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Cicada Song: How a poetic air became Latin America's protest anthem

Poignant Defiance: Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa performs in concert at Ruminahui Coliseum in Quito, Ecuador, Oct. 26, 2007, two years before she died.
Dolores Ochoa
/
AP
Poignant Defiance: Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa performs in concert at Ruminahui Coliseum in Quito, Ecuador, Oct. 26, 2007, two years before she died.

In North America, this is the summer of cicadas — the insects that can spend years underground until emerging en masse to sing.

The cacophony can be overpowering — and a reminder of another summer of the cicada, in South America, where a song about cicadas took its place as an iconic protest anthem that recently marked its 50th anniversary: "Como la Cigarra," or "Like the Cicada."

In February 1982, in the Argentine summer, singer Mercedes Sosa brought her country to tears. She had been forced into exile three years earlier by Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship (whose junta horrors were recounted in the Oscar-nominated 2022 Argentine film Argentina, 1985).

But after returning to Buenos Aires, Sosa was giving concerts at sites like the Teatro Opera.

And they featured a ballad about perseverance and transcendence, "Como la Cigarra," that she had turned into a poignant but powerful statement of defiance that resonated throughout Latin America and beyond.

Mercedes Sosa - Como la Cigarra (Live)

"Cantando al sol, como la cigarra,” said its moving chorus: “I’m singing to the sun, like the cicada, after a year under the earth. Like a survivor returning from war.”

After six years of dictatorship barbarity known as the Dirty War — in which some 30,000 Argentines were murdered or disappeared — Sosa’s performances of “Como la Cigarra” were a national catharsis. The song evoked a painful darkness — but also a terrorized people emerging again into the sunlight.

The dictatorship, in fact, would be gone a year later after its Falklands war debacle.

“It was like a voice of freedom,” says Argentine expat Sergio Gutierrez.

Argentina's military junta taking power on March 24, 1976, as Gen. Jorge Rafael Videl (center) is sworn-in as president in Buenos Aires. Videla was later sentenced to life in prison after civilian rule returned to Argentina. He died in 2013.
Eduardo Di Baia
/
AP
Argentina's military junta taking power on March 24, 1976, as Gen. Jorge Rafael Videl (center) is sworn-in as president in Buenos Aires. Videla was later sentenced to life in prison after civilian rule returned to Argentina. He died in 2013.

Gutierrez was a Buenos Aires university student when Sosa gave those concerts in 1982. Today he's an international software executive living in Miami. But he still recalls how confident he felt hearing “Como la Cigarra” that Argentine summer — the way, say, any Cuban might have felt hearing the Latin Grammy-winning “Patria y Vida” in the summer of 2021.

“The military dictatorship was a tough time for many people," Gutierrez told WLRN. "But this song, it seemed like a beginning of hope. Like a hymn for the people.”

That protest hymn also heartened Argentines who were still in exile — like anti-dictatorship activist Marta Alanís. She’d taken refuge in countries like France and Nicaragua after several friends and fellow activists were killed or disappeared.

Before leaving Argentina, in fact, “I was living secretly near a soccer field — where every morning we’d hear people being killed by firing squads,” Alanís said from Buenos Aires.

“I barely escaped that terror.”

READ MORE: 'Patria y Vida,' up for a Latin Grammy, leads a protest music boom in Latin America

Today, Alanís is a leading feminist activist — a founder of what’s known as the Marea Verde, or Green Wave movement, which helped get abortion legalized in Argentina three years ago.

And she considers “Como la Cigarra” a galvanizing human rights anthem today.

“As we sang in that song in Argentina back then, we sing it now,” Alanís says, pointing to these lyrics:

Tantas veces te mataron, tantas veces resucitarás.

"'No matter how many times they kill you, you will just as many times rise again.' That's timeless — it speaks across generations."

Argentine democracy and feminism activist Marta Alanis in Buenos Aires in 2020.
Facebook
Argentine democracy and feminism activist Marta Alanis in Buenos Aires in 2020.

Or as another, especially eloquent verse of “Como la Cigarra” puts it:

"Tantas veces me borraron, tantas desaparecí / A mi propio entierro fui sola y llorando...pero me olvidé después / Que no era la única vez.

“So many times they erased me, so many times I disappeared…but it wasn’t the first time I went to my own burial.”

And each verse ends with this message:

"Y seguí cantando / Cantando al sol como la cigarra

“And I kept on singing … just like the cicada.”

What makes those lyrics doubly poignant is "Como la Cigarra's" beautiful, dulcet-and-doleful melody.

"Even though the music speaks to very profound and painful things," says Alanís, "it does so delicately, lovingly."

