Mexican American Music
How has Mexican-American music influenced Omaha from within and outside of the Mexican-American community?
Mexican-American Music: Unmasking the Unknown
Omaha’s Mexican-American community dates back more than a century. Initially fairly small in number, in recent decades, Latinos have been one of the fastest-growing segments of the city’s population. Like other groups, as Mexican-Americans settled in Omaha, they brought with them a variety of traditional cultural practices, including their music. As their numbers in Omaha grew they experienced the struggles of immigrant life, cultural identity and community engagement. As younger generations have integrated into the broader American society, Mexicans have successfully preserved their cultural traditions, sometimes in a new way or a meshing of two cultures, through family and community networks.
By studying the history of Mexico, the students gained a broader understanding on the origin of this style of music in Omaha. Pushed by military, political and economic factors in their country, many Mexicans relocated to the United States, specifically to Omaha which had available jobs in the railroad, agricultural and stockyard industries. These immigrants not only brought their families, but also their culture. One way they preserved and continue to showcase their culture is through their music, which is often influenced by their families and surroundings. Although years ago, this music was unknown to Omaha’s non-Latino community, now this style of music is often promulgated at cultural events and public venues. Over generations Mexican American music has adapted to new styles and brought communities together with this common passion, giving insight into many cultures around the world.
Published during the Summer of 2018
Six Omaha Public Schools students explore Omaha’s rich Mexican-American music history and its impact on the South Omaha community and the larger Omaha community. Interview subjects include Marcos Mora, Johnny Ray Gomez, DeAna Lara-Perea, and Alejandra Mayorga Padilla: all prominent Omaha Mexican-American musicians. The students' documentaries can also be watched on YouTube.
Vihuela: Mexican Guitar
This artifact is the Mexican vihuela. It is a 5-stringed instrument that originated in Mexico in the 19th century. When played, it produces both a sharp and a soft sound, and it is typically played in mariachi bands. Pictured here, Mexican-American musician Marcos Mora talks about the fact that musical traditions are passed down through generations, including instruments. This also highlights the familial aspect of Mexican-American music and culture. (Vihuela courtesy of Marcos Mora)
This is an image of the Tampico, the first Mexican-owned location in Omaha that held live music performances. Opened in 1955 on 1016 S 10th Street, the Tampico was a thriving hot spot for local musicians until its closing in 1965. The Tampico was a place that represented a strong South Omaha culture with a consistently growing Mexican-American music scene. However, its late appearance as the first location to promulgate live Mexican–American music highlights the lack of venues available for Mexican-American artists. Prior to this, many artists performed at private house parties, serenades, and special events. The bustling business illustrated the need for venues like the Tampico in the community. Other venues in the 1950s and 60s included the Tropicana on 5th and Pierce Streets and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on 23rd and O Streets. Currently, there are many popular locations in Omaha that showcase the talents of many Mexican–American musicians, such as Howard’s and Guaca Maya. As time progressed, local venues and cultural celebrations became just as essential to the people of South Omaha, and to Hispanic musicians.
This photo depicts members of a mariachi band. Mariachi music a significant part of traditional Mexican-American culture, identity and community. Though mariachi dates back hundreds of years, though the modern form of the music emerged in the 19thcentury in Jalisco, Mexico. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans often use mariachi music to celebrate important moments, like courtship, weddings, baptisms, birthdays, patriotic holidays and even funerals. A mariachi band is often the first band young Mexican-American children join and where they learn to play traditional mariachi instruments like the trumpets, violins, vihuelas, and guitarrons. Young mariachi members oftentimes are part of the same family, illustrating the strong connection between music and family in Mexican-American culture. (Image Courtesy of Marcos Mora)
The presence of Mexican immigrants is not new for Nebraska, Mexicans, in small numbers, have been present in the state since the 1910s when they arrived to work in agriculture, initially in the beet fields, as well as the railroad and stockyard industries. Most of these initial Mexican immigrants came to Omaha from central Mexico, likely after feeling the economic effects of the Porfiriato and the Mexican Revolution and encouraged by the promise of work and higher incomes made by American recruiting agents. As the meatpacking industry grew in Nebraska in the 1920s so did the Mexican population, however, due to the repatriation policies during the Great Depression of the 1930s their population dwindled as Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans were forcibly relocated to Mexico and those that remained returned to working in the sugar beet industry of Nebraska. Over the 1950s and 1960s the Mexican population in Omaha increased slowly and began entering skilled and professional employment. The population would remain low in comparison to other American cities until the 1990s when Mexicans once again began to arrive in Omaha in larger numbers primarily to work in the meatpacking industry.
Over the decades, as their numbers in Omaha grew, Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans carved out a space for their families within the South Omaha community where they build homes, churches and businesses that allowed them further visibility. Preserving their culture was very important to this group, as was family and community, the safeguarding of family unity symbolized a longer conservation of their Mexican culture. One way in which this community sought to preserve their culture and history was through music, which was based on the musical influences of their Mexican state of origin and was carried to Nebraska by the early immigrants to the state. Initially Mexican music was played in homes, private venues and churches, these spaces allowed Mexican immigrants to enjoy their music, provide entertainment for their community and created an atmosphere where they could spend time with one another. As their numbers continued to increase, public venues began to appear such as La Tropicana, Tampico and Howards, which featured Mexican American music and dancing. Today Mexican American music continues to be played by musicians at venues like Howards and the Guaca Maya, continuing to provide diversion for all their patrons. Much of the music that was played during the 20th century and currently continues to uphold the themes of family unity, community identity and visibility, and preservation of Mexican history, during the filming of this documentary these values were still present within the Mexican community.
"MIHV was an incredible program with some amazing experiences. More than anything, I loved interviewing people and learning about their time in the Mexican American community."
- Zackarea A.
"The MIHV program is not what I expected, it was so much better! We got to do amazing things like riding Ollie the Trolley, conducting interviews and eating at locations special to Omaha’s culture."
- Moriah D.
"I loved everything about this program because we got to learn something new through the interviews. We went out to a Mexican restaurant, Howard’s. The Mexican food was so good! We even saw old artifacts, photographs and old buildings related to Mexican-American music."
- Brandon L.
"The best part of the MIHV Summer Program has been learning more about the unique culture, history, and development of the city that I am proud to call “home”. Meeting various Mexican-American musicians and hearing about their intense passion for music, various inspirations, childhood, culture, and how they promulgated themselves was a phenomenal experience that revealed the beautiful true colors of the Mexican-American culture."
- Olivia C.
"My favorite part of this program would have to be the little experiences not necessarily part of the researching and film-making process; including the song-writing workshop or the Ollie-the-Trolley tour of our surprisingly cultured home. Through these opportunities, my eyes opened to an Omaha where music shapes us, and we shape history. Everyday, history is being made-we are history… and that’s one of the craziest concepts I’ve come to know."
- Marley D.
"Over the course of this project, I have grown as a person and a historian. It has been amazing to meet new people and learn more about local history. With this program, I was able to explore different cultures and learn more about how those cultures come together to make up our home town of Omaha. This program is definitely 10/10, and I would recommend it to anybody."
- Bailey H.
Additional teaching resources for Mexican American music history can be found at TeachRock.org
Research combined by Marley D., Bailey H., Brandon L., Moriah D., Olivia C., & Zackarea A.
Students who worked on the project will attend high school at Burke, Central, and North.