The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles

The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles

by Josh Kun (Editor)

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In 1980, the celebrated new wave band Blondie headed to Los Angeles to record a new album and along with it, the cover song “The Tide Is High,” originally written by Jamaican legend John Holt. Featuring percussion by Peruvian drummer and veteran LA session musician “Alex” Acuña, and with horns and violins that were pure LA mariachi by way of Mexico, “The Tide Is High” demonstrates just one of the ways in which Los Angeles and the music of Latin America have been intertwined since the birth of the city in the eighteenth century.
The Tide Was Always High gathers together essays, interviews, and analysis from leading academics, artists, journalists, and iconic Latin American musicians to explore the vibrant connections between Los Angeles and Latin America. Published in conjunction with the Getty's Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, the book shows how Latin American musicians and music have helped shape the city’s culture—from Hollywood film sets to recording studios, from vaudeville theaters to Sunset Strip nightclubs, and from Carmen Miranda to Pérez Prado and Juan García Esquivel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520294400
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/26/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 252
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Josh Kun is an author, journalist, curator, and Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is a winner of a 2006 American Book Award and is a 2016 MacArthur Fellow.

Read an Excerpt




To begin to tell the story of Mexican music in Los Angeles, you have to start in the Plaza. The first site of Spanish colonial civilian settlement in 1781, it was also the city's first entertainment district. Today the Los Angeles Plaza retains its historic Roman Catholic Plaza Church, Our Lady Queen of the Angels/Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (also known as La Placita Church), dedicated in 1822, and still an active parish serving a principally Latino congregation. The historic Pico House hotel and Merced Theater (the city's oldest surviving theater space) opened in 1870, and Masonic Hall next door was built in 1858. Los Angeles civic leaders established touristic "Mexican" Olvera Street in the late 1920s, as representative of the Spanish-heritage fantasy myth. Italian Hall, built in 1908, long a multiethnic site for cultural, social, and political activities, features David Alfaro Siqueiros's restored outdoor mural América Tropical (Tropical America) of 1932.

The Plaza area has been reconfigured and repurposed numerous times over the centuries, and has always been in a state of adaptation and change. Before the building of Union Railway Station in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, and before misguided urban redevelopment in the 1950s and the destruction of historic buildings and neighborhoods, it served as the center for the city's vibrant Mexican, Italian, and Chinese communities. Civic leaders such as Christine Sterling and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, instigators of the romanticized reimagining of Olvera Street, practiced what William Estrada calls "selective preservation," keeping some buildings such as those mentioned above, but almost entirely destroying the original Chinatown and gradually displacing most of the original Mexican businesses in the Plaza area.

However, at different times from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1950s, Plaza-district buildings, especially along north Main street, housed immigrant-oriented businesses, churches, restaurants and cafes, grocery stores, social clubs, billiard halls, saloons, music stores, dance halls, rooming houses, phonograph parlors, penny arcades, nickelodeons and ten-cent motion picture houses, and vaudeville theaters. The development of the Plaza area over time mirrors the transition of Los Angeles from a small Spanish and Mexican pueblo to an American frontier city, and ultimately to one of the world's major cities and metropolitan areas. As the city grew outward from the Plaza, the performing arts grew with the city, in a wide diversity of genres and styles and ethnic and racial origins and audiences. New artistic and entertainment genres were introduced, created, or adapted for local use, and older traditions were both maintained and discarded.

With the large-scale influx of immigrants during the Mexican revolution of the 1910s came the strong desire to import Mexican cultural practices to what Mexican writer, politician, and philosopher José Vasconcelos (1882–1959) and other elites called a México de Afuera, a Mexican diaspora abroad. As part of this desire to maintain strong connections to the homeland, these immigrants and exiles would establish their own popular music singing groups, orquestas típicas and mariachis, church choirs, dance and wind bands, and operatic and theater companies, creating a vitally alive and mutually supportive musical atmosphere in the Mexican community. A central aspect of this essay is how musical theater directly relates to physical location, civic identity, immigration, and ethnicity. A recurring process of cultural conflict, maintenance, and accommodation played out over time on stage in Los Angeles's Latino theatrical world. Music and theater thus served as conduits for communal self-expression, as powerful symbols of Mexican identity, and as signs of tradition and modernity.


