The legacy of colonialism has had significant impacts on Latin America. The countries of the region grapple with the long-lasting issues of drastic social and economic inequalities, oppressive governmental rule, as well as the exploitation of the environment and the lower class.
With little in the ways of governmentally protected and accepted forms of protest, the people of these countries must find unique ways to express their grievances and rally support for change.
Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz’s Film “Acts of Resistance: Heavy Metal Music in Latin America”
Heavy metal music is one of the most popular, wide-reaching forms of protest in Latin America today. The documentary “Acts of Resistance: Heavy Metal Music in Latin America” is focussed on the use of metal music as a form of resistance in Latin America.
Created by Dr. Nelson Varas-Díaz, a Professor at Florida International University’s Department of Global and Socio-cultural Studies, “Acts of Resistance” is the fourth film by Vargas-Diaz on the topic of heavy metal music. The film covers the latest developments in his decade-long trek through Latin America documenting metal music.
“Acts of Resistance” sees Dr. Varas-Díaz journey through Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador to uncover how the people of these countries use heavy metal music to fight the most pressing problems facing their societies.
What is Latin Metal Music?
Characterized by loud, distorted guitars and intense, scream-like vocals, metal music is one of the most popular and commercially successful subgenres of rock music, with deep roots in the UK.
Bands like Black Sabbath and Judas Priest are often considered the fathers of heavy metal. Since its inception in the late 1960s and early 1970s, heavy metal music has transformed into a global phenomenon.
In Latin America, heavy metal music took hold and morphed into a new subgenre altogether, commonly referred to as Latin metal. Latin metal features many of the same characteristics as heavy metal, but can contain elements of Spanish music as well as Latin percussion and salsa rhythm.
Latin Metal Music as a Force for Social Change
In Latin America, a region rife with political and social unrest, the aggressive and rebellious nature of metal music meshes perfectly with the desire of the people for change. In the documentary, Dr. Varas-Díaz starts this journey in Guatemala, a nation with a history of rural and indigenous oppression that has the metal music community fighting back.
The Guatemalan Civil War: A History of Colonialism and Exploitation
From 1960 to 1996, Guatemala was locked in a civil war between the nation’s government and various guerrilla groups supported by the indigenous Mayan population.
The conflict arose out of Guatemala’s history of colonialism and wealth disparity, dating back to 19th-century exploitation of Guatemalan workers at the hands of European and American colonial powers seeking to make profits.
This progressed into a legacy of dictatorial rule and a vast impoverished population, finally boiling over into the nation’s civil war during which the government was particularly cruel to the Mayan population, which suffered many casualties and disappearances.
Impact of the Conflict on Guatemalan Rural and Indigenous Populations and the 1996 Peace Accords
Peace accords were signed in 1996 to officially end the conflict, but the damage was already done. The Guatemalan rural and indigenous populations were left ravaged and disregarded by the government, setting the country up for development into the 21st century that left the lower class behind.
This impact is plain to see when Dr. Varas-Díaz arrives, following a local metal band to a small rural school.
The Internal Circle: Guatemalan Metal Music for Education
As the film takes us through its sparse, bare-boned structure, Gerardo Perez Acual explains to the audience that the school receives next to no funding and resources.
The school is so understaffed and underfunded that the few teachers and one principal there take on the responsibilities of a full-sized staff, teaching nearly every grade every year.
Acual, the frontman of the metal band that has come to the school, says that this is the very reason they chose to sponsor the school as The Internal Circle.
The Formation of the Internal Circle
The Internal Circle is an organization that has emerged from the Guatemalan heavy metal scene, with the sole mission of supporting underprivileged school children.
Acual explains that the birth of the Internal Circle was a collective moment of realization. As a heavy metal musician, he and his band were already making music about fighting the system and rebelling.
When thinking about his music’s subject matter and the conditions of rural Guatemala, Acual decided that the music should actually support change rather than just talk about it. Acual, his band, other metal bands and concert organizers within the community share this sentiment.
The Internal Circle was formed as a sort of heavy metal collective in which bands and school officials work together to support the students through the music.
How The Internal Circle Supports Schools in Guatemala
This endeavor is loving by nature. This love is apparent in the reaction of the students to the band’s arrival, and the endearing juxtaposition of small children laughing and swarming Acual and his bandmates who are all decked out in black with long hair.
The love also extends beyond the music and the band—the teachers take up just as much of the burden of bolstering their students. In a touching scene, the small group of young students sits outside and listen to a teacher stress the importance of self-love and self-acceptance.
