Latin Music USA


Hora 3: La Ola Chicana

En el tercer episodio, mexicoamericanos en California, Texas, y por todo el sur-occidente formar sus propios sonidos distintivos durante la segunda mitad del siglo XX. Su musica jugaria un papel importante en la lucha por los derechos civiles Chicanos, y en turno los lanzaria desde el barrio al escenario nacional.

AIRED: October 19, 2009 | 0:54:55

("Oye Como Va" plays)

JIMMY SMITS: In the United States, this is Latin music.

♪ Para bailar La Bamba

♪ Para bailar La Bamba...

And this is Latin music.

♪ A ella le gusta la gasolina

♪ Da me más gasolina!

("Mambo Inn" playing)

This is Latin music.

♪ Whenever, wherever...

And this is Latin music.

♪ Ee Mama

♪ Ee Mama...


(vigorous salsa playing)

SMITS: Its roots are sometimes obvious...

♪ Por "ai" va la despedida...

...and sometimes not.

♪ Louie, Louie, no, no, no, no... ♪

It has accordions...

(playing "José Pérez León")

...and it doesn't.

♪ Ow! Rhythm is gonna get you

♪ Rhythm is gonna get you...

It's in Spanish...

♪ Que cante mi gente...

...except when it's not.

♪ Upside inside out, she's livin' la vida loca. ♪

It's a fusion with jazz...

♪ !¡Manteca! ♪

♪ !¡Manteca! ♪

...or reggae.

("Muevelo" playing)

♪ Muevelo, muevelo, que sabroso... ♪

New hybrids with country...

♪ I'll be there before the next teardrop falls. ♪

...or rock.

("Black Magic Woman" playing)

It's as diverse as the Latino experience.

♪ Hey!

As American as it gets.

Latin Music USA.

♪ Oye como va mi ritmo ♪

♪ Bueno pa gozar, mulata ♪

♪ Oye como va mi ritmo ♪

♪ Bueno pa gozar, mulata ♪

♪ Oye como va mi ritmo ♪

♪ Bueno pa gozar, mulata. ♪

(song continues)

(song continues)

(song ends, applause)

Funding for Latin Music USA ♪ A white sport coat

♪ And a pink carnation

♪ I'm all dressed up for the dance ♪

♪ A white sport coat

♪ And a pink carnation...

SMITS: In the 1950s, Los Angeles was known to most of America

as a shining city of freeways and movie stars.

(crowd clamoring)

But there was another Los Angeles,

unseen by most of the country.

There, tens of thousands of Mexican-Americans

lived in crowded barrios,

many just getting by,

working in tedious, often backbreaking jobs.

("Ooh, My Head" plays)

Then in 1958, the son of a factory worker

from a tough Mexican neighborhood just outside L.A.,

rose out of the barrio and into the national spotlight.

♪ Hey, hey, now, now, baby

♪ Let's just go all night long... ♪

Ritchie Valens had become

the first Mexican-American rock and roll star.

♪ There won't be no Tutti Frutti ♪

♪ No lollipop

♪ Come on, baby just rock, rock, rock. ♪

TONY VALDEZ: Ritchie Valens comes out of Pacoima, California

in the San Fernando Valley here in Los Angeles

and he becomes the great Brown hope.

He is the man that is going to not just sit in the garage

and play music,

but maybe, maybe go to Carnegie Hall.

SMITS: Valens-- born Richard Valenzuela--

had been unknown beyond Pacoima, until a young record producer

heard him play at a local movie house

and invited him to his Hollywood studio.

BOB KEANE: When he walked in

and he got his axe out and started noodling around...

you know, well, this one guy comes up to me

and says, "What the hell is this?"

He said, "A Mexican rock and roller?

There ain't no such thing."

I said, "Hold on, pal."

♪ Well come on let's go, let's go, let's go, little darlin' ♪

KEANE: We changed his name to Valens,

because I knew that if we put a record out

and called him Valenzuela, they wouldn't even listen to it.

They'd just throw it in the trashcan.

♪ Well, now swing me, swing me all the way... ♪

GIL ROCHA: When Ritchie took off

and his record came out and it hit the stations,

we were all, "Yay!"

We were very excited.

Not only because he was Ritchie,

but because he was Mexican-American.

KEANE: After we worked together for about three months,

one day he said, "Bob-o, I want you to come out

and meet my mother."

He took me to the little house, and under the house,

they had a couple of sleeping bags,

and he and his cousin, that's where they slept.

And at that point, that's when he said to me,

"Bob-o, the one thing I want is I want to buy my mother a home."

So, I said, "Well, don't worry, Ritchie,

"you're going to be a big star

and we'll get you a home for your mother."

