Bay Area Beats: blurring the bicultural boundary with Jorge Navarro
KALW News’ Bay Area Beats captures local musicians describing their music in their own words.
JORGE NAVARRO: Hi my name is Jorge Navarro, and I’m the frontman of the Cuban Cowboys.
Cuban-American rocker Jorge Navarro might sound like this when he is about to sit down for an interview, but once he puts on his big sunglasses and cowboy hat, and gets on stage with his band, he sounds more like this:
NAVARRO [as Cuban Cowboy]: I love you. I burn for you.
Believe it or not, Navarro’s graduate studies in bilingual education led him to create this Cuban Cowboy character – part American icon, part immigrant political exile, and 100% Spanglish rock star. Bridging two worlds ethnically, linguistically and musically hasn’t been easy, but Navarro tells KALW’s Martina Castro that he feels at home in this middle ground.
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JORGE NAVARRO: I came up with the character while I was working on a PhD in bilingual education. I was looking for a way to prepare Anglo teachers to work with Latino students and I figured, okay, this cowboy, this icon, is fairly non-threatening and it's a great way to introduce people to a positive or an additive model of bilingualism, where both languages and cultures are valued equally in this artistic form.
What I discover in the course of shows, in the course of email correspondences, is that people are weirded out by it. And a character such as the Cuban Cowboy can provoke a range of responses that speak to what's going on, you know, in the so-called real world. There's a lot of stereotypes, there's a lot of rigidity in regards to people’s attitudes about both music and Spanish. I mean it's like Spanish is some sort of gateway drug language, you know. The moment you start speaking Spanish it's all over. You're gonna start, you know, next thing you know, you'll be behind a dumpster smoking Lithuanian out of a glass pipe, or something like that. It's ridiculous.
Growing up as a little Cuban-American, a little guanito in Florida, it was always this magical place, this fantasy place. Cuba, Cuba was almost frozen in time for me. I was surrounded by people who would talk about it incessantly, obsessively. It was crazy. Everything "Cuba this,” "Cuba that,” “Cuba de Castro,” "Cuba-Castro,” "Cuba-Castro!” It's ridiculous down there but I mean I grew up all around it. And so, for me I knew that it was a beautiful, magical place and it was as if they never left. And the bitter irony of being only, you know, 91, 92 miles away from their homeland, experiencing the same ocean air, the same time zone, the same water, if you will. It just drove them nuts that they couldn't go back.
So it's weird, 'cause there's a lot of tension, there's a lot of bitterness and then there's the business, it's one of the hallmarks of exile memory. Memory even, you know, for anybody memory is a tricky thing. We are very selective about our memory or where our memories are concerned. And so what's real and what's not?
So I went to Cuba for the first time for 20 days earlier this summer, and I met dozens of family members that I had never, you know, I'd never met them before. I'd only seen pictures, heard about them etcetera and likewise they to me. But took them my music and I brought my guitar and played for them and I played on the streets and everybody was just like, this is Cuban music. You know, you said you were a rock musician, this is Cuban music. So that was an inversion of what I get with Anglo audiences and Americans and stuff that are really surprised. “I thought you guys were Latin.” So it's weird sometimes where, not that I'm gosh, you know, because I inhabit this middle ground. Musically, linguistically, you know, artistically, and so it's weird, people want to project their stuff on to me. And that's fine, that's what you get, you know, along La Frontera.
So I want listeners to foremost be entertained, but at the same time I want them to think, you know. And I want them to look at Latinissimo and I want them to consider Spanish and the "other" a little differently, you know. Or at least get to a point emotionally where they recognize that, you know, it's not black or white.