The fact that these metal musicians and teachers go the extra mile to care for the students is an indication that their work arises from genuine care and is not just for the sake of optics.
Fundraising for Schools: Annual Metal Concerts
The metal bands of Guatemala—the heart of the Internal Circle—also do their part by performing annual concerts that operate as big fundraising events to collect money and resources for the schools.
In addition to the cover charge, the second requirement to attend the concert is the donation of three 100-page notebooks—the musicians emphasize this to stress that their music is, first and foremost, for the betterment of education in rural Guatemala.
The musicians are not oblivious to the perception of them as mindless, metal-obsessed burnouts and are happy to disprove the stereotype. In fact, many of them think of themselves as social justice warriors first and musicians second, if at all.
Acual and his fellow musicians are dedicated to bringing hopeful opportunities to the students of the schools left in the dust by the selfish motives of an oppressive government.
Columbia’s Bloody Struggle: The Violence of Drug Trafficking
Just like Guatemala, Colombia is a country built on a legacy of civil unrest and oppression, but this legacy shows itself in more blatant brutality. The nation has endured years of unimaginable violence and anguish due to conflict between guerrilla troops, and military and paramilitary soldiers, both backed by the government.
All three entities are involved in the massive economy of drug trafficking. Caught in the middle of the conflict are the innocent Colombian citizens left enduring the aftermath of the violence.
Collective Memory and the Colombian Rejection of the Proposed Peace Accord
This history of bloodshed in Colombia dates back decades. The violence has been persistent; in 2016, Colombians rejected a proposed peace accord that would have ended years of warfare between the government and guerrilla groups.
The people express concern over the collective memory of Columbia and speculate whether this rejection is an act of suppressing trauma or being desensitized to the violence.
To reject legislation that would end years of violence seems unimaginable, and thus arises the concern of Colombian metal musicians as to how this could happen.
Does the persistence of violence in the nation lead the people to a fragile state of being where a combative environment is familiar and therefore safe?
Or has the violence raged on for so long that its presence feels trivial and not even worth changing?
Heavy Metal Music in Colombia: Fighting to Preserve Memory
Additionally, they hope their music will prevent Colombian citizens from forgetting the violence they have experienced as innocent bystanders to the struggles between the waring government and guerrilla factions.
René Nariño and Guerrilla Rebels in Colombia
These bands’ efforts are not in vain, as Dr. Varas-Díaz finds out when he speaks with René Nariño. Nariño, a former guerrilla troop himself, currently works for the Secretariat for Territorial Peace and Reconciliation, an organization that specializes in contacting ex-guerrilla fighters in urban areas in order to assimilate them back into a civilian society.
Nariño explains his sympathy for those fighting the armed struggle against the Colombian government. Nariño has an acute understanding of the contextual issues—the nation’s prison system disproportionately targets lower-income communities, and opposition is a means for them to fight for their human rights.
During his time as a guerrilla rebel, Nariño was captured in 2011 and imprisoned for six years until his release in 2017. Nariño cites heavy metal music as the saving grace that got him through his years behind bars.
The Metal Community in Colombia
In the film, as he sings praises of his friends in the metal community that rallied to support him while he was in jail. While he is doing so, numerous images fade in and out on screen of him wearing metal band t-shirts and sticking up his fists in gestures that appear to be half resistance, half rock ‘n’ roll.
Nariño’s story is a prime example of the tight-knit nature of these Latin American metal communities pushing for change. His metalhead allies that brought attention to his unjust imprisonment did so in unmissable ways by hosting several annual “Terrorizer Fests” for metal bands to come together and perform music in opposition to the oppressive Colombian government.
Medellín, Colombia: The City Embracing Metal Music
The goals of the bands Dr. Varas-Díaz has been documenting are often in direct opposition to the values of their governments. In Medellín, Columbia, metal bands and their fight to preserve the memory of Colombia’s history are embraced and praised.
Masacre, the main band Dr. Varas-Díaz is following through Colombia, hails from Medellín, where they have been making and performing protest music since the 1980s.
Almost 40 years since the creation of Masacre, the band’s frontman Alex Okendo feels that almost no progress has been made in Colombia in terms of ending the unfair, oppressive, and violent rule of the government over its citizens.
Masacre’s Music Receives Official Recognition in Medellín, Colombia
With Masacre’s music being as pertinent as ever, city officials in Medellín respect and honor their hometown heroes’ work in pushing for remembrance and justice.
In the film, Dr. Varas-Díaz and Masacre go to Medellín for Okendo to accept the Silver Grade Juan del Corral Award, an honor often bestowed upon famous politicians, journalists, and athletes.
