Posted on July 3, 2021

As Country Music Faces a Racial Reckoning, a New Question: Where Are the Latino Artists?

Amanda Marie Martinez, Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2021

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, country singer-songwriter Valerie Ponzio watched her hometown change. {snip}


What hasn’t changed about El Paso over the past several decades is how it — and Latino culture more broadly — has been depicted in country music. To Ponzio, a song like Miranda Lambert’s recent “Tequila Does” is just another to stereotype her lived experience. The song, which opens with the line “His last name was Flores / he came up from Juarez / looking for a hell of a time,” depicts the region as a novelty where a border crossing ends up in another drunken night. It comes after signature country hits like Marty Robbins’ career-defining “El Paso” and Johnny Cash’s “Wanted Man” long portrayed the region as an area of vice.

Today, “Tequila Does” is part of a broader trend in recent years of popular country songs that have winked at Latino culture. Thematically this has most frequently included mentions of alcohol, such as Jon Pardi’s “Tequila Little Time” (which includes sonic references to mariachi music with the use of horns), and Luke Bryan’s “One Margarita.” These hits build on a longer history that presents Latino culture as a source of white escape in country music, whether through drinking, sexual escapades across the border or with Latinas more generally, or the Latin beach getaways described in countless Kenny Chesney songs.

What’s absent from country music’s long history of singing about Latino culture is striking: actual Latinos. Parallel themes of family, faith and rural culture found in Mexican regional and Tejano music make the exclusion of Latinos in country particularly confounding. Still, at a time when conversations about the lack of Black representation in country music have increasingly emerged over the past year, particularly surrounding the career of singer Mickey Guyton and her Grammy-nominated song “Black Like Me,” little has been said about the music’s similar neglect of Latino artists {snip}

According to Jada Watson, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa and lead investigator at SongData, just 0.5% of songs that charted on the Hot Country Songs between 1944 and 2016 were recorded by Latino artists. {snip}

“Latinas are not just significantly underrepresented, they are strikingly absent,” explains Watson, whose research reveals that just a handful of Latina country artists — Rosie Flores, Star De Azlan and Leah Turner — have had charting hits.

Turner, Southern California-born and raised, is the highest-charting Latina in country music history (her 2013 hit “Take the Keys” peaked at No. 37 on Billboard’s country airplay chart). The daughter of a first-generation Mexican American mother and a rodeo champion father, she says that it’s past time for country music to open itself up to Latino artists rather than continue to allow white artists to appropriate the culture.

“It’s very offensive. We’re not a character, we’re not just a costume,” she says. “They are benefiting off of our culture and how cool it is and how different it is, and how everybody loves Mexico, and everyone loves a passionate Mexicana or señorita. They need to let us start sitting at the table that we built.”

Over the past decade, studies by the Country Music Assn. revealed that 7 out of 10 nonwhite Americans listen to country weekly, with Latino listeners showing particular interest in the genre. According to Karen Stump, senior director of consumer insights and research at the CMA, the organization is continuing to actively research the Latino country audience.


When it came to marketing herself in the early stages of her career, Turner was flat-out told by her record label to obscure her Mexican roots — an ability that wouldn’t be afforded to Latinos with darker skin. To Turner, this decision was strategic and protective, rather than a source of direct discrimination from the industry.


Turner’s label may have been shortsighted, to put it kindly, but they had a point. Guyton, a Black woman, has frequently been the target of verbal abuse online, and Ponzio and Turner have experienced backlash from fans for speaking about lack of Latino representation in country music. Such experiences speak to the white, often conservative fanbase the country music industry has long prioritized, and were exacerbated by the anti-immigrant rhetoric fomented by former President Trump and Fox News.