Analyzing Latin American history through heavy metal music

Inspired by the late Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University where he shared how auditing a calligraphy class in college inspired him years later to add diverse fonts to Apple computers, we set out to visit classes around campus that make us think differently about what it means to be educated. This is one in a series of drop-ins.

By Maria Gil

What is one of the best ways to learn about politics and history in Latin America? Through, heavy metal music, of course.

It may seem like a weird mix, but during the fall semester Nelson Varas-Diaz — professor of Global and Sociocultural Studies at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs — introduced FIU’s first heavy metal music class and is proving that heavy metal music in the region unlocks a whole lot more about Latin America than you’d expect.

Varas-Diaz has conducted research on the topic and filmed various documentaries exploring how heavy metal music is socially embedded in Latin American countries. His latest film, “Songs of Injustice: Heavy Metal Music in Latin America,” recently won an award for best documentary at the For a Cause Music Festival and a recognition for excellence at the Docs Without  Borders Festival.

“My job is to bring history and culture [together],” said Varas-Diaz. “From the outside it might look like a course on metal music, but part of what we’ve gone through is culture shock in terms of [how] we are here not to listen to music, but to discuss the social context of these countries and what’s happened in them and how that is reflected through music.”

Nelson Varas-Diaz has produced various documentaries exploring how heavy metal music is socially embedded in Latin American countries.

The class listens to works created by heavy metal bands from all over Latin America and the Caribbean, one country at a time, and focuses on how the lyrics correlate to the history and the social context of each nation. Then Varas-Diaz and the students compare themes across the bands in the region and how these add to the heavy metal scene.

Using this approach students learn to analyze heavy metal music and discover how these songs have reflected the social, political and economic context of these countries.

For example, students learned about the heavy metal Argentinian band Arraigo and the context behind the band’s songs.

In Arraigo’s “Vidala para que Sigas,” the class and Varas-Diaz analyzed how colonial relations are manifested between the global north and south, and how the song focuses on the importance of not losing hope while creating new paths and promoting social justice with the generations to come.

“[This class] is refreshing,” said Cristina Mariutto, a junior biology major and longtime metal music fan. “Metal has so much imagery, it is very poetic.”

Senior sociology major Austin Locke says the class shows a new side to heavy metal music on the global scale.

“I think of metal in America and Europe is kind of just boring,” said Austin Locke, sociology major in his last semester. “If you go into Latin America the bands are speaking about things that the bands in the U.S. and Europe aren’t speaking about and that makes it that much more interesting than metal here.”

Locke said that his knowledge of Latin American metal bands was close to zero before taking this course – and now he knows a whole lot more about it than he ever expected to.

“The best part is that we can have these [discussions about sociopolitical context] while listening to metal,” said Mariutto. “It’s a win-win.”

The course is open to all majors. Varas-Diaz plans to have the class available again in Fall 2019 under its course ID: ANT 4930 – Topics in Anthropology: Heavy Metal Music in Latin America.

To learn more about Varas-Diaz’s research group and documentaries, click here.