Protest Music

Growing up in an activist family, I spent hours playing with the other commie kids while our parents plotted revolution. Our favorite pastime was watching La Bomba starring my first crush Lou Diamond Philips. But for me, it was all about the songs. I had a girl, Donna was her name, then she left me, I will never be the same.

Every Wednesday night, I sing Richie Valen’s song to Donna, mom’s friend who comes to the Sandanista solidarity meetings at the end of the hall in the living room of our Upper West Side apartment. I don’t know what happens in these meetings, except that they last far longer than I can keep my eyes open and there are always men who look like Che Guevara sleeping on our couch the next morning.

In 1989, my radical Jewish single mom took me to live in Chile. It was the year the people voted to end the two-decade dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. He is the reason my Chilean father was exiled to the United States in the first place. I remember the day the vote came down like it was yesterday. Imagine me, pot-bellied and blonde, a Latina Little Miss Sunshine, dressed in an oversized t-shirt with my hair pulled into a half-side ponytail (forgive me it was the late 80s).

My tia Ingrid and cousin Mari-Inez pick us up in their car and we take to the streets. We drive from my grandparent’s quiet neighborhood, to the center of town. As we drive the low murmur grows louder and louder. Everywhere there are people cheering: El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido. The people united will never be defeated! I hoist my Little Miss Sunshine booty out of our busted car window. I lift a huge Chilean flag and I wave it as if my life depended on it. And I sing, every protest song I have ever known. We shall overcome… I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield… Down by the riverside! Seventeen years of dictatorship ended and my little gringa self never felt more Chilean.

Fast forward, two Bushes later, and the anti-fascist freedom flames still hot on my back. In High School I lived through political chants set to hip-hop beats. DMX’s Stop Drop, became Stop. Drop. The execution must stop. Oh, no, get Mumia off death row. It’s 1999 and we’re here to Free Mumia. Free, Free Mumia! We step down off the charter bus into a parking lot full of aging tie-died hippies, dreaded Black Panther Party Members, and young i-want-to-change-the-world students like me. And I am ready to Fight the Power, fight the powers that be!

Fighting the powers that be at age 17 came with consequences and enemies, even at my own school. For much of my senior year, I was at odds with Dr. Saronson, the principal of the LaGuardia High School aka New York City’s Fame School, who looked more qualified to run a golf course than New York’s highly selective High School for the Performing Arts. Dr. Saronson was completely reactionary and facist, just like Mayor Giuliani. I was convinced they were cronies who ate big Texas steaks for lunch and talked about keeping the people down. I would not be kept down.

Upon learning that I was planning a walkout to protest the killing of Amadou Diallo, Dr. Saronson pulled out of a class. As I waited in his conference room for him to return, I dreamt of taking the school PA system hostage and blasting Dead Prez’s “They Schools” for all the world to hear. They schools can’t teach us shit, my people need freedom! We trying to get all we can get. That would show him. Within seconds, I plaster every one of my contraband protest signs across every surface I can find. His office instantly became a billboard for my anti-racist cause. 41 shots was not a mistake, goddammit, and I was not gonna let some stuffy high school administrator break me down. He walks into the conference room. His jaw drops. While obsessively pressing down on his hair in order to hide his growing bald spot, he points at the signs: “Who, who, who did this? Take these down. Take these down at once.” I stand and look Dr. Saronson dead in the eye. “Have your lawyers call our lawyers. I have nothing left to say.” I walked out of that conference room like I owned the world.

One week later we walked out of LaGuardia HS, nearly a hundred of us, joining thousands of High Schoolers from across New York City and stopping traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge. We linked arms and chanted together: No Justice! No peace! Fuck the police! That day I understood the meaning of power in numbers. We, the students of New York, demanded justice for the shooting of Amadou Diallo, while looking out from the Brooklyn Bridge and feeling the strength if our city behind us.