El Legado: Remembering One’s Roots with Professor Carlos B. Gil

Carlos B. Gil is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several history books on Mexico and Mexican Americans. His latest work, We Became Mexican American: How Our Immigrant Family Survived to Pursue the American Dream (2012, 2014), tells the story of his family and their journey through immigration, surviving the Geat Depression and growing up in California in the 1920s. He was born in San Fernando, California, and currently resides in Seattle.

In 1998, Dr. Gil participated as a member of the 1998 Advisory Council for the Northwest Folklife Festival, which centered on Mexicano and Chicano voices in the Pacific Northwest. Now, 20 years after that Festival, we continue to celebrate Mexican American and Chicana/o culture through our 2018 Cultural Focus, Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond. To help us celebrate this 20 year anniversary, we have reconnected with Dr. Gil to hear his retelling of the 1998 Festival and how he continues to live out his culture and heritage.



What was your experience of Norte y Sur in 1998?

Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero (1916-2005)

The Norte y Sur program gave me the opportunity to present “The Father of Chicano Music” to Northwest Folklife aficionados in 1998, and in looking back on that episode, I’m very glad I made the effort. Here I refer to the tireless and always inspiring musical artist, Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero (1916-2005), an underappreciated Chicano[1] pioneer.

I was a professor of Mexican and Chicano history at the University of Washington, at the time, and had just returned from vacationing in Palm Springs, California, with my wife. I remember we were dining at a well known Mexican restaurant there when a portly, well-dressed man holding a guitar approached our table with a smile and asked if we would like to hear him sing a song. I looked up, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I said, “I know you!” It was Lalo Guerrero, the famous Chicano singer from my youth!

I first learned about Lalo in the 1950s when I was growing up in my hometown of San Fernando, on the northern edge of Los Angeles, California. In those days, we chicanito kids had very few “success stories” that might spur us to rise from our working-class barrios to become “somebody.” Not all of us graduated from high school and few, if any of us, attended college. As I write in my recent book (We Became Mexican American: How Our Immigrant Family Survived to Pursue the American Dream), we didn’t have teachers or doctors or famous Mexican American artists to look up to, as role models. Always attuned to music and musicians, I knew, even as a teenager, that Lalo had become “somebody.” He even operated his own nightclub in East Los Angeles. He received his legendary moniker, “Father of Chicano Music,” once the Mexican American Movement got underway in the 1970s when he was in his 80s. Lalo was one of a few musical artists that we could call our own.

How do you think Mexican American and Chicana/o culture has changed, specifically within the last 20 years?

First, let’s keep in mind that any kind of culture (the music we like, the food we prefer, how we speak, how we worship, how we dress, etc.) changes very slowly. Economic change happens more quickly, and political life can turn abruptly, but not culture; it moves along gradually. This includes Mexican American or Chicano culture. Second, Mexican American culture arises from two nationality groups: the Mexican and the American, and these have undergone their own evolution over the last 20 years. This hasn’t stopped since 1847 when American soldiers invaded the American Southwest creating thereby a new Mexican American population.

In the last twenty years, if not longer, Mexican American music, in the cross-hairs of Northwest Folklife, has evolved alongside its two cultural sources. So, just as American and Mexican music have shifted and bounced forward, each on their own, Chicano music has also kept pace.

One thing that can be said about Mexican American music is that it is less traditional. Chicano music has become less romantic over the years, to be sure, and performers play it very loudly; they are highly dependent on electronic machinery and equipment. If they don’t have electricity, they can’t perform.

Lydia Mendoza (1916-2007), another pioneer in Mexican American music, like Lalo depended on a microphone, and her voice and her 12-string guitar did the rest. Their songs clearly and passionately communicated the feelings of love and broken heartedness in the fans who flocked to see them. These qualities are less evident in Chicano music today. Its lyrics, in fact, are often hard to understand.

Here are some related questions: what is traditional music? Can mariachi[3] music be labeled as Chicano or Mexican American when it was born south of the border, in Jalisco[4]? How about norteño groups, or bandas, and guitar trios.[5] Are they Mexican or are they Mexican American? The answers to these questions are not easy to pin down. Cultural topics can be frustratingly complex.

Building from the Norte y Sur in 1998, what legacy did you hope to leave behind for the next generation? 

Don’t forget your roots! This is the one thing I’d like to “leave behind” for Norte y Sur aficionados of Northwest Folklife. We’re talking music here, of course, and so my hope is that younger Latinos, composer and performers, especially, will pay their dues to pioneer artists like Lalo Guerrero and Lydia Mendoza and perhaps learn from them. I’m hoping they’ll write new songs or compositions that somehow honor the core of what these pioneers held high even as they fashion something new, unique and contemporary.