SMITS: Later that summer,

as Keane drove Valens up the coast

for an appearance in San Francisco,

the song that would become a cornerstone

of Chicano rock and roll began to take shape.

KEANE: I had a new Thunderbird

and Ritchie was in the back with his guitar.

And all of a sudden, there's this...

(humming melody of "La Bamba")

And I said, "Wow, man, that might make a hell of a record.

Let's do something with that."

♪ Para bailar la bamba

♪ Para bailar la bamba

♪ Se necesita una poca de gracia ♪

♪ Una poca de gracia

♪ Pa mi pa ti

♪ Y arriba y arriba...

The irony is that the biggest hit that Ritchie Valens ever had

and the song for which he will be forever known

was sung in Spanish, "La Bamba."

And the audience, the Anglo audience,

seemed to look past that or didn't care.

♪ Soy capitan, soy capitan...

VALDEZ: What greater moment could there be for us

than to have this kid, this Mexican-American kid

from Pacoima, with a record that people in Poughkeepsie

are singing to and they don't even know what the lyrics mean!

♪ Para bailar la bamba

♪ Para bailar la bamba...

It gives white America and black America

the opportunity to look at some brown-skinned people

and say, "Hey I like that music."

♪ Y arriba y arriba

(guitar solo)

(singing trilling note)

WALDMAN: He's one of the bright lights in rock and roll

at the end of the '50s, and he's invited to go on this tour

with a guy named the Big Bopper

and Buddy Holly of the Midwest--

a real huge break for a 17-year-old Chicano kid

from Southern California.

SMITS: After a performance in Iowa,

a small plane carrying the three headliners took off

for Fargo, North Dakota, despite an approaching snowstorm.

♪ Oh, Donna, oh, Donna...

KEANE: I had my car radio on KFWB,

and they were playing the hell out of "Donna."

And he said, "And now, the late, great Ritchie Valens,

and his number one record, 'Donna.'"

That's-- that was the biggest shock I've ever had in my life.

NEWSCASTER: The crash occurred in a light snow northwest of Mason City

and also killed the pilot of the plane.

Ritchie Valens' latest recording "Donna"

is number one on the CHUM hit parade...

SMITS: It would come to be known as "The day the music died"--

February 3, 1959.

KEANE: I cried.

I went in and cried.

I still cry a little.


I... he was my son.

He had become my son.

♪ Darling, now that you're gone ♪

♪ I don't know what I'll do...

SMITS: Four months after Valens' death,

the movie that featured his only filmed performance

opened at a drive-in near Pacoima.

ROCHA: Everybody in town came to see our Ritchie.

And, uh, we're sitting there

patiently waiting and waiting and waiting.

Finally he came on.

And we all, "Yeah, Ritchie,"

lookin' at him, lookin' at him.

And then as it ended and he walked away,

it was kind of-- kind of, like, a lull there.

Ritchie's gone. We wanted more.

But that's all we got.

Somebody in back starting honking, honking his horn.

What it was, he was showing appreciation,

and he started honking.

So all of a sudden,

the whole theatre just started honking, one big loud honk.

And the people-- everybody was showing their appreciation.

This... This was our way of saying, "Hi, Ritchie."

♪ Where can you be?

SMITS: Valens was only 17.

He'd gone from obscurity to having four hit records

in a career that lasted barely eight months.

It was a feat that has never been duplicated.

♪ Farmer John

♪ I'm in love with your daughter ♪

For a half a dozen years after Valens' death,

a handful of Mexican-American bands had national hits.

And, like Valens, they used names

that masked their identity.

♪ She won't accept my hand

♪ She won't wear my wedding band... ♪

Few in the television audience

knew that The Premieres came from the barrios of East L.A.

♪ I'm in love with your daughter. ♪

♪ I said nah, nah-nah-nah-nah ♪

♪ Nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah... ♪

Cannibal and the Headhunters, too, lived in the barrio,

and picked up R&B harmonies

from their African-American neighbors.

ROBERT JARAMILLO: There was this black group

called The Showcases.

They would pass in front of my house,

and they would sing

and harmonize and, uh, and hang around together.

It was so... It was a beautiful thing.

And I would follow 'em and I'd just be in awe,

just following 'em around and just watching 'em sing

and harmonize together, and it was great, man.

And they took, those black guys took this Chicano guy

and took him under their wing

and showed me how to harmonize, showed us all how to harmonize.

♪ Too many teardrops for one heart to be crying ♪

SMITS: ? and the Mysterians had a number one hit

with "96 Tears" sung by Rudy Martinez,

the son of migrant field workers in Michigan.

♪ Wooly bully

♪ Wooly bully...

Sam the Sham, of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs,

was actually Domingo Samudio, of Dallas, Texas.

♪ Watch it now, watch it, watch it, watch it ♪

♪ You got it, you got it...

("Knock on Wood" playing)

♪ I don't want to lose...

And Jose Maria DeLeon Hernandez packed dance halls

across the Southwest as "Little Joe" with his band,

Little Joe and the Latinaires.

LITTLE JOE: We wanted to be hip

and play what was happening at the time,

so... and whatever, you know, the bands dressed like

we wanted to emulate and, and play the music

and dress to look like what was happening then.

♪ Thunder, lightning...

SMITS: But the era of Mexican-American bands downplaying their identity

with matching tuxedos and R&B sounds was coming to an end.

That will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man,

that will be the day of man as man.

VALDEZ: You've got Dr. Martin Luther King

marching in the South.

You've got Black Pride developing.

We're looking at that stuff and we're seeing

that just as our African-American brothers

can think about roots and going back to Africa,

maybe it's important for us to discover the roots

that we never paid any attention to

because our parents wanted us to become Americans.

So you suddenly see the onset of Mexican and Brown Pride.

SMITS: This new sense of ethnic pride

inspired Chicano artists to search out their musical roots.

Little Joe's journey away from R&B toward more Latin sounds

began in the late 1960s, on tour in Northern California.

LITTLE JOE: We checked in about 3:00, 4:00 in the morning.

And we were tired and sleepy and didn't pay much attention

to the surroundings.

And, uh, the next morning,

uh, I got up early

'cause I wanted to go get a haircut for the performance

that we were going to have that evening.


And I remember walking out of the room, out in the street...

and seeing all these long-haired people, you know?

Are those, like women or guys or what?

And all of a sudden, I'd thought I'd needed a haircut

and I felt naked and I said, "Oh, my God. What is this?"

I didn't cut my hair for quite a while after that,

and, at some point, didn't shave,

just fell into that incredible craziness,

weirdness that was happening.

Great bands like Santana and everything that was happening

in the Bay Area just gave me an awareness

that I didn't have before,

and I wanted to change my music.

I wanted to, you know, expand on it.

SMITS: Little Joe's musical education began

in the fields of central Texas,

where Mexican-Americans and African-Americans

worked side-by-side.

RAMON HERNANDEZ: Out in the fields, they were picking cotton,

a whole row of black people, a whole row of Mexican-Americans,

and here you have this guy singing rancheras

and these guys over here are singing the blues, you know,

so that was his influences.

LITTLE JOE: My dad, of course, was a laborer,

so we all pitched in, we all worked in the fields.

I actually dropped out of seventh grade.

My dad was in prison at the time

and it was through music that I was able

to work out of the circle of poverty.

(conjunto band playing)

SMITS: As a boy, Little Joe would hear a polka-like folk music

called conjunto

coming from roadside cantinas and country fiestas.

And over the radio,

broadcast from the ballrooms of San Antonio and Austin,

he heard big band music called Orquesta Tejana,

the music of the aspiring middle class of Texas Mexicans,

or Tejanos.

LITTLE JOE: All these musical experiences

just helped me expand on the music

that maybe I was born to-to perform.

♪ Prendame la vela, Maria

♪ Prendame la vela, Teresa

♪ Prendame la vela, Maria

♪ Prendame la vela, Teresa

And I brought that back home to central Texas,

and people were freaked out.

I was wearing robes and chains and crosses

and Carlos Santana had turned us on

to his boot maker in San Francisco,

so we had these leather boots with high heels

and marijuana plants on them.

People would walk up to me, they didn't know whether

to shake my hand or kneel and pray or what, man.

♪ Ah! La Cumbia de la Medianoche. ♪

(playing "Viva Tirado")

SMITS: Mexican-American identity,

once hidden, even scorned, was now a source of pride.

Thousands of Chicanos united behind common causes

like fighting for better education

and ending the war in Vietnam

that was killing young Chicano men at a staggering rate.

STEVE SALAS: Mexicans, Mexicano-Chicanos in particular, were volunteering.

It just kind of was that thing of proving themselves

as an American, proving themselves that we belonged,

and the macho thing and so on.

It probably took 40 or 50%

of some of our best musicians, you know.

We're protesting against the discriminatory draft laws

that give deferments to all the Anglo middle-class people

of this country, and make the heaviest burden

of the war fall on the Mexicano.

RUDY SALAS: All of a sudden, you had people doing

more socially relevant material

about the war, about the poverty,

about what was happening in East LA, and about pride.

(playing "Barrio Suite")

♪ Family still the number one institution ♪

♪ Respect for old within the young revolution ♪

♪ And I'm never moving out

♪ I'm never moving out

♪ Out of the barrio

♪ I was born in the barrio

♪ In the barrio I will die.

