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This Mother's Day, Felix Contreras and I pay a visit to Weekend Edition Sunday to share some of the songs the women who raised us listened to — music that made its mark as the soundtrack to our childhoods.
My grandmother was, at heart, a singer. As an Argentine growing up in times of turmoil, she'd had her fair share of daunting experiences to sing about: She'd seen dictatorships rise and fall, and had endured a tumultuous marriage. She also basked in the love of grandchildren who adored her. I remember her cooking one Saturday morning and belting out a bolero romántico with full force. She stopped suddenly to focus on something else, and a construction worker from the building next door yelled for her to please keep on singing. She had a beautiful, soulful voice.
Felix's mom introduced him to the rich sounds of Mexican music in all its forms while he was growing up in California. She has a special place in her heart for mariachi, but she also taught Felix and his brothers the two-step dance style of corridos and Mexican cumbias.
We come into this world unaware of music, so those who raise us steer us in a certain musical direction. For Felix, it was his mother's love of all kinds of music that permeated his soul from a very young age. He's confessed on air that when he was a child, he found the polka-influenced rhythms of Mexican rancheras annoying, and would sneak up to the radio and turn the dial to a station that played The Jackson 5. But the seed had been planted. Felix went on to play in his uncle's conjunto band in high school, and today he embraces the Tex-Mex style as one of his favorites.
That's why Felix chose to share "Canción Mixteca" by The Chieftains and Los Tigres Del Norte, a melancholy song about missing one's home. He also offers a more contemporary tune by Bostich & Fussible, a side project of the band Nortec Collective that fuses norteño styles with electronica.
Felix adds that he has strong memories of his mom and dad singing boleros together at home, in two-part harmony. Music was and still is a passion of his mother's, and he says he's thankful to have inherited music-loving genes from both his parents.
As is customary in Latin families, my grandmother played a fundamental role in raising me. She'd pick me up at school, cook meals and, for a good chunk of my life, we even shared a bedroom. She's also the reason I love music so much: I probably heard her singing boleros and tangos as much as I heard her talking.
Her death last year was truly like losing a mother, and on this Mother's Day, I'm choosing to honor her by sharing one of her favorite milongas (a predecessor of tango, which is quite similar). "Se Dice De Mi" ("They Say About Me") is a feisty and suggestive track by Argentine actress and singer Tita Merello. The women of tango were tough as nails, lyrically akin to Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj. They were outspoken and unapologetically sexual. I imagine that my grandmother, like so many Argentine women caught in a culture that kept them down, viewed singing those songs as an act of rebellion in itself.
Later on, I also share a newer track by Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux. I'm not sure what my grandmother would have thought of Spanish-language rap. My guess is that she would've grumbled about how noisy and artless it was, but nonetheless admired Tijoux's brash political outspokenness and hummed the tune while making arroz con pollo.