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Singing Coritos: An interview with Rosa Cándida Ramírez and Analisse Reyes

Analisse Reyes, Rosa Candida Ramirez, coritos, Spanish, The Center for Congregational Song

**This article was originally published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. For the original article, click here.

Singing coritos {short songs} in Spanish and English is hospitable in worship. It also opens up worshipers to new understandings of God.

Rosa Cándida Ramírez is pastor of compassionate ministries at First Nazarene Church of Pasadena (California) and worship pastor of La Fuente Ministries, Paz Naz’s intercultural, intergenerational bilingual ministry. Analisse Reyes teaches music at a bilingual charter school in downtown Los Angeles and has led worship in many churches. Ramírez and Reyes met at Fuller Theological Seminary. In this edited conversation, they talk about researching and transcribing coritos for a forthcoming bilingual hymnal for Protestants (developed by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and GIA Publications).

 

What is a corito?

RCR: I like Justo L. González’s definition in ¡Alabádle!: Hispanic Christian Worship: ”Fairly simple tunes, often with repetitive words, that the people sing by heart. Most of them are anonymous, and pass by word of mouth from one congregation to another. For that reason, the tune or the words of a particular corito may vary significantly from one place to another. They are often sung to the accompaniment of clapping hands, tambourines, and other instruments.”

AR: A corito is like a bridge among Spanish speakers from different generations, countries, and Christian traditions. I grew up in a Spanish-speaking Assembly of God church. When I was a teen, our family switched to a non-denominational Anglo church. Since enrolling at Fuller, I’ve led worship at a bilingual Lutheran church. In each place, Latinos sang coritos as a celebratory way to build the faith.

 

Who sings coritos?

RCR: They’re pretty widespread. No matter which denomination they affiliate with, many Latino churches have a high pneumatology. This emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit seeps into worship in Baptist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, and charismatic Roman Catholic churches. I grew up singing “Ven, Ven, Ven, Espíritu Divino,” which asks the Holy Spirit to come and take over every part of our lives.

With 33 Spanish-speaking countries in the world, there are a plethora of expressions. Different cultures sing coritos to different rhythms, like salsa or merengue. Yet, if you visit a Latino church that still preserves its coritos heritage, then you find yourself at home. You can clap along or sing the lyrics you know.

 

Have you met people who think of coritos as too old-fashioned to belong in contemporary worship?

RCR: People who came here by choice often don’t feel a need for coritos. But I’ve talked with people who’ve been forced to leave their homeland and who say that singing coritos helps preserve the essence of their culture. My parents came from El Salvador. When we became Christians, our church taught us that singing coritos was a way to live into our Salvadoran roots. The words of many coritos come directly from the Psalms or Old and New Testament stories. Singing coritos to yourself is a way to pray during trials and tribulations. And for children of the diaspora, such as myself, we yearn for a culture or country that was never ours. That’s partly why I want to research and document our oral tradition.

In La Fuente, I think it’s fun to mix a corito with a hymn or a more contemporary song. I see people clapping harder, singing louder, and showing more emotion for coritos. Choosing a corito in worship is a beautiful gift of welcome and provides a powerful way for congregations to respond in worship.

 

Why and how did you get started together on this coritos project?

AR: Rosa and I both sang for the REVERE | RESTORE album of music written, performed, and produced by Fuller Seminary students and alumni. That project was directed by Edwin Willmington, a professor and composer on staff at Fuller’s Brehm Center for Theology, Worship, and the Arts. I’d been leading worship at a church that had a homemade songbook of coritos with chord charts. Rosa uses coritos in her congregation, and we started talking about finding, translating, transcribing, and teaching coritos.

Ed Willmington has been a mentor for us, and he connected us with Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s bilingual Protestant hymnal project—Santo, santo, santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God, which will come out in 2019Learning the bilingual hymnal team’s process has inspired much of our work as worship leaders and created resources that provide translations that are faithful to the original language.

 

Where did you find coritos to send on to the Worship Institute?

