SACRAMENTO -- For those who believe music does not play a role in shaping Latino identity-think again says Jorge Andrés Herrera, an adjunct professor at California State University, Fullerton, who teaches Chicano Studies courses and is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA.
He is studying the role music plays in shaping Latino identity with an emphasis on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"When a Latino crosses the border, they automatically start to assimilate culturally and a big part of that assimilation comes in the form of musical tastes and musical preferences which also transform and assimilate to the dominant culture," said Herrera.
The UCLA graduate -- who obtained both his bachelor's and master's degrees in ethnomusicology, the study of how music influences and affects culture and vice versa -- became fascinated by the role music plays in shaping Latino identity and how it transforms and affects Latino culture.
"Everything that happens in our society is reflected in music and people don't really stop to think about that. For example, in the last five years, there has been a rise in narco corridos coming out of Mexico and that can be attributed to the record levels of violence we so often hear about on television," said Herrera during a telephone interview.
Two of the most important genres Herrera is studying are norteño and jarocho music. Norteño music -- which is traditionally found in the northern regions of Mexico and customarily recognized by the accordion sound -- changes the moment it crosses the border.
"When you cross the border from Mexico to the United States, music becomes more politicized and is usually used as a vehicle to express ideologies about life, about culture, relationships and life in general. But, if you cross the border from the United States to Mexico, it has more of an entertainment, traditional and regional value," said Herrera.
He noticed the difference in the ways his Latino and specifically, Mexican friends in college thought about music, how it helped define who they were while living in a country that encourages assimilation.
"When I first arrived at UCLA as an undergraduate student, I noticed my Latino friends didn't listen to Spanish or Mexican music and if they did it was something like Intocable, a norteño band whose style is quite different from traditional norteño music, and that is as far as they identified," said Herrera.
"Others jumped on the bandwagon but were hesitant to admit they liked or listened to Spanish music. It was almost as if, they were ashamed to identify as being Latino," said Herrera.
But when those same friends began to take Chicano studies courses and began to learn about their culture, history and roots; when they ultimately realized they were "different and Latino," something began to dramatically change, said Herrera.
"Most Latinos growing up in the United States listen to English music for the most part like mainstream pop, hip-hop, country, rock and jazz. Some like Spanish music and may listen to it at home, but for the most part, it's not the first they are quick to identify with," said Herrera.
"But, something happens in the classroom. A switch goes off. Something tells them, it's important to be a brown face in academia and it's important to relate to one's own culture by way of food, language and especially music," he said.
Herrera recalls his own experience when he first began taking courses at UCLA as a freshman. The one-time jazz major discovered he was the only Latino in his classes studying jazz music. The piano player felt out of place, but as he enrolled in several Chicano studies courses and learned about the different genres of music in Mexico, he began to change his notion of studying mainstream music he had little in common with and could not identify with personally.
"When I realized I was Latino I asked myself, what am I doing in these courses? Why am I not studying the music of my culture? If there is anyone who is more equipped and more connected to the sounds emanating from our country of origin, it is me. If Latinos don't get back in touch with their roots, who will keep our musical traditions alive?" said Herrera.
Herrera believes music helps shape Latino identity by empowering and helping those who have assimilated to mainstream music in the United States, reconnect with their true selves.
"I believe there is a strong need and sense for Latinos to reclaim their heritage. Too many times, we have read our history books that have been written by Europeans and it has had a tremendous impact in the ways we view our culture and listen to our music. I do think our identity is lost with it and at some point, we try to find it again later in life," said Herrera.
Music is just one of those avenues, he says.
"Latinos in the United States are growing up bicultural and bilingual. It is easy for us to speak to our American friends and our Mexican friends. But there is also this notion of categorizing our identity based on comparisons we make amongst one another based on music," said Herrera.
Several of his students, for example, pointed to levels of Mexican-ness by way of music. If you are a "hard-core Mexican," you listen to narco corridos. If you are really hard-core, you listen to corridos alterados. If you listen to Vicente Fernández too often, you are a "paisa," but if you only listen to his music occasionally, you are not a true Mexican.
"I reject the notion of creating a caste system based on what kind of music we listen to, but Latinos so often do it. It's not just with music, but also with how often we visit Mexico, how well we speak or don't speak Spanish, do we favor rancheras, norteñas, cumbias, mariachi? Somehow there is always this notion that someone is more Mexican than someone else," said Herrera.
Despite the ways Latinos try to identify themselves, Herrera says there is no denying the comparisons bring about one important aspect; Latinos are becoming more accepting of who they are and where they come from, despite the comparisons.
"I think we are finally coming to terms with who we are. We are beginning to embrace our biculturalness, the fact that we can listen to English music and Spanish music and still identify. This new Mexican-American identity that is surging will be an interesting one to read about in the history books," said Herrera.