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Explaining 'Patria Y Vida,' The Song That's Defined The Uprising In Cuba

Gente de Zona's "Patria y Vida" (pictured, right: Randy Malcom in Miami) reclaims a slogan made popular at the birth of the Cuban revolution, "Patria or Muerte" (Homeland or Death), 62 years ago.
Chandan Khanna
AFP via Getty Images
Gente de Zona's "Patria y Vida" (pictured, right: Randy Malcom in Miami) reclaims a slogan made popular at the birth of the Cuban revolution, "Patria or Muerte" (Homeland or Death), 62 years ago.

Updated July 20, 2021 at 8:33 PM ET

Cries for Cuban liberation reverberated throughout the world this past week as protests took over Miami and the Caribbean nation. On both sides of the Florida Strait, one phrase rose above the noise again and again, coming to stand as a unifying cry for the largest uprising in recent Cuban history: "patria y vida," or homeland and life.

The phrase comes from a hip-hop song of the same name, "Patria y Vida," released in February as a collaboration between Cuban musicians in exile: Alexander Delgado and Randy Malcom of the duo Gente De Zona; Yotuel Romero, founding member of the pioneering cuban hip-hop band Orishas; and singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno. Contributors Maykel Osboro (Castillo) and Eliécer "el Funky" Márquez are both still on the island.

A deeper dive into the protest song

The lyrics pack in plenty of historical and current references, so we turned to Miami-based Cuban-American musician Lilly Blanco to translate the lyrics and annotate the references.

The most important reference is in the title itself. The musicians are defiantly reclaiming a slogan made popular at the birth of the Cuban revolution, "Patria o Muerte" (Homeland or Death), 62 years ago.

When it comes to the lyrics, Blanco explains, the structure is atypical of traditional Cuban songs. They deviate from verse-chorus-verse form, opting instead for a steady build in tension until the very end, when a sing-along refrain finally arrives. It's perfect for chanting.

The savvy use of popular song is fundamental to the voice of "the Cubans of now," as Blanco describes them, the community of artists who have rallied together in opposition to the government. In a country with restricted access to the outside world and, at times, each other, the artists imbue style, form, and lyrics with messages crucial to the movement – some for the world and others just for their gente. So let's dig in.

First verse

And you are my siren song
'cause with your voice my sorrows go away
And this feeling is already old
You hurt me so much even though you are far away

Today I invite you to walk through my tenements
To show you what your ideas are good for
We are human although we do not think alike
Let's not treat or hurt each other like animals

This is my way of telling you
My people cry and I feel their voice

You five nine, me double twos
Sixty years of stalemate domino

Pomp and circumstance for the five hundred (years) of Havana
While at home in the pots they no longer have food
What do we celebrate if folks are scrambling
Trading Che Guevara and Martí for currency

Everything has changed, nothing is the same
Between you and me there is an abyss
Advertising a paradise in Varadero
While mothers cry for their children who've gone

(It's over) you five nine, me, double twos
(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino, look
(It's over) you five nine, me, double twos
(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino

The widely known historical and cultural references in the bolded lines above demonstrate a new perspective, distinct from their parents' experiences. These musicians grew up watching the government invest more in ceremonies than citizens. The names of well-known figures in Cuban history like Che Guevara and Jose Martí have been used to distract from, instead of alleve, their generation's pain.

"That is impactful to me because I didn't live that (here in the U.S.)," says Blanco. "I didn't go to school where I had to wake up in the morning and go 'I'm going to be like a Che.' These kids did. So, to put that in the song for me, it really identifies their voice for that timeframe... that's what [they] were sold. They're trying to trade that to be able to eat, to buy food."

Blanco points out that the lyrics lean on striking parallels to highlight what they see as government hypocrisy. Varadero, a well known tourist destination, is contrasted with imagery of very personal loss to highlight the government's shortcomings and to remind the world that Varadero is not the real Cuba; it's a mistaken representation of Cuban prosperity.

