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Reimagined for a new era, boleros become songs of gendered rebellion

A generation of contemporary artists are drawing on the lessons of the past to reimagine the classic bolero. Left to right: Olga Guillot, La Lupe, and Doris Anahí
Victor Bizar Gomez for NPR
A generation of contemporary artists are drawing on the lessons of the past to reimagine the classic bolero. Left to right: Olga Guillot, La Lupe, and Doris Anahí

In romantic love, I've often wielded disillusionment as armor. This conditioning emerged after a series of breakups that followed a familiar pattern: An incorrigible partner, unwilling to open themselves to the vulnerability required for honest love, deserted me. They remained physically present, but emotionally recoiled. At first, I imagined that I could convince them to return, showering them with care and affection, my caretaking impulse activated. In this dance, I was pliant and obliging, fantasizing about the promise of reciprocated, full love. But when they eventually left me behind, I turned on my body. I learned how to harden and detach, cooling my blood to love. The longer I was callous, the more impenetrable I became. I believed that disaffection could protect me from the threat of abandonment.

When love has unraveled like this, I've often found comfort in boleros. I've come to understand that their anguish carries a clandestine knowledge about how to soothe the afterburns of heartbreak. That wisdom exists in many songs by La Lupe, the Afro-Cuban icon who was known for tearing at her hair, shrieking at the top of her lungs and kicking off her shoes during ecstatic performances. But it's especially present in the beloved "La Tirana." It's there in her serrated lyrics, in the heaving gasps, guttural grunts and tortured asides that punctuate the song. "Según tu punto de vista / Yo soy la mala / Vampiresa en tu novela," she sings in the first verse ("In your point of view / I'm the bad one / The vamp in your drama"). A moment passes and she snickers. It's a knowing laugh, the kind that restores power to its keeper. In it, there is a reminder: I am devastated now, but this heartbreak will one day grant me resolve. "El día en que te dejé / Fui yo quien salió ganando," she belts at the end of the song. The day I left you, I was the one who came out winning.

In the classic boleros of artists like La Lupe, Olga Guillot and Toña La Negra, sorrow becomes a cradle of power — a vessel for intimacy, compassion and trust. Their defiance has endured in a new wave of artists who are reimagining the form, such as Xenia Rubinos, Kali Uchis, Mon Laferte and dozens of others. In their reappraisal, there emerges a once camouflaged kind of gendered rebellion. The dissent of their forebears isn't just reanimated, it's sharpened for a new generation. They remind us that boleros can be insurgent: potent refusals to genuflect to the quotidian cruelties and deceptions of the patriarchy.

The bolero has circulated across both national and musical borders, but its story begins in the Caribbean. In the late 19th century, Afro-Cuban troubadours from Santiago de Cuba sang romantic lyrics over the strums of their guitars, eventually bringing their compositions to Havana. The genre later traveled to the nearby Yucatán peninsula, most likely via Cuban artists who traversed the 135-mile strait connecting the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. In the late 1920s, it spread to the Mexican capital, and in the decades that followed expanded across Latin America. Novel iterations of the genre incorporated elements of modernist poetry and new instruments like the piano, and standardized formats such as the trio. By the 1950s, the bolero had exploded commercially, thanks in part to celebrated composers and groups like Agustín Lara, Los Panchos and Trio Matamoros.

This time around, most of the composers are women. Their messages of refusal are more apparent, finally unobscured from the enigmatic veil of generations past.

Predictably, the most well-known bolero composers were men. The lovelorn stories they penned replicated familiar tropes: women described as cruel seductresses hellbent on destruction, or unattainable objects of obsessive, violent romance. If the vocalists were women themselves, their legacies often intersected with the torment they felt and performed, blurring the line between mythos and historical record. They became vague, depressive personas, representing the quintessential image of a hysterical, tragic diva: a woman consumed by her heartbreak.

But these women didn't view sadness as self-definition. They were insisting to be seen and held in their suffering. Perhaps that's not immediately detectable — at least, not in the recognizable way acts of liberation usually manifest. But listening to any woman in music requires peeling the layers off the audible surface. When immersed in the textures of boleros, you can hear that this grief isn't just a bottomless abyss. Here, there is a sense of fortitude. These women are wading through the morass of their pain, seeking the fearlessness and dignity that the patriarchy denies them on the other side.

A new crop of artists have refreshed the architecture of boleros, magnifying their melancholy for the contemporary moment. Sometimes, there is psychedelic haze, as on Adrián Quesada's recent anthology Boleros Psicodélicos. Other times, there are echoes of R&B, like the La Lupe and Los Zafiros covers on Kali Uchis' 2020 album Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios)∞. Or maybe the genre is filtered through prismatic, translucent vocal effects, as on Xenia Rubinos' "Ay Hombre." Culled from a fountain of influences, these new boleros function like living historical documents. They are syncretic archives, collecting all the embedded insight and aesthetic power of the genres they draw from. And this time around, most of the composers are women. Their messages of refusal are more apparent, finally unobscured from the enigmatic veil of generations past.

