The Latin Grammys: America’s biggest anti-Mexican sham

by GUSTAVO ARELLANO on November 20, 2013 in Cultura


latingrammys150Over a decade ago, I wrote an op-ed piece for what was called Pacific News Service but is now New American Media bemoaning how pathetic the Latin Grammys were due to their lack of Mexican music. “The definers of Latin culture,” I wrote then, “have decided that the most popular Latin music genre in the United States isn’t worthy of promotion because it might lead people to believe that Latinos are poor and culturally backward, not slick and ‘with it.'”

Back then, the Latin Grammys had just weathered a 2000 boycott by major Mexican music labels protesting the invisibility of canción mexicana in the event. Flash-forward 11 years later, and little has improved. Sure, scheduled to perform are Mexican recording artists like Calibre 50 (one of those groups that combine accordions with tubas that drive us traditionalists crazy but is what the kids like nowadays) with Banda Carnaval; Newport Beach’s own Mariachi Sol de Mexico (problematic in their own, Balboa Bay Club-patronizing, way) teamed up with ranchera feminist Paquita la del Barrio; and Latin alternative songstress Natalia Lafourcade no doubt performing something off her so-so album of covers from the Agustín Lara songbook.

But this year’s iteration — November 21 in Las Vegas, in a ceremony anticipated by only NBC/ABC/FOX/CNN/Insert-name-of-major-American-media-network-giving-token-attention-to-Latinos by Latino reporters seeking to score free tickets — proves the Latin Grammys will continue to be what it’s always been: an anti-Mexican sham of a show.

First, the caveat: ANY entertainment industry awards show never gets anything right and really serves as an excuse for bigwigs to have one giant, self-celebratory circle jerk honoring the biggest sellers and most influential labels. That said, here’s the Latin Grammys’ dirty little secret: the vast majority of Latin music sold in the United States is Mexican regional music: banda, mariachi, ranchera, norteño, narcocorridos–all of it. It constantly counts for more than half of all Latin music sales in el Norte, per the figures of the Recording Industry of America, and is what has driven Spanish-language radio’s rise across nearly all the United States. Its artists are the ones continually, easily selling out Madison Square Garden and performing in the Rose Bowl at the same time they’re taking a bus to perform in tiny towns across the Midwest and South. Mexican regional’s reach makes it el rey of Latin music in the United States–no contest.

Yet the Latin Grammys always insults its industry’s biggest moneymaker. Case in point: the Mexi performers I mentioned earlier count as only three of the 15 scheduled performers for the evening (and if you take out Lafourcade, who’s not technically of the Mexican regional genre, it’s only two), accounting for a pathetic 20 percent of all performances in a country where people of Mexican descent make up more than 60 percent of the total Latino pozole pot.

There are only five awards categories devoted to Mexican regional music–shit, more than five distinct musical genres exist in Mexico City alone, from sonidero to rock urbano–while seven are given to Brazil, a beautiful, sonically rich country that nevertheless sells sells as much music combined in the States as Vicente Fernández can sell in one night from a street corner in Huntington Park.

There’s not a single Mexican artist this year nominated for Record of the Year or Album of the Year. And while two are nominated for Song of the Year (Llorar by Mario Domm featuring Jesse y Joy, whoever the hell they are; Sólo El Amor Nos Salvará by Alex Syntek, who we once said looked like the love child of Buddy Holly and Billy Bob Thorton), and Best New Artist (A Band of Bitches), they’re dreck–and neither of them come from regional Mexican music.

I’m not even going to bother looking at past nominees in these biggest of categories; any Latin music awards that never bothered to declare the late Jenni Rivera a winner EVER is about as much a Latino cultural authority as Rick Bayless.

Then we get to the viejos.

The Latin Grammys keep a Hall of Fame, a special category set up to honor “early recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance that were released more than 25 years ago.” While there are some obvious, good choices there–Sabor a Mi, Bésame Mucho and El Rey for the singles; Amor Eterno by Rocio Durcal (who is a Spaniard by birth but became most famous for covering the songs of Mexican composer extraordinaire Juan Gabriel) and Dulce Patria by ranchera icon Jorge Negrete–the choices read like the judges searched through Wikipedia.

There’s not a single corrido on the list, a musical form that only goes back over 125 years, longer than virtually any extant Latin American genre (seriously: look it up).

