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Knowing how to suffer, to sing

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JULY 28, 2023

One of my favorite songs of all time is “Veracruz” by Agustin Lara. In it, Lara describes Veracruz as a “pedacito de patria que sabe sufrir y cantar.”

Throughout Mexican literature and music, Mexico is often lauded for its history of suffering and song. 

I am in Mexico right now, and it is the season of the milpa. All my relatives here are tending to the summer crops. They work tirelessly through both the dry and rainy days. And in the night, the little towns come alive to the sound of music. The toils of the day melt away as they let out their gritos to the first few chords of a Gerardo Reyes song.

I have not suffered or toiled like my Mexican relatives. I have not suffered like my mother and father. My mother says my suffering has been distinctly American — my own machinations, my American depression. 

Before I got to Berkeley, I sometimes felt like I would never be understood by anybody. I once said this to my brother, and he asked why I would want to be understood. 

I didn’t have an answer then, but I think I do now. 

It started the first time I sang with Jackie, Abraham, Saul and Sarah. 

Far from home and with people who had been strangers only a week before, I didn’t feel my sticky sadness. I felt like a kid.

We sang “Rosas” by La Oreja de Van Gogh, “Borracho y Loco” by Los Enanitos Verdes and “Oye Mi Amor” by Maná. All these were childhood favorites that I had always loved but never sang outside the confines of my room. 

I laugh now, just remembering how good it felt to dance, with our only technique being a search for joy. 

All of Summer Bridge last year, whenever classes got tough and we found ourselves full of doubt, it was music that would unwind us and set us free. 

When fall semester rolled around, we christened my dorm room by dancing to “Que Tontos, Que Locos” by Monchy and Alexandra. When I heard my roommate Nayeli sing for the first time, echoing Alexandra, I was floored to hear such a beautiful voice. 

At that moment, I knew I could love her. It was in these moments when I fell in love with all of them, friends that knew how to suffer and sing. 

All through the year, tough times would come. 

And all through the year, we would sing. 

I look back fondly on the hikes up to the Big C after an angsty day or an angsty week and singing with our mismatched harmonies of untrained voices, dancing goofy, free and feeling like kids. I’d never let myself be a kid before. There was always something else to be, something else that was needed of me. But with them, I let myself be. 

On the Friday of RRR Week, after seven days spent indoors in libraries and dorms, our heads swimming with a combination of dread and a semester’s worth of information, we went out one last time. 

There’s so much beauty in the way my best friends dance. My thoughts leave me and I am just a balloon filled up with love, admiration and laughter. I watch Abraham do his little two step dance, scrunch his eyebrows and smile his way through a song. I watch Jackie as she howls through “Lobo-Hombre en Paris” by La Union, her beautiful hair in the moonlight. 

How could I do anything but join? 

I hear Veracruz and I think of my friends, both old and new.

I have spent so much time ruminating over pains my family and I have suffered, and I had wanted to be seen for this pain. I wanted someone to understand me, understand this weight that I have carried almost all my life. 

Now, after I have seen this pain in my friends and been seen in turn, I think I realize that understanding is not what I wanted at all. 

I wanted the pain to be justified. But I know now that sometimes pain has no reason, and maybe we don’t need to carry it at all. 

Mexico has been known as a country of suffering and song and has even been romanticized for it. My family’s history is a reflection of the nation from which they stem — our stories are of pain and sacrifice. 

Until very recently, I had neglected the beauty underlying the pain. Just as my family has suffered, they have sung. I can’t speak for a nation I wasn’t born in, I can’t speak for my parents or my family, and I can’t speak for my friends. However, I will say that it feels good to sing, and singing feels like letting go.

We are trying to make our way in the world. That is all that anyone can do. We are trying to make our parents proud, as children should. But at the end of the day, after stumbles, triumphs, heartaches and joy, it feels good to sing.

Angela Rodriguez writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JULY 28, 2023