Young Mexican Americans are embracing and uplifting their roots through music: ‘I imagine myself in Mexico’

Spanish was rarely spoken at home while Luis Eduardo Sanchez was growing up in the early 2000s. He attended a predominantly white elementary and middle school in suburban Illinois. Despite being a son of a Mexican immigrant father and a Chicana mother, he recalls not feeling comfortable embracing their roots. “I was kind of ashamed of my culture,” he said. Growing up in spaces that didn’t celebrate his Mexican heritage pushed him away from it.

In high school, everything changed. When Sanchez participated in a talent show his senior year at Morton West High School, he sported a traditional Mexican outfit and held the Mexican and the Chicago flags up high while he sang an ode to his Chicano identity.

It was at Morton West, a predominantly Latino school in Berwyn, where Sanchez was finally exposed to the beauty of his Mexican roots, he said. There, he was surrounded by the music, the colors and the language like never before. It was also there where he discovered his special appreciation for rancheras, banda, and norteño, traditional Mexican music that his father and grandfather listened to.

Now in college, the 18-year-old, who aspires to be a radio personality and announcer, created a radio show in English that aims to showcase and celebrate other Mexican American youth creating regional Mexican music in Chicago and its surroundings. Every Wednesday, Sanchez broadcasts and records his show, “Radio Fuego,” live from the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. The show features live music and interviews with members of new groups and bands made up of other first- and second-generation Mexican Americans like himself.

Young Mexican Americans are no longer ashamed, and instead want to uplift and embrace their music, Sanchez said. It’s a newfound identity, he added: While they are proud to be born in the United States, they’ve learned to encourage and empower each other to be proud of their Mexican roots and find a way to also make it a part of their American identity.

“We’re the ‘No sabo’ kids,” Sanchez said, laughing. “But even if we don’t speak perfect Spanish, the music makes us feel connected to our family and it helps us to appreciate the beauty of our culture.”

The phrase “no sabo” was popularized on social media to describe Latino youths who speak broken Spanish. Instead of saying “no se,” meaning “I don’t know,” some would say “no sabo.”

“Music speaks to me,” Sanchez said. “Listening to old-school music, Pedro Infante and Jose Alfredo Jimenez remind me of my grandpa. I close my eyes and imagine myself in Mexico.”

Sanchez’s father, Jose Luis Sanchez, is from a rural town in Guanajuato, Mexico, and immigrated to the Chicago area nearly 30 years ago. Here, he met his wife, a second-generation Mexican American whose parents are from Sonora, and eventually raised their three children, including Sanchez, in Lyons Township.

Though Sanchez’s father, a carpenter, would listen to the traditional music and often had live music for family celebrations, he acknowledged that his son was being raised in a very different country — and he didn’t expect his son to ever create a show dedicated to promoting Mexican music for an Anglo audience.

“It makes me feel very proud and happy that he found this appreciation for our music within him,” he said.

Like Sanchez, many of his guests on the show get a sense of nostalgia from creating the music. Most, he said, are self-taught, learning to play instruments by hearing the music or watching videos of the groups and bands their fathers and grandfathers used to listen to. Others grew up with family members who play music.

For Jesus Antonio Garcia, 20,member of Los Primos del Crucero, it is a family affair. All of the members of the norteño band are his cousins and he was inspired by his father, Jesús “Chuy” García, the accordionist and vocalist for Los Huracanes del Norte, a renowned norteño band.

After Sanchez posted a TikTok sharing his vision and asking new and young groups and bands to contact him if they wished to be featured on his radio show, Garcia was one of nearly 200 that reached out.

During the hourlong show, Garcia told Sanchez that he mastered playing the accordion during the pandemic and his cousin learned to play the guitar at the same time, after returning from the military. After learning a few songs, the two decided to dedicate more time to their newfound passion and create their own norteño band

“My whole life I had been surrounded by norteño music, but I really never had an interest in it; it was just something my father did,” Garcia said. He was raised in Carol Stream with his two other siblings and never intended to play an instrument, let alone sing like his father.

As a child, only speaking English, he had a hard time understanding the lyrics of the music his father made. In high school, he set out to learn more Spanish to make sense of the songs.

Sometimes, he said, being born here to Mexican parents and not speaking the language pushes people away from their culture. “Some are ashamed for not speaking Spanish, but it’s also something to be proud of.”

“It’s awesome to be Chicano because I can have the best of both worlds,” Garcia said.

New regional Mexican music has emerged from young groups mostly in California and Texas, said Alvaro Obregon, founder of the Chicago Mariachi Project, a not-for-profit organization that implemented the art of mariachi in Chicago schools nearly a decade ago.

But in recent years, in Chicago, he has noticed that first- and second-generation Mexican American teens are not only embracing the beauty of mariachi, but many have also discovered that any type of regional Mexican music is an art and want to continue creating it.

“When I was a kid, you would get called names if you were playing Mexican music. Now you see quite the opposite,” Obregon said. “Even before with the Chicago Mariachi Project, there were some young people that were no longer ashamed to wear their botas and tejana.”

Spaces such as Sanchez’s radio show can help other young Latinos to feel encouraged to create their own music and bring others onto it, Obregon said.

Obregon said this new generation of Mexican Americans has rediscovered and redefined their identity in this country by choosing to proudly uplift part of their roots — like the very traditional music — that had been judged and stereotyped.

Unlike their parents, these teens and young adults no longer feel the pressure to acculturate, but rather want to uplift their Mexican roots and make them a noticeable part of their American roots, Obregon said.