Last of the independents 

Eugenia León has been an outsider since her victorious debut at the 1985 Eurovision-like Organización de Televisión Iberoamericana song festival. “It hasn’t been easy,” she told the Current on the phone from Mexico City. “People associate independence with marginality, with an attitude of being in confrontation with the show-business establishment. That may be true to some degree, but I think it is a very limited view.”

She suffered that shortsightedness from both sides of the music world.

“In the ’70s, when a socially conscious artist would appear on TV, the artist would be accused of being a traitor,” said León, who will make her San Antonio debut Saturday at the Empire Theater. “At the same time, when I entered the so-called establishment, they would look at me as if I were a Soviet spy! Soon enough, I learned that the Mexican music world has many mafias and, if you don’t belong to the groups of power, you’re pretty much left out of the award shows. Not that I cared, but from then on, I only relied on myself, my people, and my staying power.”

She won the 1985 OTI fest (held that year in Seville) on her own terms: with “El fandango aquí,” a song by Marcial Alejandro, one of several top-notch Mexican composers whose songs she has sung throughout the years.

Her 25 albums cover everything from ranchera, norteña, and banda, to bolero, tango, huapangos, and trova. She has performed at Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and it’s hard to think of a style she hasn’t tackled.

“C’mon… I haven’t sung them all,” she says humbly. “I know my limitations.”

If she has any limitations, they’re not too apparent in her latest gem: Puño de tierra, a 2008 collection of songs that began as a ranchera album and ended up as perhaps the ultimate example of her music-as-a-meticulous-documentary approach.

“When it came time to select the repertoire, I felt I needed to link them in a story,” said León, who started revisiting Mexican books and movies and came to the conclusion that “Juan Rulfo is the factor that kept everything together.” Mexican author Rulfo wrote Pedro Páramo, the novel that spearheaded the Latin American literary boom of the second half of the 20th century. The album has only a couple of straight-ahead rancheras with a complete mariachi ensemble, but her intention was to journey through Rulfo’s narrative sound.

“It’s a special album,” she says. “At times it’s more mystic, at times heart-wrenching or mysterious. It fascinates me to narrate things, to take the listener by the hand and make the trip with them.”

Nowhere is that trip more palpable than in her TV series Tocando tierra on Mexico’s Channel 22.

“It’s not a documentary,” León says, “and it’s not a newscast, but it’s a portrait of Mexico’s
often neglected musical avenues.”

With her team, León traveled to the country’s most remote places and embarked on a poetic, visually stunning search for meaning in Mexico’s musical past, present, and future. To date, its 13 episodes have explored Oaxaca’s mixteca and zapoteca traditions, Monterrey’s cumbia, Chiapas’s rock and marimba, Yucatán’s trova, Mexico City’s danzón, and the sonidero movement.

“The questions we asked ourselves were, ‘What happens with music in Mexico? Who has inherited the traditions? Is it being modified? Who are the luthiers? We wanted to do our part preserving these sounds that will disappear if we don’t do something about it,” León says.

The viewer response has been encouraging.

“Some of the letters are overwhelming,” she says. “They tell me that they’re tired of reading bad news about Mexico about drug traffic, violence, poverty, that they were so ashamed at times. And now they feel proud again after seeing stories about unknown artists who are actually keeping the country together.”

And León continues recording, touring, and speaking against the injustices that, despite (or because of) so-called “progress,” still affect three quarters of the world’s population.

“Whether you are a singer, a dancer, or a painter, the role of the artist is to dignify the human spirit, to not let men or women become wild beast,” León says. “My contribution? I sing to appreciate our cultural diversity. Therefore, my singing is all about tolerance.”

This will be León’s first visit to San Antonio.

“`Mexicans` feel very close to SA for obvious historical reasons,” says León. “This has been the birthplace to many extremely important Mexican-American artists, but I’ll also be singing to an eclectic audience of Spanish-speakers, not only from Mexico. It took me a while, but I’m happy to be there.”

This interview was translated from the original Spanish by the writer.


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