MANO A LA BARRIGA
Put your hand on your belly and celebrate the holidays Salvadoran style
By: Carlos X. Colorado
This may be hard for Americans to understand, but the most emblematic Christmas song in El Salvador is called “The Bullet” (“La Bala”). No, this is not a poetic statement about the current gang violence plaguing the country — more on that, later. The simple fact of the matter is that Salvadoran holiday celebrations are typified by uproarious family gatherings that turn invariably to communal, familiar, inter-generational dancing. “La Bala” is a hit record that has been popularized all over Latin America, but is especially cherished in El Salvador, the land that produced the group that recorded the most popular version of the song. (San Vicente’s own Orquesta Internacional los Hermanos Flores, the only Latin act featured in BillBoard Magazine’s list of the top ten touring acts of 1989.)
To say that “La Bala” is a “hit record” in El Salvador is surely a gross understatement. Salvadorans so adore this song that when a Mexican artist recently called the Salvadoran version “precious,” the statement was headlines in San Salvador. When the Salvadoran battalion in Iraq celebrates Christmas Salvadoran-style, they play “La Bala,” and when the retiring First Lady wants to leave the presidential residence in patriotic form, she plays “La Bala” for her executive staff. The song has been rightly described as El Salvador’s “tropical anthem.” A great reason for its resonance is the way it has been woven into the Salvadoran heart strings over three decades of grand family gatherings. I have a theory that all Christmas songs have a common denominator of nostalgia, melancholy and longing, and “La Bala” has attained that status by the way it recalls the “old days” for Salvadorans who idealize or romanticize childhood, or “the old country” for Salvadorans abroad.
Simply put, “La Bala” is in the line of a “square dance” that may be familiar to the American folk tradition, where a caller announces the dance steps that a group of dancers is expected to follow. But, in true Latin American form, “La Bala” is an up-tempo cumbia with a catchy, tropical rhythm. However, you don’t need to be Jennifer Lopez to swing with this jig. With easy instructions such as “Hand to the belly” (“Mano a la barriga”) and “Now a little rub” (“Una sobadita”), “La Bala” is intended to be a song that even grandma can dance to. This is, in part, what gives it its unique function as the cultural gel that holds so many memories together, because we danced it as toddlers, as awkward teenagers, with cousins in tow, even with our own parents. It entered the fabric of our lives.
The premise of the song is even flimsy. The Flores Brothers’ Orchestra (a Latin “Orquesta” is a sort of cross between a 40s Big Band and, um, the Miami Sound Machine) simply took a song by a Panamanian artist, Arturo Nazario Hassan, and rearranged it in a delightful way. The idea is that you have to do what the call of the song says at the pain of being shot (“You have to dance the bullet, or they will fire [the bullet] at you”). Thus, you have to put your hand on your belly and rub it. You have to take out a handkerchief, put your hands in the air (and, sort of, wave them like you just don’t care), hop on one foot, and do everything the caller demands. In the end, everyone forms a bit of a conga line, and generally finds the whimsical lyrics a satisfying excuse to dance for eight minutes straight (the epic length of the song).
The image that comes to mind, staying with the country-western theme we started with the square dance, is of someone pointing a gun at your feet and saying “Jump” (literally, one of the choruses says “¡Un, dos, tres y brinca!” … “One, two, three — jump!”). I don’t think it is overreaching to suppose that the popularity of the song is in some way a cryptic commentary on the military dictatorships of El Salvador in the 1970s, wherein Salvadorans were obliged to go along and get along as they stared down the barrel of a gun. Memories and families continued, and yes, life went on, but we knew we were dancing on pain of being shot. We laughed through the tears and celebrated the gift of life — even life under the generals — especially relishing the calls to “Make a scene,” “Make some noise,” and “Turn out the lights.” In a time of tyranny, these little rebellions were romps to be cherished.