A History of Anti-NAFTA Songs, From Gina Chavez to Rage Against the Machine

Rick Kern/WireImage
Gina Chavez performs in concert at Emo's on Oct. 3, 2017 in Austin, Texas.  

Free-trade agreements are rarely a source of musical inspiration. Tariffs and grain subsidies don’t really captivate audiences as much as things like heartbreak, romance, death, love or sex. The North American Free-Trade Agreement, however, has riled people up for the better part of the last 25 years.

Since the early 1990s, NAFTA has sparked plenty of ire, disapproval and resentment, and artists from the countries involved in the deal -- the U.S., Canada and Mexico -- have voiced their discontent via a handful of anti-agreement songs.

With a new deal in the works this week and the trade pact again dominating headlines, here’s a look back at a history of anti-NAFTA songs.

Liliana Felipe, “O Dicho de Otro Modo”

The Argentina-born, Mexico-nationalized composer and singer known for social activism and government criticism, included the cabaret-themed “O Dicho de Otro Modo” on her 1992 album Elotitos Tiernos, which was released ahead of NAFTA’s official 1994 launch date. The tune is fun, clever and biting, using a series of obscure sexual innuendos to describe the effect NAFTA could have on Mexico.

The song opens by feigning praise for the “visionaries” who authored the deal, before pivoting with “O dicho de otro modo” (“in other words”) to imply that NAFTA is a ruse of the powerful to prey upon the weak, namely Mexicans. At one point in the song, Felipe pretends to take a phone call from then-President George H.W. Bush and then-Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, eerily similar to the awkward phone call U.S. President Donald Trump fielded from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Monday when announcing a new NAFTA deal.

Felipe explains the NAFTA agreement in the song like this:

In other words
It is very clear
You lend me your sister
I sell her in Canada
And in the short or long term,
Your mom is the one who’s charged

O dicho de otro modo
La cosa está muy clara
Tu me prestas a tu hermana
Yo la vendo en Canadá
Y a la corta o a la larga
Se la cobro a tu mamá​

Rage Against the Machine, “Wind Below”

This anti-capitalism anthem is rife with the band’s familiar antagonist fury and the signature growl of lead singer Zack de la Rocha, who is of Mexican descent. The song appeared on the group’s famed Evil Empire album in 1996 and refers to NAFTA as “the new disaster” and forecasts a “capital eclipse” that will occupy and burn Mexico.

“Wind Below” also warns of the anticipated outcome NAFTA will have on Mexico’s southern indigenous peoples, such as the Ch’ol, Tzotzil, Tojolabal and Tzeltal:

She ain't got nothing but weapon and shawl
She is Ch’ol, Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Tzeltal
The tools are her tools, Ejidos and ovaries
She once struggled, now through a barrel she breathes

Gina Chavez, “Maíz”

Texas-born and of Mexican descent, Chavez’s 2014 song examines how NAFTA disrupted ideals considered sacred for Mexico, such as maíz (corn), one of the country’s ancient and most important crops. Chavez said at the time of the song’s release that NAFTA pushed Mexican corn farmers out of the regional market due to the agreement’s new pricing terms, which infuriated her and inspired the song.

In “Maíz,” Chavez sings while strumming a charango, a 10-stringed ukulele-like instrument. The song is performed to an Argentine chacarera rhythm and opens by taking a direct shot at NAFTA:

Corn, sweet corn
For centuries you have sustained us
1994 came and you went running

Maíz, dulce maíz
Por los siglos has sostenido nuestro ser
Llegó noventa y cuatro y fuiste a correr

She later adds:

We didn’t cross the border
To the other side
It was the border that crossed us

No cruzamos la frontera
Hacia el otro lado
Fue ella que nos cruzó

Raymond Leon Schultz, “Afta the NAFTA Disasta”

Years before Trump referred to NAFTA as a “disaster,” little-known U.S. country and folk singer Schultz strummed this catchy, homespun ballad that asserts the trade agreement will fall short of its promises. The sort of song an uncle might sing in front of a fireplace, the light-hearted earworm blasts NAFTA and the pact’s disproportionate economic fallout that he assures will doom the little man.

The essence of the tune:

Afta NAFTA
I think you’ll hafta conclude the same as me
That what was meant for
the working poor is a
boon for industry

Rah Rah, “Fuck NAFTA”

Surprisingly, it is Canada-based Rah Rah that takes the most direct shot at NAFTA, simply in the title of this song alone. Clearly not a huge fan of the trade agreement, this angsty, disillusioned song condemns all things corporate and capitalist, as well as “stockbrokers in the crowd.”

Fuck NAFTA and fuck Dow
Fuck all you stockbrokers in the crowd
I’m so sick of your management
I’m so sick of all of this
I’m so sick of your management
I’m so sick of your bullshit

"Himno Zapatista"

While the lyrics of this anthem don’t explicitly mention NAFTA, the trade agreement and the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico are forever entwined. The Zapatista rebellion that declared war against the Mexican government was launched on Jan. 1, 1994 -- the same day the NAFTA agreement went into effect.

To date, Zapatistas, located primarily in Mexico’s Chiapas state, oppose neoliberal initiatives such as free trade, globalization and the presence of foreign companies in the country.

The lyrics cry:

Our people demand
the end of the exploitation
our history says that now is time
to fight for liberation

Nuestro pueblo exige ya acabar la explotación
nuestra historia dice ya
lucha de liberación

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