Latinopia wondered what exactly is “Latino music?” And how do you distinguish it from other musical styles? It asked Texas-based Ethnomusicalogist Estevan Azcona about his views on what constitutes Latino music in the United States. He came back with this essay which we found characterizes the scope and variety of music you will find featured on



Ethnomusicologist Estevan Azcona

The task of describing what is “Latino Music” is about as easy as describing “Latino food.” The idea of it is recognizable (its got rice and bean, right?), but hard to describe in specific terms. This is because Latino identity is not specific identity but rather a general term used to describe people living in the United States whose families hail from the (more or less) Spanish-speaking world of las américas. While “americano” is too confusing and gringo-ized, and “Hispanic” came from the government (i.e. Nixon administration) and not the people, “Latino”-and “Latin”-are terms of identification that likely emerged organically from cultural and social interaction of people with Latin American roots in the larger U.S. metropolitan areas. Other parts of the hemisphere have been home to different groups of Latin Americans for a long time as well, but what makes a Latina/o sense of identity significant is that it takes shape in the U.S., an English-language dominant society where speaking another language , and being “Brown,” have meant to be a part of the social and cultural margins of the nation.

With this in mind, I want to suggest that there are two ways of thinking about Latino music. The first is to think about the “roots of Latino music,” referring to the various traditional and popular music styles rooted in the home countries. The second is to think of contemporary popular musics that have emerged directly out of a Latina/o consciousness, an experience born out of being Brown in the USA. While both categories are intimately linked and can have much in common in the way they sound, the former refers to historical and specific musical practices, and the latter is the potential transformation of these practices –or the departure from–into music styles and genres that speak to a wider sense of collective being.

Musics of the home countries and/or older generations are the cultural and spiritual food of diasporic communities, icons of national and regional origins. Within this category we can place the ranchera of México, vallenato of Colombia, merengue of the Dominican Republic, plena and bomba of Puerto Rico. These musics are intimately heard and felt in the diasporic populations living within the United States where they are simultaneously shared with those from outside the culture. Does the idea of “roots of Latino music” suggest that ranchera or merengue is not Latino music? Historically, they are not as they came to be what they are in other places, and we understand and enjoy what they mean through our cultural and historical memories. This does not mean, however, that traditions–or our perceptions of them–do not change, as they most certainly do, and Latino communities in the U.S. are playing an increasingly important role in the musical life of Latin America.

The sharing of cultural heritage and the particular social and cultural place of the U.S. leads to the second category: the transnational routes that cultural practices travel to create new musical meanings for Latina/os. In the U.S., there is much that must be contemplated by Latinos in understanding how they see the world and their place in it. The roots of Latino music plays a part in imagining their place in the world, but the feeling of being Latina/o is a different sentido altogether. The sense of being nicaraguense, boricua, or mexicano is equally complemented by the experience of the U.S.:  Black, white immigrant, and the vastness of American latinidad. Thus, Latino music is a composite of roots and routes, a transnational hemispheric soundspace emanating from the barrios of the U.S.: música tropical with an urban backbeat, traditional son with pop sensibilities, hip-hop over a cumbia rhythm.

Chicano/Latino hip hop, rock, and R & B–not to mention new styles like reggaeton–are just some examples of the contemporary musical creativity that is part of being Latino. These are sounds that expand the notions of tradition, express new ideas about sound textures and rhythms, or perhaps avoid tradition altogether yet still find ways to locate meaning through other expressive cultural elements. I would also include the innovations by U.S.-born musicians who are performing music well within the notion of “tradition.” Salsa, cumbia, and even mariachi music styles are finding new creative voices in the conception of what these traditions are.

Let us remember that Latino music is very much popular music; the sounds of various styles of traditional music may play a part in Latino music, however, the new sound is often very contemporary and typically conceived as music not just for the community, but also for everyone. Even if the lyrics are in Spanish, the music is very inclusive.

” Some Thoughts on Latino Music” Copyright 2009 by Estevan Azcona.