Image: Illustration by Katherene Quiteno.
When I was a child, my favorite nursery rhyme involved a cat sneaking into someone’s house to kidnap girls.
“Mish, mish, mishito mío,” that same song’s refrain repeats tenderly; this pretty kitty is yours, this pretty kitty hunts mice in corners at midday- and were it up to the anonymous speaker, his claws would be best fit to steal into your bedroom at night and spirit you away.
“Mishito mío” ( lit. My Kitten in Central American Spanish), sometimes “El Mishito”( THE Kitten), is a Central American canto akin to a nursery rhyme or a folk song. There are various versions of the canto in traditional Guatemalan marimba, with acoustic accompaniment, with a variety of alternative lyrics, but all of them have in common the predatory narrative twist near the end: “ Quisiera ser Mishito, para entrar por la ventana/ y con las uñas largas/ robar la niña más galana,” ( ie. something akin to “boy I’d like to be that cat, so I could use my claws to climb in through the window and kidnap you like a creeper”).
My Guatemalan mother and Salvadorian father often sang Mishito to me without a second thought in regards to the twist. In fact, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized the way the narrative turned into a predatory and voyeuristic projection of desire. More so, I realized that despite this, the song is not meant to be threatening; at most the shift in narrative tone is usually taken as playful or flirtatious. To some effect it’s meant to play compliment to the children being sung the song (many lighthearted compliments commonly made in Spanish correlate beauty with theft, and thus desirability). The playfulness and light hearted context in which I and my parents have learned to perceive the predation shows how it was normalized.
This examination of Mishito opened the door to a whole other host of questions in regards to the rhetoric of theft in popular Spanish language mediums, and more so the way in which romanticizing that motif of theft may blur lines about consent and mask a very predatory, covetous kind of desire.
Immediately, a long line of Spanish language pop music dating from the 60s to about the 80s-the era of the passionate, melodramatic crooners- became a topic of suspicion. I’m talking about the kind of retro, but still iconic music that composes the entirety of my mom’s playlist on road trips and every throwback special on Spanish language TV: Rafael, Napoleon, Miguel Gallardo, Roberto Carlos, Camillo Sesto, Jose Luis Perales. All these male artists singing about stealing hearts and stealing kisses in way that was considered the epitome of romantic, pinpoint very particular aesthetic unique to Latin balladry and classic boleros. Following these forms obsessed with the monumentality of metaphor and emotion, these songs focus on melodramatic and morally ambiguous pining in the name of love itself, as a contest of “devotion”. In some ways, these songs are thematically unconcerned with consent because they lack a concrete sexual object or object of affection. Instead, there is a relay of metaphysical details: fragmented body parts, light and darkness, shapes, sounds, and impulses that allow the focus of the song to be on the power of the narrator’s own feelings. Love itself becomes a measure of autonomy and power, and the more uncontrollable the force is, especially in the face of society, and the will of others, the more romantic it is.
Essentially, there is a power trip based on the act of loving, and loving obsessively, at that. “Loving,” in what are the words of Pablo Neruda, “in the way that dark things are to be loved.” This is probably best embodied in the moody synthpop of Miguel Bose’s Amante Bandido (lit. “Bandit Lover”). Even a swift look at this English translation reveals a perfect example of the metaphysical fragmentation of subjects, and the emphasis on the self that allows.
I will become the wind that blows
I will sail through your darkness
You will become dew, a cold kiss that
Will burn me
I will be a man for you
I will refuse to be what I was once
Me and you
You and me
……You won’t say no (x3)
Without mystery (x3)
I will be your love hero (x3)
I will be your hero
I will be
I will be the lover that dies exhausted
A heart, an injured heart
I will be your bandit lover, bandit
I will be, ah!
It is undeniable that this idea of a “dark” possessing love is exemplary of entitled power dynamics. Bose’s infamous command for the subject of his affections to not “say no” in the pre-chorus (“ No dirás que no”) forcibly restrains the subject’s autonomy in order to play up the sweeping dramatis of the singer’s powers of dedication, which are then equated with a kind of heroism.
In this way, we begin to see that the issue lies not just in the direct language of theft, of robos, sequestros or territorial claims of ownership, but also in the continuous self focalization of the speakers of such songs. I will be your love hero, I will be the lover. The overt use of possessive nouns, not necessarily over people, but applied to feelings, as in “my feelings,” creates a discourse about romance and relationships that isn’t actually concerned with relationships as accords between people, but as outlets for personal validation.
As an artist, I realize this is all well and good for the sake of art, and art for the sake of chronicling the complexity of the human experience. However, it is impossible to negate the influence the phenomenon may have had on its audience and as a legacy, especially in terms of male entitlement and the ever common “nice guy” issue (which I assure you from experience, is certainly not a phenomenon endemic to Anglo-cultures). The prioritization of the self over others in a model for romantic relations can certainly lead to a power dynamic based on emotional debts, self-projections, and possessiveness. At its worst, it contributes to some of the thought processes involved in rape culture and victim blaming, wherein women are objects for taking and “beauty” or desirability is rewarded with theft and invasion.
In this way romanticizing the language of theft both perpetuates and reflects this kind of behavior by normalizing it. It’s hard to say there isn’t a consistency between the entitlement in songs like Amante Bandido, and the disregard for women or fem identifying people that many men have. In personal experience, even the “nicest” of men and boys unconsciously prioritize their own feelings, desires, opinions, and lifestyles over those of their partners. Those partners are then expected to go along without complaint.
Interestingly enough however, men are not the only ones utilizing this language of romantic theft. Very recently Mexican singer Carla Morrison’s single Un beso (see lyrics here) utilizes the same metaphysics and dramatism which culminates in a chorus that straightforwardly reiterates the language of theft:
“Yo te voy a robar/Te voy a secuestrar/Yo te voy a robar/Un, un beso”
or “ I will steal you/ I will kidnap you/I will steal from you a kiss”
The subject is equally fragmented, described only in glimpses of desirability: heat, honey, the opportunity to both sin and be saved in the face of a forbidden romance. In that way Morrison is just as guilty of adopting the language of theft in a way that prioritizes self-focalization over her subject. However, it’s also possible her presence as a woman amidst machista Latin@ culture could begin a dialogue about differing perspectives on the rhetoric of theft, and whether there lies within it some method of autonomical reclamation.
Overall, it’s hard to find a fine line between artistic interests and social responsibility. Writing about and exploring seriously flawed behavior is not the same as glamorizing or condoning them. However, it’s undeniable that the influence of a continuously replicated paradigm maintained by the denial of a person’s autonomy can have dangerous, and abusive repercussions for everyone. Especially in regards to how we go about tending to and searching for relationships, and what we come to expect of them. As a child I learned not to think twice about being told I was pretty enough to steal— as if I were an object— especially when the threat of theft was under the guise of a kitten. I know better now, but sometimes my initial reaction to being complimented that way in Spanish is still to laugh.
And that realization haunts me a lot more than the thought of any cat at my window.