Country Music's Next Big Question: Where are Latino Artists?Roundup
tags: music, popular culture, music industry, country music, Latino/a history
Amanda Marie Martinez is a doctoral candidate in the history department at UCLA, and a fellow in the department of recording industry at Middle Tennessee State University, where she teaches the history of country music.
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, country singer-songwriter Valerie Ponzio watched her hometown change. As a child in the ’90s she frequently crossed the border with her family to Ciudad Juarez for shopping trips. By the early 2000s, violence increasingly overtook the Mexican city and debates intensified about border security. Most recently, El Paso has been marked by gun violence following the mass shooting that targeted Mexican residents in 2019.
It’s a turn of events that’s been emotional for Ponzio. “I just want to see people honor my hometown,” says the singer, a former contestant on “The Voice” who has written several songs highlighting El Paso. “It’s not what people think of it as.”
What hasn’t changed about El Paso over the past several decades is how it — and Latino culture more broadly — has been depicted in country music. To Ponzio, a song like Miranda Lambert’s recent “Tequila Does” is just another to stereotype her lived experience. The song, which opens with the line “His last name was Flores / he came up from Juarez / looking for a hell of a time,” depicts the region as a novelty where a border crossing ends up in another drunken night. It comes after signature country hits like Marty Robbins’ career-defining “El Paso” and Johnny Cash’s “Wanted Man” long portrayed the region as an area of vice.
Today, “Tequila Does” is part of a broader trend in recent years of popular country songs that have winked at Latino culture. Thematically this has most frequently included mentions of alcohol, such as Jon Pardi’s “Tequila Little Time” (which includes sonic references to mariachi music with the use of horns), and Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita.” These hits build on a longer history that presents Latino culture as a source of white escape in country music, whether through drinking, sexual escapades across the border or with Latinas more generally, or the Latin beach getaways described in countless Kenny Chesney songs.
What’s absent from country music’s long history of singing about Latino culture is striking: actual Latinos. Parallel themes of family, faith and rural culture found in Mexican regional and Tejano music make the exclusion of Latinos in country particularly confounding. Still, at a time when conversations about the lack of Black representation in country music have increasingly emerged over the past year, particularly surrounding the career of singer Mickey Guyton and her Grammy-nominated song “Black Like Me,” little has been said about the music’s similar neglect of Latino artists (singer Rissi Palmer’s “Color Me Country” podcast is an exception).
According to Jada Watson, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and lead investigator at SongData, just 0.5% of songs that charted on the Hot Country Songs between 1944 and 2016 were recorded by Latino artists. It’s a statistic that’s even worse for women, as nearly all of these singles were recorded by just three men: Johnny Rodriguez, Freddy Fender and Rick Trevino.
“Latinas are not just significantly underrepresented, they are strikingly absent,” explains Watson, whose research reveals that just a handful of Latina country artists — Rosie Flores, Star De Azlan and Leah Turner — have had charting hits.
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