Photo: Natalie Rhea
Tish Hinojosa

Q&A with Texan singer-songwriter Tish Hinojosa

The 63-year-old Mexican-American musician talks about bilingualism, her Mexican-American identity and the inspirations behind her music

As the youngest of 13 siblings in San Antonio, Texas, Tish Hinojosa was the odd one out for her interest in music. Her music, which mixes together lyrics in both English and Spanish, was inspired by the folk and protest music of the ‘70s, classic Spanish love songs and the pop songs that were on the radio during her childhood.

She will perform at The Shedd Institute at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Feb. 16, for a fundraiser concert for Centro Latino Americano, a Eugene-based nonprofit that supports the Latino community.

As a child, what was it that drew you to music?

It’s what you feel when you hear something that you really love. To me, music was the thing that would really make me feel emotional. Songs could make me cry just because I loved them so much, and that’s something that I didn’t feel with other things. It kind of came in literature, reading some beautiful book and then crying or something. But the only other thing that did to me was music… No one else in my family did what I did. I’m the youngest of 13, and I’m the only one that really pursued this. It was a curiosity among my family that I had such a strong drive to want to become a singer or a folk singer.

What were some of your musical influences growing up?

Growing up in San Antonio, which is my hometown, it was mainly pop radio and Mexican radio that were kind of what I formed my lifestyle around. Once I became a teenager, the folk and protest music of the ‘60s really was where I started actually playing the guitar and stuff. So since back then in the early ‘70s, late ‘60s, that’s where the seeds of inspiration were started by everyone from Paul Simon to John Denver to Neil Young.

A lot of the folk music was kind of the pop music in those early ‘70s too. So it was really just the songs like “The Sounds of Silence” [by Simon & Garfunkel] or something by Linda Ronstadt. Those were the kinds of songs that I was singing and that I really gravitated toward. That kind of stuff really attracted me: The music that was playing on the radio, especially songs that had social significance — and there was quite a bit of that. The songs in those early ‘70s that were really quite the things that really moved me and made me want to participate and learn and sing.

Did you always want to be a musician?

From the time I picked up a guitar, it was pretty much something that I took very seriously and felt real passion about and inspiration and excitement. I couldn’t wait to learn something new or learn some new chords or learn new songs. That’s the kind of stuff that really started when I was 14 years old. And before that, I wanted to be everything from a scientist to a movie star.

Did you have to make the conscious decision to sing in both English and Spanish, or did that come out naturally?

It was very natural for me. Some of the earliest songs that I learned were Spanish songs, and my mother always encouraged me. If I was going to be a singer, she wanted me to sing in Spanish, and I didn’t mind because there are some really, really beautiful Spanish songs out there… It was really natural for me to sing everything that was on the pop radio as well as throw in a bunch of Mexican classics, Spanish love songs and things like that. I always did that hand-in-hand. When I started writing my stuff, I wrote in English and in Spanish, and sometimes I’d mix them. It’s just always been something that has always been part of my personality and my connection to my culture and well as my American side of culture.

When you sing in both English and Spanish, what comes out of that combination that wouldn’t otherwise?

I always feel that I can reach more people. Like if there’s somebody in the audience that doesn’t speak English, and they like to hear the stuff that they know, I’m saying what the song is in English and I’m kind of translating it within the song to sing the Spanish version of it. For me, it’s like bouncing it back and forth when I do that.

It sounds like singing in both languages kind of unites people.

Oh yes. I think that’s something that I’ve had people tell me about my music, and they like coming to the concerts because they like hearing the Spanish songs as well as English. It appears that it’s natural to me and something that I feel comfortable [about], telling stories about my upbringing, about my family, some of the interesting things that I’ve learned from trips to Mexico. I think that’s the kind of thing that people can relate to, even if they’re not Spanish speakers. It’s the kind of storytelling and experiences that lead to the song that I’m going to sing.

When you first tell these stories through a song, how does it feel?

I realized that it keeps me connected when I introduce the songs and sing the songs, particularly the ones that really have made an impact on other people and that have really made an impact on me, which is why I wrote the songs.

I relive it all the time… I have a distinct time when I wrote the song about my family called “West Side of Town” about San Antonio. These things keep my parents, who both died when I was pretty young, very alive in my memory, more so than I would even think because I perform constantly. These are the important songs that I sing almost at every show… And it’s really funny because when I’m around my family, these kind of memories aren’t quite as vivid to them as they are to me. They’re vivid to me because I relive them all the time.

Is there anything that you hope people take away after listening to your music?

If there are people who are not politically aligned with me because I’m a supporter of the causes and the immigrants and all that, and some of my audience just aren’t that way. Got some staunch rancher Republicans that like my cowboy stuff. They don’t like my namby-pamby songs about immigrants. But I hope that when they hear all the songs together in context and they see who I am, that it gives people like that a view of who Mexican-Americans really are. The Mexican culture, who we are for real.

Sometimes I’m just singing a bunch of cowboy songs just for fun. But that’s just the fun side, but that’s important too. And the other is fun too because I like connecting people with ideas and thoughts. Wherever I am, whether I’m on a radio show or on stage somewhere, I can always feel that I’m a Mexican-American. I’m as American as I am Mexican, and I think that’s important to for me to let people see this.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Read the print article here.

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