There are none of Mexican regional music’s most influential albums, from the soundtrack to Chulas Fronteras, the legendary 1976 Arhoolie Records documentary placed on the United States National Film Registry in 1993, to Jose Alfredo Jiménez’s collaboration with Banda El Recodo back in the 1960s (which popularized banda with singers–and yes, cabrones: Luis Pérez Meza recorded his album first) to any number of Los Tigres del Norte albums (here’s just one: 1986’s Gracias!… América… Sin Fronteras, which not only served as a bold endorsement of the Reagan amnesty of that year and pushed Mexican music into American politics long before it became popular but has the touching Los Hijos de Hernández, “La Puerta Negra, AND the title track, which offers the giant shout-out to Latin America’s working classes that the Latin Grammys will never dare to offer). And if accordions and tubas are too much, the Latin Grammy pendejos can always swing pocho with Los Lobos’ La Pistola y El Corazón or Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de Mi Padre–and yet they haven’t.

They’re a little bit better on giving out Lifetime Achievement awards to Mexis: José José and Antonio Aguilar in 2004, Los Tigres del Norte in 2007, and rocanrol dinosaur Alex Lora two years ago. But no Vicente Fernandez? No Banda El Recodo, who are still going strong 75 years after its founding and invented modern-day banda sinaloense as we know it? No Juan Gabriel, whose songs have been recorded across Latin America? Whither Pedro Rivera, the patriarch of the Rivera musical family, the man who discovered Chalino Sanchez?

I can hear the haters already: the Latin Grammys are supposed to represent ALL of Latin America, not just what’s popular, so stop your whining, Mexican. To that I say: where’s punta? Latin ska? Son jarocho? La Santa Cecilia? Latino metal? Bachata, heard mostly in the Dominican Republic and the United States, is far more deserving of a category than Best Christian Album, Spanish Language.

The Latin Grammys are obviously an awards ceremony meant to celebrate Latin music in the United States, not Latin America, and specifically the Latin music that its organizers–centered mostly in Florida and New York–favor, far from the maddening Mexican crowds that buy the albums that keeps their labels afloat.

Oh, and Latin Grammy organizers: it’s called ranchera music, not ranchero. Get with the pinche program already.


POCHO first covered this story a dozen years ago:


Victor Payan’s original story from 2001 is on the next page:

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Juan Data November 20, 2013 at 10:13 AM

I disagree. In fact, in ten years ago, I wrote and op-ed piece about how exactly the opposite the case was, there was at the Latin Grammys way too much representation of Mexican music genres in total disregard of the rest of Latin America. I still think the Latin Grammys are a sham with zero credibility, but I think in later years they went for a more balanced distribution of the attention, including a lot more South American genres in their categories, regardless of their sales in the US market, so as to make the event more fair and relevant to ALL Latinos, not just Mexicans, not just Latinos living in the US.
I remember back in 2002 when I attended the ceremony as a journalist, they had like five different categories for different styles of Mexican regional music (Norteño, Banda, Grupera etc.) and not one category for Cumbia or Tango. In recent editions, they fixed this.
True, like you say, most of the Latin music consumed in the US is Mexican regional due to the prevalence of poor, working class, rancheros Mexicanos. And true, maybe the Grammy academy are embarrassed by this and they don’t wanna focus on peasant’s music, I wouldn’t either. The reality is Mexican regional music has absolutely zero relevance outside of Mexico and the US-base immigrant community. Nobody listens to that crap in the Caribbean or South America. The Latin Grammys aim to be about all Latin music, not just the part that’s consumed in the US market.

Herrumbroso Filero November 20, 2013 at 11:21 AM

Yeah I understand the feeling — everywhere you look all you can see are Mexis — EVEN in the music business. Since we ALL know that San Juan or pick anyplace outside of Mejico is the epicenter of the universe combining all things “Latin” in one fell swoop.

First of all — I hate the category — I’m not “Latin,” “Spanish,” or any of those faux designations….I’m a mestizo/pocho plain and simple that enjoys “Mexi” music – unlike the high class stuff enjoyed in “Latin America” like tangos [with origins in slums or arrabals], cumbia [from non-peasant Guinean cumbé], salsa [son from upper class Bantu music] — yea that non-Mexi “Latin” music is all so hoity toity.

Your remarks remind me of a dreadful flight from NYC to San Juan about five years ago…..the person next to me kept droning on about Puerto Rico – telling me that his beautiful island had very little if any connection culturally or gastronomically to Africa — it was all purely Spanish…your retort to Gustavo is a similar fabrication…..pero … is hard to put on airs when the Mexis remind everyone that we dominate the spending in terms of “Latin” music — Qué no?