Beginning around 1906 a group of Mexican-oriented theaters, offering mixed bills of live theatrical acts and motion pictures, was established along north Main street adjacent to the Plaza that would continue to be active for several decades. They catered especially to the Spanish-speaking, but also to Italian, Chinese, and Japanese residents of the greater Plaza district.

For a brief time in 1907, an attempt was made to establish a legitimate theater for live Spanish-language drama and musicals in the Italian Mutual Benevolent Association hall at 730 Buena Vista Street in Sonoratown, the predominantly Mexican district immediately north of the plaza. A Mexican company, direct from Hermosillo, Sonora, presented Ruperto Chapí's Spanish zarzuela (operetta) La Tempestad (1882), a favorite repertory piece, in February 1907. However, the enterprise failed because of lack of community support. A combination of films and vaudeville acts was more successful in the community than live musical drama at that time. In May 1907, the Los Angeles Times commented on the makeup of the typical nickel film theater audience, and that the nickelodeon had taken over from the penny arcade in popularity: "A canvas of the nickel theaters of Los Angeles last night revealed a very large percentage of foreign patronage in the plain wooden chairs. The Mexican, especially, is an enthusiastic devotee."

William Wilson Mceuen's thesis from 1914 on the Mexican community in Sonoratown and the Plaza area is invaluable for the data it contains, especially concerning theatrical spectatorship. He included a survey of the Plaza's Mexican-oriented theaters in the mid-1910s: their audiences, musical component, cost of admission, sanitation, and seating capacities. Tables 1 and 2, abstracted from Mceuen's study, list the five theaters on north Main street whose audience was primarily Mexican in makeup in the mid-1910s. These tables show that the Teatro hidalgo had the largest seating capacity. It offered the most elaborate music, performed by its house orchestra and pianist, and charged the highest admission — ten cents instead of the usual five. The other theaters only had a pianist to provide musical accompaniment, and, according to Mceuen, three of them were "poor" musicians. Most of these theaters had "trumpeters," that is, barkers who enticed potential patrons passing by on north Main street to enter and buy a ticket by "spieling" loudly through a megaphone. Flashy or lurid posters also enticed passersby into the theater. And cashiers sometimes doubled as ticket takers. Since the five theaters all showed films, each had a projectionist. adult Mexican men were in the majority in the audience, and many of them were probably unmarried railway or agricultural workers who lived in nearby rooming houses. Comparatively few children attended at the times that these theaters were visited. However, later newspaper reports indicate that Mexican children were spectators in film and live theater presentations, although for a time city regulations required children to be accompanied by adults.


The longest-lived Mexican venue in Los Angeles devoted to the presentation of live theater — musical and dramatic — and film exhibition was the seven-hundred-seat Teatro hidalgo, which opened at 371–373 North Main Street, probably on September 11, 1912. The building in which it was housed was previously a livery stable, and the Portola Theater Company, which either bought or leased the property to "remodel [the] building into [a] picture theater" sometime in the summer of 1912, reportedly spent $9,000 on the project. Early in 1913, the company advertised to lease or sell the theater for $8,000, promising that that amount would buy or lease the "only strictly Spanish theater in America, featuring vaudeville and pictures, [with an] $800 monthly profit."

With its core audience of the Mexican and Mexican American population residing in downtown Los Angeles near the Plaza, it was appropriate that the Teatro Hidalgo was named after the Father of Mexican independence, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753–1811). (The president of Mexico proclaims Hidalgo's famous "Grito de Dolores" ["cry of Dolores"] every September 15 at night from a balcony of the Palacio Nacional in Mexico city.) The Teatro Hidalgo was regularly advertised as the Teatro de la Raza (Theater of the race), and, throughout the course of its existence from 1912 to 1936, its different owners or lessees stressed its Mexicanidad (Mexicaness) in their choice of theatrical repertory and personnel. The repertory performed there was similar to that of all the other Mexican theaters in the Plaza district, with its mix of various live theatrical and film genres, except that the Hidalgo particularly stressed vaudeville acts, accompanied by its house orchestra, and film exhibition.

