If you are unfamiliar with the tragic events of post-war Argentina and the last fifty years of civil and cultural history of the Latin American country that is the home of the tango, you can help by immersing yourself in the songs of Mercedes Sosa. Spokesperson for the weakest, the dispossessed, the forgotten, Mercedes has made her life a struggle against injustice. She is the Pachamama: the voice of the earth. A voice from the past, preserving the memory of places that have always been persecuted. She is the mother of Argentina who protests against injustice, and pays with exile. For fear of her, a communist sympathiser, anti-American, the Argentine power forbids her to perform, her records are withdrawn from the market, her songs banned from radio stations, her voice silenced.
A revolutionary message of political and social redemption – that of the Negra, as she is nicknamed (in South America this word has an affectionate meaning). Forced to expatriate, she carries her voice everywhere, and with her the history of her country. Because fame has not made her forget the suffering of her people. And it is to keep her memory alive, and that of the pain of generations of Argentineans trampled underfoot by an infamous dictatorship, that it is necessary to follow in her footsteps – because it was she, while the world only cared about Argentina for the World Cup, who kept alive the memory of the desaparecidos and the struggle of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
February 1940: a typical house in Santiago del Estero
Haydée Mercedes Sosa was born in San Miguel de Tucumán, north-west Argentina, on 9 July 1935, Independence Day. Her roots, however, are in Santiago del Estero, the land of her paternal grandparents. Mercedes’ parents live a great love story, and the happiness in their home compensates for the extreme poverty in which the family finds itself. Four children are born of their union, but one dies after the first year, shortly before Mercedes is born. By a curious twist of fate, a few days before she came into the world, Argentina lost its greatest tango singer, Carlos Gardel , in a plane crash in Colombia.
It is her father who takes care of registering her at the registry office, but forgets the name chosen by her mother. So he christens her Haydeé Mercedes. For her family, however, she is Marta Mercedes Sosa. To her public, however, she will only ever be ‘la Negra’. because of her long black hair and Indian face. And if, at night, you sometimes go to bed without dinner, you live in joy: ‘We missed everything, but it was as if we missed nothing,’ Mercedes recalls – but we missed the music.
Mercedes loves to sing everywhere: at home, at school, at wakes and at village festivals. She sings the songs she hears on the radio from her neighbours or some relative, and loves Spanish songs, especially those of Lola Flores and Miguel de Molina. Her music teacher advises her to sing opera, but she hates performing in public: for a long time she lives the gift of the voice as a misfortune, ashamed when her father forces her to sing at weddings or at Peronist Party parties, to which her parents belong.
In 1950, at the age of fifteen, spurred on by the enthusiasm of her friends, she took part in a singing contest on a local radio station under the pseudonym Gladys Osorio, and won first prize. Having put aside her initial hesitations, her father agreed to sign her first radio contract. She sings on the radio once a week for two hundred pesos – the same amount her father earns in a month of manual labour, spent breaking his back. She alternates between studying with auditions and teaching folk dances, becoming known throughout the far north of Argentina. Then she enters the big family of Argentine folk, marries, and appears on the music scene thanks to her first husband, Manuel Oscar Matus, who convinces her of her talent and the direction of her artistic choice.
“What is superficial changes and also what is profound changes the way of thinking changes everything in this world. Change the climate with the years change the shepherd his pasture and just as everything changes that I change is not strange. It changes the most precious shine from hand to hand its splendour changes the nest the bird changes the feeling of lovers. It changes direction the wayfarer though it harms him and just as everything changes that I change is not strange. It changes, everything changes. It changes the sun in its race when night persists it changes the plant and dresses itself green in spring. Change the mantle of the fair change the hair of the old man and just as everything changes that I change is not strange. But it does not change my love however far away I am nor the memory nor the pain of my land and my people. And what changed yesterday will change again tomorrow Just as I change in this faraway land”
In 1958, the couple moved to Mendoza, but musical collaboration was not enough to save the emotional relationship. The couple worked in a porter’s lodge and performed in clubs at night. In December, their only son, Fabián , is born. Mendoza is a magical place, where intellectuals, artists and musicians meet and create, imagine, dream. With her husband and the poet Armando Tejada Gomez , Mercedes writes the Manifiesto Fundacional de Nuevo Cancionero , a programmatic document aimed at promoting a new form of popular song, ‘an expression of the Argentinean man of our time’. thus renewing the popular traditions of the time.
