Lira Popular or learning languages and cultures through poetry and art

pring

As someone who believes that history, culture, society go quite along with language and language learning, it is interesting to always be in the lookout for things people might not know and that might be interesting, not only to other learners, but natives as well.

Up until the 19th century, Chile was probably one of the most underdeveloped regions of the Spanish Empire. This meant that certain things were more relaxed, there were other influences that in other regions weren’t as strong or that news took their time to spread over there. Also, there was a high number of people who couldn’t read or write and access to education or high culture was limited. In fact, the first printing machine arrived to Santiago around the early 19th century. Before, most books were shipped from Spain, Peru (since it was the wealthiest and most important region of the Spanish Empire in South America), the US, the UK or France (carried by the elite who got their education or there or sold by pirates).

After its independence, Chile quickly caught up and print machines became more known. Still, there was a high number of illiterate people who couldn’t read or write. Their source of education was mostly informal: they would watch religious images in Church, they would watch religious plays during certain holidays or inform themselves of what happened in their country and the world by hearing people reading newspapers or so. One of the most popular sources of information for them was the Lira Popular: a simple newspaper that carried certain illustrations done in woodcarving and sensationalist news written in poem format. They were somehow like the tabloids of our time: supernatural news, crime news, religious celebrations or national holidays were their main topics. This style of making and printing news were inspired by Italy, Spain, Portugal or Brazil where they are known as “Cordel literature”.

This genre of poetry/art/journalism became popular in Chile by the last decades of the 19th century. The news followed a certain metric and rhyme that reminded people of Chilean folk music, they were easy to read and were often followed by illustrations. These newspapers were done by people who lived around the most rural/working class neighborhoods of Santiago and Valparaiso. This style of journalism waned by 1920, as people were starting to have more access to elementary education. From 2010, there has been great interest by scholars and the local academic community of preserving what’s left of Lira popular and many people have tried to retake the habit of woodcarving and use it for art or souvenirs, or for scholars, to analyze how the society saw things or what the perception was about women (since many of the verses talk about gender violence), religion, the Army, among other topics. Since 2013, the UNESCO recognized this genre as cultural heritage of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Personally, I think it is a wonderful opportunity to be exposed to these things as they can teach us more about language, culture or even art techniques that people thought they were lost, but they are aesthetically so pleasant. It is a great opportunity for people interested in history, sociology, gender studies, literature or visual arts to come together and compare their analyses regarding one thing. Curiously, I have a particular piece of news that I like, which is about protest regarding the price hike of tram tickets in Santiago, and inviting people to boycott the company. Considering the time it was written, it reminded me of Anarchism and how their thoughts lead, somehow, to creating tango music out of it. You can see how their rhymes work and the use of Bello’s spelling reform, which was widely used in Chile during that time.

You can read more about Lira Popular and check full files about it in these sites (in Spanish): Memoria Chilena, Archivo Bello from the University of Chile.
Do you know similar experiences to Lira Popular in the cultures you are interested? What did you think about it? Do you like reading about history of your target language through alternative sources? Please, let me know in the comments!