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Ray Sanchez

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Latinos Rewrite America's Urban Folklore

Posted: 11/01/11 12:39 PM ET

"This is an Irish pub," the red-haired barman was saying.

On a rainy late-summer night, I sat with a group of friends at an old pub on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The Abbey is a neighborhood institution near Columbia University, in an ethnically-rich part of town within walking distance of Harlem and El Barrio, a longtime Puerto Rican enclave that now more accurately reflects the diversity of New York's Latinos.

The Abbey, which attracts a motley crew of neighborhood characters, university students and occasional tourists, had just reopened after a week of renovations that included a new digital jukebox near the entrance.

Now, for the first time, bar patrons could hear the classics of 1970s salsa: the best of Nuyorican trombonist/composer Willie Colon, Panamanian-born singer/composer Ruben Blades and the inimitable Puerto Rican crooner Hector Lavoe.

I collected a couple of dollars from each of my friends -- Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, St. Lucians, African Americans -- and walked over to the jukebox.

Soon, for the first time since discovering the quaint tavern with the inviting wooden booths and interesting cast of regulars more than a decade ago, I sat there with friends and listened to the socially conscious and topical lyrics of our music.

On the jukebox, Ruben Blades belted out "Pedro Navaja," salsa's version of "Mack the Knife." In one of my favorite parts, the statement "I like to live in America" is heard amid street noise and police sirens.

The barman waved me over. "This is an Irish pub," he said.

I heard him but asked anyway: "What?"

"You know this is an Irish pub, right?" he repeated. "How many more songs are you playing? People are complaining."

"Complaining?"

"The music," he said. "People are leaving."

"I'm sorry to hear that. We have quite a few more."

"Can I give you back your money?" the barman insisted.

"No way," I said.

The barman walked away. We listened to one song, then another... No one stormed out in protest.

The moment took me back to 1989 and Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," a critically-acclaimed and controversial film about a stifling summer day in a racially-charged corner of Brooklyn.

At Sal's Pizzeria in the predominantly black Bedford-Stuyvesant section, a character named Buggin' Out sat in a booth by Sal's "Wall of Fame," a photo collection of famous Italian-Americans -- Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and others.

"How come you got no brothers up on the wall?" Buggin' Out demanded.

Sal, the Italian-American shop owner, replied: "You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place; you can do what you wanna do...This is my pizzeria."

"Yeah, that might be fine Sal, but ...rarely do I see any American-Italians eating here," Buggin' Out said. "All I see is black folk."

Buggin' Out hurled a crumpled napkin on the floor and said, "So since we spend much money here, we do have some say."

In the end, rioters burned down Sal's Pizzeria after the death of a young black man at the hands of police. At the time, Joe Kline, then a political columnist for New York Magazine, wrote that the film would inspire racial violence. The riots never happened.

The film's appeal, in fact, was that it empathized with all the players. It not only made you mad but also profoundly sad. Those who saw it as a call to battle were actually revealing something about themselves.

At the Abbey that rainy night, my friends and I sat and listened to salsa, a musical tradition that -- like many of us -- is hard to define. Like salsa, we are products of many cultures and traditions and evolved over time.

Early salsa could contain elements of a dozen unique musical forms, including the son, rumba, pachanga, bomba, danzon, and guaguanco. It evolved from Spanish-Caribbean folk melodies and song forms infused with poly-rhythmic African roots.

Many of its stars were Puerto Rican but the basic musical elements derived mainly from Cuba. Over time, Puerto Rican, Dominican, African and African-American sounds were all thrown in.

Latinos, too, are products of many things. We may be united by a common language but vast differences separate us. We come from Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba, Ecuador, Argentina, Peru and other countries. We celebrate differently, talk differently, mourn differently.

Our music -- whether it's salsa, cumbia, rancheras, son or tango -- reflects our identity, our cultural pride, our idiosyncrasies. For Puerto Ricans, salsa became a way to raise their voices above their social condition. Ruben Blades once called it "urban folklore of the city."

At the Abbey, my friends and I listened to our music, to every song we wanted that night. We laughed and reminisced and, when the music stopped, we paid the tab and thanked the barman. We turned around and walked past the new jukebox and into the rainy night, rewriting America's rich urban folklore with every step.