She records her debut album, Canciones con Fundamento , and decides that, from then on, she will live only for music, and the marriage falls apart: the economic precariousness is compounded by quarrels caused by professional rivalry, and her husband’s jealousy becomes violence. They go to Buenos Aires, where the couple performs without background music: all they need is a shoebox, a fork or a spoon for accompaniment, and people go crazy. For their seven-year-old son it is an impossible life, and after a while they decide to leave him with his grandparents in Tucumán. In 1962 they tried their luck in Uruguay.
Mercedes sings in clubs and performs with street musicians, appreciated by that circle of young intellectuals working for socio-cultural renewal, such as Eduardo Galeano and Mario Benedetti. Radio stations constantly broadcast her voice: her songs are unusual, poetic lyrics that few can understand. For Matus it is too much, and he leaves her. These are stormy years, of continuous military coups. In 1955, the Armed Forces overthrow Perón and establish the so-called Revolución Libertadora. The Navy bombed the Casa Rosada, Perón fled into exile. In 1962 the government of Arturo Frondizi also fell, overthrown by the army.
Throughout Latin America, the foundations were laid for a new folk song, based on social themes and with strong political connotations. In her homeland, Mercedes Sosa remained unknown for several years: her artistic breakthrough came in 1965, at the National Folklore Festival in Cosquín, where she sang the ‘Canción del derrumbe indio’, narrating the pain of the indigenous people in the face of the abuses of power by the white conquerors. As she sings, she fears that someone will come on stage to send her away because of her support for communist ideas. Instead, the reaction of the audience is surprising: applause, tears. In the autumn of 1966 she released Yo no canto por cantar (I don’t sing to sing), her first album with Polygram – a collaboration that would last 33 years.
Success and exile
Mercedes with husband Manuel Oscar and son Fabian
In 1967 she fell in love with her manager, Francisco ‘Pocho’ Mazzitelli , who helped her overcome alcoholism and serious family problems: an abortion, forced by her difficult health conditions, hyperthyroidism that led to obesity. She fights alongside Unicef in support of the decriminalisation of abortion. Mazzitelli is not just a love: he is her manager, the one who looks after her interests, who builds her career, the one who makes Mercedes the most important Argentinian artist in the world. After recording two new albums, Mercedes began touring the world: Lisbon, Miami, Rome, Warsaw, Leningrad, Baku, Tbilisi… and while the country was suffering under the heel of a new military dictatorship, Mercedes met Ariel Ramirez , who wanted her as a soloist in Mujeres Argentinas in 1969. In the same year, the Argentinean government began to oppose her and forbade radio stations from broadcasting some of her songs.
In 1970 Mercedes starred in the film El Santo de la Espada by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson : it is the story of General Josè de San Martìn , considered the father of the Argentine nation , and continued to release important records, including one dedicated to Violeta Parra. In a new film (Guemes, the land in arms) she plays the part of the Peruvian heroine Juana Azurduy , again directed by Leopoldo Torre Nilsson. In 1972 he recorded Hasta la Victoria, his most blatantly political album. In 1975, during the government of Isabelita Perón , she was threatened with death by Triple A (the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance) , founded by José López Rega , the one who really ran the country’s plots. Triple A sows terror, massacres left-wing supporters, threatens bombings, detonates bombs, kidnaps people, sows hatred among the people.
After the 1976 military coup, Mercedes released an album with songs by Victor Jara and Pablo Neruda (Chile), Alicia Maguina (Peru) and Ignacio Villa (Cuba). They censored her and prevented her from releasing any more records and, during a concert in La Plata, she was arrested along with 350 spectators. La Plata is a ‘red city’: not because the communists are there, but because of the number of victims. The corpses of the young people emerge from the waters of the river, staining them with blood. For Mercedes, exile is the only way: first to Paris and then, in 1980, to Madrid.
The distance from her still underage son and the distance from Argentina cause her great suffering. Although she always has a lot of work to do, the nights never pass. She spends an incredible amount of money talking on the phone with her son, her mother, her brothers. She dedicates many songs to her homeland and to the hope of peace and democracy for Argentineans, such as ‘Todo cambia’ and ‘Solo le pido a Dios’, which becomes the anthem of the new Argentine generations. She produced ‘Serenata para la tierra de uno’ which, in the midst of so much violence, nevertheless wants to celebrate life. The dictatorial regime allows her to enter and leave the country but she is forbidden to sing. A punishment for her and for the Argentinians.
