December 23, 2018. Almost midnight, a few minutes before Nochebuena. Las Rosas, a dive bar in Allapattah, adjacent to Miami’s arts district. You stumble into your car, put your key in the ignition; it lets out a rough purr and lights up as you set the GPS for home and lower all the windows. The balmy Floridian humidity doesn’t seep into your bones like it does in the summertime. You promised your family you’d be rested for tomorrow, when you will stuff your face with hallacas, listen to gaitas, and dance with your grandma in the living room you grew up in.
As the clock hits midnight, a Spotify notification alerts you to a Christmas miracle: Bad Bunny has released his debut album.
You feel bad for every single Latin music journalist booting up their laptops when they should be coquito/ponche crema/wine drunk with family.
The album’s opener, “NI BIEN NI MAL” begins with a carefree guitar strum that takes you by surprise. You get on the ramp to the highway, wind starting to bristle your face as you speed up.
“Sin ti no me va bien, tampoco me va mal Pase lo que pase no te voy a llamar.”
You think about the girl back in Brooklyn who just moved back from California. You think about the new boy in your DMs, and you think about your friends telling you that he’s bad news. The trap beat rattles your tires.
Then the high-energy, Diplo-assisted “200 MPH.” Then “¿Quien Tu Eres?” an aggressive track vibrating with the good-humored bravado that first hooked you. As you hit 80 mph on the Dolphin Expressway, distorted horns mark the beginning of “Caro.” You’re near the airport now. A plane flies overhead and lands on the tarmac. You imagine a full flight of people about to land in warmer weather, about to head to their families for the season, about to find out X 100PRE dropped.
It would take me years to appreciate and acknowledge the ease of our immigrant story and to comfortably say I’m from Miami. I’ve learned to thrive in the disconnect between where I was born and where I’m from.
The beat suddenly recedes into an ethereal, sparse piano. Bad Bunny’s boasts of being expensive give way to a more important proclamation. In a hushed, sentimental tone, he asks what he’s done to hurt the listener.
“¿En qué te hago daño a ti? Yo solamente soy feliz.”
You can’t explain why you start crying. It’s not enough to make you pull over to the side of the highway, but something deep inside of you is overwhelmed by what he’s saying and the way he says it — you later find out the subtle, sweet harmony is provided by Boricua Latin pop god and queer icon Ricky Martin. You merge onto another road. The airport’s control tower disappears in the distance.
I left Miami for New York City six years ago, and I noticed a strange pattern: I tended to fall in with other Miami people. We seemed to gravitate toward each other, strangers in a foreign land with common roots. This perplexed me, as I’d spent my 13 years in Miami fomenting that placelessness specific to immigrant and first-gen children.
I was born in Venezuela, and always considered myself Venezuelan. Raised in a Miami suburb so dominated by my people it’s been nicknamed “Doralzuela,” I never had the chance to think about my transition to a new country. I don’t remember much, save that it was smooth: My father got a new job, we got on a plane, and suddenly I no longer attended El Candil. It would take me years to appreciate and acknowledge the ease of our immigrant story and to comfortably say I’m from Miami. I’ve learned to thrive in the disconnect between where I was born and where I’m from.
We went back and forth between Caracas and Miami for years until it became too dangerous. I remember how The Ávila, the mountain dominating the landscape of my birth city, looked from my tía’s apartment. I remember my grandma’s balcony, and her tomato plant. I remember how my cousin would blast reggaeton in the car while we ran errands together. I learned Calle 13’s “Atrévete, Te, Te” by heart, and can still rap it with Residente-worthy flow even if you put a gun to my head.
He was an ally for queer people in a genre that never bothered to make room for us. He was a talisman that teleported me to my home when it felt far away, and a potent reminder to be proud of where I came from.
As my palate expanded, I discovered alternative rock. At the time I had yet to reconcile such things with the reggaeton that had formed me; I thought my “different” taste made me better than everyone else. I put the beats coming out of my birth continent and my cousin’s speaker in the back of my head, and hid my identity in the language of a colonizer.
It would take moving to New York City, for the first time in my life surrounded by people who were not predominantly Latinx, to grow an appreciation for the perreo that soundtracked my childhood memories. It was in this solitude, far away from palm trees and arepas and the comforts of South Pointe Beach at night, when Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio came into my life.
He was inescapable. Every time I would go back to Miami, I couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing that familiar, sexy drawl. Before I knew it, “Mia” hit. I remember watching the music video as October cold settled over New York: old Latinxs playing dominos, blazing hookahs, extras perreando against iron gates, Drake pretending to be Dominican, and the man himself sporting a fresh mani, tinted glasses, and striped overalls. I could almost smell the beach back home.
My friends were soon bitten by the same bellacoso bug. It was no coincidence to me that the majority of us were queer, Latinx, and New York transplants. When we all came back from the holiday break after X 100PRE was released, we began to listen to him with more intention. We’d go grocery shopping and recreate “¿Cual Es Tu Plan?” We would break up with our lovers and yell Bad Bunny’s verse on the “Te Boté” remix while getting down in our salas, or any club that knew what was good. In our crowded apartments, we would talk about where we were before New York, clinking glasses while he played ever-present in the background. I still can’t listen to “Solo de Mi’’ without thinking of one boy who haunted me long after we stopped seeing each other.
Bad Bunny became a lot of things for me. He was a divine messenger proclaiming a contorted, expansive perreo. He was an urbano futurist unafraid to fuck with the paradigm. He was an ally for queer people in a genre that never bothered to make room for us. He was a talisman that teleported me to my home when it felt far away, and a potent reminder to be proud of where I came from.
When my sister Isa’s diagnosis was still up in the air, she told me that a doctor had advised her to cover her mouth with a mask. “I was really insecure when I heard I had to wear those in airports and at the hospital and during lectures,” she told me. “All I think now is about how Benito does it and knows he rocks it. Why should I be bothered by what anyone else thinks?’”
It took Isa and I a few years to overcome old grudges. Children can be cruel, and we were. Yet, we mutually freaked out when X 100PRE came out. We yelled at our parents in unison about the importance trap and reggaeton have in the current musical landscape. We would laugh together about how goofy and stylish he was in interviews. I started painting my nails, and considered buzzing my head.
Bad Bunny was an ambassador of our context and at times our only middle ground. In the face of a country telling us we weren’t enough, he made us proud to be young Latinx immigrants. In the current political climate, there’s something deliciously rebellious and deeply important about Bad Bunny, and about embracing him. My sister understood that, and it reawakened in us a mutual admiration.
Around Thanksgiving of this year, after months of mystery and speculation, Isa’s affliction was identified: lupus. Nothing she couldn’t live through — still, after a long phone call affirming how much we loved each other, I broke out into sobs in the backseat of a car heading to see her at the hospital. I wiped my tears, and watched as the Miami International Airport’s control tower zoomed past. “Vete,” Bad Bunny’s latest, blared low on the radio. I leaned into the warmth of his voice.