The soundtrack to the American Latino experience can’t be contained in one single melody. It’s not confined to salsa, Tejano or merengue, but instead stretches into hip-hop, electronica, indie rock and a thousand other constantly and evolving mutations and mashups.
Despite the multitude of musical genres that influence life in the U.S. for Latinos, there’s no denying music’s power to help shape identity. In the third installment of Austin Gente, a video and story series that explores what it means to be Latino in the U.S., we asked three Austin-based artists how music has helped shape the way they see themselves today.
You are what you play
It never fails. When rocker Haydn Vitera pulls out his electric violin called the “Viper” onstage, the crowd gets pumped. His AC/DC-meets-Santana style means he rocks hard, whether he’s singing in English, Spanish or Spanglish.
With his black rock-star attire and fiery vocals, you’d never guess that Vitera navigates across multiple musical and cultural worlds. He’s not only an accomplished country musician but also a rocker at heart who feels close to his Latino roots. Figuring out the best musical combination that represents him as a man and musician took awhile, but now he can’t imagine life without the hybrid sound he’s created.
Vitera, 41, grew up in the small town of El Campo, near Houston. Vitera’s father, a Texas cowboy and rice farmer, would drive his children to school in his pickup, where songs like Don Williams’ “I Believe in You” would be playing on the radio.
As a kid, he worked the ranch with his father. “I’d wear my little boots and cowboy hat and work fences and cattle,” Vitera says. “I learned how to drive a tractor.” He grew up going to country dances at ballrooms and dance halls. “Even though I wasn’t that into country music, it was a part of me,” he says.
Every week, Vitera’s mom would drive him and his siblings to piano and violin lessons in Houston. Instilling classical music in her children was important to Vitera’s mother, who had once dreamed of a career as an opera singer. Around the house, she often played Mexican boleros and taught her children how to speak Spanish.
It was American rock music, though, that captured Vitera’s attention as a teenager. He kept up with his violin lessons but also picked up the guitar and performed with his rock group at school talent shows. “We lost to the country bands every year,” he says with a laugh. “Rock provided an identity — ‘He’s the rocker’,” Vitera says.
When Vitera attended the University of Texas, he joined the symphony as well as a country band, where he played the fiddle. His big break came in 1997 when he joined country artist Rick Treviño’s band and became a rising star who went on to tour with Asleep at the Wheel.
Under the encouragement of Ray Benson, Vitera and his brother began writing and recording mostly Spanish rock songs that incorporated a Latin groove. Their band, Vitera, launched in 2007.
He calls it American Latino rock because it’s not like rock en español from Latin America. “It’s rock music that’s American influenced made by Latinos who are here in the U.S.,” he says.
“There was a time when all I wanted to do was be in Nashville,” Vitera says. But when he started working on the music for the Vitera band, “everything just clicked,” he says. “All of a sudden I felt more complete. It was like I had been missing something that I didn’t realize I had been missing.” Fusing rock and Spanish lyrics with Latin influences meant he was bringing together two big parts of his identity. “From that point on, I knew that’s the direction I had to go.”
Music can heal
“If you can walk, you can dance,” says Joanna Saucedo, a member of Son Armado, a community music group. “And if you can talk, you can sing.”
That’s the spirit behind son jarocho folk music, which originated in Veracruz, Mexico, and also has African and indigenous influences. Saucedo gathers with other members for regular fandangos, which are similar to open jam sessions. There’s no need for a pitch-perfect voice or masterful music skills during a fandango — the point is that people participate, share and build up their community.
The heart of son jarocho centers on a wooden platform called the tarima, and when Saucedo dances on it, her body transforms into a percussion instrument. It’s that closeness to the music that inspires a special connection to the rich sound.
Son jarocho in the U.S. has been embraced by a generation of young, bicultural and socially conscious people who connect with their identity through the music. For Saucedo, who grew up in the rural community of Adkins near San Antonio, son jarocho also became a tool for healing and self-discovery. When her father died tragically, she says uncomfortable family secrets arose that made dealing with grief even more painful.