To God I only ask that pain not be indifferent to me, that arid death not catch me empty and alone, without having done enough. To God I only ask that injustice not be indifferent to me, that I not be slapped on the other cheek, after a claw scratched me like this. To God I only ask that war not be indifferent to me, it is a great monster and tramples all over the poor innocence of people. To God I only ask that deception not be indifferent to me, if a traitor can betray many people, may these people not easily forget it. To God I only ask that the future not be indifferent to me, he is hopeless who has to go and live in a different culture. To God I only ask that war not be indifferent to me, it is a great monster and it tramples all the poor innocence of the people loudly
As the political situation deteriorates, General Videla’s Military Junta, supported by the US government, implements a policy of repression that leads to the disappearance of more than 30,000 people, many of whom, after long periods of detention and torture, are thrown into the sea from planes in flight. The dictatorship represses the most politically active: journalists, trade unionists, artists. And, above all, Mercedes Sosa. On 18 February 1982, she returned home and, despite the bans, gave a dozen concerts at the Buenos Aires Opera House, accompanied by some of the most famous local musicians, such as Leòn Gieco and Charly Garcìa. As she enters the theatre, the stage becomes a meadow… it rains carnations, and the carnations become a carpet. “In life I have trodden on many carnations… Too many for one human being” she will say.
But the suffering of the Argentine people never seems to end: the military government involves the nation in the carnage of the Falklands (or Malvinas) war against the United Kingdom. It lasts only a short time, but the 600 dead are many. The tragic defeat in this war puts an end to the dictatorship and coincides with the recording success of a live record, which later becomes part of the documentary, Como un Pàjaro libre (Like a free bird) and an album of the same name. She returned her Communist Party membership card, shocked by the discovery of the real conditions of life in the Soviet Union, keeping within herself the essence of thought and a great need for justice.
Having returned to live in Buenos Aires, Mercedes performed in New York, and participated in the show Corazòn americano, with Milton Nascimento and Leòn Gieco, in the Velez Sarfield stadium in Buenos Aires, filled to capacity. He left for a long tour of Europe, the United States and Brazil. But his health deteriorates. Depression, overweight and an old illness bring her close to death. She stays in bed for five months and loses 30 kg. She managed to recover and released a new album, entitled Al Despertar (On Awakening) , which was later awarded the Gardel Prize as Record of the Year.
To decide whether to continue living on this earth with this heart beating wildly between light and darkness To continue walking under the sun in these deserts To point out that I am alive in the midst of so many dead. To decide, to continue, to point out and consider I only need you to be here with your beautiful eyes Oh, fire of love and reason guide to live my life. To relieve the heavy weight of our time this loneliness we all have inside like lost islands To eliminate this feeling of having lost everything To decide which way to go and find the way To relieve, to eliminate, to decide and consider I only need you to be here with your beautiful eyes Oh, fire of love and guidance reason to live my life To unite beauty and light while maintaining distance To be with you without losing the thrill of nostalgia To discover that life flows without asking for anything And to consider that everything is beautiful and costs nothing To unite, to be with you, to discover and consider I only need you to be here with your beautiful eyes Oh, fire of love and reason guide to live my life
She is now a legend: in June 1989 she was awarded the medal of the Order of the Knight of Arts and Literature, and in 1992 she was made an honorary citizen of the city of Buenos Aires. In March 1997, she was Vice-President of the Commission for the drafting of the Earth Charter: the meeting drew up a document for the Protection of the Environment equivalent to the Charter of Human Rights. The indigenous peoples of Amazonia, Panama and Argentina also participate in the subsequent meeting. The plundered from time immemorial, the last of the earth, the defeated and the robbed. It is included in the UN’s Global Divas collection. The album, which contains the song Gracias a la vida, brings together some of the most important singers of all time: Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Amalia Rodrigues, Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin etc.
Mercedes Sosa with composer Charly Garcìa
In 2009, she was hospitalised due to kidney dysfunction. Her proven body cannot cope. She died on 4 October, after a month of suffering, at the age of 74. Three days of national mourning are decreed. The body displayed in the Congress of the Nation is greeted by the people singing his songs with emotion. Her ashes are scattered between Buenos Aires, Mendoza and Tucumán. In her 60-year career, the Cantora del Pueblo has released more than 40 albums with social and political content.
