In 1983, as the world transitioned away from the disco fever of the ’70s and into the radical era of MTV in the U.S., one song gave top 40 a particular new injection of energy. That song was “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara (who recently passed away on November 25), the Billboard Hot 100-topping theme to unlikely blockbuster Flashdance, marking a defining moment for Gen X’ers and beyond.
Cara’s classic dance cut is one of dozens of Latin music works nominated to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry for 2023. “[Nominating the 33 works was also] a chance for us to celebrate Latino artists whose Latinidad was not always known to the public, or were not always celebrated as Latinos,” says U.S. House of Representative congressman Joaquín Castro. Unbeknownst to many, the singer was born and raised in the Bronx to working class Puerto Rican and Cuban parents.
Last Monday (Dec. 1), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus announced 33 Latin music nominations to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, in an effort to increase Latin representation in the United States, with Congressman Castro leading the way.
From the dozens of Latin works nominated, the list also includes Juan Gabriel’s ballad “Amor Eterno,” Jennifer Lopez’s album J.Lo, Chavela Vargas‘ widely-covered “Paloma Negra,” Héctor Lavoe‘s salsa banger “El Cantante,” Rage Against the Machine’s eponymous debut (whose vocalist, Zack de la Rocha, is of Mexican origin), Daddy Yankee‘s explosive and pioneering reggaetón banger “Gasolina,” and many more English and Spanish classics.
Each year, the Library of Congress selects 25 recordings to the registry to preserve sound recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” to American life. Despite Latinos/Latinas comprising 20% of the U.S. population, and widely bilingual, only a staggering 4% of the 600-music catalog currently come from Latin artists.
In the nomination letter to the Library of Congress, the Hispanic Caucus members wrote: “The National Recording Registry’s very existence speaks to the importance of music and broadcast in American culture and society […] Yet, Latino contributions in music have been insufficiently recognized. As an art, the diversity of the Latino sound can be heard in every measure and resonates with every beat…These songs were selected with feedback from the public, and they reflect the diversity of Latino identities, histories, and geographies.”
In an interview with Billboard Español, Rep. Castro declares: “We need to celebrate the contributions that our musical artists have made to our nation, so my hope is to highlight the brilliance of Latino musicians.” From his D.C. office, Rep. Castro, who is Tejano and a Latin music aficionado, speaks to us about the process of picking their 33 genre-and-generation-spanning bilingual picks.
Your tweet about nominating Latin songs and albums for the registry sparked an exciting conversation on Twitter. What was your reaction to reading your followers’ feedback?
It was a lot of fun. We got hundreds of suggestions through social media, and informally. I think people were excited figuring out which of their favorite musicians, songs or albums they would nominate. We had a hard time narrowing it down to 33.
A few years ago, I went through this process with Latino films and filmmakers for the National Film Registry. It was tougher there, because Latinos have been shut out of Hollywood for a long time, in large part. With music we have a lot more options, so we were excited to put the list together and send it in to the Library of Congress.
A few years, we saw about one Latin artist per year (Cachao in 2012; Celia & Johnny in 2013; Santana in 2015; Gloria Estefan in 2017; Ritchie Valens in 2018; Selena in 2019) in the national list; and this year we saw three (Ricky Martin, Buena Vista Social Club, Linda Ronstadt). What are your expectations for 2023?
I hope to see more Latino and Latina artists included in the National Recording Registry. It’s a prestigious recognition that acknowledges the importance of a piece of music to American culture. Right now only about 4% of the recordings in the registry are by Latino artists, and Latinos make up almost 20% of the country. We need to celebrate the contributions that our musical artists have made to our nation, so my hope is to highlight the brilliance of Latino musicians.
Latin music was blowing up Stateside when the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 was established, with then-crossover acts like Shakira, Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, and Ricky Martin. Why do you think Latin music was largely excluded from the Registry then, when it began inducting works in 2002?
If you remember the year 1999 in particular, Carlos Santana had the song “Smooth” with Rob Thomas, Ricky Martin and J.Lo had a bunch of hits. Back then, I was in my mid 20s, I thought it was only going to explode more from there, and that our artists would continue to get more recognition and acknowledgement. That has happened to some extent, but not nearly enough. This is one way that I think we can honor the importance of this music to America.
The [nominated] songs are from different decades and generations of artists. They’re regionally diverse in terms of background, but also bilingual. I don’t suspect that anybody has ever nominated this number of Spanish or foreign songs for the registry. That’s very important, because our Latinos listen to music often in both English and Spanish, and these nominations reflect that.
Chavela’s “Paloma Negra” and Héctor Lavoe’s “El Cantante” are on your list, as well as the original Broadway recording In the Heights and Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album. What were the criteria you had in mind when selecting the 33?
The registry says that it’s got to have an important cultural impact in the United States, but you can also have foreign performers or bands — the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are in [the registry], for example. We put out the word and reached out to different groups and folks who are in the music industry and asked for suggestions. Then we put it out on social media as well.
I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just one genre or style of music. Our community listens to a lot of different kinds of music, and our musicians have made impacts not just in Tejano music or salsa, but in rock and hip hop. We nominated Fat Joe and Cypress Hill, for example. Knowing that the Latino community is very diverse — and [going by] my experience as a Mexican-American Tejano and Generation X-er — I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just my playlist.
It was tough narrowing it down, because if any group of people pick their 33 songs, it’s probably not going to be identical. There’s a lot of great music and great artists who are not on the list, but we can come back next year and the year after that. I also encourage people to submit their own list to the Library of Congress because it’s an open submission process.
By the way, did any of Billboard Español’s picks from our poll make it to your nominations? Also, any challenges?
We looked at everything. I’ll have to go back and see which ones, but I think we’re on the same page on some. Sometimes we had a challenge deciding if we want to nominate somebody’s song or album. For example, Luis Miguel is a singer whose music has had an incredible impact in the United States, being all over radio stations everyday nationwide. We finally went with his album Romance. Or Irene Cara, who just passed away [on Nov. 25], she had two big hits, “Fame” and “Flashdance…What a Feeling.” Deciding between those two was tough as well.
Then choosing between Chavela’s foundational “Paloma Negra” — which is the original version that became the source for so many covers — and “La Llorona” [was challenging]. There were many struggles, but I give a lot of credit to [legislative counsel] Celeste Acevedo on my staff who really honed in on the listing.
Now that submissions are in, what are the next steps?
The board is going to meet in December and make selections. They’ll make the announcements in the spring on who’s been selected. We submitted our list, and I hope others have submitted theirs as well. We’re hoping to continue to grow the representation of Latino artists in the registry. This is the Library of Congress, so it’s very prestigious. It’s a record of the music that has made cultural difference and impact in the United States of America. That’s incredibly significant.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Absolutely. This was a chance for us to celebrate Latino artists whose Latinidad was not always known to the public, or were not always celebrated as Latinos, like Sammy Davis Jr. His mother was Cuban; I think a lot of people didn’t realize during his heyday that he was Latino. Or Freddy Fender and Vikki Carr whose surnames are Latino, but their stage names were different — they were Anglicized. I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but I suspect at some point they thought they might have a better chance at success [with those Anglicized names]. That’s also a statement about a bygone era in American entertainment, where your Latino last name may have hampered your ability to succeed in the industry, so we were very conscious of that as well.
For more info on how to nominate music to the Library of Congress, click here.