¡Tocar Juntos!: The Evolution of Chicano Music and Expression Types in the Later 20th Century

What does the music of modern Chicanas/os say about the movement itself? By understanding the prominent styles and musicians in the late 20th Century, how have Chicana/o musicians utilized music to express their voices and represent their community?

Music, one can argue, is a necessary form of cultural expression regardless of how it is performed or practiced. In the Chicana/o movement, the music that has gradually evolved holds a substantial presence in America. While some scholars view the cultural adjustment made by the Chicanas/os as a case of an ethnically unique group losing its culture to a larger, monolithic mainstream culture, scholars such as George Lipsitz argue on the contrary. Referring to the Chicanas/os, Lipsitz says, “Unable to experience either simple assimilation or complete separation from dominant groups; minorities accustom themselves to a bifocality that reflects both the way that they are viewed by others.”[1] Rather than outright rejecting or adopting mainstream practices, Lipsitz views chicana/o music as toeing the line between both sides, embracing mainstream forms of music in the United States while still finding ways in which they could express their own culture. Understanding the evolution of the different eras of Chicana/o music is essential because, to quote Chicana scholar/musician Martha Gonzalez, “...takes its cues from its radical predecessors and yet is precisely distinct by the ways in which members have utilized their artistic and creative abilities to develop participatory, process-based community art practices-that is to say, approaches to art and music that focus on relationships and process rather than outcomes and products.” [2] This paper aims to analyze how Chicana/o Americans have inhabited the US music scene inhabiting their unique identities, allowing them to acknowledge the land they inhabit while also recognizing the cultural heritage that raised them.

Chicana/o music of the Late 20th Century
The definition that Gonzalez provides, one that emphasizes musical performance as an experience over a commercialized product, is critical to note because the purpose of performing music will deviate from the mainstream culture of both the US and Mexico cultures, in that the musicians of the movement are focused more on expression and experimentation rather than appeasing mainstream audiences. Gonzalez emphasizes the Época de Oro del cine Mexicano as an influence on the audience’s expectations through her father’s efforts to push her brother into stardom. Notably, for lower economic classes, Gonzalez says, all the pieces in performance, dress, staging, etc., are towards achieving professional status rather than a form of expression. “Western perspectives on music practice are inextricably infused with ideas of professionalization and upward economic and social mobility. I can see how the power and prestige of being a ‘professional singer’ was the only way my father could visualize participation in a music world,” [3] Orquestas like the Texas-based GGs, who initially performed for lower- and middle-class Tejano and Norteño audiences in the Southwest, were creatively limited to performing standard música de cantina for these crowds, despite a desire to incorporate other music genres into their repertoire like jazz. [4] The GGs would progressively gain more artistic control by the 1960s, but their efforts highlight the initial struggle that Chicana/o artists had in being able to express their message. As time progresses, Chicana/o artists begin to progressively focus on personal expression, eventually finding mainstream success beyond their local neighborhoods. [5]

By the 1970s, the central musica moderna was evolving, and the music of the Chicano movement would begin to thrive through changing sounds. A decade after the passing of Ritchie Valens in 1959, a new wave of Chicanos would continue to push Chicano-influenced art to the mainstream, presenting music that was more direct in expressing their heritage. A Los Angeles band of Chicanos known as The V.I.P.s, empowered after performing a cover “Viva Tirado” about a Mexican bullfighter, renamed their group El Chicano, gaining popularity for their Latin-jazz fused sounds and bringing Chicano rock to the mainstream nationwide while expressing their proud heritage through their performance and their identity as a group. [6] Meanwhile, two guitar-playing brothers in San Francisco would play significant roles in furthering Chicano music history. One brother, Carlos Santana, would find mainstream success as the leader of the band Santana, achieving highlights such as performing at the famed Woodstock festival in 1969, and massive crossover success. [7] Jorge, on the other hand, would work as the guitarist for the band Malo, eventually writing the song Suavecito, considered by some to be the Chicano National Anthem. [8] It is the sound that Jorge produced through this song that many members of the Chicana/o movement hold dear, noting that Jorge is, “one of the architects of a truly American sound, Chicano rock…” “Jorge came here from Mexico and not only made this his adopted country and culture, but he also helped establish a Chicano culture for the generations that came after him and even created an anthem for us…” [9] Compared to the mainstream success of Carlos, what Jorge produced is seen as a vital representation of the Chicano movement at a very crucial time, “Released at a time when Chicanos were struggling for basic rights and recognition in the U.S., “Suavecito” is a symbol of unity still widely played and enjoyed today.” [10] The music of Chicanas/os of the 1970s holds different expectations than groups like the early orquestas. The groups of this time are producing music that distinctly represents the binational identity of this movement, presenting art that while still finding mainstream success at times with groups such as El Chicano and the Santanas, was being made to represent the Chicana/o identity. [11]

