RÍO PIEDRAS, PUERTO RICO — It’s midnight at the Casa Cultural Ruth Hernández Torres, a historic house that serves as a cultural and community center. Blue and pink lights flash as Ana Macho takes to the dance floor. Sporting pink sunglasses and athletic attire, surrounded by dozens of fans swaying to the Caribbean rhythms, the artist sings about freedom, survival, and economic and social justice.
“It’s about the paradise that Puerto Rico is, but the one who lives here can’t live it,” says Ana Macho, whose original song “Blin Blin” embodies this message.
A local celebrity as a drag queen performer since 2016, Ana Macho identifies as a nonbinary person who celebrates gender diversity. As an unconventional yet rising star, the artist represents a new wave of reggaeton, the Latin dance music genre that has traditionally embraced hypermasculine, heterosexual norms.
The style originated in the 1990s as a fusion of reggae, dance hall, hip-hop and electronic. It has become a global phenomenon, with growing fan bases in India, Egypt and South Africa. Since the genre already violated social conventions about appropriate behavior, the emergence of “queer reggaeton” was inevitable, says Patricia Velázquez, co-director of the Hasta ’Bajo (All the Way Down) Project, which researches and documents reggaeton.
The shift began with pioneering women — including Lisa M., who came out of the closet via a Facebook post in 2010, and Ivy Queen, who received an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in 2008 — and became more mainstream with Bad Bunny, a gender-bending man who has been the most listened-to artist on the Spotify music platform for the past two years. In Puerto Rico, demonstrations against alleged government corruption, misogyny and homophobia in 2019 inspired a broader spectrum of emerging artists to write and perform about social issues.
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“[Reggaeton] is an X-ray of how people live in Puerto Rico,” Velázquez says, predicting that gender-nonconforming artists will continue to gain popularity, influencing each other and their fans.
“It’s a genre of music that’s tightly tied to irreverence, and that attracts many oppressed bodies: feminine bodies, queer bodies,” says Ana Macho, who had wanted to break into reggaeton for some time, but “did not know how to make music from my reality.”
The pandemic provided the final push: In the loneliness of lockdown, the artist experimented with writing and performing original music, which went on to attract thousands of Instagram followers and YouTube views.
“How could I make music from my genuine perspective and [have] people like it?” Ana Macho remembers thinking at the time.
One of Ana Macho’s fans, Carlxs Sepúlveda Lespier, a young transgender woman and activist, was inspired to write her own songs, which she hopes to record.
“It allows us that kind of assertiveness, that aggressiveness, that ‘here I am, I’m not bad, don’t criminalize me,’” she says. “It’s mostly things I want to say to myself.”
For male reggaeton singers like Justin Cintrón, who performs under the stage name Juztiin White, the transition from a machismo style to a more inclusive ethos was unexpected, though not necessarily unwelcome.
“It’s something new, it’s shocking, it’s something that can give people a lot to talk about,” he says. But that’s part of the evolution of music, he adds, as well as the creative freedom of each artist.
These cultural shifts also have prompted conservative backlash, including from the Proyecto Dignidad (Dignity Project) party, which elected its first legislators to Puerto Rico’s Senate and House of Representatives in 2020. Party spokesperson Raymind Ruiz says nearly half of its members are people aged 35 and younger who don’t see Puerto Rico’s family values reflected in artists and lyrics that promote homosexuality.
“It is not culturally or traditionally [common] in Puerto Rico to see a female with a mustache, with unshaven armpits, or to see a man with a shiny suit,” he says.
Conservative Puerto Ricans also have objected to reggaeton for objectifying women, Ruiz says. With queer reggaeton — and the increased visibility of gay and transgender Puerto Ricans in general — their concerns are that children shouldn’t be exposed to confusing ideas about gender and sexuality, he says.
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“We don’t reject the reality of diversity,” he says. “We know that it’s part of the human process right now. But we do depart in the face of the biological reality that a man is a man and a woman is a woman.”
But queer and transgender Puerto Ricans say that seeing themselves represented, even in a music form that rose to fame with chauvinistic personas and lyrics, can save lives.
Puerto Rico ranks 22nd of the 56 U.S. states and territories in terms of laws and policies that support the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit research and advocacy think tank that promotes equal rights. According to 2019 United States Census Bureau estimates, Puerto Rico has more than 6,400 same-sex couple households. Based on a 2015 survey of its LGBTQ community, conducted by researchers from the University of Puerto Rico Medical Science Campus and George Washington University, more than 70% of respondents had experienced violence or discrimination at school, at work, and when using health services.
In recent years, Puerto Rico’s activists and progressive political parties have proposed several measures to improve safety and increase acceptance. In January 2021, Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi declared a state of emergency due to an increase in gender-based violence, effective until June 2022. A proposal to outlaw conversion therapy, already banned by a previous governor’s executive order in 2019, was defeated in a Senate committee vote in May.
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For Ana Macho, Sepúlveda and other public members of the queer community, legislative efforts are not progressing quickly enough. “It makes our lives uncertain, which means that our mental health is uncertain,” Sepúlveda says.
“In Puerto Rico, there’s a lot of fear around what’s different,” Ana Macho says. “Before, we had to listen to other people’s music, but now we have our own music. That’s what I think is important about what is being done.”
This growing diversity of reggaeton performers and fans has led to the creation and expansion of businesses, bars and parties where queer people gather to hear and dance to music that represents them. In these safe spaces for “jayaera” — a slang term for the search for happiness and empowerment — they can converge without judgment, find community and celebrate their individuality, Ana Macho says. “We’re seeing now how gender has begun to break its own chains in the way that reggaeton is expressed, the things that it talks about.”
Reggaeton culture “is changing,” Ana Macho says, “and the intention is to keep changing it.”