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Examining the Role of Gender in Mexican Song

Published: March 15, 2016

Chicano and Latino Studies’ Antonia Garcia-Orozco matches her interest in the role of gender in Mexican song with a passion for performance.

Her dissertation, “Cucurrucucu Palomas: The Estilo Bravío of Lucha Reyes and the Creation of Feminist Consciousness via the Canción Ranchera,” from her doctorate in cultural studies in 2005 from Claremont Graduate University, examined the role of gender in Mexican song. She is especially interested in the musical contributions of Mexican-American singer Jenni Rivera, a native of Long Beach who attended CSULB and went on to a successful career as a songwriter, actress, producer and entrepreneur before her 2012 death in a plane crash.

“It’s all about the creation of agency,” said the member of the university since 2007. “That is especially true when songs are not written specifically for women. One of the things that many singers do is to change the gender of the lyrics’ pronouns. There is a very misogynistic song titled ‘El Rey’ or ‘The King,’ that feminists have reconstructed for women. The essence of the song is that, no matter how little money the singer has, the singer is still a king. In analyzing these singers, I have found that the ones with the deepest connection to fans with a deeply seated passion for following the singer’s career are the ones who change the pronouns.”

Garcia-Orozco feels Rivera’s career is representative because of her birth and early life spent in Long Beach.

“She identified as having both a Mexican and American identity,” Garcia-Orozco said of Rivera. “She knew her fans were the same way. She was one of them and they were part of her. There was an intense, mutually loving relationship between the artist and her fan base. She was open about the things going on in her life. Instead of denying rumors, she confronted them head-on. That way, she ended up winning even more respect. When she began to perform, she was told she was too old. ‘You should have started when you were 15,’ they would say. She was a single mother but she was told she could not succeed and be a single mother. ‘You have to stay home and take care of your children,’ she was told. She did take care of her children but she also continued to perform her music. She began crossing genres by interpreting songs in Spanish and English. She took charge of her own career by becoming a producer. She was careful to retain her musical copyrights. If her life had not been cut short, she would have been just as important to her musical business as Lucille Ball was to television.”

One of the prerogatives of gender in Spanish-language music is the ability to define themselves. “Rivera represented so many leadership qualities,” she explained. “She was a role model, a mentor and a singer who chose her own music. Though she started out performing banda music, a brass-based form of traditional Mexican music, she found it was hostile to women. She was controversial for the bluntness of her lyrics describing relationships. Instead of working against her, it worked in her favor. In that sense, she earned the title of queen of her genre. The industry told her she was too old and needed to go on a diet. Change this. Change that. Remake herself. She did not. She made no apologies for the way she looked. That won her more fans. It was as if everything that was done to diminish her had the opposite effect.”

Rivera’s musical legacy endures to this day.

“She left enough recordings to entertain a decade’s worth of fans,” said Garcia-Orozco. “She crossed over to so many styles. She issued several tribute albums where she saluted other artists. They were phenomenal hits. She identified herself as a feminist who stood for the rights of women. She worked with non-profit organizations that addressed the issue of domestic violence. What she did anonymously at first eventually became part of her legacy.”

Garcia-Orozco’s musical research has changed her personally.

“When I grew up in L.A., banda music was associated with recently arrived immigrants and you weren’t supposed to play it,” she recalled. “But because the music was so festive, it began winning over people as dance music. It was seen primarily as a venue for male artists. Women artists were not taken as seriously as they needed to be. As the Latino population started growing, they began to wear the clothes and accessories that identified them as banda fans. In 15 years, banda went from being rarely heard to being the dominant music in Spanish-language airwaves and artists like Jenni Rivera were responsible.”

Garcia-Orozco can often be found singing, writing songs or playing guitar in her office.

“Performance helps me to understand the music more deeply because it speaks to my soul,” she said. “I want to share the joy it brings me. I enjoy picking out a song an audience knows and, if they don’t, it is my chance to familiarize them with it. It is a matter of what I get from the audience as much as what they get from me. It is a mutual relationship. That gives me great satisfaction.”