STEVE SALAS: That's when the names of the groups...

Started to change. ...began to change.

Because now it wasn't like we had to hide now

and try and slide through

or, you know, or fall through the cracks.

We don't have to say "Excuse me, I'm sorry," anymore.

SMITS: The Salas brothers changed

their band's name from The Jaguars to Tierra-- "Earth."

A band called The VIPs now flaunted their Mexican-ness,

renaming themselves El Chicano.

And Little Joe now called his group Little Joe y La Familia

and was drawn to Chicano causes,

especially the farm workers' struggle for decent wages

and living conditions, led by César Chávez.

People that aren't farm workers that don't do farm work,

that don't do stoop labor will never know or understand

what these folks are up against.

I grew up doing that. I know. I can relate to that.

SMITS: Inspired by César Chávez, Little Joe recorded a song

called "Las Nubes"-- "The Clouds"--

which became an anthem for the farm workers' movement.

MAN: Your hero and mine...

Little Joe y La Familia.

(uptempo music playing)


♪ Whoo! Llama! Llama!

Give it to me!

LITTLE JOE: It's about people feeling oppressed,

but with a feeling of hope

and tomorrow will be better.

You can always aspire for more and keep the struggle.

(singing "Las Nubes")

Sing it with us!

Ah! Ah! Whoo!

Give it to me, mama. Give it to me.


Give it to me, give it to me, give it to me!

SMITS: "Las Nubes" became a landmark

in the emerging musical movement known as Tejano.

It combined elements of conjunto-style polka

and orquesta-style horns

with a modern rhythm section of electric guitars,

bass, keyboards and drums.

That's "Las Nubes."


♪ If he brings you happiness

♪ Then I wish you all the best

♪ It's your happiness that matters most of all... ♪

SMITS: In country music, too, Chicanos were making an impact,

led by Freddy Fender, born Baldemar Huerta,

in a tiny Texas town near the Mexican border.

♪ I'll be there before the next teardrop falls... ♪

♪ Sí te quiere de verdad...

With two number-one songs in 1975,

the easy-going Fender had become

a darling of television variety shows,

after nearly two decades of battling discrimination

and his own demons.

Before Freddy Fender,

Mexican-Americans had been pretty much ignored

by national television.

FREDDY FENDER: It was 1959. I started recording.

I had a song going, but...


I got busted in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for smoking grass.

(audience cheers and applauds)

And this time...

And the song was... had just

gotten into the charts.

Oh. And I had just gotten into the prison.

The clink, yeah. (audience laughs)

'Cause the song...

I mean, they could not promote me.

No. It's hard to...

It's hard to have you go out and talk to all the DJs.

Yeah. They gave me five years, anyway.

What? Five years.

Five years? For a handful.

And it was mostly seeds.

SHORE: That's Texas for you.

(audience laughing)

♪ Ai, nena, vamos a bailar

♪ Voy contigo para vacilar, hey... ♪

SMITS: Before being imprisoned at age 23,

as much for consorting with a married Anglo woman

as for possessing marijuana,

Baldemar Huerta had begun to make a name for himself

in south Texas,

recording Spanish versions of rock & roll hits.

TAMMY HUERTA: At a radio station,

they started calling him "El Bebop Kid"

because that's what he enjoyed, you know.

Uh, that's what he loved, was rock and roll.

That's-that's who he was, "El Bebop Kid."

♪ Di a tu mamá, tu papá

♪ Que no sabes cuando volveras, hey ♪

♪ Oh, yeah...

SMITS: Bent on reaching the English-language market,

El Bebop Kid used various names

before settling on Freddy Fender,

a name he appropriated from his guitar.

♪ Wasted days and wasted nights ♪

♪ I had wept for you because... ♪

SMITS: In 1959, Fender recorded a song in English

that he'd written about his own troubled love life.

TAMMY HUERTA: My mother tells me that he was at a club, as he always was--

at the clubs, you know-- and I guess he was feeling blue

and down again and he wrote that song in-in the toilet,

on some toilet paper, you know?

And he wanted to name it "Lonely Days and Lonely Nights,"

but, uh, a lot of songs were already, you know, titled that.

You know, so that's how

it came to be "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights."

SMITS: That song would win Freddy Fender a Gold Record years later

when he re-recorded it with a new arrangement,

but at the time, he scrambled just to get it played

on local radio, and sang it night after night

in dingy dives around Texas and Louisiana.

The police, you know, would always have to come

almost every night-- you know, bar room fights--

and it was just wild and-and they just loved it, you know?

And-And, uh, and you know...

