop song of the same name, "Patria y Vida," released in February as a collaboration between Cuban musicians in exile: Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom of the duo Gente De Zona; Yotuel Romero, founding member of the pioneering cuban hip-hop band Orishas; and singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno. Contributors Maykel Osboro (Castillo) and Eliécer "el Funky" Márquez are both still on the island.
A deeper dive into the protest song
The lyrics pack in plenty of historical and current references, so we turned to Miami-based Cuban-American musician Lilly Blanco to translate the lyrics and annotate the references.
The most important reference is in the title itself. The musicians are defiantly reclaiming a slogan made popular at the birth of the Cuban revolution, "Patria o Muerte" (Homeland or Death), 62 years ago.
When it comes to the lyrics, Blanco explains, the structure is atypical of traditional Cuban songs. They deviate from verse-chorus-verse form, opting instead for a steady build in tension until the very end, when a sing-along refrain finally arrives. It's perfect for chanting.
The savvy use of popular song is fundamental to the voice of "the Cubans of now," as Blanco describes them, the community of artists who have rallied together in opposition to the government. In a country with restricted access to the outside world and, at times, each other, the artists imbue style, form, and lyrics with messages crucial to the movement – some for the world and others just for their gente. So let's dig in.
And you are my siren song'cause with your voice my sorrows go awayAnd this feeling is already oldYou hurt me so much even though you are far awayToday I invite you to walk through my tenementsTo show you what your ideas are good forWe are human although we do not think alikeLet's not treat or hurt each other like animalsThis is my way of telling youMy people cry and I feel their voice You five nine, me double twosSixty years of stalemate domino <b>Pomp and circumstance for the five hundred (years) of HavanaWhile at home in the pots they no longer have foodWhat do we celebrate if folks are scramblingTrading Che Guevara and Martí for currency</b> <b>Everything has changed, nothing is the sameBetween you and me there is an abyssAdvertising a paradise in VaraderoWhile mothers cry for their children who've gone</b> <b>(It's over) you five nine, me, double twos(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino, look(It's over) you five nine, me, double twos(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino</b>
The widely known historical and cultural references in the bolded lines above demonstrate a new perspective, distinct from their parents' experiences. These musicians grew up watching the government invest more in ceremonies than citizens. The names of well-known figures in Cuban history like Che Guevara and Jose Martí have been used to distract from, instead of alleve, their generation's pain.
"That is impactful to me because I didn't live that (here in the U.S.)," says Blanco. "I didn't go to school where I had to wake up in the morning and go 'I'm going to be like a Che.' These kids did. So, to put that in the song for me, it really identifies their voice for that timeframe... that's what [they] were sold. They're trying to trade that to be able to eat, to buy food."
Blanco points out that the lyrics lean on striking parallels to highlight what they see as government hypocrisy. Veradero, a well known tourist destination, is contrasted with imagery of very personal loss to highlight the government's shortcomings and to remind the world that Veradero is not the real Cuba; it's a mistaken representation of Cuban prosperity.
In a clever bit of wordplay at the end of the first verse, the musicians reference a game of dominos that has reached a stalemate because neither the government nor the Cuban people has a piece that matches another on the board – ending the game. In the lyrics, "(It's over) you five nine, me, double twos," the "five nine" alludes to the year Castro came to power and the double two, Blanco believes, refers to the year 2022.
"What we're going to see [in 2022] is a real free Cuba," she says. "It's our moment. Yours was the five nine, ours is the two two. The game is over."
We are artists, we are sensibilityThe true story, not the one that's poorly toldWe are the dignity of an entire people trampled onAt gunpoint and with words that are still worthless No more lies, My people call for freedomNo more doctrines, <b>we no longer shout homeland or death, homeland and life instead</b>And start building what we've dreamed ofWhat they destroyed with their hands Stop the bloodshed For wanting to think differentlyWho told you that Cuba is yours?If my Cuba belongs to all my people (It's over) your time has run out, the silence has been broken(It's over) the laughs are over and the tears are already running(It's over) and we're not afraid, the deception is over(It's over) it's been sixty-two doing harm
This is the first moment in the song where the writers explicitly link their homeland's slogan and the possibility of a new path. By including phrases like, "we are sensibility" and "we are the dignity of an entire people trampled on," they are imbuing anyone who sings the song with a sense of purpose, even a responsibility.
We live with the uncertainty of the past, dumpedFifteen friends on (hunger) strike, ready to dieWe raise the flag, the repression of the regime daily<b>Anamely Ramos steady with their poetryOmara Ruiz Urquiola giving us strength of life</b>They kicked our door down, they violated our templeAnd the world is awareThat the San Isidro movement continues, since We continue going in circles, security, deflecting with prismThese things make me indignant, the enigma is over<b>Enough of your evil revolution, I am Funky style, here is my mark</b>You all are useless, you have nothing left, you're in declineThe people got tired of enduringWe are awaiting a new dawn (It's over) your five nine, me, double twos(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino, look(It's over) your five nine, me, double twos(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino Homeland and lifeHomeland and lifeHomeland and life Sixty years of stalemate domino
Here the lyrics reference other artists who, according to Blanco, have been targeted by the government. Anamely Ramos is a young poet who has been detained and harassed by the government for what she has put in her work. Omara Ruiz Urquiola, Blanco says, is a professor who had breast cancer and attempted to increase breast cancer awareness. The government detained her as well.
"This doesn't fit in people's heads when you really think about it. Her punishment was to not give her the treatment that she needed. They denied her medical treatment, this anomaly of medicine of the world denied her because they didn't agree with her stance," Blanco says. "They didn't appreciate her having a voice, even if it was to help the people, to educate people about breast cancer."
"If you're not on [the government's] list of who can say what — you're an enemy," Blanco adds.
Later in the verse, the lyrics cite an "evil revolution," a bold, open challenge to what many consider one of the oldest authoritarian regimes in the world. This generation of musicians do not see the glories of a revolution that has ruled their lives from birth.
The song's virality came with consequences
The track was released in February and has since gone viral, accruing more than 6.7 million YouTube views, with thousands more singing it in demonstrations around the world. Yet it was not without consequences, as Cuban authorities have detained Mykal Osboro since April. According to an Instagram account attributed to the singer just last week, a petition has been filed with the United Nations asking for an investigation into claims he has been physically abused.
In a country with a worldwide reputation as a musical hothouse, it makes sense this kind of defiant challenge would be musical.
"I find it a little ironic that it's through song because Cuba has given so much music to the world," Blanco said, "We feel this connection, we have this voice. I think it's pretty magical, actually, to have an anthem."
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