During the 1930s, the Teatro Hidalgo also reached out to the larger Latino community through radio broadcasting. In august 1934, the Hidalgo sponsored a thirty-minute program from 7:30 to 8:00 pm simultaneously on stations KGER in long Beach and KELW in Burbank, probably through a live wire telephone feed. The Hidalgo broadcast its musical vaudeville and theatrical acts that summer, during the time slot immediately before that of the soon-to-be-famous country western music singing group the Sons of the pioneers, with the future singing cowboy film star Roy Rogers, and also before Mexican operatic baritone Rodolfo Hoyos's local radio show. Imagine hearing Rogers sing the famous song "tumbling tumbleweeds" and Hoyos performing the "Toreador Song" ("Votre toast, je peux vous le render") aria from Georges Bizet's popular opera Carmen right after listening to the Hidalgo Theater company present its favorite actos (acts).


In the 1920s and 1930s, a group of Los Angeles–based artists created a local Spanish-language musical theatrical repertory that reflected the life experiences of Mexican immigrants in Southern California's México de afuera, in humorous and serious ways. Their works responded directly to the place and time in which they lived, and coexisted with a much larger number of imported Mexican, Spanish, and European musical theater pieces, including operetta and opera. This group of theater folk included impresario and librettist Romualdo Tirado; playwright-journalists Gabriel Navarro (also a composer), Adalberto Elías González, Esteban V. Escalante, Daniel Venegas, and Brígido Caro; and composer-conductors Ernesto González Jiménez and Francisco Camacho Vega. Their collaborators — the singers, actors, dancers, instrumentalists, directors, and stagehands who made up the local Mexican troupes — brought their works to life, at places such as the Teatros California, Capitol, Estella, Hidalgo, Mason, México, novel, principal, and Princesa, most of which were located along or near North Main Street.

The leading impresario in Los Angeles's Mexican theater scene in the 1920s and 1930s, although a Spaniard, was Mexican at heart: Romualdo Tirado (1880–1963), known affectionately as "Cachipuchi." He was a multitalented man of the theater — a stage and film actor, singer, comic, director, manager, librettist, playwright, and radio performer. His career was similar to those of others in the ethnic theater in the United States. Like Boris Thomashefsky (1866–1939) in new York's Yiddish theater; Swedish American Hjalmar Peterson, "Olle i Skratthult" (Olle from Laughtersville, 1886–1960), in the Upper Midwest; Eduardo Migliaccio, "Farfariello" (Little Butterfly, 1892–1946) in Little Italy in new York; and Adolf Philipp (1864–1936) in New York's Klein Deutschland (Little Germany), Tirado had a far-reaching influence on the immigrant theater. He was the single most important figure in the history of the live Spanish-language theater in the United States in his day.

Tirado's story and the sweep of history of the Mexican musical stage in Los Angeles are told in the extensive coverage given to cultural and artistic events in the local Spanish-language press. Close study of this reportage reveals the richly varied musical and theatrical repertories offered to local Latino audiences. This performing tradition was part of a vast network of theatrical connections directly linking Los Angeles and other California towns and cities to Chicago, Tucson, San Antonio, New York, and other US locations, all part of the México de Afuera, as well as to Mexico City, Madrid, Havana, Buenos Aires, and other Spanish and Latin American cities. The US Spanish-language stage ran parallel to and sometimes overlapped with the English-language theatrical world, especially vaudeville. But this web of artistic connections was not monolingual, since Spanish-speaking theater performers also moved within the larger, polyglot us entertainment world.

