Patria y Vida: The Newest Rhythm Of Revolution

Panel spotlights Cuba protest song leading to rapper's imprisonment

Yotuel Romero on the Sound of Change: Patria y Vida and Cuba’s Uprising panel during SXSW. (Photo by John Anderson)

Quick music history quiz; what do the songs “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and NWA’s “Fuck The Police” have in common? Give up? They’re both protest songs.

”Yankee Doodle” was originally a British song mocking Americans as lowly simpletons that didn’t know the difference between a horse and a pony – a worthless bunch of dirty rabble who thought that putting a feather in their hat would elevate their status.

When the American Revolution started to turn against our royal rulers, the song became popular, ironically, to American soldiers who began singing it on the battlefield to the retreating Red Coats. In that single act of war-time snarkiness, “Yankee Doodle” was flipped from being a satirical smack-down, created by an overwhelmingly larger oppressive force, to being an anthem of strength, resilience, and eventually, national pride, to a budding nation.

Hence the reason it is still known to this day.

In that same renegade spirit, Cuban musician Yotuel Romero began creating last year’s double Latin Grammy winning hit, “Patria y Vida,” with the help of his wife, Beatriz Luengo, and Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Perez, Descemer Bueno, Eliecer “el Funky” Márquez Duany, and the reggaeton duo Gente de Zona.

“It is a classic David and Goliath, but this time David has a song instead of a stone.” – Yotuel Romero, speaking about the song “Patria y Vida” at SXSW

The title means “Homeland and Life”, which would seem a pretty innocuous phrase were it not for the fact that it pulls a rope-a-dope on Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolutionary slogan, “Patria O Muerte” – meaning “homeland or death.” This, of course, is the same style of subtle yet powerful word-play that NWA skillfully exercised when they took a common pejorative historically uttered by racist whites to African-Americans who “didn’t know their place” – and made it not only a badge of honor, but also an incredible band name.

One drastic difference: none of the members of NWA were exiled from their homeland or sent to a maximum security prison for their artistic expression, a fate which befell rapper Maykel Osorbo, one of the vocalists on “Patria y Vida,” who was arrested on May 18 while he was at his house having lunch, taken away without a shirt or shoes. According to international reports, for 13 days he was held in what’s known by Amnesty International as a “forced disappearance” – state sanctioned kidnapping. Osorbo still languishes in Pinar del Río provincial prison, west of Havana, deprived once again of any and all contact from his family, friends or lawyers, not to mention his due-process.

“It is a classic David and Goliath,” Romero stated at the South by Southwest panel that he and Luengo spoke at last Thursday, “but this time David has a song instead of a stone”.

The SXSW Featured Session, titled Sound of Change: Patria y Vida and Cuba’s Uprising, was hosted by Billboard VP Leila Cobo, who did a wonderful job as both interviewer and translator for the couple. Although Romero and Luengo are both bi-lingual, they felt greater ease expressing certain answers in Spanish, due to the passionate nature of the topic at hand.

“What do you want from this song?” Cobo asked Romero at one point in the discussion. After a clearly eloquent response in Spanish that I would’ve given anything to be able to understand because it sounded so beautifully expressed, his english translation summarized it in simpler terms: “We just want to be.”

A fair request for any artist as well as any human.

Leila Cobo (l), Yotuel Romero, and Beatriz Luengo on the Sound of Change: Patria y Vida and Cuba’s Uprising panel during SXSW (Photo by John Anderson)

Over the summer of 2021, the song – which the Cuban regime banned after it came out the previous February – became a popular rally cry during the largest anti-government protests in decades. Cuba, which which has a poverty rate more than twice as high as the United States, was hit very hard by the pandemic. With food shortages, rolling blackouts, improper COVID testing, and a loss of tourism shrinking the already desperate economy by 11 percent, the island was like a powder keg in a burning barn. Ready to blow at any second.

Upon the release of “Patria y Vida,” anti-government protests quickly caught on around the country, swelling to thousands, despite the fact that the song's topic is more about artistic freedom than economic depression. That didn’t seem to matter, as the shared message for all was still about the hypocrisy, repression, and brutality of living under a heavy handed, authoritarian government.

“You talk about beaches, but you don’t talk about what is happening to your people” Luengo stated, mirroring the lyric her husband wrote and sang, “You advertise the paradise of Varadero, While mother’s cry for their children who have perished.” A line that would unfortunately turn prophecy for their collaborator Osorbo.

Not only has the song been banned, but anyone caught even listening to it in Cuba can be fined the equivalent of a month’s salary. Think about that for a second – a month’s worth of income to an impoverished household. A ridiculously devastating financial hit, simply for listening to a popular song.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel blames the US for the recent unrest, citing both the embargo and social media – even going so far as to calling it “genocidal,” and continues to publicly urge pro-government Cuban’s to counter-protest.

With Diaz-Canel’s administration holding its own rallies in reaction to the pro-Democracy demonstrations, it could be hard for onlookers to know which protest is which. Both sides carry signs proudly claiming that they’re the true revolutionaries. Whatever the motive for anyone involved, whether it’s cultural, political, generational, or even just sheer desperation and fear, the stakes are just as high.

“This is not a political movement, it is a human rights movement,” Luengo emphasized at the SXSW pannel.

When the conversation came back around to their imprisoned friend, Osorbo, the depth of their frustration became visible in their eyes as well as their posture. After one participant asked, “What else can be done for Maykel” they looked at each other helplessly. You get a sense that they ask this same question of themselves, countless times, everyday. After taking a moment to collect his thoughts, Romero simply responded: “I don’t know, but we will not stop.”

With the so-called “legal channels” locked down tight by the state, Romero and Luengo will once again have to rely on their talents, friends, and creative energy for any sense of hope or relief. They recently announced that “Patria y Vida” will be getting a full-length documentary through a partnership with Exile Content Studio. Although no release date has been given, they’re doing all they can to get this urgent message delivered quickly to a broader audience.

At the risk of sounding flippant, I feel that the situation in Cuba is an interesting combination of nearly every popular revolution since the Sixties. It’s Pussy Riot, Arab Spring, the Summer of Love, and even a bit of Hamilton, all rolled into one – artists in jail for their art, citizens in the streets using social media to override an authoritarian government, and all of it playing out to a soundtrack heavily influenced by American hip-hop.

We can only hope that with enough blood, sweat, and empathy from the international community, this story can find a happy ending reminiscent of a Broadway play.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

Sound and Vision: The Meow Wolf/Spatial Connection
Sound and Vision: The Meow Wolf/Spatial Connection
Did SXSW give a preview of the technology behind the next portal?

Richard Whittaker, April 14, 2022

MSNBC Gets Behind the Story of <i>Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets</i>
MSNBC Gets Behind the Story of Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets
New documentary talks to the people who bought Gamestop shares

Ikram Mohamed, April 8, 2022

More by Gary Lindsey
Residential Address: Jenny Parrott's Cozy Nest of Songs and Stories at Hole in the Wall
Residential Address: Jenny Parrott's Cozy Nest of Songs and Stories at Hole in the Wall
The Austin folk experimentalist offers a free-entry Friday time portal

Sept. 15, 2023

Residential Address: The College of Hip-Hop Knowledge Schools Austin on Homegrown and National Talent
Residential Address: The College of Hip-Hop Knowledge Schools Austin on Homegrown and National Talent
Organized Konfusion's Prince Po joins Fresh Fridaze on July 14

July 7, 2023


“Patria y Vida", SXSW 2022, SXSW Music 2022, “Patria y Vida", Yotuel Romero, Beatriz Luengo, Maykel Osorbo

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle