When Jorge Andrés Herrera arrived at UCLA as an undergraduate student, he came with a musical background. He had been in a Mexican music group for a while, but when he entered college he became a jazz piano major.
“Then I thought to myself, why am I focusing on music that is not my own heritage?”
Herrera would switch over to studying a more cultural style of music, but it was this experience that informed his early ideas on Latino identity and how music plays a prominent role. Now as an adjunct professor at California State University, Fullerton, who teaches Chicano Studies courses and is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA, Herrera is studying just that, looking at assimilation, identity and the ways Latinos keep their culture alive.
“A lot of Latinos especially here in the Southwest, utilize different things to shape their identity but many use music to say who they are,” Herrera says. “They relate to being Mexican, Hispanic, or Latino, not because of the language they speak or the food they eat but many times because of the music.”
He has found that an awakening of Latino identity is unlocked in the classroom, where students who were never into Chicano studies, begin to study it and youth who were never into Mariachi, start listening to it.
“They start attending concerts and listen to Hispanic music and go to Latino nightclubs,” Herrera says.
He says that assimilation has taken a backseat to acculturation for many U.S. Latinos.
“In the 50s and 60s we were told not to speak Spanish by our families,” Herrera says. “Assimilation was at the front of our mind. More recently, there is no need to assimilate because we are becoming more bicultural, You can live with both cultures, you can have McDonald’s in the morning and a burrito your mom made you for lunch.”
Though his study focuses on the U.S – Mexico border, he says Latinos across the U.S. live similar situations. “I’ve been to the East Coast, Hispanics are very different there than in the West Coast, but there are constants,” he says. “That influence of people coming over from Cuba and the Caribbean, it’s the same thing going on in the Southwest.”
When Herrera is finished with his dissertation, he plans to publish his study as a book.
The professor adds that recent immigrants bring their culture with them — their “corridos and rancheras, their way of speaking and dressing,” but teenagers also find a way of embracing culture they weren’t always familiar with.
“They listen to this type of music here and there because their parents are Mexicanos — they love it. So in high school the popular music is not R&B or hip hop, now the Latino students are starting to get into corridos and Spanish radio.” he says.
“So maybe, subconsciously, they’re reclaiming their culture.”