Learning About Latin American and Hispanic Culture and History Through Music

Learning About Latin American and Hispanic Culture and History Through Music

How can music represent a mix of cultures? What role does music play in our diverse identities? How can music reveal complex histories? These are some of the questions explored by the short lesson plans below as they spotlight three examples of music from Latin America.

In the first lesson, students delve into reggaeton and its complex history, which includes cultural influences from Panama, New York and Puerto Rico. In the second lesson, students focus on the story of Selena, the Tejano star, and how her story inspired many Mexican Americans to embrace an uncompromising biculturalism. And in the third lesson, students take a musical journey through Cuba to learn more about the island nation and its people.

The teaching activities below, written directly to students, pair recent Times articles with other outside resources as a way to explore this rich and varied musical heritage. Latin America represents a massive geographic area that includes a large and diverse array of countries, cultures, identities and musical genres; the three examples explored here are only a sampling of those that have achieved a degree of international renown, especially in the United States, and we hope these lessons will encourage students to explore Latin American music further.

In this lesson, students will explore the complex history of reggaeton.


Before reading the featured article, consider the following questions:

Questions for Writing and Discussion

Watch the short trailer above for the podcast “Loud: The History of Reggaeton,” which explores the genre’s roots and evolution. Then read the Times review of the podcast, “Reggaeton’s History Is Complex. A New Podcast Helps Us Listen That Way,” and answer the following questions:

  • How does “Loud” address those myths and misconceptions, according to the author of the review, Isabelia Herrera?

Additional Ideas for Teaching and Learning

  • Listen to the first episode of the “Loud” podcast. What do you learn about the roots of reggaeton? Note to Teachers: This podcast series includes some graphic language.

  • Write and record your own five-minute podcast analyzing a song, album or music genre, and then submit it to our annual Student Podcast Contest. (Our 2021-22 contest opens on April 6, 2022.)

In this lesson, students will learn about Selena, the Tejano star whose death at age 23 in 1995 catapulted her to national fame, and how her music — in the words of the editor Maira Garcia — was part of the soundtrack to life” for so many Mexican Americans.


Before reading the featured article, watch the six-minute video above featuring Selena singing one of her defining songs, “Como la Flor.” Then consider the following questions:

Then read Elijah Wald’s description of that performance:

Selena combined virtuosic skills with a kind of magical ordinariness. You can see it in a live performance of one of her defining songs, “Como la Flor.” She begins by emphasizing the heartache of the lyric, slowly drawing out the lines about a lover leaving, her face contorted in pain. Then, in an instant, she drops the mask, smiling and even laughing, reminding the audience they are all watching and enjoying this together — and then she again is in agony, her fist beating her chest, murmuring the final words, “como me duele,” “how it hurts me.”

The triple transformation takes barely a minute, and although she repeated it night after night, both personas feel authentic: She is tearing herself apart for us and also is one of us, entertained by the spectacle. Then her hips sway as the band shifts to a cumbia, the crowd cheers and relaxes, and the show goes on.

Questions for Writing and Discussion

Listen to the five-minute audio trailer for the WBUR podcast “Anything for Selena” and read the Times article “‘Anything for Selena’ Examines a Singer’s Legacy and Latino Identity,” a Q. and A. with Maria Garcia, the podcast host and creator. Then answer the following questions:

  • Why is Selena significant to Ms. Garcia?

  • Ms. Garcia states, “There was this tension between these two parts of me, and to see somebody who embodied both of those parts fully in the States and in Mexico, who traversed the two countries without code switching, who was the same person on both sides of the border — I’d never seen anything like that. It struck me at a young age and it stayed with me all of my life.” Explain in your own words what she means. Why do you think this realization was so important for Ms. Garcia?

  • After reading the article, what do you think is Selena’s legacy?

Additional Ideas for Teaching and Learning

  • Listen to the first episode of “Anything for Selena.” (Escucha en Español.) Then consider why Selena was so important to the podcast host, and reflect on whether there is anyone in your life who helps you find your own place in the world.

In this lesson, students will learn about how music is everywhere on the island of Cuba and how each region moves to its own defining rhythm.


How much do you know about Cuba? Take this five-question quiz about the nation’s geography and history to find out, and to learn more along the way.

Then consider: How does geography — where our families are from, and where we grow up and live — influence our experience of music?

Questions for Writing and Discussion

Read the article “Discovering Cuba, and Island of Music.” Before you start scrolling, be sure to unmute the videos by clicking the volume button at the bottom left of the video. Then spend some time watching and listening to the music embedded throughout the article. After you’re done, answer the following questions:

  • The article includes seven short videos. Which music featured in the article interests you the most? If you could be present at one of these performances, which one would you choose and why?

  • The authors traveled to Cuba to better understand the island nation through its music. What are some of the things they learned through their journey? What are some things you learned by reading — and experiencing — their article?

  • What are three ways Cuban music reveals the country’s complex history?

Additional Ideas for Teaching and Learning

  • The album “Buena Vista Social Club” was recorded 25 years ago. Listen to “Chan Chan,” the first song on the album. What do you notice about the music? What is your reaction to it? Then read “‘Buena Vista Social Club’ at 25: Memories of Memories,” a written conversation between three New York Times critics about how the album comes across a generation later. According to the critics, what is the cultural significance of “Buena Vista Social Club”?

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.