Native Tongues

"In a way, it's almost a privilege not to be played on the radio," singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa says with a laugh. "Sure, I'd love to have radio success--I'd be lying if I didn't say that. But the quality and content of the music are just as important to me as that is. If you turn on any radio format right now, be it country or adult-album-alternative or whatever, and you listen to fifteen or twenty minutes of music, you're not going to hear a lot of content. And I wish you could, because there are a lot of songwriters out there who are writing songs that say something, and they're not being played."

Austin-based Hinojosa finds herself in this precise situation. She's on a major record label--Warner Bros.--and her latest album, Dreaming From the Labyrinth/Sonar del Laberinto, is the most provocative and accomplished of her career. But the fastidious, intuitive music she's making these days has little in common with the simplistic fare that most current radio programmers seek. In fact, a considerable portion of it isn't even in the language most often heard on the nation's mainstream airwaves; during several of Labyrinth's cuts, Hinojosa moves artfully between English and Spanish. This decision might be regarded as commercial insanity, but for Hinojosa, it was also an artistically revitalizing experience.

"The fun part of this was volleying between the languages and letting them weave together," she divulges. "They're not really all that similar, so to paint similar images in the two tongues was a very different way of looking at the languages." As an example, she points to "God's Own Open Road," a catchy, intricate folk-pop song that she describes as "a Bob Dylanesque thing that isn't like what you usually hear in Spanish. I wrote it in English, but I also did a version of it in Spanish--hopefully, we'll release an all-Spanish version of the whole record one of these days. And when I wrote the translation, I said to myself, 'I never thought I could say this in Spanish.' It was really a unique experience, and it made me see a lot of possibilities.

"Spanish tends to be the language of poetry--it's such a rolling, romantic language," she goes on. "So this album forced me to find equally romantic language in English. It sometimes took a little time to find it, but I did. Generally, I'm not much of a puzzle-doer, but I realized that I was really challenged by putting this together."

Hinojosa's background makes her uniquely qualified to navigate Labyrinth. The youngest of thirteen kids (eleven of them girls), she was born and raised in a section of San Antonio largely populated by Spanish speakers. Hence, her father, a mechanic, and her mother, who stayed home to care for her enormous brood, didn't feel the need to use anything other than Spanish in their house or neighborhood. "Usually that changes when you have children," Hinojosa notes. "Schools are a place where so many exchanges happen for a child, and a parent has to somehow communicate. But in my mother's case, once we were educated, we became her translators. She never really did have to learn English."

Young Tish didn't have that luxury--and her transition to bilingualism was far from smooth. "I was sick as a kid, and so I was a real insider. I stayed home a lot and was really close to my mother," she remembers. "So even though my sisters would come home and speak English with each other, I was much, much more comfortable with Spanish. That's why I'll never forget going to first grade. We went to a parochial school where all the teachers were Anglos, and they all spoke English. And even though a lot of the kids were Hispanic, they were mostly second-generation, so most everybody else spoke English, too. There were really only two or three of us who didn't or spoke very little. And I felt like something--my whole being, really--was being pulled away from me. I felt like I was suddenly thrown into some very foreign territory."

The trauma she felt as a result of these experiences was profound--so much so that she's now heavily involved in trying to prevent others from going through the same thing. Hinojosa works on behalf of both the National Association for Bilingual Education and the National Latino Children's Agenda, and she takes any opportunity she can to refute the demagoguery of those right-wingers who promote the English-only cause. "This is not about somebody speaking in some kind of code," she declares. "We're trying to expand the mind and make people more aware of the world around them. That's why we need to encourage languages as a cultural addition to our life. Children shouldn't be made to feel that their language is something that needs to be taken away from them or washed away, as if it's some form of defect."

The zealousness with which Hinojosa held on to her heritage is reflected in her musical career. By the time she'd hit her teens, she was splitting her time between San Antonio clubs, where she crooned folk tunes by Dylan and others, and the city's River Walk, where she performed traditional Spanish ditties. She moved to New Mexico in 1979, and with the exception of a soul-draining two-year stay in Nashville, she remained there until 1988, when she relocated to Austin. Texas critics immediately took a liking to her music's cultural blend, and their acclaim drew the attention of A&M Records. Homeland, produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, followed and was roundly praised. But it was Hinojosa's next release, 1992's Culture Swing (on the Rounder imprint), that got the attention of Warner Bros. and plenty of others; it was named folk album of the year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.

Destiny's Gate, Hinojosa's Warner bow, appeared in 1994, and while it's a lovely offering, Labyrinth trumps it. As the title implies, the recording is suffused with elegant dream imagery that the singer uses in the construction of hallucinogenic miniatures. "When It Rains/Cuando Llueve," the introductory number, and "Laughing River Running/Riendo el Rio Corre" (the latter a brassy dance number) are impassioned and sinuous, while "Prisonary Life/Vida Prisionera" and "This Song/Esta Cancion" are as delicate as glass figurines. No doubt citizens of Latin America would enjoy each of them--if only they had the opportunity to hear them.

"I wish I could spend more time in those countries," Hinojosa says. "But my records aren't released there. I know a lot of people assume that they are--people who see the very strong side of my Latin connection kind of assume that I'm already known in those places. But Latin America wants to follow the United States. If you're successful on the American charts, then your records will be picked up in other countries. But if you're not selling a lot of records here, they don't care if you have a Latin last name or that you speak the language.

"I don't lose faith, though. I think someday it will happen. I've got grassroots support all over the place, so I'm not going to be a pessimist about it. There are always fluke successes. But at the same time, I'm not going to hang all my hopes on it, either."

Still, it's difficult for Hinojosa not to get frustrated, particularly when she's lumped together with so-called Tex-Mex artists who sound nothing like her. According to her, "The Tex-Mex world is usually seen as making this kind of playful tejano thing--party music. You know, like the Texas Tornados singing 'Guacamole.' I like all of those guys, and I don't mean to be singling them out, but what they do isn't all that Tex-Mex is. It's seen as more of a novelty rather than something that's a rooted part of the American culture.

"There's plenty out there that can show the party-novelty side of our culture. And there are a lot fewer people coming from where I am, which is a little more difficult. But I'm not a martyr or anything. I'm just saying this is how it works for me. This is what I feel comfortable with. It's what I wake up for."

Tish Hinojosa, with Bill Miller. 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $15, 322-2308.

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