January 20, 2010

Much More Than Salsa

From norteño to reggaeton, Latino music opens a window on the cultural experiences of immigrants to America

By Helene Ragovin

“Listen up. Pay attention,” says Deborah Pacini Hernandez. “Oye como va.”

Most know that phrase as the name of the Latin-flavored rock hit by Carlos Santana, or the earlier Afro-Cuban jazz number by Tito Puente. It’s also the title of Pacini Hernandez’s new book, which explores the social history of Latino music in the U.S.

“I’ve always been interested in music as an indicator of social reality and social changes,” says Deborah Pacini Hernandez. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Oye Como Va!: Hybridity and Identity in Latino Popular Music (Temple University Press, 2010) examines the complex mixture of sounds and styles that developed as musicians from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean were influenced not only by each other but by mainstream American musical culture. The evolution of these new musical blends raises questions about the very definition of Latino identity and culture, says Pacini Hernandez, an associate professor of anthropology and American studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.

The song “Oye Como Va” is “so iconic, but it did express what I wanted to say—listen very carefully to what is going on with sounds,” says Pacini Hernandez. “There is a mixture of sounds and cultures in the U.S., and we can learn a lot from it.”

One perspective comes from examining the music industry and how the commercial music establishment tried to appeal to—and, to some extent, create—the concept of the Latino market.

“The pop music industry, the media, has to figure out how to read the markets, how to sell to them—so of course, the industry brings the idea of who Latinos are,” she says.

Watch Carlos Santana playing “Oye Como Va” in 2006.

Indeed, the term “Latino” is itself fluid, and often contentious. No longer can the description be tied specifically to language—there are generations of children and grandchildren of Latin-American immigrants in the U.S. who do not speak Spanish, or who do not speak it with any fluency. Pacini Hernandez argues that these people nevertheless have legitimate claims to Latino identity.

And what about people from countries that do not have a Spanish-speaking culture? Many Brazilians, for example, do not identify as Latino, yet Brazilian music has definitely influenced the perception of Latin music in the American mainstream. “Carmen Miranda, in the ’30s and ’40s, helped give the image to Latin music as being spicy, hot, colorful, tropical,” Pacini Hernandez says. Likewise, bossa nova displaced Cuban music in popularity in the early 1960s.

Today, the scope of music originating from Latinos in the U.S. defies traditional labels—and stereotypes.

“At least 60 percent of the Latin music sold in the U.S. today is Mexican regional music, which is more akin to country music than anything that’s traditionally been considered Latin,” Pacini Hernandez says. “People have a strong idea of what Latin music is, but this doesn’t fit their conception.” The reality is that Mexican regional music is often dominated by accordions and based on brass bands, complete with fringed and sequined cowboy suits, hats and boots.

“That music, in terms of sales, vastly outsells any salsa or reggaeton,” a kind of Latin rap, she notes. And while the crucible for norteño—as the style is known—is Texas and the Southwest, its appeal is strong throughout the country. “When the biggest group in that genre, Los Tigres del Norte, comes to Boston, they routinely sell out Wonderland at $60 a ticket.”

Corn Flakes and Corn Arepas

Teasing apart the issues of cultural hybridity and identity has been a personal, as well as a scholarly, experience for Pacini Hernandez. She grew up in the U.S., Colombia and other parts of Latin America, with a heritage that included Italian, Colombian, mid-Atlantic American, Canadian, German and possibly even Sephardic Jewish ancestors.

Watch a video of Los Tigres del Norte, one of the top-selling Latino bands in the country.

“Growing up with English- and Spanish-speaking relatives and friends, listening to rock and roll and cumbias, loving corn flakes and Colombia’s corn arepas, I identified with both the United States and Colombia, but never felt that I belonged completely in, or to, either one,” she writes in the book.

And in that, she’s certainly not alone. “It’s a situation shared by so many people in this country,” she says.

“Latinos have a lot more experience with hybridity, with border crossings, than other groups have historically,” she adds. And in no way is this clearer than through the development of Latino popular music in the U.S.

“I’ve always been interested in music as an indicator of social reality and social changes,” Pacini Hernandez notes. Her previous books have looked at the social history of Dominican popular music and the politics of rock in Latin America, and she was a consultant for the recent PBS television series Latin Music USA.

“Music, for me, has always been a great way to understand what is going on on the ground, how people are developing and interacting with the communities around them,” she says. “One of the things about the U.S. that I find so interesting is that there is a tremendous mix of people—and people have to figure out, how do you create community when you have so many differences?”

She believes the answer to that question is in flux as the concept of identity undergoes a generational shift.

“I think there is a whole generation of younger folks who have grown up with this and are more willing to accept border crossings, who don’t feel as constrained [about identity] as people who came of age in the ’60s to ‘pick a side,’ ” she says. “This generation has grown up with different issues of identity, approaching it in more nuanced ways.

“The energy that was invested in maintaining those boundaries is not happening anymore,” she observes. The downside of such change is whether there is, or will be, a common U.S. culture. “Some people worry about balkanization. You can’t count on the person sitting next to you to have had anywhere near the same experience.”

Still, “we’re all living in the same sort of multicultural and sonic stew, and I think it’s exciting,” she says. “I think the important thing is to listen up—oye como va!”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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