And my dad always said, uh,

if, uh, if you didn't have a weapon,

they'd give you one at the front door.

SMITS: His arrest dashed any hopes of quick national success.

He bounced around for the next dozen years

doing all manner of odd jobs,

from picking cotton to washing cars.

♪ When it rains, it really pours ♪

♪ Lots of clouds are everywhere ♪

♪ If he brings you happiness

♪ Vaya con Dios

♪ Vaya con Dios, my darling

HUERTA: And he knew the sufferings of people,

and I think that's why he opened up people's hearts.

And they, when they heard his music...

♪ Wherever you may be

...they opened up their wounds and their hearts

and they mended, almost like they were mending

or going back to their lives and understanding

their sufferings through Freddy's music.

And Freddy was just trying to tell them

in his music that it's okay.

SMITS: Between 1974 and 1983, Freddy Fender had 21 songs

on the country music charts-- many with Spanish lyrics.

He'd made Mexican-American music impossible to ignore,

paving the way for a new generation of Chicano artists.

♪ Vaya con Dios, my love.

(playing bluesy rock)

♪ I walk alone, if I can't walk with you ♪

During the 1980s, a band from East Los Angeles

readily crossed cultural borders with their music,

ignoring barriers of language and race.

♪ I don't want nobody else, baby ♪

♪ No one else will do

They called themselves Los Lobos-- "The Wolves."

They'd been young rockers from East LA's Garfield High

in the 1970s when the Chicano movement

inspired them to put their electric guitars on the shelf

and explore their musical roots.

LOUIE PEREZ: The Mexican music was always

available, but, you know,

being young kids growing up on rock and roll,

you know, we didn't really care about it too much.

But as the Chicano cultural renaissance

started to take hold,

it fed into the notion of us playing traditional music.

CESAR ROSAS: We were doing it just for fun

in our backyards, you know?

And just kind of learning old Mexican songs.

Just as a hobby, really.

And that's how it all started.

♪ Chicanos somos, señores

PEREZ: We found these instruments in,

in pawnshops and secondhand stores

and we didn't know what they were.

(playing traditional Mexican tune)

And then we sought out local musicians, Mexican nationals,

who played this music in, in restaurants and bars.

And we sought them out to find out, like,

how the heck do you play this thing? How do you tune it?

DAVID HIDALGO: My brother-in-law took me to a party

and he had an accordion in his closet.

He said, "Take it home."

And so I took it home and started fooling around.

And we worked our way around

to conjunto music or Tex-Mex.

♪ Por mi madre, yo soy Mexicano ♪

♪ Por destino soy Americano

♪ Yo soy de la raza de oro

♪ Yo soy Mexico-Americano

ROSAS: We started buying records.

I had Los Alegres De Teran records, and then Dave started,

you know, getting the Flaco Jimenez records.

It was like learning all over again, you know?

It was like going to school again.

Going, like, "Wow, Flaco Jimenez."

SMITS: Leonardo Jimenez, known as Flaco-- "the skinny one"--

began playing conjunto accordion

as a child in the 1940s.

He has almost single-handedly

re-popularized this style of Tex-Mex music,

recording with everyone from Dwight Yoakum and Bob Dylan

to the Rolling Stones.

FLACO JIMENEZ My dad, Santiago Jimenez,

and Mr. Narciso Martinez were,

uh, are considered the pioneers

of this kind of Tex-Mex sound, that "oompah" sound.

The settlers from Germany settled around the Texas area.

They brought this kind of music, that polka music.

Then came my dad, in 1936, with Narciso Martinez,

were the first ones that introduced

this Tex-Mex sound, the accordion sound.

It was just instrumentals;

no lyrics or... just polka, polka or waltzes.

But then my dad managed to put

lyrics on the same beat, but with lyrics.

♪ Cada vez que cae la tarde

♪ Miro y miro para alla

♪ Para hacerte unas señitas sin que mire tu mama ♪

JIMENEZ: The first recordings were made in the 1930s, you know.

MAX BACA: They would record just with the accordion

by itself and the accompaniment part was this.

The bass lines, you know. The bass lines of the accordion.

Which will sound...

(playing lilting waltz)

You know. So then the bajo sexto

comes in, and it's, this instrument here

is a 12-string bass, rhythm, uh, instrument.

So, so, it kind of took that sound there,

the accompaniment part of the accordion,

and they incorporated it with the...

So, it's, uh, like the brother of the accordion.

So, now we would, that same song

he just did, that was a kind of, uh,

an "oompah" sound, German sound.

So, now we're with the bajo sexto, would sound...

(playing together)

FLACO JIMENEZ: Back when I first started,

I recorded in some, uh, garage studio,

way out there in the outskirts of town, you know?

