I can just hear it now. The high-pitch screams when the first note comes on at what is sure to be a sweaty dorm party this fall.
Attempts to sing along to the Spanish verses—with harshly Anglo-pronunciations—will fade away into body swaying until the chorus hits. The Spanish speakers in the room might snicker, wishing the original version of the song was playing. The song has been called the song of the summer, but it’s sure to be a staple of campus parties in the fall. “Despacito” is sure to reverberate through Harvard’s campus, as it has across the country.
“Despacito,” originally by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee but popularized by a remix featuring Justin Bieber, is insanely popular worldwide. By June, it was the number one song in the United States and the first song primarily in Spanish to reach that spot since “The Macarena” in 1996. The song’s popularity reenergized Daddy Yankee’s discography, making him the first Latino artist to reach number one on Spotify. Just last week, Despacito became the most streamed song of all time.
Generally, the music industry is one of the few places where Latino people can make inroads. Some of the most high-profile Latino figures are musicians—Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Pitbull, Enrique Iglesias, Shakira. Yet with “Despacito,” it’s clear that racial equality is not guaranteed even in the music industry.
Although the song’s strength comes from its Spanish lyrics and reggaeton beats, Justin Bieber has become the face of the song’s success. Spotify featured Justin Bieber as the face of its Viva Latino playlist and put out a series of ads where they dubbed him the “Latin King,” even though Bieber is not even remotely Latino. Bieber is celebrated for being on a distinctly Latino song, even though he disrespected Latino culture at a New York club when he forgot the Spanish lyrics to his verse and instead sang, “blah, blah, blah” and “burrito, burrito.” As usual, a white man has been credited for the contributions of people of color.
Even more importantly, Despacito should be a reminder that limiting Latino influence to the entertainment sector alone will not progress Latinos’ causes in the United States.
Although a report from the Boston Foundation found that “Latinos account for virtually all of the population growth in Boston in the past 35 years,” they still hold little political power. Another report revealed that Latinos are severely underrepresented in the Boston government. They make up 19 percent of the population, yet their presence on city boards and commissions has dropped from 7 to 5 percent over the past three years.
The 57 positions with the biggest influence—City Hall Cabinet chiefs, department heads, and other executives—are mostly white, with Latinos holding only six out of 57 positions. Out of 467 members of government boards and commissions, only 24 are Latino. Although Latino communities are now an important staple of Boston’s cityscape, they are nearly powerless in its government.
A look at Boston’s economic sector reveals similar disparities. Even though they contribute $9 billion per year to the city’s GDP, they still experience harsh economic inequalities. In 2015, the unemployment rate for white workers in Massachusetts was at 3.5 percent. For Latinos, it was 11.9 percent. Black and Latino delivery drivers in Massachusetts filed a class action lawsuit against Massachusetts claiming discrimination in hiring processes. Latino communities power local economies but still face racially motivated discrimination in the workplace.
Nationally, Latinos also struggle to fill roles of sociopolitical prestige. Although the U.S. Congress is more diverse than it’s ever been, Latinos still only hold 38 seats out of 435. That’s less than 9 percent, even though they comprise more than 17 percent of the country’s population. The highest paid CEOs in 2016 were almost exclusively white, with the first Latino CEO coming in at number 40. In the places where it matters, Latino voices are rarely heard because they simply are not in the room. They’re heard on the radio, but not in government offices or company board rooms.
The frequency at which “Despacito” plays on the radio might convince some Americans that Latino populations are fully integrated in the United States. They might believe that Latino communities enjoy full equality, but local and federal statistics prove that to be a misconception. Racial discrimination still hinders progress, and the success of Latinos in the music industry shouldn’t deceive us into complacency.
People will not be pulled out of poverty, violence, and discrimination because a Latino pop song goes mainstream. Progress is happening, but it’s happening too despacito. “Despacito” is this year’s summer fad. Let’s hope racial equality is next.Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History and Literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on Mondays.
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