Growing up in El Paso, Texas, country singer-songwriter Valerie Ponzio has seen her hometown change. As a child in the 90s, she frequently crossed the border with her family to go to Ciudad Juarez for shopping. In the early 2000s, violence increasingly pervaded the Mexican city and debates intensified over border security. More recently, El Paso has been marked by gun violence following the mass shooting that targeted Mexican residents in 2019.
It was a turn of events that was moving for Ponzio. âI just want to see people honor my hometown,â says the singer, a former âThe Voiceâ contestant who wrote several songs featuring El Paso. “That’s not what people think of him.”
What hasn’t changed about El Paso over the past few decades is the way it – and Latin culture more broadly – has been portrayed in country music. To Ponzio, a song like Miranda Lambert’s recent âTequila madeâ is just another to stereotype his lived experience. The song, which opens with the line âHis last name was Flores / he came from Juarez / looking for a time from hellâ, portrays the area as a novelty where a border crossing ends in another drunken night. It comes after iconic country hits like the one that defined Marty Robbins’ career “El Paso“and Johnny Cash”Wanted manâHas long portrayed the region as an area of ââvice.
Today, “Tequila Does” is part of a larger trend in recent years of popular country songs that have made a nod to Latin culture. Thematically, this most often included mentions of alcohol, such as Jon Pardi âTequila Little Timeâ (which includes sound references to mariachi music with the use of horns), and Luke Bryan “A daisy.” These successes build on a longer history that presents Latino culture as a source of white escape into country music, whether through alcohol, sexual escapades across the border, or with Latinas in general, or the Latin beach getaways described in countless Kenny Chesney songs.
What is missing from the long history of country music singing about Latino culture is striking: true Latinos. The parallel themes of family, faith and rural culture found in regional Mexican music and Tejano make the exclusion of Latinos in the country particularly baffling. Yet at a time when conversations about lack of black representation in country music have emerged more and more over the past year, particularly around the career of singer Mickey Guyton and his Grammy-nominated song “Black like me, “little has been said about the similar neglect of the music of Latino artists (singer Rissi Palmer”Color Me Country Podcast is an exception).
According to Jada Watson, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and principal researcher at SongData, only 0.5% of the songs that appeared on Hot Country Songs between 1944 and 2016 were recorded by Latino artists. This is a statistic that is even worse for women, as almost all of these singles were recorded by just three men: Johnny rodriguez, Freddy Fender and Rick trevino.
“Latinos aren’t just drastically under-represented, they’re surprisingly absent,” says Watson, whose research reveals that only a handful of Latina country artists – Rosie Flores, Star De Azlan and Leah Turner – have had success in the charts.
Turner, born and raised in Southern California, is the highest ranked Latina in country music history (her 2013 hit “Take the keys” peaked at No. 37 on the Billboard Country Chart). The daughter of a first-generation Mexican-American mother and rodeo champion father, she says it’s high time for country music to open up to Latino artists rather than continue to allow white performers to perform. ” appropriate the culture.
âIt’s very offensive. We’re not a character, we’re not just a costume, âshe says. âThey take advantage of our culture and how cool and different it is, and how everyone loves Mexico, and everyone loves a passionate Mexicana or a seÃ±orita. They must let us start to sit at the table that we have built.
During the last decade, studies by the Country Music Assn. found that 7 in 10 non-white Americans listen to country each week, with Latino listeners showing a particular interest in the genre. According to Karen Stump, senior director of consumer knowledge and research at CMA, the organization continues to actively seek audiences in Latino countries.
“The CMA commissioned a multi-phase, multicultural research study that began earlier this year to examine the changing demographics of the country’s public,” she reports. âOur goal is to better understand these audiences and their perspectives on gender. “
Studies like the CMA’s come as the entertainment industry at large is engaged in discussions about the neglected purchasing power of Latinos in light of films like “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and shows like the Selena miniseries on Netflix.
