The following is a guest post by American Folklife Center (AFC) Folklife Specialist Guha Shankar, who interviews AFC Community Collections Grant recipient Florencio “Isaac” Rodriguez about his project, “Sonidos de Houston: Documenting the City’s Chicano Music Scene.” This post is part of the Of the People blog series featuring the 2022 awardees of the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Sonidos de Houston: Documenting the City’s Chicano Music Scene is a joint project of Florencio ”Isaac” Rodriguez and a team of talented documentary fieldworkers, several of whom are community-based musicians. The initiative seeks to increase a wider appreciation of the number of musical genres in the greater Houston area. As Rodriguez notes of the compelling reason to undertake the project, “Unlike other communities in South and Central Texas, Houston’s Chicano music scene has largely remained underappreciated, unknown and undocumented.” The photographs accompanying the blog provide a sense of the documentation of the city’s vibrant music scene and of the musicians’ memories of their careers, as emerging in several venues across the city, ranging from dance halls to pubs and nightclubs to performers’ homes.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about the project, Isaac. I’ll begin by noting your approach, as stated in your grant proposal, to foreground the reflections and memories of performers throughout the documentary process. How has this worked out in actual practice?
So far we’ve been able to find out so much information that has never been documented before. Most of the artists we’ve interviewed have been playing music for over fifty years and have never ever been interviewed by family, friends, documentarians or media outlets. So, by gathering their stories, we are putting together a timeline of the development of Chicano music in Houston. At the same time, we are trying to make aspects of the project available to the public to generate further interest on the topic.
You and most of your fieldwork team are also fellow community members and musicians with the folks you are documenting. Would you reflect a bit on what those joint responsibilities mean to you?
Being a fifth generation Tejano, I know only too well that this project is very important and long overdue. The documentary history of Tejano music has focused on the area from San Antonio to El Paso thus far, but Houston’s distinctive scene has not been as well explored. So I’m very excited that we are finally getting this done. The community is also super enthusiastic about this as well. There is a ton of history here that we keep learning about during every interview.
Are there any specific moments or “aha” stories that have been especially striking for you in doing this work?
My family is from the Northside of Houston, which is one of the oldest Mexican American neighborhoods in the city. Through my research I discovered that this neighborhood was a hot spot for the genre and culture. A lot of the pioneers in Houston Tejano grew up there and went to Jefferson Davis High School. I have an uncle who played Chicano music during the 60s and 70s. Unfortunately he passed away in the early 80s, so I didn’t know much about him. But, during a few of the interviews, my uncle’s name came up and so I was able to hear first-hand stories about him from musicians who went to school and played with him. The image of my uncle and these pioneers jamming in my grandfather’s garage was a personal gift to me. Very cool!
What has the reaction of the artists you are documenting been towards the aims and scope of your work?
Before we started this effort, the stories went undocumented, and only circulated in family gatherings and hangouts with old music buddies. But now, interviewees are getting an opportunity to tell their story in a manner that will be preserved and that can be shared with the generations to come. Participants are honored and humbled by the fact that the project – their project – will be part of the collections of the Library of Congress, a national institution that most were not very familiar with before we began the Sonidos documentation.
Thanks so much for your insights on this remarkable initiative, Isaac. We at the AFC are looking forward to sharing the results of your team’s work with Tejano communities and audiences around the world.
Find out more about the American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants here, and check out the newly-announced 2023 grant recipients here!