The 1980s saw the period of Chicano music in which scholars like George Lipsitz dedicated more time, as this is where Lipsitz discusses the complex expression that Chicana/o music takes on. Bands like Los Lobos present the form of Chicana/o art that Lipsitz referred to as a “bifocality,” [12] in some ways summarizing the chicana/o music timeline to that point. Beginning as a band making a living performing traditional folk songs like the early orquestas, eventually starting to find mainstream success through their brand of rock and roll music like El Chicano and the Santanas, in Los Lobos’ case opening for international bands like The Clash. Lipsitz continues, “But Los Angeles Chicano rock-and-roll artists have selected another path. They have tried to straddle the line between the two cultures (Anglo and Chicano), creating a fusion music that resonates with the chaos and costs of cultural collision.” [13] The work that Los Lobos made was the next step in the evolution of the Chicano rock band. While bands like Malo and El Chicano produced Chicana/o-centric music, sometimes with a potential for mainstream success, Los Lobos uses their Chicana/o lifestyles to contribute a unique music performance to a broader, anglicized genre in the United States. [14]

Reaching mainstream success would not be the end of Chicana/o music’s evolution. By the 1990s, as alternative music is gaining prominence and mainstream success, Chicana/o artists in Los Angeles begin to create their form of Chicana/o alternative that incorporates traits from all of their predecessors. This period is a significant time to embrace their tradition, the neighborhood of East LA no longer resembles the predominantly Chicana/o population, and the work of these new bands, under a stronger Chicana/o identity, is impacting more than the Chicana/o neighborhoods. Bands like Ozomatli and Quetzal (led by Martha Gonzalez) boldly emphasize their heritage, using imagery and language from ancient civilizations and native tribes. Beyond music performance, the alternative bands of the 90s also are notable for their vocal activism for chicana/o issues that bleed into other social fields such as worker’s rights. “Rather than a politics of ‘either/or’ that asks people to choose between culture and politics, between class and race, or between distinct national identities, this cultural movement embraces a politics of ‘both/and’ that encourages dynamic, fluid, and flexible stances and identity categories.” [15] The Chicana/o bands of this era, rather than focusing their work exclusively on their communities, begin to address the intersectionality of issues that affect Chicanas/os and other groups in neighboring communities, reflecting the changing demographics. Unable to hide in a bubble, the new Chicana/o bands of the 1990s choose to make inclusiveness a part of their effort.

Chicana/o music and its associated movements are still evolving in the 2000s. Through the razabilly movement that engages Chicanas/os with Rockabilly, we see another form of movement that, as happened with bands like Los Lobos and Santana, challenges the assumption “...that there are forms of music, styles of dress, and other cultural texts that are naturally Latino and others that are not.” [16] This statement summarizes the movement of Chicana/o music beginning in the latter half of the 20th Century. This complex group evolved over the decades, taking on different aspects of Central American and the United States heritage. Far from finished with that, the timeline of Chicana/o music also highlights the vast array of issues taken on by artists within the movement, moving beyond cultural identity and embracing social issues non-exclusive to themselves. Understanding the complex characteristics that make up Chicana/o provides a baseline understanding of the movement and its people, showing that understanding the musicians participating in this music can help understand how complex the Chicana/o identity is.