Started recording and some chicken just passed by,

you'd just kick it and started--

keep on playing, you know?

♪ Chicano, soy Chicano

♪ Y me gusta hacer las cosas a mi modo ♪

♪ Que yo soy de tercera pero yo soy de primera ♪

♪ Con orgullo yo soy Mexico-Tejano ♪

There was no, um, kind of respect

for, for this kind of music, you know.

It was just like, uh, "Oh, that's cantina music."

"That's..." whatever, you know?

(playing blues)

Then around 1955, rock and roll came along.

So, I got interested in rock and roll

plus, you know, the blues.

BACA: Flaco can blend into just about any kind of music there is--

rock and roll, blues, country.

♪ The key to my heart

♪ You hold in your hand

♪ And nothing else matters

♪ We're together again.

SMITS: By the late 1980s, Mexican-American music

was enjoying unprecedented popularity.

♪ Para bailar la bamba

♪ Para bailar la bamba se necesita... ♪

And when Los Lobos recorded "La Bamba"

for a movie about the life of Ritchie Valens,

a whole new generation fell in love with Chicano rock.

LOUIE PEREZ: It became a huge, huge hit,

and, uh, I guess most people expected us

to do "La Bamba" number two.

But we just decided, um,

we want to take all that focus and put it on

what we were really about for those first ten years,

playing traditional Mexican music.

(playing "La Pistola y El Corazon")

♪ No se como decirte

♪ No se como explicarte

♪ Que aqui no hay remedio

♪ De lo que siento yo

♪ De lo que siento yo

SMITS: Ignoring conventional music-business wisdom,

Los Lobos followed "La Bamba" not with more rock and roll,

but with an all-acoustic album of Mexican folk songs,

La Pistola y El Corazon-- "The Pistol and the Heart."

PEREZ: Everybody from coast to coast

said, "Hey, Los Lobos committed commercial suicide."

But for us, it was a proud moment.

It was cool that, that some kid in Tokyo

was going to be able to listen to a huapango.

It was cool that somebody in Helsinki, Finland,

was going to be listening to, uh, a son jarocho.

♪ Con mi pistola, mi corazon

♪ Y aqui siempre paso...

And then, you know, we got complimented for,

for our suicidal tendencies by, uh, getting a Grammy award.

♪ Con la pistola y el corazon. ♪

(crowd cheering)

Thank you!

("Los Laureles: plays)

SMITS: Linda Ronstadt, the best-selling

female rocker of the 1970s,

also confounded the pop music establishment,

recording an all-Spanish language album.

♪ Ay... que laureles tan verdes ♪

She's a Tucson girl and she's a Mexican-American girl,

but we don't know that through her successes

in her early recordings.

♪ You're no good, you're no good ♪

♪ You're no good, baby, you're no good ♪

♪ I'm gonna say it again

LINDA RONSTADT: When I left home, I was 17.

And I was kind of hoping that the musicians

that I'd met over in LA, that I was gonna form

a little band with, The Stone Ponies, that they would,

we could maybe make a record in Spanish.

Because after all, Ritchie Valens

had had a hit with "La Bamba."

But the record company didn't like that idea.

My father's side of the family,

when they got together, they sang in Spanish.

Someone would start a song somewhere.

Someone would have a guitar and start to plunk out a few chords.

And the songs would start and they were these

beautiful, beautiful old songs.

♪ Tierra del sol

♪ Suspiro por verte

♪ Y ahora que lejos yo vivo sin luz, sin amor ♪

♪ Y al verme tan sola y triste ♪

♪ Cual hoja al viento quisiera llorar ♪

♪ Quisiera morir de sentimiento. ♪

♪ Shut the light

♪ Shut the shade

SMITS: After 20 years as a pop star,

Ronstadt had enough clout in the industry

to fulfill her dream:

A Spanish-language album based on songs from her childhood.

RONSTADT: "Who was going to buy this record?"

is what the record company said to me.

"I don't know," I said. I just couldn't hear that.

The music was screaming in my ears, and that was that.

♪ Tierra del sol...

♪ Suspiro por verte

RONSTADT: I had to go back and find that little girl

that was falling asleep in the uncle and aunts' laps

hearing that mixture of Spanish and English.

'Cause that's really who I was first

before I became a pop star, whatever that,

all that craziness that went on in the '70s, you know,

in the '60s and the '80s. It was just nutty.

♪ Quisiera...

♪ Llorar...

Making that record just helped cement

my personality back together again.

♪ De sentimiento...

Ronstadt's 1987 release, Ca nciones de Mi Padre--

"Songs of My Father," became the best-selling

non-English language album to date in U.S. history.

♪ Dame un beso...

