Latin Music Is American Music

It’s not every day that an 11-year-old boy gets blasted on Twitter. But last month, when Sebastian De La Cruz stepped into the spotlight to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the third game of the NBA Finals series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat, numerous viewers took to the internet to indignantly ask why an “illegal immigrant” was singing the national anthem. Cruz handled the vitriolic tweets with the same poise he uses to sing, and was invited back for a repeat performance two days later.

Even though he’s a native San Antonian, Cruz’s appearance (including full mariachi attire) stoked an underlying fear that motivates those who oppose immigration: Too many immigrants will adulterate the culture of the United States. Far from a fringe view, in a 2004 article for Foreign Policy (“The Hispanic Challenge”), the late Harvard Political Science professor Samuel P. Huntington called immigration from Latin America “the single most immediate and most serious challenge to America’s traditional identity.”

What these people fail to recognize is that for more than a century, immigrants—particularly those from Latin America—have helped forge the cultural identity of the United States. And nowhere is this more apparent than in popular music, where from ragtime to hip-hop, artists have frequently looked beyond the North American continent to find American music. As John Boehner and House Republicans try to suffocate the latest attempt to reform America’s hopelessly broken immigration system, it’s worth taking a look at just how deeply ingrained Latin culture is in “American” popular music.

At the dawn of the 20th century, rhythms from south of the border began showing up in the instrumental music of the North American mainland, most notably, the tresillo, a long-long-short rhythmic cell, and its logical extension, the habanera, where the tresillo is fit against an even, two-beat march.While variants of these rhythms are common to a number of African cultures and can be heard in the clapping and stomping of Alan Lomax’s field recordings, the stateside suppression of slave drumming kept the rhythms from reaching their full fruition in the United States.

The self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, called these rhythms the “Spanish Tinge”. Likely picked up by Morton from Cubans who immigrated to New Orleans after the Cuban Emancipation in 1886, the use of these rhythms became an integral element of Morton’s distinctive, pioneering style. So essential was the “Spanish Tinge” to jazz that Morton asserted that musicians who could couldn’t put tinges of Spanish in their music would “never be able to get the seasoning (for jazz) right.”

It wasn’t just Morton who found inspiration in Cuban music. The “Father of the Blues”, W.C. Handy, who had spent time in Cuba during the 1900 US occupation of the island, wedged a habanera-based tango section into his “Saint Louis Blues”. Ever the businessman, Handy added the tango in hopes of currying favor with Manhattan dance mavens Paul and Irene Castle who having invented the fox-trot, were now teaching sophisticated Manhattanites to tango.

One need only read the title of Frankie Valli’s “When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on his Tuba” to realize these early flirtations with Latin music were fairly shallow, and full of ugly stereotypes. Still by 1923, the Victor Records catalog listed 146 Cuban recordings, making Cuban music (and by extension, music from Mexico and Central America) a growing force in American Popular culture.

In the ’50s, the exotic glamour of Cuba and Mexico began drawing-in visitors from the United States, who were benefiting from a surging post-War economy. If there was one figure who epitomized Cuban music in the mid-’50s, it was Benny Moré. While born in Cuba, Moré honed his craft in the booming clubs of post-WWII Mexico, before taking his act back to Cuba and on to the United States. An electrifying performer, Moré captured the imagination of listeners throughout the Americas.

A mix of recent immigrants and adventurous natives formed the base for a strong Latin Music scene in ’50s-era New York. At the same time, bebop musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie began to view Cuban music as fertile ground for new discoveries. By the late ’50s, America had Mambo fever and Cuban musicians could easily be seen and heard on American television and radio.

But Latin music in the United States wasn’t just confined to East Coast Cubans. With its close proximity to Mexico and large population of Chicanos (Mexican-Americans), Los Angeles reverberated with Latin music. In the ’40s, Zoot-suit-clad Los Angeles youth had carved out a youth culture so cool it was investigated by the State Un-American Activities Committee. It wasn’t just the urban dance styles that Mexican immigrants brought to the American Southwest. Heartrending corridos, ballads, and rancheras could be heard from Oklahoma to California, inspiring country and western musicians like Marty Robbins and George Strait. More than just entertainment, Mexican folk songs had been used for centuries to record stories and provide social commentary. This spirit lives on in Los Tigres Del Norte’s “Los Hijos de Hernandez”, which tells the story of a naturalized citizen who has lost his son in service to the United States but is still by many as “an illegal”.

Recently, narcocorrido (a Mexican genre dedicated to chronicling Mexico’s ongoing drug war) made an appearance in the AMC’s Breaking Bad (season 2 episode 7, “Negro y Azul“)—immortalizing the deplorable acts of Walter White in song.

Latin threads were woven into rock ‘n’ roll as well, most notably the clave: a pattern of five accents spread across eight beats, demonstrated here by Mambo pioneer Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez.

In the Spanish-speaking world, clave is the heart of salsa or the beat of reggaeton, but in the United States it is the Bo Diddley beat. From the Crickets bopping behind Buddy Holly on “Not Fade Away” to the guitar riff of The White Stripes “Screwdriver”, songs featuring this rhythm are a staple of rock ‘n’ roll.

Latinos also played an important role in the development of hip-hop. In the ’70s, the South Bronx was a war zone. Having been abandoned by city and state authorities, a collection of gangs—usually divided along racial lines—engaged in constant, armed struggle for control of the burned out blocks of the once proud neighborhood. One Puerto Rican gang, The Ghetto Brothers, also doubled as a band, serving up Latin dance music with a fiery rock ‘n’ roll edge.

In support of a peace treaty that was beginning to take-root in 1972, the Ghetto Brothers started playing block parties that were open to everyone, regardless of gang affiliation. These parties gave birth to the idea that music could serve to bind the hopelessly splintered South Bronx — an idea seized upon by party-goer Afrika Bambaataa. The story of early hip-hop is the story of American immigrants trying to craft a new identity, and it’s no coincidence that Latin records from artists like Mongo Santamaria and Incredible Bongo Band were staples of early hip-hop DJs. Recently, son of Afro-cuban percussion legend Willie Bobo, Eric Bobo and critically acclaimed artist Argentine DJ Latin Bitman formed Ritmo Machine, a group that recalls the spirit of the early days of hip-hop.

These are only a few examples of cultural contributions from Latino immigrants. It’s true that cities with large Latino populations have developed their own Spanish-speaking subcultures, but this is nothing new, nor does it pose a threat to a city’s cultural identity. Like Boston’s Southie or Chicago’s Polish Downtown, these neighborhoods, and the people who inhabit them, enrich and define their cities.

Likewise, the trade, immigration, and migration between the United States and the rest of the Americas has given life to American pop culture. So the next time you hear someone crying that the United States is going to hell in a tamale wrapper because a kid in a mariachi suit sang the national anthem on TV, tell them to relax, grab an empanada from their neighborhood food truck, and enjoy this King Chango song. Because nothing is more American than a New York ska band, with Venezuelan roots, covering a song written by an Englishman who was trying to sound Jamaican.