She later moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in search of “something honest.” Saucedo says she didn’t know what she was looking for but “(son jarocho) was calling me and I was listening,” she says.
While in Cuernavaca, she connected with a son jarocho group that introduced her to fandango gatherings that were eye-opening.
“It wasn’t a party. It was a community and people would throw out versos (verses) and talk about their breakups in public … working out stuff that was happening in real time,” Saucedo says. “It was honest. There was good and bad, but people were confronting their emotions, and it provided a forum for a community always healing.”
Through the music, Saucedo realized that she often played the role of the agreeable one in her family. The exchange and sharing that son jarocho provided made her realize that “you can risk telling your ideas in love and risk hearing back someone liking it or not,” she says. “(Son jarocho) has provided me opportunity to revisit lots of parts of myself and express myself through (the music).”
Music as a doorway
In the middle of a crowded restaurant in Buenos Aires, singer/songwriter Gina Chavez found herself hypnotized by the rhythmic chacarera, a six-count folkloric music that hails from the mountains of northwest Argentina. As a University of Texas student studying abroad at the time, Chavez had never heard anything like it back home. People all around her felt the chacarera in their soul, she remembers, and soon the entire room clapped in rhythm with each beat drawing Chavez closer and closer.
As a native Austinite, she was lucky to grow up around the sounds that give Austin its fame. At 18, she felt inspired to pick up the guitar after attending a Toni Price performance at the Cactus Cafe. Though music had seeped into her spirit early on, the Latin rhythms she now incorporates into her folk/pop sound didn’t resonate with her back then.
Chavez, whose parents are of Mexican and Swiss-German descent, says the soundtrack of her childhood included tunes from bands like The Judds or Little Richard. As a teenager, she remembers walking out of a wedding when the party began pumping loud Tejano music.
Culturally, she says, she grew up “pretty much as a gringa.”
When she heard the chacarera, though, it awoke her desire to learn more about diverse Latin rhythms. “Music has been my doorway into learning more about Latino culture,” she says. “It was through music that I was discovering the awesome things about the culture, and the music was the pinnacle of it.”
Chavez connected with the Spanish language by challenging herself to write and sing in Spanish. “When I started singing in Spanish, I accessed a different part of me,” she says. “My voice feels different. The way I would emote a song is different than in English. I don’t know why, other than it feels right.”
Music has been the bridge that has allowed her to discover her Latinidad — or Latina identity. “There’s just a part of me that wants to be Latina,” Chavez says. “I want to connect.”
Chavez says Austin’s Latin music scene embraced her early on, even when she wasn’t singing much in Spanish or incorporating many Latin rhythms in her music. She soon saw that while others around her accepted her, the struggle to accept herself as a Latina has been much harder.
“I lament the fact that I didn’t grow up with my Mexican-American roots, but at the same time because I don’t have specific experiences defining me, I get to go wherever and be Latin American.”
Chavez has written songs about her experiences in Argentina and later in El Salvador, and she incorporates some words and sounds specific to those countries. Her latest album, “Up.Rooted,” which has been enthusiastically received by audiences, celebrates her connection to her Latino roots.
“I feel free to do that because I didn’t grow up around the trappings of a very specific Latino culture. I get to be a sponge that soaks up everything.”
ABOUT AUSTIN GENTE
Austin Gente (a familial way of saying “Austin People”), our new video and story series, features Austin Latinos who explore what it means to be Latino in the U.S. in the midst of a changing cultural landscape. In this installment, we’ve focused how music helps shape identity.
Haydn Vitera has made a living playing in country bands, but he found a more personal connection to music when he put a Latino spin on the hard rock sounds he has loved since his youth. Vitera plays an electric violin called a Viper.
Joanna Saucedo was looking for a new community, and she found it in the son jarocho tradition of music that emphasizes group participation and community outreach. Saucedo performs with the group Son Armado, where she plays the tarima, a wooden platform that she dances on to create a rhythm.
Gina Chavez found a deeper connection to her Latino culture when she started writing songs in Spanish. Chavez is a singer/songwriter in Austin.