We were way too young to be grinding on each other by the lockers in the back of the classroom. We didn’t even know what most of the words meant. Bellakeo, saoco, what exactly Yandel meant when he sang “y despues, te como completa,” though we had our guesses. This vernacular of sexual prowess and adventure was foreign to us. But reggaetón and rap en Español were exciting. Different than the merengue our parents grew up with, the sensual bachata they moved their hips to, the corta venas they sung in the midst of heartbreak.
Perreo came to us too early and just on time. It was hypersexual and irreverent, but it was our world of cool. We memorized all the verses, even when Daddy Yankee rapped too quickly, or when Ivy Queen cursed to demand her respect. We practiced moving our hips to a rhythm that came to us straight from the Caribbean where our people came from. And we used each other for practice. In the back of a classroom, outside during recess, at school dances where adults tried to separate us. We faced puberty to the rhythm of perreo.
We didn’t know then how much sexual trauma we were all carrying. Histories of molestation, abuse, queer kids suppressing their desires, secrets everywhere. I was ashamed for her when story came out that one of the quiet girls in our grade had had sex in front of her building. But we’re only thirteen, I thought, and felt sorry for her, though I didn’t know what about it made me sorry. Similar was my response when rumor went around that two of the boys in our grade we groping each other in the auditorium when no one was looking. We didn’t know we were too young to be living the music we listened to. We only wanted to have fun and be cool, same as teenagers everywhere.
Perreo was the equalizer. It’s how a nerd like me got to dance with some of the cool kids. It’s how I outed myself without knowing who I was yet. Like that time I was dancing with a girl in a dimly lit living room. We were positioned in our gendered roles. Her with her back arched toward me, hips swinging to the beat. Me with my crotch thrust out at her, the way boys and men are sometimes asked to do so little in a dance. We did our thing for a few songs. But then I made the mistake of turning and copying the same lithe rhythm I found so intoxicating. The way girls danced, ass to ass, to feel sexy in good company. When the girl realized what I was doing, she turned to me and said, “oh.” Her eyes lit with understanding. I didn’t have the words yet. I don’t know that she did either. But my body told hers I didn’t want her the way other boys wanted her. That what I wanted was to dance by her side, to be one of the girls.
Villana’s La Sustancia X has made me fall in love again with the world of what is reductively called “Latino Urbano” music. Though our collective admiration has gone to another Puerto Rican artist, it’s Villana’s cutting lyricism that has me thinking about my relationship to the genre(s) with more nuance. Songs like “Hedonismo” embrace what’s deemed deviant and morally corrupt. “Mujer” through hymn and style breaks open the possibilities for queer and trans folks in the genre. And “Yo Tengo Un Novio” and “Poli” create a new cool that is explicitly queer, all the while challenging norms of heterosexuality and monogamy.
At some point in my late adolescence, I began to truly understand what my favorite rappers and reggaetoneros were saying, how steeped in misogyny and homophobia the music was. It wasn’t enough to feel sexy. I also wanted some of my growing values to be reflected in the music. And like many know-it-all adolescents coming to some political consciousness, I turned my nose up and away from the music I grew up listening to.
Who would I have been, if I had Villana to look up to as a teenager and young adult? I might have had more words for who and what and why I desired. I might have had an adolescence that was my own, not one channeled through the imagination and vernacular of heterosexual men. And beyond my own experiences, who are we, as collective admirers of the genre(s), when it’s trans women and queer people and Black folks we’re listening to?
These days, it’s a lot easier to enjoy the old heads from the late 90s and early 2000s. They weren’t perfect. The music is fraught. Perreo and hypersexuality have its limits, no matter how much contemporary culture sells sex as an infallible medium to “find yourself,” whatever that means. But it’s a lot easier to sit in my nostalgia and enjoy a good old-school playlist because there are musicians like Villana, Gailen La Moyeta, Tokischa, and many others expanding the genre(s) today. They remind us that rap and reggaetón can be radical, like the Africanist roots from which they stem from. That cool can center the rest of us, too.
Alejandro Heredia is a queer Afro-Dominican writer and community organizer born in Santo Domingo and raised in The Bronx. He is a 2018 VONA/Voices fellow and 2019 Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium Fellow. Myriam Gurba selected Alejandro’ s chapbook, You’re the Only Friend I Need, as the winner of the 2019 Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook Contest. The book was published in summer 2021. Alejandro’ s work has been featured in Auburn Avenue Magazine, La Galeria Magazine, No Dear Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Hunter College.