I just got back from the American Sabor exhibit at the Bob Bullock Museum, which I took my partner, mother, stepfather, and stepbrother to see. I specifically wanted to take my mom, a choir director, in honor of Mother’s Day. This wonderful collection focuses on Latino and Latinas contributions to popular music. Having heard guest curator/University of Washington professor Michelle Habell-Pallán’s plenary presentation on the collection at Console-ing Passions, I was itching to go. As a music history educator for Girls Rock Camp Austin, I couldn’t wait to start incorporating these artists into our curriculum.
Three days after Cinco de Mayo, it’s particularly relevant given the racism and xenophobia informing policies like Arizona’s SB 1o70, which my former professor Jennifer Fuller rightly dubbed as wrong-headed at a recent protest in town. If you live in the Austin area, make it a priority to see the exhibit this weekend, as tomorrow is its last day at Bob Bullock.
The bilingual exhibit doesn’t divide the work of these musicians so much by genre, as it’s clearly making the case that Latino and Latina contributions have been varied, ingratiating itself in rock, hip hop, country, dance, soul, jazz, and a myriad of other musical styles. Instead, the exhibit is organized by geographical locations. The emphasized cities are San Antonio, East Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and New York City, though contributions from folks in Tuscon, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit are also acknowledged. I particularly appreciated the care given toward providing a sociohistoric context toward migration patterns, cultural history, and the evolution of cityspaces in relation to the musical offerings and innovation of its populations.
There were many significant artifacts on display. I was particularly struck by outfits worn by Selena, Celia Cruz, Freddy Fender, and SB 1070 protestor Linda Ronstadt. I also enjoyed seeing Doug Sahm’s guitar, Eva Ybarra’s accordion, and Isidro Lopez’s speaker. I loved the wall of album covers and the displays of vintage posters, some of which were created by Los Angeles-based graphic designers Sister Karen Boccalero and Walter Nelez. I found the collected interview footage, oral history kiosks, and historical timelines for topics like lowrider cars, pachucos, Radio Jalepeno, the United Farm Workers strike, and the Chicano Rights Movement (which informed me of 1954’s sickeningly prescient Operation Wetback) most useful. I loved all the walk-in jukeboxes that represented each area and some of the more noteworthy songs or musical movements that emanated therein. I was energized by how many of these artists were politically active, including Los Illegals and Tijuana No!
I was also pleasantly surprised by how interactive the exhibit is. A dance floor is included for guests who want to learn salsa, mambo, cha cha, and a variety of disciplines these artists and their fans popularized. A mixing board is also available for folks who want to put together their own versions of “Song for Cesar” and “La Murga de Panamá.” I got a kick out of the Play That Hook station, which includes a piano with light-up keys to teach people how to play the hooks to songs like War’s “Low Rider.”
I especially loved how Latina musicians were incorporated throughout the exhibit rather than relegated to one section of it. I was delighted to see East L.A. punks Alice Armandariz of The Bags and Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat alongside San Diego’s Rosie Hamlin of Rosie and the Originals, whose teen pop classic “Angel Baby” (which Hamlin wrote) should be included with the One Kiss Can Lead To Another box set, along with singles from The Arvisu Sisters. I also delighted in discovering Martha Gonzalez of East L.A.-based Quetzal, who plays a tarima, which is a platform onto which the performer stomps rhythms.
I also enjoyed seeing and hearing the influence of Cuban musicians like La Lupe and Celia Cruz and the impact they had on future generations of Cuban American artists, most notably Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine.
As a Texan, I was so proud of Texas Latinas’ contributions to Tejano. Eva Ybarra, Lydia Mendoza, and Laura Canales broke barriers as some of the first women in Tejano’s myriad of subgenres, forging a path Selena would later bring closer to the mainstream. Bands like Girl in a Coma make clear that a variety of influences from multiple cultural origins can be brought together and positively rock in the process.
Thus, American Sabor proves that Latino and Latina contributions to popular music have been intrinsic and influential. By emphasizing the diversity of participants within this large aggregate, it makes the point even clearer that they themselves are ubiquitous in music culture.