RCR: We reached out to our networks—mine in California and Analisse’s in Florida. We looked up YouTube videos and added them to a spreadsheet. We tried using a survey, but that doesn’t work as well with first generation immigrants. It’s better to build trust and have face-to-face interviews about coritos they love.

AR: We literally thought through all the coritos we could remember singing; we asked ourselves questions like, “What did I sing in my grandma’s church?” I grew up in Florida, my mom is second generation from Puerto Rico, and my dad is first generation from the Caribbean coast of Colombia. So most of my coritos came from the Caribbean. Rosa knows more coritos from Mexico and Central America.

 

What were the main tasks of your project?

AR: Rosa did most of the interviews, and I did most of the notation of melodies. In deciding which to send on to the Worship Institute, we had to think through the theology of each corito. In many cases, we had to choose among different versions of a corito. We sent Spanish lyrics and literal English translations. Where possible, we submitted two YouTube examples per corito and also made voice recordings of some coritos.

 

When will your coritos project be finished?

RCR: Although we finished our project with the Worship Institute, I think this will be a lifelong interest for me. I still have many recorded interviews to transcribe, and I want to do more interviews. Listening to people’s stories about wars and border crossings is hard, but it’s beautiful to see how singing coritos helps them express God’s presence in their lives.

AR: We have enough material to create future projects, such as an anthology of stories behind specific coritos. It would be cool to preserve oral tradition this way. At Fuller, I’m getting a master’s degree in theology and the arts, and I hope to design a bilingual worship resource app. Preparing for bilingual worship can be tedious, because if you’re teaching a song that’s only been handed down orally, you have to make chord charts and translate between English and Spanish. The app would do those things so music leaders wouldn’t have to.

 

Why do you care so much about preserving coritos?

AR: My biggest thing is developing and curating church music resources that are faithful to the language, culture, and integrity of the song. I grew up singing “Que Bueno Llegó La Navidad,” which identifies Christ with Christmas and says that whoever has Christ has joy. It’s a favorite to sing during what Caribbeans call las parrandas and other Latinos call las posadas. It’s like Christmas caroling. Groups of singers and musicians walk from house to house, knock on the door, sing, and get invited in to share food.

Also, especially in California and Florida, it’s strengthening to acknowledge how bilingual our Latino churches are. Using both languages in worship sends the message that when we come to church, we are all equal.

RCR: I want to explore how coritos shape our spiritual understanding and imagination about how God is present with us. Corito lyrics often identify the singers with the people of Israel, as if the singers were crossing the desert in the Exodus story or marching around Jericho seven times or seeing Jesus heal people.

 

Why should churches that aren’t mainly Latino consider singing coritos?

RCR: During a Paz Naz intercultural Pentecost service, a vocalist asked me to accompany on piano what she was singing in Armenian. As I played by ear, I realized I knew the song as “Me alegraré (en el Señor).” Afterwards I asked her to translate the Armenian lyrics into English and realized they matched completely with the Spanish lyrics I knew. The only difference is that the Armenians clap where the Latinos say, “Hey!” In both cases, this short song uses phrases from Psalm 23 to talk about being glad in the Lord. It resonates in cultures that live with pain, suffering, and exile. I’d love to know how and when that corito came to be sung in Armenian.

Different languages have different cultural values and understandings of God. I yearn for worship leaders to show hospitality by investing time to learn from a completely different culture, because this opens up a wider understanding of God. God in Spanish is Dios. Seeing through the lyrics of a corito—sung by someone who is poor, marginalized, a refugee, or undocumented—gives us a unique understanding of who God is. Dios is the one who stays with us despite life’s difficulties. Singing coritos helps us cling to hope that Dios is going to come through for us.

 

LEARN MORE

Scroll down to read Rosa Cándida Ramírez’ blog post about how singing a corito helped people pray with and for fellow Christians struggling with immigration status issues. Explore different cultural understandings of God and worship in Sandra Van Opstal’s book The Next Worship: Glorifying God in a Diverse World. This article explores diversity among Latino Protestants.

**This article was originally published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. For the original article, go to: https://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/rosa-c-ndida-ram-rez-and-analisse-reyes-on-singing-coritos

 

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