In 2013, the Argentine Defence Minister announced the discovery of hundreds of documents from the period of Videla’s dictatorship, including a blacklist of 331 Argentine intellectuals and artists to be eliminated: Mercedes Sosa is among those names. She fought for the decriminalisation of abortion, against dictatorships, for the truth about the desaparecidos, for peace and civil rights, for the protection of the environment. She became an international witness to the silent battle of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. But behind her incurable desire to fight for the good of others, she hid a sense of profound loneliness and physical and emotional pain. With his death, and stillness, grew the sense of identification of several generations of Argentineans and Latin Americans who, in vain, hoped for a freedom far from the impositions of fascism and American imperialism. If today Argentina is a different country, certainly, part of the credit is due to girls like her, who never gave up.
 Cambia lo superficial Cambia también lo profundo Cambia el modo de pensar / Cambia todo en este mundo Cambia el clima con los años Cambia el pastor su rebaño / Y así como todo cambia Que yo cambie no es extraño Y el más fino brillante De mano en mano su brillo / Cambia el nido el pajarillo Cambia el sentir un amante Cambia el rumbo el caminante / Aunque esto le cause daño Y así como todo cambia Que yo cambie, no extraño Cambia, todo cambia, sí, señor, ya cayo, ya cayo / Cambia, todo cambia / Y el sol en su carrera / Cuando la noche subsiste Cambia la planta y se viste De verde en la primavera / Cambia el pelaje la fiera Cambia el cabello el anciano / Y así como todo cambia Que yo cambie, no es extraño Pero no cambia mi amor / Por más lejos que me encuentre Ni el recuerdo ni el dolor / De mi pueblo y de mi gente Y lo que cambió ayer Tendrá que cambiar mañana Así como cambio yo / En esas tierras lejanas Cambia, todo cambia Cambia, todo cambia Cambia, todo cambia / Cambia, todo cambia Pero no cambia mi amor Por más lejos que me encuentre / Ni el recuerdo ni el dolor De mi pueblo y de mi gente / Y lo que cambió ayer Tendrá que cambiar mañana Así como cambio yo En estas tierras lejanas / Cambia, todo cambia
 Sólo le pido a Dios que el dolor no me sea indiferente, que la reseca muerte no me encuentre
vacío y solo, sin haber hecho lo suficiente. Sólo le pido a Dios que lo injusto no me sea indiferente,
que no me abofeteen la otra mejilla después que una garra me arañó esta suerte.
Sólo le pido a Dios que la guerra no me sea indiferente, es un monstruo grande y pisa fuerte
toda la pobre inocencia de la gente. Sólo le pido a Dios que el engaño no me sea indiferente,
si un traidor puede más que unos cuantos, que esos cuantos no lo olviden fácilmente.
Sólo le pido a Dios que el futuro no me sea indiferente, desahuciado está el que tiene que marchar
a vivir una cultura diferente. Sólo le pido a Dios que la guerra no me sea indiferente,
es un monstruo grande y pisa fuerte toda la pobre inocencia de la gente.
 Para decidir si sigo poniendo esta sangre en tierra este corazón que va de su parte, sol y tinieblas para continuar caminando al sol por estos desiertos para recalcar que estoy vivo en medio de tantos muertos para decidir, para continuar, para recalcar y considerar sólo me hace falta que estés aquí con tus ojos claros Ay fogata de amor y guía razón de vivir mi vida ay fogata de amor y guía razón de vivir mi vida. Para aligerar este duro peso de nuestros días esta soledad que llevamos todos islas perdidas para descartar esta sensación de perderlo todo para analizar por donde seguir y elegir el modo. Para aligerar, para descartar para analizar y considerar sólo me hace falta que estés aquí con tus ojos claros ay fogata de amor y guía razón de vivir mi vida ay fogata de amor y guía razón de vivir mi vida Para combinar lo bello y la luz sin perder distancia Para estar con vos sin perder el ángel de la nostalgia Para descubrir que la vida va sin pedirnos nada Y considerar que todo es hermoso y no cuesta nada. Para combinar, para estar con vos para descubrir y considerar Sólo me hace falta que estés aquí con tus ojos claros Ay fogata de amor y guía Razón de vivir mi vida ay fogata de amor y guía Razón de vivir mi vida