Latin Grammys Hide the Big, Uncool Truth

While singer Gloria Estefan and actor Jimmy Smits welcome the world to the Latin Grammy awards here, what's hottest with Latinos themselves will remain unknown to most Americans.

With a liberating cry of "Babaloo!" in the l950s, Desi Arnaz started our fascination with Latin music. Today salsa classes are sizzling even in suburbia, and clubs swarm with non-Latinos sweating off calories to its furious beats. Crossover acts like Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and Marc Anthony make millions by torching bored American music fans with Latin rhythms. The very fact that the Latin Grammys will broadcast in primetime to a worldwide network audience on CBS seems to confirm Latin music's entrenchment in the U.S. mainstream.

But the migration of more than 8 million Mexicans immigrants into the United States in the past three decades, who have left traditional enclaves and fanned across the country, means Mexican regional music styles are the most popular Latin genres throughout the land. That's not salsa or the songs of blond-haired singers, but music some might think downright corny: mariachi-backed "ranchera," accordion-driven "conjunto norteño," and brass-heavy "banda." Mexican regional music is so popular that other Latino immigrants -- especially those millions from Central and South America -- listen to it regularly, too.

Stations that feature this kind of Latin sound -- the kind that won't be showcased at the Latin Grammys -- dominate the Arbitron radio ratings in places like Los Angeles and Chicago. Indeed, national record sales statistics show that these familiar, arguably less-than-sexy regional sounds are money-makers, bringing in more than half of the $600 million in Latin record sales last year according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

Yet Latino cultural brokers -- film and television producers, journalists, and music executives who shape mainstream conceptions about Latinos -- have kept Mexican regional music away from wider audiences. They seem to try to keep it in the closet in the way a beloved but crazy uncle might be hidden when company comes.

The result: Stars like ranchera legend Vicente Fernandez, known popularly as "El Ídolo del Pueblo" (The People's Idol) and "La Reina de todas las Bandas" (The Queen of all Bands) Banda El Recodo, which consistently sell out arenas from Madison Square Garden to San Francisco's Cow Palace are rarely covered by the English-language media. Meanwhile, previous Latin Grammy ceremonies have featured decidedly non-Latino acts like Destiny's Child and NSYNC to perform.

The definers of Latin culture have decided that the most popular Latin music genre in the United States isn't worthy of promotion because it might lead people to believe that Latinos are poor and culturally backward, not slick and "with it."

Indeed, statistics prove that Mexican regional's primary audience is composed of recent immigrants with little money -- 53 percent of adults who prefer it did not complete high school, and most who like it make less than $25,000 a year, according to a report commissioned by Arbitron. For music executives, these demographics are anathema to their promotions and extra products departments and discourage them from considering Mexican regional music for crossover attempts like "rock en espanol" and Latin pop.

There's another image problem. Waltz and polka -- introduced to Mexico by European immigrants during the late 1800s -- and Mexican indigenous rhythms are the soul of the music's sound. Dancing to it means a couple holds each other in a rather old-fashioned way. It's a conservative impression that does not sit well with executives relying on marketing stereotypes of Latino culture as "exotic" and "sensual."

"Americans have historically turned to Latin music for its African rhythmic power, and that is simply not what most Mexican regional music is about," says Elijah Wald, author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the World of Music, Guns, and Guerrillas." Accordion polkas and waltzes remind non-Mexicans of Lawrence Welk, added Wald, "which is the virtual definition of unhip to music executives."

So while the media, music executives and the glitzy Latin Grammys think they're doing a favor to Latinos by highlighting only certain types of sounds to non-Latinos, a true music revolution continues unabated and unobserved.

In protest of this oversight, Mexican regional artists staged a snub of the inaugural 2000 Latin Grammys by not attending, and an online petition by Chicano activists seeks the same this year. Whether Mexican regional would catch on with mainstream audiences isn't certain. But until the Grammys recognize it, Americans will have less choice of finding out for themselves.

Gustavo Arellano is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and writes about Latin music for OC Weekly.


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