Once Ubiquitous, Tejano Music Fighting for Airtime in Texas

Once Ubiquitous, Tejano Music Fighting for Airtime in Texas

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In a back room of the Parque Zaragoza Recreation Center, nestled in an East Austin neighborhood, eight Mexican-American adults seat themselves around a table for their bi-monthly meeting. The walls around them are adorned with murals illustrating a mariachi band, Mexican soldiers and two women holding hands—one is wearing a dress that resembles the Mexican flag; the other, the American flag.

This small assembly makes up only a portion of the Austin Tejano Music Coalition—an association dedicated to promoting and educating Texans about Tejano music and the distinctive culture that surrounds it. Tejano is the music of United States citizens of Mexican descent. Yet the once-ubiquitous music has hit tough times lately.

An influx of Mexican immigrants in recent years has swelled Texas’ Hispanic population by a third and, in the process, changed the Lone Star State’s musical tastes, supplanting Tejano with Norteño–a regional Mexican genre with modern lyrics and a younger fan base. That demographic shift has prompted music industry impresarios to buy up radio stations to cater to the swelling ranks of Norteño fans as the Tejano fan base has dwindled. And that, in turn, has further widened a generational gap between Mexican Americans in their 40s and older who favor Tejano and a younger generation exposed to a more eclectic musical diet.

“This is it. We need to get up and say ‘What needs to be done?’ We need to promote ourselves and make sure that people know we are here and that we are part of the community,” says Rosendo Gomez Jr., president of the Austin Tejano Music Coalition (ATMC).

Norteño music grew quickly in popularity among the young Hispanic population in Texas. The sound was more traditional than Tejano, as it did not incorporate American musical trends and was sung solely in Spanish. Before long, Norteño stations were displacing the Tejano radio stations in Texas, until there were none left. “When the Norteño stations moved in, we contacted them to see if they would play our music, but they refused,” Gomez says. “We had lost our station and we felt belittled, especially because when we had our Tejano radio station we would also play their Norteño music.”

For some, the shift to Norteño seems inevitable. “When regional Texan-based and often family owned stations were consolidated, the shift away from Tejano was in the cards. Norteño had a broader appeal all across the border states than the country and rock influenced Tejano, which was a regional evolution of Norteño to begin with,” says David Brown, the executive producer and host of KUT’s Music Matters. The regional stations were combined together under Univision, a larger Spanish media outlet that had nothing to say on the subject.

The coalition attempted to contact the Federal Communication Commission for help, but to the FCC, Tejano was in the same category as all of the other Spanish music radio stations. “It’s as different as country and rap,” says Aggie Sanchez, secretary of ATMC. ”Just because the songs are in the same language doesn’t mean they have the same listener base, and people don’t understand that. They just say ‘it’s Spanish music.’”

But Tejano is not just Spanish music and both its history and lyrical content differ greatly from that of Norteño. “When I was growing up, we were always listening to Tejano music at parties and dances,” Sanchez says. ”We would use any excuse we could find: birthday parties, quinceañeras, parties for grandma, even baptisms! Regardless of how old you were, your parents would take you to these Tejano events. It was a family thing, so that’s who I am, and the music is an important part of me.”

As far as the coalition is concerned, the main obstacle blocking the progression of Tejano music from popularity and the lives of the younger Mexican-American generations is that there are no public radio stations to promote the genre.

“Radio stations aren’t catering to the citizens of this country,” Gomez says. “The airwaves are supposed to be used for community service, and with the Norteño stations, we have no way of knowing what Tejano events are even going on in our area. They will not stress what’s going on in the Mexican-American community.”

Brown chalks up Tejano’s decline “not just to the consolidation of radio stations, but to the dilution of regional identities in general,” he says. ”The good news is that since radio has dropped the ball, a lot of independent online stations have cropped up. The bad news is that until Tejano returns to the mainstream, there are not likely to be any more Tejano stars emerging anytime soon, which is not a good sign for a once vital segment of uniquely Texas music.”

The coalition has recently been taking it upon themselves to promote the genre through concerts, events and even a “Tejano Idol” competition. The ATMC is also planning on having a stage during Austin’s annual SXSW festival.