Personally I prefer Mexi rock urbano and Nortec — pero that music is purely and sonically “peasant” – ¿right bro?

UCI Falcata November 20, 2013 at 11:54 AM

Some people need to get out of their Mexisphere. I would agree with this writer’s tirade had we been dealing with the Southwest Latin Grammys. I have no quarrel with my amigos mestizos/pochos/chicanos/mexifornios/aztlenses/mexicanoestadounidenses/norteños but this anti-Mexican sham conspiracy is a non-issue. De hecho como mediador, me parece que la problematica de representación de los mexicanos y sus descendientes en el suroeste de los Estados Unidos ha hecho que este grupo desarrolle sensibilidades extremas y cierto complejo de exclusión que en muchos casos es justificado. Though this is not one of them. It’s the Latin Grammys. Put your unique culture aside and understand the broadness of the umbrella term and the people it encompasses.

M.L. November 21, 2013 at 10:02 AM

First of all, all awards shows tend to suck and award that which is bland, popular, and shallow.

One could make a case that ‘Latin music’ is a distinct genre that may legitimately warrant it’s own awards show, just as country music does.

But my sense of the so-called Latin Grammys is that it isn’t so much about a genre of music but the ethnicity of the performers. It’s essentially Latin-American version of the many Black only awards shows that have popped up over the last few decades.

I think all this ethnic separatism is very ugly and divisive; there are some very dark days ahead for is country. There is way too much emphasis in racial and ethnic differences and virtually no emphasis on what people have in common; indeed the whole idea of assimilation and of the melting pot is now openly disparaged.

Try to imagine a bunch of Anglos moving into Mexico, a good many of them illegally, and setting up something like “The Anglo Music Awards” where performers of any arbitrary genre who just happen to be Anglo are awarded for, well, being performers of any arbitrary genre that just happen to be Anglo. The try to imagine it being politically incorrect for Mexicans to say “hmmmm…. Is this really good for the country?”

Mind you, I have no problem with Latin music or performers, but the Latin Grammys aren’t really about Latin music, they are about having a separate award exclusively for Latin people.

It seems we are really determined to recreate Yugoslavia here. This will not end well.

Juan Data November 21, 2013 at 11:56 AM

Your comment makes little sense to me, M.L.
The Latin Grammys cannot be about a particular ethnicity simply because there’s no such a thing as a Latin ethnicity. Latin is a culture, it’s a culture that emanates from the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors and we inherited. What we have in common in Latin America, is not our ethnicity, since, as we all know, Latin America has people of multiple ethnicities, white/Caucasians, Black/African, aboriginal/amerindian and all the resulting mixes of these.
Separating the Latin Grammys from the mainstream Grammys doesn’t have to do with that, it has to do with a different cultural frame and sensibilities when playing, listening and consuming music, which are not usually fairly represented in the Latin categories of the mainstream Grammys (where the voters are usually clueless gringos who don’t know anything about this music).
That being said I still think the Lating Grammys are shit.

Mariela November 22, 2013 at 12:48 AM

Are you fucking kidding me? Remember a few years ago when Calle 13 won EVERY award because they had the BEST Latin album of the year (if not the decade) and were BOOOED because the entire audience ALWAYS is like 99% MEXICAN. I LOVE you & your opinion normally, but this is bullshit. Sorry.

Gluteus Maximus November 22, 2013 at 1:21 AM

The Latin Grammys are bunk! When was the last time a Roman won one? Never! Not even the pinche Gregorian monks got one! Veni vidi verga!

Chale Knickerbocker November 22, 2013 at 11:37 AM

So true. POCHO has been all over this ‘Latin’ thing for a while: Breaking: Marketing to Latins? Talk Latin to us, activists say!

M.L. November 28, 2013 at 3:24 PM

@Juan Data: Your point about Latin American ethnic/racial diversity is well taken. You are of course absolutely correct. But the “Latin Grammys” are a totally US centric thing, and as such promote the uniquely US notion of “Latins” as a distinct “race”. You’re clearly an intelligent guy, surely you are aware of this.

Sure, common sense would dictate that, for instance, Celia Cruz and Ricky Martin are not the same race (the former was clearly black, the latter Caucasian), but in the US they would both be considered neither black nor white but “Latino”. And by and large, the Latin Grammys are really just about giving awards to performers with some claim to a “Latino” identity, not Latin music as a distinct genre. In other words, it’s about US identity politics (and how to cynically exploit it for profit), not Latin-American music.

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