I always imagine Ruben and I at a small table in a Latin American port city Lima, maybe, or Cuidad Panama, but in the colonial section, where the humid smell of centuries, of rot and sea breeze, and the soft sounds of Spanish surround us. We’re drinking coffee and sometimes speaking his native tongue, sometimes mine. Half-turned from each other, we both see the street, but we’re close too; and together we are looking for America.
That’s how I imagine us, Ruben wearing his salsero hat, black t-shirt, slacks and loafers, not someone you’d pick out in a crowd, but listen, and you’ll hear . It’s in the voice. In his voice we hear the boy full of dreams and big ideas, the singer who brought social issues to salsa, the man who twice tried to become el presidente de Panama. Ruben’s power to change and inspire resides in the voice. From the first time I heard him, I recognized my dream of Latin America, heard the hope I knew was there.
Ah, the voice, the core . But we all have more than one voice, and Ruben is an actor, learned to speak as another, fluent in English, the language he used at Harvard, at the UN, in American films and TV. But it’s English rounded by the shape of his mouth, the songs of his mother, the poetry of Dario. Ruben’s voice is sweet, even when he sings of hired killers or imperialism.
And when he sings, he sings in Spanish.
Writing in Spanish is what I do best, he says, it’s where I’m needed most.
But he is speaking English to me now, and we are a different person in another language, no matter how fluent. So to tell the story of Ruben Blades listen to his name in America, not the soft Blades but the knife Blades — is to meditate on the elusiveness of identity. For Ruben has continually transformed himself.
But the core remains you can hear it in his voice .
“No se puede vivir sin fe, he sings, “no se puede vivir sin fe,” you can’t live without belief.
Ruben grew up in the barrio of San Felipe, city of Panama, where he was born in 1948, with a singing mother and a father who was jockey, basketball player, detective, and percussionist, who showed him just how fluid identity could be. Ruben grew up singing until his law professors told him to stop, and he did, pursuing the goal he had set, unshakeable purpose keeping him in Panama even after his father had to flee Noreiga, the dictator’s right-hand man who would put him in jail for a coup that never existed, Ruben stayed to prove something, and only then did he come to the U.S., an immigrant mail room boy at Fania Records who, through talent and persistence — never giving up on his songs of social justice — was suddenly hurled into heroic destiny with Willie Colon, his big break, the people heard and his records blared from all the rooftops of the Bronx and Spanish Harlem.
“Oye latino,” he sings, “oye hermano nunca vendas tu destino.” Don’t sell out your destiny for comforts of the North, never rest, so that in the end we may be united. Keep moving toward a single fate, he urges, nuestro comun destino.
“Estoy llamando a America, he sings, I’m calling to America but she doesn’t answer they have kidnapped America, those who fear the truth.
His voice was always sweet, but he was muy pegado a las cosas then, vehemente, focused on business even though a pretty boy, focused on making himself heard, reaching his strength, his anthems of resistance danced everywhere to a proud salsa that carried him to movie star status even, un galan del cine in the 90s, and then, impelled by belief, the run for president of Panama. And then again he ran in 99. And now he has joined the cabinet.
The story of Ruben is the lesson about fluid identity that Latinos bring North. But he built each persona on an unshakable dream, the strength of the immigrant, the clave of achievement. I was a boy full of dreams and big ideas, he says, “era yo un muchacho lleno de suenos e ideas.” From the beginning was the heroic quest. And while searching for America, Ruben found the world.
I entered the political process as an act of self-defense, he tells me, and we’re together at that small table again, centuries of stone around us, music somewhere; Ruben’s gaze is distant, his face thicker, lines deeper now. He tilts his head back and looks down his cheeks at me. We have been attacked over and over by politicians who get into power to defend the interests who are paying them. His fist tightens on the cup, our coffee only dregs now.
We came in third without any alliances, we got 18% of the vote. Hear how he turns defeat into victory? Ruben the politician.
He didn’t expect to win that first time, but in ’99, when he tried again, hopes were higher, lessons harder.
We could have done better in ’99 if I had dedicated myself exclusively. But I was living where work took me and I was very criticized for that in Panama. Rightly so, he says. I will only become involved again when I can be in Panama full-time.
In 2004 he did return full-time, Todos vuelven, he sings, Everyone returns. But this time he worked for Martin Torrijos, son of the dictator who his father had fled. And together they won.
Todos vuelven. Ruben has returned. He wanted the Ministry of Justice, but instead Torrijos told him, Turn outward, Ruben, you have spent so many years in the United States . And made him Minister of Tourism, cabinet-level, not el presidente but inner circle, his chance, at age 58, to advance positions he so long only sang about.
So it’s right that he should look outward, from Panama toward the world, the direction his music had already taken him, the journey backward, into memory, toward origins that unite us.
The music from Ireland, from Galicia, the Arab musics, the connections with Hindus . All of that has been transmitted to us who have ancestry from those regions. In America are all these memories. I would like to awaken them .
Si, todos vuelven. Ruben I are together in that cafÃ© again. For me, North American of Scots ancestry, el mundo latino is murky, only half-understood, speaks like a dream, a place that has transformed me while I remain who I am, and Ruben beside me, transformed by my culture though he never let go of his own. In America we find each other, in America where we remember we are part of one another, hear Ruben sing and realize we are at home but connected to the world.
“Aqui estoy, contigo,” he sings, Here I am, with you, tiempos encrucijados histories crossing, la vida es la memoria y el amor de America, life is memory and the love of America “Y aqui estoy, contigo .”
With me, yes, everytime I hear the voice that takes me to a colonial city, to the other part of myself sitting . across the small table where we’re drinking strong coffee and sometimes speaking in his native tongue, sometimes mine half-turned but close, too, together . in America Ruben and I, together in America.