By 2030, Hispanic American icon Freddy Fender could be a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. There could also be upwards of five Hispanic acts with No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Country Airplay or Americana Radio Singles chart.
The cause? Social media, streaming and cultural evolution’s democratization of country and Americana music’s environment has allowed Hispanic acts to achieve unprecedented national and global recognition.
Country artist Valerie Ponzio, Tex-Mex/Americana performer Veronique Medrano, Frank Ray and his manager Oscar Chavira, and Kat & Alex (Alex “Alex Georgia” Garrido and Kat Luna) represent an increasingly broad landscape for Hispanic artists in Music City.
They also “feel the pressure” associated with the potential for the future, says Georgia, a Puerto Rican native.
Mexican American performer Ponzio says spotlighting creativity from marginalized people led her to cover Selena’s 1995 classic “I Could Fall In Love” on her just-released “Frontera” EP. She notes that it was written by Grammy-winning Nashville-based songwriter Keith Thomas and says that’s an essential caveat in not just that song’s history but in reviving generational connections between Hispanic artists and country stardom.
The mid-1970s saw Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez exert strong South Texas control on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs charts. The former’s hits “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights,” plus the latter’s “You Always Come Back (To Hurting Me)” and “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico” are considered canonical pieces of ’70s country lore.
As well, Tucson, Arizona-native Linda Ronstadt’s 1975 cover of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” and 1977 classic “Blue Bayou” expanded Hispanic reach on top of country’s charts.
It wasn’t until Hispanic country performer Rick Trevino’s 1996 release “Running Out of Reasons to Run” or Tejano legend Selena’s “I Could Fall in Love” that the reach of Hispanic acts again landed at the top of country countdowns.
Today Deming, New Mexico-native Frank Ray’s single “Country’d Look Good on You” has achieved Top 20 success on country radio. He says he desires to “seize the opportunity” that his success affords him as a label-signed artist with a national run of scheduled dates to “continue to represent both himself and the [Hispanic culture].”
The idea that his success is based on the strength of his music and is augmented by his heritage highlights a “reformatted blueprint for success” for Hispanics in country. Ray says it is a “progressive” one that allows Hispanic artists more creative control regarding their presentation than they’ve likely ever had in country music’s mainstream.
Ray notes that he and his manager – El Paso, Texas-born Oscar Chavira – share a common phrase and devil-may-care attitude when contemplating success and achieving it from a marginalized perspective:
“Why not us?”
Moments like Ray’s current success are rare. In its stead, a two-decade-long stream of songs like Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita” and Kenny Chesney’s “Beer in Mexico” represent the genre’s most commercially popular acknowledgments of Hispanic culture’s influence in country music.
In a 2021 Los Angeles Times article, Leah Turner – whose 2013 hit “Take the Keys” reached No. 37 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart – stated: “The Latino culture and country music culture 100% mirror one another. There’s faith, there’s family, there’s hard work, there’s passion, and we all know Latinos and country music [fans like] to drink. My dream is for the cowboys and the vaqueros – the first cowboys – to be in one place, to bring those two worlds together.”
Related, Kat & Alex – initially lauded as a duo by Bryan on “American Idol” in 2020 – openly discuss the awkwardly authentic and seemingly incongruous path many white country artists take connecting with Hispanic culture.
“Yes, it’s deeper than tacos and Cinco de Mayo,” Georgia says. “But you also can’t argue that Kenny Chesney’s ‘No Shoes Nation’ Fan Club has millions of supporters and he authentically loves Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It’s great that he loves what he loves. However, there are probably a million other people we can find who love other aspects of Hispanic culture who, given the opportunity, could be Kat & Alex fans, too.”
Ponzio makes an intriguing connection to the film industry and representation, noting Salma Hayek’s unquestionably Hispanic presentation of herself in groundbreaking late ’90s roles in films like “Fools Rush In” and “Breaking Up” alongside white actors like Matthew Perry and Russell Crowe.