It is the first time in the documentary where the work of the bands does not seem quite so much like a David and Goliath battle, as Okendo and his bandmates sit among suit-and-tie city officials who hand them a prestigious award and applaud them for a full, uninterrupted minute.
After all of the fanfare, Okendo cuts through all the praise and recognition to get right down to the mission of Masacre and metal in Colombia. Much like the Internal Circle in Guatemala, Okendo explains that the primary goal of his music is to uplift and inspire the youth of Colombia.
If the message behind the music can reach a new generation and keep them from forgetting the country’s bloody history, Colombia may not be doomed to repeat it.
Metal Music in Ecuador: Fighting to Protect the Environment
In Ecuador, the last stop on Dr. Varas-Díaz’s three-country journey for Acts of Resistance, metal music’s social justice mission is a bit different – as is its sound. On a live radio show performance, Dr. Varas-Díaz sits in with Ecuadorian metal band Curare. Curare’s music calls for the protection of Ecuador’s natural ecosystems.
Curare’s set for the radio show is a departure from the other bands’ heavy metal sound in the documentary, featuring acoustic instruments and a woodwind section that give the songs a sound more reminiscent of traditional Latin music.
Environmental Activism: Indigenous People and Mining in Ecuador
As explained by Curare frontman Juan Pablos Rosales, the reason for this is to incorporate musical influence from the indigenous Amazonian Quechua people who depend upon and love the natural environment of Colombia as much as the band and their supporters.
When the set concludes, Rosales launches into a fervent monologue on why environmental activism is so important in Ecuador. He calls out the Ecuadorian government and private mining companies that have been polluting the nation’s natural water supply by mixing it with sulfuric acid and cyanide in order to mine gold.
Curare and OMASNE: A Pro-Environment Collective
The reckless mining activity in Ecuador is setting the nation on a crash course to a ravaged ecosystem, and is the main reason for Rosales and his band making music in protest of the mining.
Still on air in the radio station, Rosales says that Curare fully endorses the Mining and Social Environmental Observatory of the North of the Country (OMASNE), a collective seeking to regulate the actions of mining companies in Ecuador.
Recording the drive from the radio station to Rosales’ home, Dr. Varas-Díaz shows just how rational Curare’s anger is, flashing stats across the screen. Ecuador’s deforestation rate is higher than any other Latin American country, with 15% of its territory being tendered for mining.
During this, the screen also fills with numerous clips of environmental protests in Ecuador that grow increasingly uncomfortable to watch as the screams of the protestors get louder while trucks and bulldozers haphazardly plow past them.
Curare’s Environmental Mission
Arriving at Rosales’ home, a more comfortable mood takes over, as the Curare frontman and his mother discuss how music and environmental activism are a family affair.
Rosales was taught to play and love music by his mother.As this endearing story is told, as an old family photo of a young Rosales and his mother playing guitar fills the screen. The desire to fight for the environment comes from Rosales’ father, a biologist who taught him the importance of nature and the earth.
Curare wants to be seen not just as a group of musicians, but as a group of people fighting for the environment. The band is aware of the disproportionate manner in which unethical mining practices affect societies. This fact becomes clear as Dr. Varas-Díaz talks with Monserrate Vázquez, an OMASNE activist helping set up a sponsored concert for Curare.
The Social Aspects of Ecuador’s Environmental Issues
Vázquez explains how, just like the issues facing society in Guatemala and Colombia, Ecuador’s environmental issue is a social one. Mining companies go into small Ecuadorian villages with the allure of job promises, but withhold the fact that post mining, villages will be left ravaged and barren. This wash-rinse-repeat cycle of exploitation that makes Curare’s music that much more important.
As Curare takes the stage and thanks OMASNE for sponsoring the concert before the intense music kicks in alongside Rosales’ guttural vocals about how water is more valuable than gold, oil, and copper, the credits begin to roll.
“Acts of Resistance” Makes a Niche Genre of Music Accessible
On his quest through Latin America, Dr. Varas-Díaz’s stops in Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador have humanized and made a typically niche genre of music accessible.
In the film, we see young school kids flock to the Internal Circe with uncontained excitement. Alex Okendo of Masacre receives a prestigious award from city officials. Additionally, an environmental activism collective sponsors a concert for Curare in the film. All these factors show just how much metal music and its social justice goals mean to the people of these countries.
“Acts of Resistance” is part of the Socially Relevant Film Festival’s 2021 lineup.