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Chicago journalist and radio host connects Latino music and the roots, history, and culture of Latinos in the U.S. and Illinois

Catalina Maria Johnson_Carolina Sánchez.jpg
Carolina Sanchez
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Catalina Maria Johnson.

Music can be viewed and “read” as a tool that shares a cultures values, roots, and history.

That’s the gist of this Saturday’s illustrated music presentation presented by the McLean County Museum of History at the Normal Public Library. Chicago-based journalist Catalina Maria Johnson will provide a broad overview of music milestones over the last 75 years in the Latino U.S. as a way of understanding the history, roots, and concerns of Latinos in this land.

The host and producer of Beat Latino on Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo credits the tenacious insistence of a Mexican mom and a German/Swedish dad for what she calls the extraordinary gift of a bilingual and bicultural heritage. She said thanks to them, she grew up in two cities: St. Louis, Missouri, and San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

Johnson spoke with WGLT’s Jon Norton in this lightly edited interview.

WGLT: Your presentation focuses on how numerous Latino music genres connects with Latino history within and outside the U.S.

Yes, more or less. I’m not a historian, it’s about the music. But the music at some point began to reveal historical aspects of relationships. Between the United States and its neighbor to the south, Mexico … and I’m half Mexican … or other Latin countries or Puerto Rico. And some of the songs became like beacons, in the sense that they pointed out, or led me to investigate, historical events that aren’t widely commented on.

And what I realized it's a little bit like the underdog’s history book, because when you are in a certain position, sometimes you're not writing the history and you're not writing the news. But you're you'll be singing about it. So, it's more looking at music as a way of revealing a cultural history.

It's almost like maybe Chuck D of Public Enemy, saying that his band is sort of the CNN of Black people back in the early 90s.

Exactly. And some of this comes right off that from traditions of troubadours and telling the news that way. There's a direct line between the troubadours and what you're commenting on, and the kinds of things that I'll be commenting on. It's not a history lesson. It's not a history book and it's not a chronology in the sense that this happened, and this happened. It's more of a sprinkling of milestones, just to be able to comment on how different relationships have been reflected. If it hadn't been for wanting to understand where this song was coming from, or what the song was about, or why there was this kind of music in this space in the United States, like, where did that population come from of that cultural community that was creating the music.

Do you mind giving an example or two?

I don't want to have too many spoilers, but for example, the one I was just mentioning … being at New Orleans Jazz Fest and hearing a band and, of course, it was Caribbean music. And the main vocalist was Honduran. From the comments. I found out there was a Honduran community in New Orleans. Around that same time, I was very interested in Garifuna music, which is Black Honduran music. It's a community that's Black and indigenous, and either Honduran or Guatemalan depending on where the borders fell.

And some of that population … besides their own language, the Garifuna speak either Spanish or English. So, there's a Garifuna community that also is in New Orleans. And then there's this band at New Orleans Jazz Fest. And I'm like, ‘Why is there a Honduran community in New Orleans?’ That led me to investigate and realize that because United Fruit, a U.S. company which did some pretty terrible things along the way in Central America … there were permits to work in New Orleans because it was a port and from the Caribbean ports and from Honduras, the bananas were being shipped. This in the 70s. So out of that relationship comes a Honduran community and a black Honduran community in New Orleans. And I would not have found out about that if it hadn't been for the music.

I would like to go back to something you said earlier, and I can't remember exactly how you said it. But I think you characterized it as realizing that with this music there was a point in time where these stories started to be told.

Some of these … the traditions of the troubadours or in Mexico, for example of the Corridors which became very popular during the revolution … epic tales of heroes, so the evolution of that genre, which is almost directly historical, if you will, because it was created to tell the tales of the exploits of heroes and horses. (laughs) Often horses were also the heroes. That's a couple hundred years old, at least,

Is music in general, but maybe more specifically to this conversation, taken seriously as a historical, cultural understanding of ourselves?

I always take it seriously. I would say there are, if you're familiar with Afro-pop worldwide, that's very much their focus. I think it is an element, but I would say probably not by historians, maybe Howard Zinn, being a very different kind of historian, but overall, no, this isn't. That's part of the point. This isn't the history that's in the textbooks. And it's precisely because … to be in the textbooks … the history books are written by the victors. You know, this isn't. These aren't the victories. These are often the stories that aren't there that are behind the victories.

And Latino music, especially here in Illinois, doesn't have a whole lot of outlets outside of Chicago. How might a broader access to that music change perceptions of people that live in Illinois?

Oh, absolutely. I think sometimes. It's the most human form of expression. I mean, there might be some people that don't like music, but I think most everybody likes some kind of music. I think music and cuisine and food are points where people find a common ground. Once you eat something, it changes you. Once you hear a song, it changes you whether you really admit it or want it or, or even care. It becomes part of you. So, it is a way to familiarize oneself more gently, sometimes with difficult or complicated ideas or complicated relationships in this case, which we've had as a country with almost everybody.

Catalina Maria Johnson's presentation is Saturday, Aug. 6. The program begins at 1 p.m.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.
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