By: Anna Marrero
I consider my Puerto Rican identity to be one of the luckiest things I’ve been born into. From food to dance to music, the island runs rich with tradition and culture. I grew up dancing salsa in the streets, eating warm and crispy mofongo, and learning about the island's rich and complex history. Now that I live in the United States, my appreciation for it feels even more poignant and alive. My home is like no other.
Despite living away from Puerto Rico, I am comforted by the strong presence of Hispanic culture within the U.S. Millions of Hispanics populate the nation and make strong, continuous contributions to its function and culture. In recognition of this ever-present influence, congress established National Hispanic Heritage Month to begin on September 15th of every year. This day marks the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. During these 30 days, we celebrate the histories, cultures, and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.
California has the highest population of Hispanic people in the United States, with over 15.57 million people claiming this heritage. It’s commonplace to hear Spanish being spoken at gas stations, find a food truck serving slow-cooked pork tacos, and hear TVs in roadside diners blasting telenovelas. However, Hispanics have much more to do with the livelihood of California than these more obvious expressions of culture. Many of them work for and sustain the agriculture, construction, hospitality, and healthcare industries. Without them, the state would grind to a halt. However, despite their contributions and sacrifice, their work is often marginalized by ignorance and hate. Despite those blinded by bigotry, the Hispanic community continues to leave long lasting and undeniably important marks throughout the nation. We want to honor a few of the 21-22 season’s artists that are doing just that.
Las Cafeteras, for one, uses their music to advocate for, and represent, the different communities of East L.A. Known for their politically charged music, their message speaks up against contempt for Mexican immigrants, emphasizes their Chicano pride, and aims at building bridges among different cultures ‘to create a world where many worlds fit.’ Their beginnings took place in the Eastside Café in Los Angeles, where the six of them were learning Son Jarocho, a regional folk musical style of Mexican Son from Veracruz. Soon after, they created a band and started playing formally in 2005, taking the music scene by storm. Using traditional Son Jarocho instruments like the jarana, requinto, quijada (donkey jawbone) and tarima (a wooden platform), they created a raw and authentic sound that is unlike no other. With the incredible success of their first studio produced album, It’s Time, Las Cafeteras launched to new heights and began playing with Mexican icons like Lila Downs, Edward Sharpé, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Their slogan, “I do not believe in borders,” exemplifies the mission their music takes on and the different ways they imagine the future. In their latest album, Tastes Like L.A., the band plays homage to the blending of borders with “Tiempos de Amor,” which explores ideas central to immigrant life. The music video is a mix of dance and music, using the two mediums to create a story around tension, distance, restriction, sacrifice, and freedom. Beginning with a traditional Oaxacan Marching band, the video segues into Las Cafeteras’ trademark jarana-imbued urban folk, pointing towards the connections between the past and present of the immigrant experience.
The legacy of Las Cafeteras is one of activism, social justice, and pride for one’s heritage. The topics they cover not only serve as a representation of Chicanx/Latinx culture, but also as a source of education for those unfamiliar with these traditions
Las Cafeteras are not the only group to be contributing to the spirit and tradition of Hispanic culture. The GRAMMY-Award winning Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra keeps the culture of Latin music alive while blending in the drama of big band jazz. Spearheaded by Arturo O'Farrill, the ALJO has been established as the standard-bearer for creative interpretation of Latin Jazz greats like Tito Puente, Frank “Machito” Grillo, and Chico O’Farrill. Arturo was born in Mexico City and grew up in New York City. With an understanding of both cultures, O’Farrill has cultivated a career steeped in appreciation and education of Latin music. In 2007, he established the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance as a non-profit organization dedicated to the performance, education, and preservation of Afro Latin music. Having his familial Cuban roots run back to 200 years, he is no stranger to the concepts of lineage and preservation. The son of a Cuban Jazz legend, Chico O’Farrill, Arturo grew up with a deep appreciation for Latin music, especially Afro-Cuban Jazz. After his father passed, Arturo became band leader of the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra in 2001. He later branched out to create his own orchestra, the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra.
In 2015, Arturo returned to Cuba with the AJLO to record the GRAMMY-award winning album, Cuba: The Conversation Continues. With somewhat serendipitous timing, the band started recording two days after then president Barack Obama announced the normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. A powerful juxtaposition of music and current events, the album serves as a continuation of a conversation started decades earlier by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo, the founders of Afro-Cuban Jazz.
Each of the above mentioned artists blends the musical roots of their heritage with music from different genres and spaces, creating contemporary and unexpected sounds. The Ballet Folklórico de México de Amalia Hernández is similar in that it celebrates traditional, cultural Mexican dances, music, and clothing of over 60 regions in Mexico. Trained in ballet and modern dance, Amalia founded Ballet Folklórico de Mexico in 1952. Always having been a strong advocate for Mexican culture and identity, Amalia wanted to create recognition around the regions and traditions of Mesoamerican cultures while highlighting the diversity of these pre-Columbian societies. Shortly after founding her own dance company, her most famous piece, Sones de Michoacan, debuted as a tremendous success. Later, her recognition skyrocketed, leading the Ballet Folklórico de México to dozens of television performances, an endorsement from the government to travel North America in representation of Mexico, and an invitation to participate in the Pan American games. Over the years, the Ballet Folklórico de Mexico has performed more than 15,000 times for an audience of over 22 million people, including the then president, John F. Kennedy. Through her representation and expression of Mexican culture, Amalia became a cultural icon of Mexicanidad. Due to her influence, folklórico has been listened and danced to all over the world, creating recognition of the culture not only internationally but also amongst the people of Mexico.
Each of these artists has made their mark in creating a musical tradition that lasts. Their work continues to invigorate their communities’ cultures and representation by honoring their roots and pushing the needle forward in conversations around identity and heritage. In vast and different ways, Hispanics around the nation contribute tradition, expression, and community like no other.
I’d like to leave you with a few events happening on the UC Davis campus and surrounding areas during Hispanic Heritage Month, so you might be able to contribute to, or feel at home within, the appreciation of the Hispanic community.