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Within SXSW, A Smaller, Latino Conference Has Something To Say About America

René Pérez Joglar, also known as Residente, performs onstage at the SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake.
Nicola Gell
Getty Images for SXSW
René Pérez Joglar, also known as Residente, performs onstage at the SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake.

The annual South by Southwest conference is in full swing in Austin, Texas, where thousands of musicians go in hopes of making the right connections for their big break. The number of bands from Latin America and from Latino communities has increased so much that organizers have created a mini-conference within the larger festival. It's called SXAmericas and Felix Contreras — the host of Alt-Latino, NPR Music's weekly podcast about Latino arts and culture — spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about a trend he's spotted there.

Audie Cornish: So this year, in terms of the music, what are we hearing from these Latin American artists?

Felix Contreras: In a word, resistance with a capital "R." You know, ever since the election in November, there's been a growing movement among artists of all stripes that's been a reaction to the immigration policies of the new administration. Musicians in particular have been critical of the mass deportations — what immigration activists are referring to as the breaking up of families — and they have reacted through their music. Last night, the voter registration group Voto Latino sponsored a big concert here in Austin. It was an official South By Southwest show, but it was also free to the public and held in a very large outdoor facility known as Auditorium Shores, just south of downtown.

And that's kind of a big deal — the fact that the public could attend this, right? Usually, you go to these showcases and you have to have a badge or you have to be some kind of industry person who's paid all this money to be there.

They do have shows there once a night for folks who don't have badges. And every year since they started doing SXAmericas, which has been a couple of years now, they've always had these large Latin concerts that bring in the population around Austin, which is largely Latino. Judging by the flags flown last night that I saw in the crowd, it was largely Mexican or Mexican-American, some of whom I'm sure were affected by the recent immigration raids here in Austin that were attracting headlines. They were incredibly enthusiastic about the themes of resistance in the anti-Trump messages shouted from the stage, and it felt really more like a rally than a concert.

I want to focus on one artist in particular who is huge: René Pérez Joglar. He goes by the stage name Residente, and he was part of one of the biggest Latin groups for a decade, Calle 13.

Calle 13 was a phenomenon in Latin music — there's no other way to say it. Residente and his half-brother, who calls himself Visitante — they've won a total of 25 Grammys and Latin Grammys. That is unprecedented.

This artist grew up in Puerto Rico and his music, I guess, makes a lot of sense when you know that his dad was a labor lawyer and his mom was an actress.

Correct. I mean, they were definitely paying attention to what was going on in the island, and it was absorbed — all of the social conditions and the political situations — in their personalities and their musical vision. And so their music has often been considered stridently political, but I've always considered it more of a reinforcement of what we Latinos have in common: a language, a shared history. You know, it's music that definitely brings people together.

To hear the band take on things like racism, income equality and violence in their home — not just in Puerto Rico but throughout Latin America and here in the US — Calle 13 is that rare example of intense, critical and popular success so far unmatched in anything that I've ever seen.

NPR producer Christina Cala caught up with Residente in Austin to talk about his latest project — a self-titled documentary and an album based on his DNA. Hear their conversation in the full version of this story, at the audio link.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.