On "Ay Hombre," from Rubinos' 2021 album Una Rosa, the bolero is draped in a creeping organ, gloomy synths and the bleeding-heart guitar of Dominican musician Yasser Tejeda. Rubinos meditates on the estrangement of a former partner: "No pudiste darme la única cosa que pedí / Fue tu querer, fue tu querer," she sings ("You couldn't give me the only thing that I asked for / It was your love, it was your love.")

When Rubinos repeats the phrase "fue tu querer," the dirge pierces the body. This is the kind of heartbreak that crawls up the lungs, threatening to expand in the ribcage and burst in the throat. It throbs in the forehead, knocking and begging to be let out. Before long, an avowal of Rubinos' power arrives, as if summoned from La Lupe herself: "Llegará el día en que te vas a arrepentir / Nunca te atrevas a buscarme otra vez," she sings. The day will come when you'll regret it, she says. Don't you ever dare seek me out again.

The scholar Diana Taylor once wrote that "performances function as vital acts of transfer, transmitting social knowledge, memory and a sense of identity." In cultures impacted by colonial violence and Eurocentric assumptions about the supremacy of the written word, performances hold embodied knowledge. On "Ay Hombre," I hear Rubinos vivify the lessons of her antecedents. I hear the bolero amplified and refined by icy, spiked synth stabs and gauzy vocals, producing a kind of retrofuturist acuity about the catharsis and potential that sorrow can offer. In speaking and feeling through the grief, Rubinos renews the power that classic boleros have: the gift of always returning to ourselves, and resuming our place as the masters of our own desire.

I hear this wisdom on Girl Ultra's "rosas (dímelo)" too. On this slow-burning track, the Mexican singer-songwriter cuts and pastes her influences: deconstructed trip-hop, '90s R&B and, of course, classic Mexican boleros. It's a song about the process of facing a lover who's spurned you after you put it all on the line, who's turned your back on you even after you've given them all your roses. Girl Ultra wonders how she'll tell him about her desolation, as if reciting a mantra:

"¿Pero cómo te digo?

¿Cómo te digo?

¿Cómo te digo?

¿Cómo te digo?"

How can I tell you?

Feeling rejected and disillusioned in love can be universal, but it can be acute for the women and femmes who love men. Too often in these relationships, romantic love can be a game of power, not a practice of mutuality. And in a patriarchal world, the suppression of emotion and sentimentality are tools of domination. Feelings are seen as excessive, inappropriate and intolerable. We are taught to weaponize emotional distance and withdrawal to cope — to submerge sorrow and keep its head under water.

In a world that demands women and femmes swallow their pain, boleros dive into it, inverting the patriarchy's request for capitulation. The hurt is no longer something to stifle. It is not a call for resilience either, a facile expectation that places the onus of repair on the wounded and overshadows the reality that healing is a collective endeavor. An emphasis on individual resilience masks the source of the affliction, too: the fact that the patriarchy also bankrupts men's capacity to feel.

Suffocating in sorrow, building an identity around it and dooming ourselves to bitterness does not have to be the standard by which we experience love. "Que Sufras," a song by the Chicana artist (and my close friend) Doris Anahí, illustrates a similar truth. The visceral llanto appears on her recent EP, Aprendiendo por Las Malas. Its foundation is the bolero, but produced with elements of norteño and mariachi: wistful strings, a syrupy accordion and an aching horn section. It opens with a command: "Te gusta el dolor / Que sufras, pues," she croons ("You like pain / Well suffer, then"). The singer said she derived the lyric from a saying her mom repeats: "A los hombres les encanta sufrir, so déjenlos sufrir." Men love to suffer, so let them suffer.

The phrase "que sufras pues" isn't intended as an act of revenge. It's not about retaliation, it's just observational: if you refuse to receive love, she seems to say to men, it will only usher you into more misery. And under the surface, there's a warning for both her lover and herself. "How many times will I write this line?" she wonders in the song's final verse. Romantic anguish is inevitable, but trapping yourself in it over and over leaves permanent damage.

The Black feminist thinker bell hooks once wrote, "To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending." She understood that accepting despair as part of a loving practice is one way "to begin again on love's journey." It frees us from disconnection and fear, and reveals the radical possibilities of intimacy. But the responsibility to eradicate patriarchal harm in love is a shared one. As she asked in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love: "What will motivate males in a patriarchal culture who have been taught that to love emasculates them to change, to choose love, when the choice means that they must stand against patriarchy, against the tyranny of the familiar?"

Boleros are not just chronicles of the lives of abject divas, or rudimentary genre fusions. The artists reinventing the form sustain the fragments of another generation's learned tenderness and empathy. They join a genealogy of refusal, one that repels the patriarchal demand to constrict and conceal suffering. They call us toward discomfort – toward living in the truth of turmoil. By writing their own songs and collaging new genres, these musicians embolden the lessons of the past. Grief isn't always subtractive — sometimes, it can be generative. It can grant the kind of autonomy and self-knowledge that shepherds us toward collective liberation.

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

Isabelia Herrera

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