The Chicago journalist and radio host connects Latin music to the roots, history and culture of Latinos in the United States and Illinois

Music can be seen and “read” as a tool that shares the values, roots and history of a culture.

That’s the gist of this Saturday’s illustrated musical presentation presented by the McLean County History Museum at the Normal Public Library. Catalina Maria Johnson, Chicago-based journalist will provide a broad overview of musical milestones over the past 75 years in the Latino United States to understand the history, roots, and concerns of Latinos in this country.

The host and producer of beat the latinos on Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo credits the tenacious insistence of a Mexican mother and a German-Swedish father with what she calls the extraordinary gift of a bilingual, bicultural heritage. She said that 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 slightly edited interview.

WGLT: Your presentation focuses on how many genres of Latin music connect with Latin history in the United States and outside.

Yes more or less. I’m not a historian, it’s 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 discussed.

And what I realized is kind of like the underdog history book, because when you’re in a certain position, sometimes you don’t write the history and you don’t write the new. But you will sing about it. So it’s more about seeing music as a way to reveal a cultural story.

It’s almost like maybe Chuck D from Public Enemy saying his band is kind of the CNN of black people in the early 90s.

Exactly. And some of that comes straight from troubadour lore and tells the news that way. There’s a direct link between troubadours and what you’re commenting on, and the kind of things I’m going to comment on. This is not a history lesson. It’s not a history book and it’s not a timeline in the sense that this happened, and it did. It’s more of a sprinkling of milestones, just so I can comment on how different relationships have been reflected. If it wasn’t for wanting to understand where that song came from, or what the song was about, or why there was that kind of music in that space in the United States, like, where that population of that cultural community that created the music.

Would you mind giving an example or two?

I don’t want to get too many spoilers, but for example, the one I just mentioned…being at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and hearing a band and, of course, it was Caribbean music. And the lead singer was Honduran. According to reviews. I discovered that there was a Honduran community in New Orleans. Around the same time, I was very interested in Garifuna music, which is Honduran black music. It is a black and indigenous community, Honduran or Guatemalan depending on where the borders are.

And part of this population… in addition to their own language, the Garifuna speak either Spanish or English. So there is a Garifuna community that is also in New Orleans. And then there’s this band at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. And I’m like, ‘Why is there a Honduran community in New Orleans?’ This led me to investigate and realize that because United Fruit, an American company that did some pretty terrible things along the way in Central America…there were work permits in New Orleans because it’s was a port and from ports in the Caribbean and Honduras bananas were shipped. This in the 1970s. So, from this relationship a Honduran community and a black Honduran community in New Orleans were born. And I wouldn’t have discovered it if it hadn’t been for the music.

I want to pick up on something you said earlier, and I don’t remember exactly how you said it. But I think you characterized it as realizing that with this music, there was a point where these stories started to be told.

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

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

I always take it seriously. I would say there are, if you know about Afro-pop in the world, that’s really their focus. I think it’s an element, but I would say probably not by historians, maybe Howard Zinn, being a very different type of historian, but overall, no, it’s not. That’s part of the problem. It’s not the story that’s in the textbooks. And that’s precisely because…to be in the textbooks…the history books are written by the victors. You know, it’s not. It’s not the wins. It’s often the stories that aren’t there that are behind the wins.

And Latin music, especially here in Illinois, doesn’t have a lot of outlets outside of Chicago. How might wider access to this music change the perceptions of people who live in Illinois?

Absolutely. I think sometimes. It is the most human form of expression. I mean, maybe there are people who don’t like music, but I think almost everyone likes some kind of music. I think music, cooking and food are things where people find common ground. Once you eat something, it changes you. Once you hear a song, it changes you if you really own it or want it or even care. It becomes part of you. So it’s a way of getting to know each other more gently, sometimes with difficult or complicated ideas or complicated relationships in this case, that we have had as a country with almost everyone.

Catalina Maria Johnson’s presentation is Saturday, August 5. The program starts at 1 p.m.

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