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Best of Both Worlds

Through bilingual music, Tish Hinojosa blends language and culture with everyday life.


For Mexican-American singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa, playing music is a vehicle through which she maintains a connection with family and culture, right down to singing in two languages.

"I use Spanish and English in my songs as a way to put Spanish into my everyday life. My mother and father are dead, so I don't have to speak it on a regular basis anymore. But it was my first language and I like writing in it, and singing songs in the language helps me keep it around me," Hinojosa says over the telephone from her home in Austin, Texas.

Hinojosa is well known to Tucson audiences. She played several concerts here during the '90s, including a 1998 appearance at the University of Arizona's Centennial Hall as part of the Global Divas package tour, which also included co-headliners Susana Baca, from Peru, and Stella Chiweshe, from Zimbabwe.

After a four-year absence from Tucson stages, Hinojosa will headline the 17th annual Tucson Folk Festival this weekend at El Presidio Park.

A native of San Antonio, Texas, the 46-year-old Hinojosa is the youngest of 13 children born to Mexican immigrants Maria and Felipe. While growing up, she listened to Mexican folk music, country and rock 'n' roll of the 1960s and '70s--in accordance with late-20th-century teen-age tradition--through an earplug transistor radio. She discovered the guitar early and was writing songs by the time she was a teen-ager. After driving her parents crazy with music, she starting singing jingles on a Spanish-language radio station and was allowed her first forays into playing the San Antonio coffeehouse and club circuit.

In 1979, Hinojosa submitted two songs to the songwriter's competition at the world-famous Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival; she surprised herself by making the final round and was invited back to perform the next year. She lived in New Mexico for a while and spent time kicking around Nashville, trying to get a recording or songwriting deal--to no avail. Hinojosa is diplomatic about her feelings regarding country's Music City.

"Every year or so, there'll be this movement in Nashville, and people will say, 'Nashville is changing.' And, well, it's made a few progressive moves, but I don't see it happening much," she says. "I mean, I don't want to sound like sour grapes. I'll just say that it didn't work for me there. I knocked on so many doors for a long time, and I couldn't even get a deal there, not for songwriting and not for singing."

She did take something away with her, though. "I did start writing during that period. It did really open me to working on the craft of songwriting. But Nashville still remains pretty closed. Whatever formula is the dominant form there, it will be hard to break through."

Relocating to Austin, Hinojosa found a haven for musician's musicians and serious songwriters who didn't necessarily adhere to the trendy formulas that drive the record charts. She also found the attention for her music that she deserved.

She has since released 13 albums, on A&M, Warner Bros., Watermelon and Rounder Records, the most recent being Sign of Truth, which was issued in 2000 by Rounder. A new CD is in the works and Hinojosa can't decide whether it will be a recording of all-new material or a live collection.

Although Hinojosa professes mixed feelings about bilingual education and the attendant politics, she has made it a mission to expose young people--her teen-age son and daughter, included--to a love of languages and multiculturalism through music.

"To me, its not just about Spanish and English, it's about encouraging children to learn cultures and languages at a much younger age than our public schools do now," she says. "You shouldn't wait until junior high to bring in a second language. Children should be exposed to varying cultures and languages at 6 or 7 years old or even younger at 4 and 5 years. Any second language is going to open doors."

In that spirit, Hinojosa always has been a bilingual performer, alternating between English- and Spanish-language songs and occasionally singing the same song in both languages.

In 1996, she released the album Cada Niño/Every Child, which demonstrated this direction on a children's music forum. It also featured the recording debut of her two kids, who play music, among other interests. An accompanying songbook with the same title has recently been published, making the music available for performance to children, parents and teachers.

Hinojosa, who counts among her songwriting heroes Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash, says she has no set method of writing songs. Some come to her automatically. At other times, she'll make herself sit down and write.

"It can be either way. If a lot of time has gone by and I haven't written, I will just feel the overwhelming need to write. You know, like, sometimes I'll go through a period where I just haven't paid enough attention to the muse. Other times, it will just take me by surprise.

"I'll have songs that are half-written for years. Some things just write themselves right away in 30 minutes or an hour. The process is never the same and a little hard to pin down."

But the craft of making music always remains a treat for Tish Hinojosa, never a chore.

"For me it's like a break. The songwriting, creating the music and walking on stage and playing it for people, all of that is the pleasure, that's my relaxing time. It's all the other distractions of life that are a chore, all the logistics of getting something done and getting somewhere at a certain time."

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