Lalo, for example, broke new ground by linking traditional Mexican music (as in his “Canción Mixteca”) with popular American music (as in is Chicano parody of “The Ballad of Davy Crocket” and his “Las Ardillitas” or the “Little Squirrels”). He also memorialized barrio life including pachucos with his “Marihuana Boogie” and “Los Chucos Suaves.” He wrote and sang blissfully about his hometown neighborhood (Barrio Viejo), and was willing to mock himself in his songs, and poke fun at Chicano ways, too, as seen in “Tacos for Two, and “I Love Tortillas.” Movement-driven Chicanos, eager to redress old social wounds in the 1970s, failed to appreciate his self-mockery, but I loved it!

On the other hand, Lydia Mendoza, a tejana,[6] keenly revived songs that her parents cherished. Pictured above, she got her start singing as a 10-year-old with her family when they performed at outdoor farmers’ markets in San Antonio in the 1940s. They also followed Mexicano farmer workers across Texas and the Mid-West singing for them on weekends at churches and cafes, never staying at motels because “Mexicans” were not allowed. Lydia’s signature songs included, “Mal Hombre” and “Besando la Cruz.”[7]

These pioneers and others not mentioned here struggled to give us our own music. They gained a lot of headway for us, and so I trust that young Mexican American singers and composers will continue to offer something that we can be proud of, something that endures the test of time.

In what ways have you seen this legacy continue? 

Thank goodness, I do see evidence of this legacy continuing! Here are the two best examples I have of Latino artists whose work tells me that our unique musical heritage is passing on to new and talented generations:

Marisol Hernández of La Santa Cecilia: this young woman’s music is the most exciting I’ve seen and heard in recent years. Music critics refer to it as “Latin American fusion” because Marisol and her talented musicians can cross cultural borders with amazing ease. They execute canciones rancheras[8] with the same cultural aplomb as they do jazz and rock. Their tangos and exquisite valses peruanos (Peruvian waltzes), like “Ódiame” (“Hate me”), simply make me want to cry when I hear them. La Santa Cecilia won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Rock in 2014, for good reason!

Los Lobos: this Chicano rock band out of East L.A., shown below, has been earning applause from all over the world for a long time, in part for their ability to cross cultural boundaries, and doing it early on, too. Their music adheres to American and Mexican rock, and traditional. Their excellence got them nominated to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I especially like the fact that they paid their respects to Lalo Guerrero when they issued “Papa’s Dream” in 1995. Their music forces me out of my chair every time I hear it.

What makes you proud of the Mexican American and Chicana/o culture and heritage?

Our culture is what makes us different from every other kind of American. Our culture is our heritage. It makes us who we are. We also need to keep in mind that being proud of our Latino culture does not make us less American! Honoring it does not cancel the Anglo legacies we received growing up in “America.” It just makes us informed Americans because we know our roots. Both heritages are important.

I am very proud of my cultural heritage and I think I’ve helped my descendants be proud of it, too. I also hope I strengthened the cultural pride in my students—the many who sat in my classes—over the years.

We, Americans of Mexicano descent, come from a long line of people associated with spectacular events. The immigrants in our Mexicano families (all of us have them; the first ones who arrived in the U.S.) ascend from two general population groups, the Spanish and the original Mexicans, that came together in an astounding way. They crashed into each other and blended in ways not seen before in Europe. We Latinos have this kinship blend in our veins. We call it being mestizo. In some of us, the mix may tilt more to one side than the other in combinations that can be truly fascinating if we could only put them under a magnifying glass.

I’m referring to the stunning conquest of Mexico (and the rest of the Americas) by Spanish conquistadors. It is one of the most gripping stories in world history, and our family lines go back to both sides if we could only dig down that deep! We descend from people who played a role in this riveting moment of consequence. Two hundred years later, in the 1700s, the two groups had together built some of the most beautiful cities in the world, like Mexico City, Puebla, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas, easily rivaling urban center in the U.S. at the time. I urge you to visit these places. Who is not going to be proud of this kind of origin story?

Our individual descent lines may go back that far, too. For example, I have a friend who descends from the man himself: Hernan Cortes, the world-famous conqueror of the Aztecs! But I also have a Chicano friend with Apache roots, far removed from the Aztecs, who nevertheless descends from Geronimo’s people who fought bloody battles against white intruders in what is now called Arizona. I, on the other hand, descended from Spaniards who settled in western Mexico (Michoacán and Jalisco) and intermarried into Indian communities which themselves blended into the growing Spanish population, creating yet a new mestizo blend. Some of my friends might claim [to be] descendants [of] Aztecs and some of us proudly carry Aztec names like Xochitl, Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc. I don’t know about you, but origin stories of this kind make me really proud!

There are many other reasons that give me pride to be a descendant of Mexicanos. Like our Anglo neighbors who might descend from Bostonians who fought for their independence, so did our Mexican forefathers who supported Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos a few years later for the very same reason. Morelos is one of my heroes; he stands on par with Samuel Adams. Our ancestors became the first cowboys in the Americas. They declared the abolition of slavery before Abraham Lincoln did. They also blended food from Europe and the Americas to produce some of the most tantalizing dishes in the world. Our Mexican forefathers did the same with music from Europe, Africa and the Americas thus creating some of the world’s most enjoyable music.

These are some of the reasons why I am proud to be a descendant of Mexicans. I’m sure you’ll feel the same satisfaction if you do some researching.

What is your favorite form of Mexican American and Chicana/o traditional arts?

“Traditional” usually means non-modern, even though many folks tend to apply the word to things that are a mere fifty years old. And, don’t forget, Mexican American does not mean Mexican. So, within these guidelines, I can say that the plastic arts are one of my favorite genuinely traditional Mexican American art forms. It includes the art of the santeros of New Mexico, the wood carvers from places like Santa Fe, Taos, and Córdoba whose religious figures, modeled on 16th-century sculptures, gained notoriety beginning in the 1950s. Potters from New Mexico also fit in my list of favorite traditional art forms. I love their earthen pots; I have a small collection.

What advice would you give to the younger Mexican American and Chicana/o generation about preserving culture?

To preserve any cultural legacy, you need to understand it as much as possible and, if it applies, you need to practice it. You need to own it to preserve it; more so if you want to pass it on.

For example, making tamales is part of our Mexicano legacies, so to preserve tamale making, as part of our culture, you need to know what tamales are, where they come from (there are many kinds of tamales), and you need to know how to make them. Eating them as comfort food is only part of the story.

What are your hopes for the Mexican American and Chicana(o) culture in the next 20 years?

As I mentioned above, culture changes slowly, so Chicano culture today is most probably going to be unchanged in twenty years. Twenty years is a drop in the bucket when it comes to culture. If we maintain a vibrant Mexican American community, we will keep on enjoying our culture. We were here before there was the United States, we’ll be here long after.

To learn more about Northwest Folklife’s 2018 Cultural Focus, Echoes of Aztlán and Beyond: Mexican American and Chicana/o Roots in the Northwest, please visit our website.




[1] Chicano is synonymous with Mexican American. Mexican Americans represent the oldest and most numerous Latino group in the United States.
[2] A mariachi is a uniquely Mexican musical ensemble that combines wind and string instruments, played by men (sometimes women, nowadays) who dress in the highly adorned style of ranching gentlemen of means, of the 1800’s. It is a genuine example of mestizo music. It originated in the northwestern region of Mexico, mostly in the state of Jalisco. In its primitive form it was confined largely to rural communities, and the urban upper class shunned it for a long time; Mexico’s classic era movies nudged the mariachi into the mainstream. Mariachi music excels in sones (highly mestizoized compositions), corridos (ballads), polkas, paso dobles, and canciones rancheras.
[3] Jalisco is a state located in west central Mexico and Guadalajara is its capital.
[4] Norteño means northern in Spanish, referring to northern Mexico. These musical ensembles originated in places like Chihuahua, Torreón, and even Laredo and San Antonio, Texas. Norteño musicians dress in cowboy style and their instruments include an accordion, guitar(s), a string base, and percussion of some kind. Their songs are most often corridos about regional strong men, love songs, and lately ballads about drug traffickers.
Bandas refers to a recent Mexican version of oompah bands. Their predecessor form is the banda sinaloaense (Sinaloa band; a musical ensemble from Sinaloa, a western coastal state that includes Mazatlán), said to have been inspired by German instruments introduced into the region in the late 1800’s.
Guitar trios, like El Trio Los Panchos, excelled in romantic songs like “El Reloj” (“The Clock”) in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
[5] Tejana is Spanish for a female Texan, often, a Texan with Mexican ancestry.
[6] Carlos B. Gil, “Lydia Mendoza, Houstonian and First Lady of Mexican American Song,” in José ‘Pepe’ Villarino and Arturo Ramirez (eds.), Aztlán: Chicano Culture and Folklore. An Anthology (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002), Third Edition, pp. 289-300.
[7] Canción ranchera literally means “country songs.” They came to the fore with the rising prominence of the mariachi in the 1950’s; their well written lyrics reflect the many moods of human passion and often evoke yells or gritos on the part of Mexican listeners empathizing with the words.