At the end of the 1990s merengue ruled supreme on the radio and television in Puerto Rico. Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” is perhaps the most famous example — a bonafide hit that helped popularize the genre all over the world.

But how did this Puerto Rican hit become the most recognizable merengue song in a genre pioneered by Dominican musicians?

The road to merengue’s ubiquity in Puerto Rico was a long and complicated one. It coincides with the rise of Dominican migration to Puerto Rico and involves a cultural battle fought in nightclubs, “fiestas patronales,” and high school proms around the archipelago. Tensions around immigration and race that developed during that time remain today.

Reporter Ezequiel Rodríguez Andino tells the story of merengue’s rise in Puerto Rico, the ripple effects of this “musical war,” and what it all tells us about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the people from its sister island: the Dominican Republic.

Illustration by Fernando Norat. 

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