As Linda Ronstadt's new album was setting sales records,

a 15-year-old singer from Corpus Christi,

Selena Quintanilla, was creating a sensation of her own

at the Tejano Music Awards.

♪ Dame un beso

Tejano, the Spanish-language pop hybrid pioneered

by Little Joe in the 1970s,

had become hugely popular across the Southwest.

And Selena would sweep the awards year after year.

♪ Yeah!

Selena Quintanilla!

Selena Quintanilla!

BOTH: Selena Quintanilla!

BOTH: Selena!

ALL: Selena!

Selena! Selena Quintanilla!

SMITS: She was at the top of the Tejano world...

You're spoiling me!

SMITS: ...but that world was limited...

But I like it.

...and Selena longed for success

in the mainstream English-language pop arena.

♪ Teardrops...

Ironically, English language pop was where she began.

♪ Running down my face...

Selena grew up in a musical family,

trained and encouraged by her father Abraham.

ABRAHAM QUINTANILLA: I found out she could sing probably around six years old.

She was just gifted with that.

You know, she was born with a gift.

And that's when I decided,

you know, I'm gonna try to do, make a group with 'em.

SMITS: Quintanilla groomed Selena's older brother, A.B.,

to play bass.

His other daughter, Suzette,

became the reluctant drummer.

There was a brand-new drum set there,

and I was the only one that wasn't doing anything,

so it's like, "Hey, guess what.

Come here, I got something for you!"

SMITS: Selena wanted to sing American pop music,

but her father had learned some hard lessons

playing music in Texas with a band he'd had years before

called The Dinos.

♪ Have mercy.

PATOSKI: Once some promoters discovered that they were Chicano

and not Anglo, they had gigs canceled on them.

Uh, they were really forced to re-embrace their roots.

And they found that their, their, their best audience were

the people that wanted them to sing in Spanish.

SMITS: Abraham applied these lessons

to the band he was building with Selena.

He wanted them to sing in Spanish.

SUZETTE: And at first we were like,

"Are you kidding me, Dad?"

You know, "What's this?"

You know, like, it was foreign to us, we didn't like it.

♪ Que tu te vas

SUZETTE: And we didn't know Spanish.

So Selena really had to know her pronunciation.

She didn't know what she was singing.

ABRAHAM: I had to sit with her and tell her

what the song's talking about, you know?

What is... what the word means and where to put emphasis,

where to put the emotion.

♪ Yo fui aquella

♪ Quien te amaba

♪ Cuando tu necesitabas amor

SMITS: In 1989, when Selena was 17,

a young record company executive attending

the Tejano Music Awards

sensed he was witnessing the birth of a superstar.

♪ Quizas tu has cambiado

♪ Quizas me has olvidado

JOSE BEHAR: I remember coming back to the tower over in Hollywood,

the Capitol Records tower, and saying to my boss,

I said, "You know, I think we found our Gloria Estefan."

And he looked at me like, "You've been here three weeks.

Give me a break."

♪ Y toda mi alma solamente para ti ♪

BEHAR: Even though women had not achieved commercial success

in the Tejano music business, the truth be told,

I didn't sign her to sell Tejano records.

♪ Con unas ansias locas quiero verte hoy... ♪

BEHAR: It was the crossover aspect that really knocked me out.

SMITS: Behar threw the resources of Capitol-EMI

into promoting Selena, gambling that once she had

a solid, Spanish-language fan base,

he could repackage her for the American mainstream.

And as Selena's star rose, the Tejano music scene exploded.

(playing "Nadie")

(fans cheering)

♪ Amor, no te vayas

PATOSKI: The interest of the major labels

in Tejano music changed everything.

All of a sudden Coca-Cola is interested in sponsorships.

Beer companies are rushing and competing,

uh, to get the bigger acts that are growing,

and every band has a new bus,

every band has new outfits, smoke pots and light shows.

It's just this transition overnight from a little kind

of rinky-dink marginalized sound into something

that is the next big thing.

And at the helm is, is, Selena.

(singing "No Debes Jugar")

BEHAR: We had by now achieved tremendous success

with her music in Spanish.

She came over to see me one day,

and in the middle of lunch, she starts to cry.

I'm thinking it's a joke,

because this was Selena's sense of humor,

where she would start acting or do something crazy.

And she goes, "Jose, I've told the whole world--

"you know how many interviews I've done--

"that my English record is coming out,

and we haven't even recorded the first song."

And the English album is still coming out.

I know we've been talking about it like forever and ever.

¿Hace como cuantos años? ¿ Tres años?

Tres años. Tr es años. Ma s o menos.

ABRAHAM: I kept asking José, José, what's up

with the mainstream American market.

And he kept telling me, "It's not the right time.

