Mexican music's regional roots go from invisible to invincible

“It's insane that it took so long . . ." Helen Ochoa says

September 26, 2023, 11:32 AM

When Helen Ochoa covered Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” in 2013, she gave it a regional Mexican makeover by singing it in Spanish with banda music. The song was an instant success and launched Ochoa’s career in the Latin music industry.

Still, the recording by Ochoa, who is from Fresno, California, bypassed American mainstream audiences.

Now, ten years later, regional Mexican music is taking over the industry thanks to artists like Peso Pluma, Fuerza Regida, and Grupo Frontera, with Peso Pluma recently making history as the first artist to perform Mexican music at the MTV Video Music Awards. Ochoa said this cultural explosion is having a positive impact on her career and garnering attention from a new fan base in the United States.

“Unfortunately, for a very long time — because our music is titled ‘regional Mexican music’—that's kind of how they saw it, as regional,” Ochoa told ABC News. “It's insane that it took so long, but I'm glad it finally happened, and I think it's only going to open the door for other artists to have that same opportunity.”

PHOTO: Linda Ronstadt during an interview with ABC News.
Linda Ronstadt during an interview with ABC News.
ABC News

According to Steven Loza, author of “Barrio Rhythm” and professor of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, regional Mexican music is a general umbrella descriptor for localized genres from Mexico like banda, norteño, ranchera, mariachi, corrido, and more. He explained that many of these sounds originate from the Mexican cancion and son, two genres that came up by the 19th century. The son was a folk style, and the cancion evolved out of the romantic styles brought over by the Spaniards.

Loza told ABC News that many genres in regional Mexican music represent socioeconomic and political circumstances, such as the corrido, which was a poetic form of oral storytelling for poor people who could not read or write, and during the Mexican Revolution in 1910, corridos were made about Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and other revolutionaries. He said rancheras, on the other hand, originated in rural ranches and were influenced by opera vocal styles, which poor people in the villages would try to imitate.

These and many other Mexican genres have made up “two-thirds of the music that has sold in the U.S.,” according to Loza, who was also on the Grammy Awards screening committee for 20 years. But the music has historically been “relegated to the bottom,” he adds.

“Regular people, the working class — especially immigrants — would buy Los Tigres del Norte, norteño music, they would buy mariachi, and then the banda thing came up in the 1990s and that was huge, that was the music that was really selling, yet on the Grammy Awards they were showing none of it,” he said.

PHOTO: Mexican singer Helen Ochoa.
Mexican singer Helen Ochoa.
Helen Ochoa/Saints Music, LLC

Both Ochoa and Loza agree that the current explosion of regional Mexican music is unlike anything they have ever witnessed in the American music industry. Loza said that the closest explosion he has seen with regional Mexican music was Linda Ronstadt’s 1987 Grammy Award-winning album, “Canciones de mi Padre,” which incorporated the three best Mariachi groups at the time: Mariachi Vargas de Tecatitlán, Mariachi Los Camperos and Mariachi Sol de México.

“What she did was very important because she literally brought back the music to young people, especially to young women, and it started a whole mariachi renaissance,” the UCLA professor said.

Despite her massive success as an American rock and roll, pop and country singer, Linda Ronstadt told ABC News that she received pushback when she expressed interest in making the groundbreaking Mexican album, which featured classic ranchera songs from Sonora, Mexico.

“When I’d say I wanna do a song in Spanish, the record company would say, ‘Oh, it won't sell, no don’t do it,” Ronstadt said. “And when I'd finally made about 30 records for them, I said, ‘I'm doing a record in Spanish, not only is it in Spanish, it's traditional Mexican folk songs.’”

A spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America said that Ronstadt’s “Canciones de mi Padre” is certified Double Platinum and has sold more than 2 million copies. With this album, Ronstadt brought regional Mexican music to the forefront of mainstream music, but she admits, “it wasn't just me doing it.”

“The record companies do these surveys of what is getting airplay and what is selling,” Ronstadt said. “And they found out to their dismay and surprise that right around the time that I was doing that record — maybe it was afterward — that the biggest seller in Los Angeles in terms of radio play and record sales [that] by far outnumbered the Anglo stuff, was banda … But they were just so surprised that that was the most commercial thing going in the market.”

Loza explained that the industry-wide ignorance and dismissal of Mexican music can be rooted in the stigmas associated with Mexico, such as those conjured by “the border” and “immigration.”

Ochoa said many other prejudices still exist today, and she has experienced them firsthand in the U.S.

“A lot of people have this mentality of ‘They're singing to El Chapo.’ Well, not all of us are singing to El Chapo, not all of us are cartel-related, and I think there was a lot of stigmas like that back in the day, and still to this day there is some racism towards our genre,” Ochoa said.

PHOTO: Mexican singer Helen Ochoa.
Mexican singer Helen Ochoa.
Helen Ochoa/Saints Music, LLC

With regional Mexican music on the rise, Ochoa said she hopes the momentum continues and that that audiences also turn their attention to the women. Meanwhile, Ronstadt said she loves that this moment is happening, but doesn’t take credit for it.

“Mexican Americans have been made to feel other, have been made to feel less than, and been made to feel invisible … Beyonce's great, American pop music is great, Little Richard is great, the Beatles are great, all those things are great, the things [people] listen to and emulate, but so is traditional Mexican music,” she said.