Tirado was instrumental in bringing the Mexican and Spanish forms of the revista genre of the 1910s and 1920s to Los Angeles. The revista (musical revue) was a topical musical theater work that usually lasted about an hour. It was often paired with other theater pieces, such as Spanish zarzuela. Singing and dancing were integral, essential components, and these were accompanied by the theater orchestra conducted by the maestro concertador (concert master) or music director. usually about eight or fewer songs were spaced throughout a revista, performed by the female and male principals and the chorus line. The dialogue was spoken, and not sung as in operatic recitative. Popular revista songs were published in Mexico City in sheet music form, often with illustrated covers prominently featuring the performers who had made the songs popular, and recordings were released of some of the biggest hits.

The Mexican revista was different from its American counterpart, the Broadway musical revue, such as those produced by Florenz Ziegfeld. The Spanish-language revista often had a substantial political, erotic, or nationalist plot or theme running through its various cuadros (scenes), and often began with a prologue and ended with an apotheosis. The Mexican political revue often commented on developments in Mexican society, especially during the Mexican revolution of the 1910s and its aftermath in the 1920s. Ziegfeld's revues were comic, but usually not as satirical in nature. His revues were lavishly produced and combined a variety of disparate theatrical and musical elements; they featured leading performers such as Will Rogers, Fanny Brice, and Bert Williams, and ran for much or all of an entire season. Revistas produced in Mexico city also centered on their stars, such as María Conesa, Celia Montalván, or Mimi Derba, and were lavish, but were not on the same scale as Ziegfeld's revues. Because of budget constraints they were even less lavish in their Los Angeles versions. Mexican revistas were often scrappy, catchy, and risqué; they presented a humorous, sardonic take on the news of the day that was of immediate interest to audiences. (Revista also means "newspaper.")

During the 1920s, Tirado wrote a series of comic musical revues and zarzuelas that featured him in the titles and leading roles, often as a stereotypical wise-cracking, madcap character who repeatedly finds himself in outlandish situations, highlighting tensions between modernity and tradition in the immigrant community. He was called a "Mexican Chaplin" for good reason, and his pelado (urchin/tramp) characters resemble certain components of Charlie Chaplin's humor. Although the scripts and music of his revistas are thought to be lost, their titles and the reviews of their premieres strongly suggest aspects of their plots and flavors. (Many of his works are listed in Table 3.)


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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Tide Was Always High
Josh Kun

1. Mexican Musical Theater and Movie Palaces in Downtown Los Angeles before 1950
John Koegel

2. Rumba Emissaries
Alexandra T. Vazquez

3. Doing the Samba on Sunset Boulevard: Carmen Miranda and the Hollywoodization of Latin American Music
Walter Aaron Clark

4. Walt Disney’s Saludos Amigos: Hollywood and the Propaganda of Authenticity
Carol A. Hess

5. A Century of Latin Music at the Hollywood Bowl
Agustin Gurza

6. Voice of the Xtabay and Bullock’s Wilshire: Hearing Yma Sumac from Southern California
Carolina A. Miranda

7. Musical Anthropology: A Conversation with Elisabeth Waldo
Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker

8. Esquivel!
Hans Ulrich Obrist

9. Listening across Boundaries: Soundings from the Paramount Ballroom and Boyle Heights
David F. Garcia

10. Studio Stories: Interviews with Session Musicians
Betto Arcos and Josh Kun

11. From Bahianas to the King of Pop . . . : A Speculative History of Brazilian Music into Los Angeles
Brian Cross

12. Heroes and Saints
Luis Alfaro

13. Staging the Dance of Coalition with Versa-Style and CONTRA-TIEMPO
Cindy García

14. Booming Bandas of Los Ángeles: Gender and the Transnational Zapotec Philharmonic Brass Bands
Xóchitl C. Chávez

15. Caminos y Canciones en Los Angeles, CA
Martha Gonzalez

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The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
bookwomen37 More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. The book is a collection of essays on the history and influence of Latin music. Some of the names will be familiar and some will not. I really enjoyed the interviews with the sidemen and the essay on Carmen Miranda. The text is also accompanied by wonderful historical photographs. Enjoy this fascinating history.