Monday, January 10, 2011

"Desapariciones" (Disappearances) - Rubén Blades / Maná

Rubén Blades's "Desapariciones" stands with Sting's "They Dance Alone" and U2's "Mothers of the Disappeared" as pop's great attempts to grapple with this particular crime against humanity. The Panamanian singer's (and politician's) masterpiece achieves its poetic effect by focusing not only on individual lives, but tiny details of those lives: the minutiae by which our loved ones hope to identify us if we are ever "disappeared." The term refers to the practice, especially prominent in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, of snatching dissidents off the streets or out of their homes, and leaving their families in a perpetual state of fear and hope about the fate of their closest relatives. In most cases they were killed soon after being "disappeared," and it is on this period of shock and dislocation that the song focuses: "Someone tell me if they have seen my husband," "I have been three days looking for my sister." There are the tiny details of clothing, location, comportment -- quick character sketches that speak volumes. And for our anthemic purposes, there is the chorus:

¿A dónde van los desaparecidos?
Busca en el agua y en los matorrales.
¿Y por qué es que se desaparecen?
Porque no todos somos iguales.

¿Y cuándo vuelve el desaparecido?
Cada ves que lo trae el pensamiento.
¿Cómo se le habla al desaparecido?
Con la emoción apretando por dentro.

Where do the disappeared go?
Look in the water and in the bushes.
And why is it that they disappear?
Because we are not all equal.

And when does the disappeared come back?
Every time you have him in your thoughts.
How do you talk to the disappeared?
With emotion gripping you inside.

(Link to full lyrics in Spanish and English.)

Revulsion against the state-terror practices that "disappearances" typified contributed to a democratic uprising in the military dictatorships of South and Central America -- though because these were US client regimes, that story received far less attention than the fall of communism in Europe and elsewhere. Blades's anthem of this grim epoch in Latin American history can also serve as an anthem for the era of "extraordinary renditions." Perhaps more poetic translations can be made to English, French, and other languages, and sung to accompany petitions about detained and "disappeared" individuals in many parts of the world.

Rubén Blades's original recording of "Desapariciones" (1984):

A distant but warm-sounding bootleg of Blades's performance of the song in Santiago de Chile, October 2010:

The exquisite version of "Desapariciones" performed at one of the major concerts in Latin American pop history, Maná's 1999 MTV Unplugged show in Miami, later released on CD and DVD. Lead vocalist Fher's introduction states: "The next song is written by Mr. Rubén Blades, and it talks about all those people who have dedicated themselves to a more just world. They have been persecuted, and tortured, and disappeared, and some of them [have been] killed. This is called 'Disappearances.'"

Other Resources

Song available on: 

Rubén Blades, Buscando América (Elektra, 1984), track 3

Mana, MTV Unplugged (WEA Latina, 1999), track 7


An extremely helpful Spanish/English dual translation of "Desapariciones" exists, with discussion and debate about the translation issues. What's needed for English-singing activists, as with every non-English song on this list, is a translation that preserves the poetry and rhyming structure of the original. Same, of course, for non-English singers wanting to adapt some of the great anthems on this list to their own languages. Surely as a global progressive community, we ought to be able to wiki that? Or maybe we already have, and no-one told me?

1 comment:

  1. I love the service you have provided to create a more just world. This post regarding the music of Latin American artists shows the power of the human spirit to create a more just world. This song soothed the soul of those who were unjustly taken from their loved ones, and gave the loved ones a voice that understood their pain. In hopes that humanity will never travel down that road again. We need more people sharing what you write about in the world so we do not continue repeating these mistakes. Thank you for choosing this as your life's work. I stumbled upon your work as I was writing about social justice movements for a non-profit grant proposal on US immigrant rights and movement building. Keep the torch lit, even when your arm gets heavy. I shined all the way in the US in Connecticut and I am sure in countless corners of the world that you will never know of because of the internet.
    PS you have captured the spirit of why I love Ruben Blades, Mana, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Faccundo - recently killed in my birth country Guatemala, Arturo Cortez, Sade, Arjona from Guate... etc.


Please be constructive in your comments.