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Fruta Extraña: The Story Of Fruit In Latin America, Told Through Music

As "The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat" from <em>The Gang's All Here</em>, Carmen Miranda embodied the sexual, social and political complexities of fruit in Latin America.
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As "The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat" from The Gang's All Here, Carmen Miranda embodied the sexual, social and political complexities of fruit in Latin America.

One of the most sensuous songs in all of Latin music is not about sex or love; it's about fruit. That's my opinion, but it's also the suggestion of dozens of Alt.Latino listeners who wrote in for this week's fruit-themed episode. The song in question is Rubén Blades' "Buscando Guayaba," in which he wistfully sings about searching for a juicy, soulful, golden guava that he's never able to find. Of course, it is a song about sex, but it's romantic and endearing, with a sound play that feels like chewing on a succulent guava: "Esa guayaba no hallaba yo." ("That guayaba I could not find.")

Fruit is a constant symbol in Latin American art. Certainly, we're not the first to draw comparisons that connect sex, fruit, love and life — the Kama Sutra was discussing fruit long before Blades was. But cultures use the metaphors that are available to them, and if you've been to Latin America, you know that good fruit abounds.

This week on Alt.Latino, we're joined by Marlon Bishop from NPR's Latino USA. Together, we deconstruct the sensual vulnerability of salsa queen Celia Cruz, as she sings about a lover's tamarind-tasting lips, between which she'd like to be trapped, like a broken-winged seagull who can't fly away. As Bishop points out, although it's a glimmering song about romance, there's undeniable sadness to a song about tropical fruit that's sung by a Caribbean exile who now lives in colder climates.

We're also having a good laugh with the naughtiness that characterizes son jarocho, the music of the Mexican port state of Veracruz. The folk-song lyrics are wildly raunchy, as they praise the guanabana (soursop), which is "a very soft fruit / that dissolves in the palate / and you can only taste your tongue / How happy is he who finds / this tenderness / sweet guabanana, suck it all night long." As naughty as the song is, it has an undertow in the form of a dark warning: "You are like a white nard, a marvel incarnate. Only one thing I ask of you: Don't be arrogant. The fruit of the trees does not last forever."

Tango, like son jarocho, is music birthed by a port city (Buenos Aires). But the ports of the south are colder and grayer, and so is the music: Tango is a melancholy sensuality punctuated by bitter staccatos and Rs that roll forever, like the silver waves of the River Plate. To roll your Rs in that part of the world is often a show of sarcasm; it's what eye-rolling is to Americans. Plenty of that surfaces in "Bitter Fruit," a classic tango which laments a lover's "absence, which becomes longer and has the taste of a bitter fruit, a punishment and loneliness."

Of course, the story of fruit in Latin America is also the story of exploitation. To many Brazilians of the time, Carmen Miranda's empty lyrics and her massive fruit headdress was an offensive symbol of the way foreigners perceived Latin American women: as objects to be consumed and discarded like a piece of fruit. For some, she was a light-skinned woman making samba, a black art form, quite literally palatable to American audiences. But for many others, she was the embodiment of the Latin bombshell, and her persona was channeled in the seductive but goofy Chiquita Banana mascot: a banana dressed like Miranda who schooled hungry white cartoon characters about how to eat a banana — how to eat her.

Behind Chiquita Banana's swerving hips and the cartoon backdrop of tropical luxury, fruit plantations across the Americas where running with blood. In one of the most poignant scenes in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's iconic book One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Jose Arcadio Segundo wakes up, aching and sleepy, on a cargo train. He soon realizes he's lying on top of hundreds of cold bodies, being transported like bananas, to the ocean. Segundo had been trying to organize a strike against the American banana company which had promised progress for the town of Macondo, but delivered exploitation instead. In response to the strike, the company opens machine-gun fire on hundreds of people. At one point in the story, a relative of Segundo grimly remarks: "Look at the mess we've gotten ourselves into ... just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas."

Marquez wasn't making any of this up. His day job was as a reporter, and he'd grown up in Aracataca on the Caribbean coast, which in the early 20th century was dominated by American banana companies. The story he tells happened in the late 1920s: The Banana Massacre ended the lives of anywhere between hundreds and thousands of protesting workers.

We consume fruit all the time, but we rarely think about it. The same can be said for Latino and Caribbean music about fruit — we dance to it, we hum it, but it comes from deep within our identity. So goes the song with which we end this week's episode: "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)," which most of us have sung along to at some point or another. If you listen closely, it's about a banana-plantation worker who has been picking all night long, and he wants the tally-man to take his tally so he can go home.

So listen closely to this week's Alt.Latino and let us know your thoughts — and tell us your favorite music about fruit.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
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