“Yes, tequila songs are fun, and that’s OK,” says Ponzio. “But letting the people whose heritage is often directly referenced by those songs voice them with their culture, history and story as an influence doesn’t remove any fun away from those songs. However, those perspectives could add greater depth and reach via representation.”
Within the past decade, however, research from the Country Music Association shows a resurgence of a progression for the genre’s Hispanic-reaching aspirations.
Brownsville, Texas-based Veronique Medrano sees the potential of Fender’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame as allowing artists like herself to shed some of the “tough skin” they have had to assume to navigate country music’s predominantly white and often dismissive mainstream.
Her “genuine and authentic story” of growing up in South Texas, making music with Hispanic heritage as a “tall, Amazonian Brown woman,” bears similarity to Fender’s work as an outsider navigating unprecedented roads to stardom.
Marginalization didn’t stop Fender, and for Medrano’s growing renown as a Tex-Mex artist, she’s aspiring one day to achieve levels of crossover success similar to Fender’s. In Medrano’s opinion, Fender’s six-decade-long history demands inclusion in a very elite group of musicians.
Country Music Association reported that two out of every five Hispanic millennials listen to country music regularly and seven out of 10 Hispanics overall listen to country music often.
Overall support for increased Hispanic representation in country music will require intersectionality that will mirror Spanish language speaking and understanding for Americans overall..
On Kat & Alex’s current “Side A/Lado B” release, the married duo added a “Spanglish Version” of their single “I Want It All.” Adding elements of the Spanish version of the song (“Yo Quiero Amarte”). Luna says that since she and her husband have spoken Spanish since childhood, “creating while having fun” should include bilingual song presentations.
Ponzio is also quick to highlight the “magical” impact of social media on forging a solid community between Black, Hispanic and marginalized women in the genre. Notably, Ponzio is a member of CMT’s inaugural Equal Access Development Program, which provides funding, training, support and access to New York-based and Nashville-rooted management group Mtheory’s services to aid in navigating the country music industry.
The artists interviewed by The Tennessean have been highlighted via African American country performer Rissi Palmer’s Apple Music Radio “Color Me Country” program andartist grant. The program was started alongside the Rainey Day Fund to provide $1,000 microgrants to artists of color, artists with disabilities and artists within the LGBTQ community.
Moreover, chasing viral TikTok trends may appear to be at the core of the best work being done by Hispanic artists in country music and related spaces. Kat & Alex (who have roughly 550,000 TikTok followers) are aware of how in the past two decades direct-to-fan marketing has evolved from being seen on a multitude of television networks to television and the internet merging at the quick flick of a fan’s fingers anywhere, anytime.
“Content connecting with fans on a person-to-person level [not direct-to-fan] develops stronger supporters,” says Luna.
When contemplating the potential impact of this evolution, conversations about reggaeton’s resurgence into a dominant American mainstream pop genre in the past decade are commonplace.
Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” collaboration with Justin Bieber, Beyoncé’s remix of J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” Bad Bunny’s collaborations with Cardi B, Drake, and even Madonna recently pairing with Dominican rapper Tokischa – along with the spiking popularity of Spotify’s Viva Latino playlist – are important.
George Strait noted the December 2021 passing of the Mexican ranchera icon Vicente Fernández as the death of “one of [his] heroes.” Progressions show a turning tide mirroring pop’s crossover trends in country music seems feasible.
“Hopefully, [this blueprint] will give [Hispanic] artists wanting greater visibility in country music the grace and ability to do what they want to do, on their own terms,” Medrano says.
In full, the impact of successfully achieving the steps for establishing Hispanic American growth in country music and related genres is best summarized by an impassioned statement by Alex Georgia:
“Negative words or symbols in country music’s mainstream should not shy away from who you are on the inside,” he says. “Be proud of that. There’s only one version of you and nobody can replace that. If you’re that person, Hispanic, and want to be an artist – more often than not, as yes, there are still ‘bad apples’ here – you now have a place in this genre to be seen and heard as a real, authentic person. Be who you are. Don’t hide behind anyone or anything.”