In a clever bit of wordplay at the end of the first verse, the musicians reference a game of dominos that has reached a stalemate because neither the government nor the Cuban people has a piece that matches another on the board – ending the game. In the lyrics, "(It's over) you five nine, me, double twos," the "five nine" alludes to the year Castro came to power and the double two, Blanco believes, refers to the year 2022.

"What we're going to see [in 2022] is a real free Cuba," she says. "It's our moment. Yours was the five nine, ours is the two two. The game is over."

Second verse

We are artists, we are sensibility
The true story, not the one that's poorly told
We are the dignity of an entire people trampled on
At gunpoint and with words that are still worthless

No more lies, My people call for freedom
No more doctrines, we no longer shout homeland or death, homeland and life instead
And start building what we've dreamed of
What they destroyed with their hands

Stop the bloodshed
For wanting to think differently
Who told you that Cuba is yours?
If my Cuba belongs to all my people

(It's over) your time has run out, the silence has been broken
(It's over) the laughs are over and the tears are already running
(It's over) and we're not afraid, the deception is over
(It's over) it's been sixty-two doing harm

This is the first moment in the song where the writers explicitly link their homeland's slogan and the possibility of a new path. By including phrases like, "we are sensibility" and "we are the dignity of an entire people trampled on," they are imbuing anyone who sings the song with a sense of purpose, even a responsibility.

Third verse

We live with the uncertainty of the past, dumped
Fifteen friends on (hunger) strike, ready to die
We raise the flag, the repression of the regime daily
Anamely Ramos steady with their poetry
Omara Ruiz Urquiola giving us strength of life

They kicked our door down, they violated our temple
And the world is aware
That the San Isidro movement continues, since

We continue going in circles, security, deflecting with prism
These things make me indignant, the enigma is over
Enough of your evil revolution, I am Funky style, here is my mark

You all are useless, you have nothing left, you're in decline
The people got tired of enduring
We are awaiting a new dawn

(It's over) your five nine, me, double twos
(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino, look
(It's over) your five nine, me, double twos
(It's over) Sixty years of stalemate domino

Homeland and life
Homeland and life
Homeland and life

Sixty years of stalemate domino

Here the lyrics reference other artists who, according to Blanco, have been targeted by the government. Anamely Ramos is a young poet who has been detained and harassed by the government for what she has put in her work. Omara Ruiz Urquiola, Blanco says, is a professor who had breast cancer and attempted to increase breast cancer awareness. The government detained her as well.

"This doesn't fit in people's heads when you really think about it. Her punishment was to not give her the treatment that she needed. They denied her medical treatment, this anomaly of medicine of the world denied her because they didn't agree with her stance," Blanco says. "They didn't appreciate her having a voice, even if it was to help the people, to educate people about breast cancer."

"If you're not on [the government's] list of who can say what — you're an enemy," Blanco adds.

Later in the verse, the lyrics cite an "evil revolution," a bold, open challenge to what many consider one of the oldest authoritarian regimes in the world. This generation of musicians do not see the glories of a revolution that has ruled their lives from birth.

The song's virality came with consequences

The track was released in February and has since gone viral, accruing more than 6.7 million YouTube views, with thousands more singing it in demonstrations around the world. Yet it was not without consequences, as Cuban authorities have detained Mykal Osboro since April. According to an Instagram account attributed to the singer just last week, a petition has been filed with the United Nations asking for an investigation into claims he has been physically abused.

In a country with a worldwide reputation as a musical hothouse, it makes sense this kind of defiant challenge would be musical.

"I find it a little ironic that it's through song because Cuba has given so much music to the world," Blanco said, "We feel this connection, we have this voice. I think it's pretty magical, actually, to have an anthem."

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Corrected: July 20, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
In an earlier version of this story, Varadero was misspelled as Veradero.
Anamaria Artemisa Sayre
Anamaria Sayre is a multimedia producer for NPR Music with a focus on elevating Latinx stories and music. She's the producer for Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture, and the curator of Latin artists at the Tiny Desk.
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