Mercedes Sosa: Argentina's Diva of the Dispossessed

Written by

A friend of mine, a Cuban music nut, sent me a wonderful video of the late Mercedes Sosa today.  I was fortunate to have met and interviewed her several times.  I was both humbled and moved.  I watched her once cradle an Argentine journalist backstage at a UCLA concert.  She’d known him in the 1970s in Argentina before he moved to LA.  (Those years of state terrorism (mid 1970s) were known as “the dirty war”).   He was dying of AIDS and they both knew it would be the last time they’d see one another.  He lost his public composure,  fell into her arms crying “Mama!”  She held him tenderly.    The rest of us left the room holding back tears.   Once again I was reminded of her beauty, her humanity.  She was a true pacha mama–Incan word for a powerful woman, an earth mother.  Actually not really a diva at all.

I wrote a piece for an Esquire magazine column called “Women We Love” in the late 1980s.  It got butchered by the editors, who dumbed it down to fit the column’s format.  Since I got this video, I decided to pull up that old article about this magnificent woman.

Mercedes Sosa grew up in Tucuman, sometimes called “The Garden of the Republic”, a country province as fantastic in her memory as a Borges landscape.  There were endless fields of sugar cane, flowers and fruit trees that never stopped blooming.  An Andean oasis far removed from the political ravages her country was soon to endure.  And it was here, in northwestern Argentina, that the timid teenage girl was first prodded by family and friends to start singing.

Later her name became inextricably associated with the nueva cancion or “new song” movement which flourished during the late 60’s and which is  cherished even more today.   Nueva Cancion, with its accent on native culture and humanity,  helped revitalize Latin American music.  It was decidedly political in dangerous times, championing human rights in the face of government brutality.  It was music of protest and compassion, and Mercedes Sosa became one of its greatest, if reluctant, heroines.  Singing kept her constantly on the move, if only to avoid becoming one of the “disappeared”, leading  to her eventual exile in l979, when she was forced to move to Spain.

I didn’t know all this, however,  when I first put the needle down on her riveting version of Violetta Parra’s classic “Gracias a la Vida”.  I was moved by the beauty and honesty of her voice:  Soft, deep, and compelling.  It could hear in the background the sound of thirty thousand people erupting into applause.   They could respond freely at last:  the dictatorship was about to fall.  My Spanish wasn’t good, but I didn’t need a translator to understand what was happening on stage that night in February, l982, when she returned from exile to an about-to-be democratic Argentina.

Years later, Mercedes Sosa sat before me in the radio studio.  I look across the control board at the stout, shy woman with the strong Indian features—at this point a grandmother living in Madrid—and wondered what it must have been like for a singer who had never gotten over stage fright to be arrested, while performing “Chuando Tenga La Tierra” in La Plata in l975, by the Argentine paramilitary police and threatened with death. I pondered the pain of her exile, her sadness over the death of her husband in l978.

And I thought of the young girl who didn’t want to be a singer in her hometown or anyplace else, let alone famous as “the voice of the silent majority” throughout Latin America.  It then struck me that her voice resonates with the hopes and dreams of millions, and I realized how this quiet and gentle woman of 60, who never wanted to perform, had become the diva of the dispossessed.

1989, revised 1997 for a UCLA preconcert lecture.

p.s.:  There is a  article in the current (3/19/12) New Yorker by Francisco Goldman called “Children of the Dirty War:  Finding Argentina’s Stolen Orphans”)   Once again we have powerful testimony about the horrors of the Dirty War in Argentina 1976-81).

Video of “Todo Cambia” (Everything Changes)  The synch is a little off, but listen to how the crowd follows her.