On the Eve of Latin Grammys, A Look Back at When Music Industry Pros Zoomed into Class to Talk with Students

bachata artist Andre Veloz
Bachata artist Andre Veloz’s album “Fina.”
Image credit: Andre Veloz
Macy Lipkin ’23
November 18, 2020

On the eve of the 2020 Latin Grammys, Petra Rivera-Rideau, assistant professor of American studies at Wellesley, is keeping a close eye on the new reggaetón category, which was created after reggaetón artists boycotted last year’s show, and on the representation of Afro-Latinx artists. She explored these themes with the students in AMST 217: Latina/o Popular Music and Identity last term, with the help of a series of guest speakers from the Latin music industry who brought the topics to life.

What once would have been evening events in a crowded auditorium were instead Zoom meetings with a class of 20 students and a visitor. Over the course of the term, Rivera-Rideau brought in three guest speakers whose busy schedules may not have allowed them to visit campus: Suzy Exposito, former Latin music editor for Rolling Stone and currently a music reporter with the Los Angeles Times; bachata artist Andre Veloz; and Leila Cobo, Latin music writer for Billboard.

Rivera-Rideau intentionally invited high-profile women from the male-dominated world of Latin music. Exposito and Cabo “have both played critical roles in amplifying Latin music coverage in Rolling Stone and Billboard,” she explained, and Veloz sings bachata, a music form from the Dominican Republic that “has historically been and continues to be dominated by men.” Rivera-Rideau wanted to demonstrate that women have a place in Latin music, as in all fields.

“It was cool to hear from those primary sources and we came back to those conversations in class, which gave more context to things I already knew were present but didn’t have the chance to dive into.”

Eunice Ruiz ’23

When Eunice Ruiz ’23 heard there would be guest speakers in the class, they thought the visitors would be professors from other institutions. That would have been interesting in its own right, Ruiz said. “But then super-important people just casually Zoomed into our class, which was super cool,” they said. Ruiz was particularly excited to learn more about Veloz, who “holds her own ground without succumbing to stereotypes that artists use to get popular.”

In the remote format, conversations with guests were relaxed, and it was easy to ask questions, Ruiz noted. Each of the three speakers brought something different to the class. Exposito, for instance, shared her perspective as a journalist with a news outlet that critiques music. She brought up the importance of enjoying art, but also critiquing what artists and actors do outside of their art.

The guest speakers also addressed the social issues and curriculum that had come up previously in the class. For example, Rivera-Rideau said there has been a lot of discussion about reggaetón “whitening” and becoming more distant from the working class and Afro-Latinx communities that created it. This is a historical trend in Latin music more broadly that often draws from Afro-Latinx musical aesthetics and traditions, but foregrounds white Latinx and Latin American artists, she noted. “I think we need to stay critical of this pattern in Latin music that tends to marginalize Afro-Latinx artists,” Rivera-Rideau said.

In their talks, Exposito and Cobo touched on how hesitant artists can be to take a stand against racism and discrimination, and on the different ways that conversations about race happen in the U.S. versus in Latin America.

“It was cool to hear from those primary sources,” said Ruiz, “and we came back to those conversations in class, which gave more context to things I already knew were present but didn’t have the chance to dive into.” As the child of Mexican immigrants, Ruiz felt the class helped them frame their parents’ attitudes about race and music in the larger context of Latin America.

For Rivera-Rideau, the practice of bringing in guest speakers virtually is worth continuing—even after the pandemic. She plans to have two speakers for her T2 class “From Zumba to Taco Trucks: Consuming Latinx Cultures.” On November 16, Carla Martin of the Fine Chocolate and Cacao Institute visited the class to talk about the globalization of chocolate, and challenges Latin American cacao farmers face in the chocolate industry. In December, Jennifer Domino Rudolph, author of Baseball as Mediated Latinidad: Race, Masculinity, Nation, and Performances of Identity and associate professor of Hispanic and Latin American studies at Connecticut College, will meet with students after they read her book in Rivera-Rideau’s class.

“It’s not just logistics of arranging travel, but also the accessibility of a wide range of speakers that makes this format work,” Rivera-Ridea said. “Many high-profile speakers don’t have the time to pop into a class briefly, or charge high speaking fees for in-person presentations. This format, combined with the fact that so many people are home because of the pandemic, makes this possible.”