This is a trend that white artists like Lambert seem to be paying attention to. The singer recently recorded “Tequila Does” for the second time for her highly acclaimed “Marfa Tapes” and performed it earlier this month at the CMT Awards, as did Miranda Lambert’s bar Casa Rosa, a “Tex- Self-proclaimed Mex + Cantina. â, Opened in downtown Nashville. Singers Idyllevent The line for Boot Barn is also inspired by Mexican fashion styles.
The recent signing of Puerto Rican and Cuban duo Kat & Alex to Sony Music Nashville, meanwhile, could suggest that the industry is increasingly willing to support Latino artists. Kat Luna and Alex Garrido, who are married, first found national popularity as “American Idol” contenders last year and have since built a social network after posting Spanish renderings of well-known country songs.
âWe believe Kat & Alex have the profound ability to transform and develop our genre,â said Jennifer Way, senior vice president of marketing at Sony Music Nashville. “Every time they release a Spanish cover of a country music song, they attract new Spanish speaking fans who may not have been able to identify with the genre before.”
While some might find it surprising Nashville’s increased engagement with the Latin market, there have been times when a Latin breakthrough or two has sparked interest in Music Row. Rodriguez and Fender, both Texans, scored several hits in the ’70s and had a long and successful career. In the 90s, the industry briefly lined up behind Trevino (a Texan who spoke only English but whose label forced him to record his first album in Spanish), Emilio Navaira (who was called the “Garth Brooks of Tejano â) and the roots group the Mavericks, led by Cuban-American singer RaÃºl Malo. And in 2007, native of Texas Star Of Azlan became the first Latina to sign on a major country label (she was dropped by Curb Records after three singles).
But with only a handful of centralized gatekeepers in Nashville who have shown little interest in straying from the white status quo, country music faces a steeper rise to diversity than other genres. These few exceptions aside, Nashville has largely closed itself off to Latino country artists.
Ponzio and Turner say they suffered both covert and overt discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity.
âI noticed when I was on ‘The Voice’ there was something very coded in a lot of the reviews. There was a lot of ‘you don’t belong to the country’,â Ponzio says.
Turner, meanwhile, describes a former manager who gave her a stereotypical nickname based on her Mexican identity.
âThere was a time when I had a manager who always called me ‘Taco’,â she recalls. âI finally said to stop calling myself ‘Taco’. You only call me “Taco” because I’m half Mexican.
When it came to selling himself early in his career, Turner was adamantly told by his record company to obscure his Mexican roots – an ability that would not be offered to darker-skinned Latinos. For Turner, this decision was strategic and protective, rather than a source of direct discrimination from the industry.
âWhen they said that, it wasn’t because they were like, ‘We don’t want anyone to know you’re Mexican,’ she said. ‘They were protecting me from what the fanbase would do.’
Turner’s label may have been shortsighted, to put it mildly, but they were right. Guyton, a black woman, has often been the target of verbal abuse online, and Ponzio and Turner have experienced backlash from fans for talking about the lack of Latino representation in country music. Such experiences speak to the often conservative white fan base that the country music industry has long prioritized, and have been exacerbated by anti-immigrant rhetoric fomented by former President Trump and Fox News.
Despite the negative interactions with fans, Turner also points to the positive messages from Latino listeners who feel his music validates their place as country music fans. It’s a community that has helped spur her upcoming EP, which will be released independently in July and draws heavily on her Mexican and cowgirl roots. For her, it’s a natural combination of country music.
âLatino culture and country culture are 100% reflected. There is faith, there is family, there is hard work, there is passion, and we all know Latinos and country music. [fans like] to drink, âshe said. “My dream is for the cowboys and the vaqueros – who were the first cowboys – to all be in one place, to bring these two worlds closer together.”
Amanda Marie Martinez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at UCLA and a member of the Record Industry Department at Middle Tennessee State University, where she teaches the history of country music.