You gotta build up a fan base."

And finally, the latter part of '94,

José... José said, "Okay, we're ready for that now."

SMITS: By the time Selena played to a sellout crowd

at the Houston Astrodome in February 1995,

work on her English album had begun.

How ya doing, Houston, Texas?

♪ First I was afraid, I was petrified ♪

PATOSKI: This woman, you cross her over

and put her in the pop arena,

she's gonna be the next Madonna.

♪ But then I spent so many nights ♪

♪ Just thinking how you did me wrong ♪

♪ And I grew strong and I learned how... ♪

She was gonna be huge.

♪ I will survive

♪ Oh, as long as I know how to love ♪

♪ I know I'll stay alive

♪ I've got all my life to live ♪

♪ I've got all my love to give, I will survive ♪

♪ I will survive! Hey, hey

SMITS: Then a month after this concert and two weeks

before her 24th birthday,

she failed to arrive for a recording session

at her father's studio.

ABRAHAM: We didn't worry about it

because she was running late all the time.

It was around 12:00 noon,

and the phone rang as I walked in,

and the receptionist answered it

and she let out a scream.

And I asked her, "What's happening?"

She said, "Selena had an accident.

She's at the emergency room at Memorial Hospital."

So immediately I thought it was a car wreck.

And I ran over there, and it was something worse.

(Selena's "Cien Años" plays)

SMITS: Selena had been murdered,

shot by a distraught and desperate woman

who'd once been the head of her fan club.

PATOSKI The bullet hit an artery, and, uh,

they rush her to the hospital,

but by the time anything could be done,

before anything can be done, she's bled to death.

♪ Tus ojos ni siquiera

♪ Voltearon hacia mi

♪ Te vi sin que mi vieras

SMITS: Four months later, Dr eaming of You,

the album Selena had been recording when she died,

was released.

It sold over 200,000 copies the first day.

It would eventually top six million.

With its brightest star extinguished,

Tejano music soon faded in popularity.

("Jefe de Jefes" plays)

But a new phenomenon fueled by the largest migration

in the nation's history was changing the game.

♪ Soy el jefe de jefes, señores ♪

With half a dozen Grammys, and sales in the tens of millions,

Los Tigres del Norte-- "The Tigers of the North" has become

the most famous band mainstream America never heard of.

They pack arenas all across the country,

and their style of music-- musica Norteña-

outsells all other types of Latin music in the U.S.

♪ Muchos pollos que a penas nacieron ♪

SMITS: And for many of the 12 million Mexican nationals

who have immigrated to this country since the 1980s,

many of them undocumented,

Los Tigres del Norte have become their champions.

Gracias! Gracias!


SMITS: The Tigres, four brothers and a cousin from a ranching family

in northern Mexico,

immigrated to California themselves in 1968.

Today they are U.S. citizens,

but spent many years living illegally

and much of their music is born of that experience.

♪ Porque somos los mojados

♪ Siempre nos busca la ley

♪ Porque estamos ilegales

♪ Y no hablamos el ingles

♪ El Gringo terco a sacarnos ♪

♪ Y nosotros a volver

♪ Como un aguila en vuelo

♪ Como la fiera en celo

♪ Desafiando fronteras

♪ Defendiendo el honor

♪ He pasado la vida

♪ Explorando otras tierras

♪ Para darle a mis hijos

♪ Un mañana mejor...

SMITS: The face of America has changed dramatically

since recording artists with Mexican names were compelled

to hide their identities 50 years ago.

Today, Mexican-American music has a vital place

on the American musical landscape.

And someday the children of these Tigres fans will create

their own musical fusions...

♪ De paisano a paisano the vibrant dance between cultures

in America continues.

♪ Nos han hecho la guerra

♪ Patrullando fronteras

♪ No nos pueden domar...

Stay tuned.

Coming up next...

THOMAS D. MOTTOLA: The country was ready for something new and exciting.

A handful of superstars ta ke Latin music

into the heart of American culture.

Rhythm moved people.

♪ Oh, baby, when you talk like that... ♪

Nobody can do it like we do.

Coming up next on Latin Music USA.

This PBS show will return in a moment. Go to

to learn more ab out the artists,

watch videos, and listen tosongs featured in this episode.

To order the home video version of Latin Music USA,


or call us at 1-800-PLAY-PBS.

Funding for Latin Music USA


  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv


Wyld Ryce
WQED Sessions
WLIW21 Specials
We Sing
United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America
Under a Minute
Tree of Life: A Concert for Peace and Unity
Tis the Night with Ben Folds & Friends
The Set List
The Lowertown Line
The Jazz Ambassadors
The Experience with Dedry Jones
Sunshine Blues
State of the Arts