"No matter how many times they kill you, you will just as many times rise again." That's a timeless human rights message. It speaks across generations.
Marta Alanís

That itself is a reminder that “Como la Cigarra” was not originally a protest or anti-dictatorship song.

In fact, it was composed in late 1973 — three years before the military junta took power in Argentina. And it was written by an Argentine artist perhaps best known for her books and songs for children: María Elena Walsh, who died in 2011.

"I have a special place in my heart for her," says Carlos Anino, an Argentine expat entrepreneur in Weston, "because I grew up as a boy listening to her children's songs."

Argentine author and composer Maria Elena Walsh in Buenos Aires in the 1970s.
Fundacion Maria Elena Walsh
Argentine author and composer Maria Elena Walsh in Buenos Aires in the 1970s.

Anino points out that while Walsh’s “Como la Cigarra” was not a children’s song per se, it exudes a non-political innocence. And that, he feels, is precisely what ended up making it all the more effective as an anti-dictatorship ballad in the years ahead.

“This wasn’t a pamphlet that hit you over the head with an agenda,” Anino says.

“It was metaphorical art that inspired a more collective, nonpartisan feeling among Argentines" when the dictatorship appeared. "It was prophetic, really.”

One of South Florida’s most popular Argentine singers, Mariana Quinteros, of Biscayne Park, says that reflects an artful tradition of Argentine music: employing poetic imagery to disguise a political meaning.

“Anyone who is struggling in life can identify with the song," Quinteros says.

"But Argentina is very political, always — and the artists’ expressions have, let's say, the protest there, underneath the surface.”

Perfect match

Quinteros, a Grammy-nominated tango singer whose new album is titled Contrapunto, says Sosa, a folk singer who died in 2009, was the one who reached under the surface of “Como la Cigarra.”

“The lyric," says Quinteros, who counts "Como la Cigarra" among her own favorite ballads to perform, "was the perfect match for what Sosa wanted to say against the dictatorship.”

And Sosa’s 1978 recording of “Como la Cigarra” turned out to be the perfect match for what most Argentines wanted to say to the dictatorship.

Argentine human rights champion Nora Cortiñas, a leader of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement whose son was disappeared by the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, in Buenos Aires on July 8, 2005.
Natacha Pisarenko
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AP
Argentine human rights champion Nora Cortiñas, a leader of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo movement whose son was disappeared by the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s, in Buenos Aires on July 8, 2005.

That was especially true for the movement known as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo — the mothers of the thousands of persons being murdered or disappeared by the military regime, who were influential in galvanizing international pressure against it.

One of the heroes of that cohort was Nora Cortiñas, who before she died two months ago was one of Argentina's pro-democracy champions.

Cortiñas' oldest son Gustavo disappeared at the hands of the dictatorship in 1977 — and she never located him before she died at age 94. Shortly before her death, Cortiñas led a public singingof the song she said kept her going in her almost half century-long search: “Como la Cigarra.”

As long as she could sing like the defiant cicadas, Cortiñas said, she never lost hope.

Here are the lyrics (and English translation) of "Como la Cigarra":

Tantas veces me mataron, tantas veces me morí
Sin embargo, estoy aquí, resucitando
Gracias doy a la desgracia y a la mano con puñal
Porque me mató tan mal
Y seguí cantando

Cantando al sol como la cigarra
Después de un año bajo la tierra
Igual que el sobreviviente
Que vuelve de la guerra

Tantas veces me borraron, tantas desaparecí
A mi propio entierro fui sola y llorando
Hice un nudo en el pañuelo, pero me olvidé después
Que no era la única vez
Y seguí cantando

Cantando al sol como la cigarra
Después de un año bajo la tierra
Igual que el sobreviviente
Que vuelve de la guerra

Tantas veces te mataron, tantas resucitarás
Cuántas noches pasarás desesperando
Y a la hora del naufragio y la de la oscuridad
Alguien te rescatará
Para ir cantando

Cantando al sol como la cigarra
Después de un año bajo la tierra
Igual que el sobreviviente
Que vuelve de la guerra

So many times they killed me, so many times I died
But I'm here, rising again
I give thanks to the misery and the hand with the dagger
It killed me badly
Yet I keep on singing

Singing to the sun, like the cicada
After a year under the earth
Like a survivor
Returning from war

So many times they erased me, so many times I disappeared
I went alone and crying to my own burial
I made a knot in my handkerchief, but I forgot
That it wasn't the only time
And I kept on singing

Singing to the sun, like the cicada
After a year under the earth
Like a survivor
Returning from war

No matter how many times they kill, you'll just as many times rise again
No matter how many desperate nights you spend
At the moment you're sinking in the dark
Someone will rescue you
To keep singing

Singing to the sun, like the cicada
After a year under the earth
Like a survivor
Returning from war

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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