What kind of music do you think about when you think about the Southern U.S.? Your answer might include country music, bluegrass, the blues, or southern rock–but you probably didn’t think of Mexican music! The U.S. South has a growing Latinx community that has brought with them many Spanish-language music traditions.
The South’s growing Latinx community is supported by a deep Latinx southern history. (There is a lot of debate about the label “Latinx,” but most people agree that “Latinx” refers to anyone who traces their family history to Latin America, regardless of their racial background). Many Latinx communities in the U.S. South consist of people of Mexican descent. In her book Corazón de Dixie: Mexicanos in the U.S. South, historian Julie Weise traces the arrival of Mexicans to the South as early as the 1910s. Many families came to the South to find opportunities as agricultural workers. Some families returned to Mexico in the wake of the Great Depression, but many stayed and laid a foundation for later generations of Mexicans in the South.
Nicholas Enríquez came from the Texas-Mexico border to Mississippi to work as a sharecropper in the cotton fields in the late 1920s. There, he met and married Maria Vargas and they raised their 12 children, pictured here. Courtesy of the Enriquez Family Archives.
Mexicans in the South in the early 1900s brought music styles like the corrido—a type of poetic ballad that tells news, stories, and historic events—and rancheras—slow, expressive songs about love that emerged in the countryside.
These two styles of Mexican music in particular have a lot in common with the “country” music we usually think about when we talk about the rural United States. For example, the famous ranchera titled “Cancion Mixteca” is about how it feels to leave and miss one’s homeplace. The style of singing is dramatic and emotional to emphasize this feeling of nostalgia.
One of the earliest groups to ever record country music was the Carter Family. Their music became popular through radio broadcasts. In 1939, they even traveled to a radio station in Del Rio, Texas—a town on the U.S.-Mexico border—to broadcast their music to a bilingual, transnational audience. A well known song by the Carter Family is “My Clinch Mountain Home.” Much like “Cancion Mixteca,” this song is also about what it feels like to leave home and long to go back.
Other styles of Mexican music are growing in the U.S. South today. Son jarocho is one example. Son jarocho is a regional style of folk music from Veracruz, a state in Southern Mexico. Son jarocho features a variety of string instruments. The most popular is called the jarana, which looks like a small guitar but has a sound closer to a ukulele. Son jarocho also includes a type of energetic, percussive dancing called zapateado, and a call and response style of singing. The words musicians sing at a fandango come from collections of Spanish poetry all the way back to the 1600s and 1700s. They reference nature, animals and birds, and themes of love, courtship, and heartbreak. Most historians agree that son jarocho originated among communities of African descent in southern Veracruz in the 1700s.
When people gather to play son jarocho they participate in a fandango–a community celebration in which everyone sings, dances, plays their instruments, eats food, and shares stories and conversations. In another Music Means post, Esther Morgan-Ellis describes how musicians who play a style of music called old-time gather together in jam sessions. In some ways, the fandango is a type of jam session. A fandango can last all night long and go into the next morning. Sometimes a fandango is held to honor a patron saint of the Catholic faith and has a religious meaning. Other times a fandango might celebrate a birth, mourn a death, or honor a loved one on their birthday.
A Fandango in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz. Dancers accompany the music with their zapateado atop a wooden platform called a tarima. Photo by Enrique Rivera for Radio Mexico Internacional.
Because son jarocho is connected to themes of nature and the environment, it adapts to its respective place. Son jarocho in southern Veracruz sounds different from son jarocho in the United States. In the South, the community around son jarocho is new and still emerging. Collectives like Son la Lucha in Tennessee and Son de Carolina in North Carolina host small fandangos that connect people from the surrounding areas. In September of 2022, Son de Carolina hosted one of the leading families of the son jarocho tradition, Los Utrera, from Veracruz. Los Utrera performed a concert and facilitated a community workshop where people learned more about son jarocho. This video from Iximche Media based in Efland, NC, shows how the fandango brings people together in a celebration of community.
You might be surprised to learn about these different examples of Mexican music in the South. This is in part because the stories that we tell about the South have historically excluded Latinx communities. As Latinx people grow in number in the South, their stories will become more visible and audible through music. The South is a fertile ground for more styles of Latinx music to continue to take root.
Sophia M. Enríquez (she/her) works at the intersections of Latino and Appalachian music, migration, and regional culture. She is an Assistant Professor of music at Duke University where she also teaches in the Program for Latino/a Studies in the Global South. Sophia earned her PhD in ethnomusicology at Ohio State University as well as graduate certificates in folklore and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies.