As a bilingual child attending school in Texas in the 1960s, Tish Hinojosa discovered her Hispanic heritage was something best to be disguised. She still recalls the giggles of classmates when they realized her parents didn't speak English.
"In my generation, it was a lot cooler to lose it than to keep it," she said. "To say you spoke Spanish was to admit you were from a lower class."That attitude was troubling to Hinojosa then, just as it is now.
She felt tremendous love and comfort at home, listening to Spanish radio programs as her mother bustled about the kitchen.
Today, Hinojosa is a testimony that being a Mexican-American is something to wear proudly. She has done it by becoming one of America's most critically acclaimed singer-songwriters, a chronicler, of sorts, of Hispanic culture caught in the current of the American mainstream.
Hinojosa brings her rare talents to the Zephyr Club for a Sunday night performance (show time is about 9).
Hinojosa is touring in support of her latest release, "Destiny's Gate," which marks her return to a major recording label (Warner Brothers). And, with lush arrangements throughout, it is also her most mainstream effort to date.
"You are not going to find roots music on it," she says. "But you are not going to find a sudden transition to dance music, either. I wanted to reach something a lot more universal. Clearly it is a shot at the mainstream, but not overtly."
In other words, those who have stumbled onto classic Hinojosa recordings like "Homeland" and "Culture Swing" will not be disappointed. In fact, many of the songs on "Destiny's Gate" were written for a follow up album to the "Homeland" release on A&M Records. But when A&M unceremoniously dumped Hinojosa a day before the album was to be released, the songs went on the shelf.
Although not widely known outside of Texas, the golden-voiced singer-songwriter has earned the effusive respect of such luminaries as Chris Hillman, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Carly Simon, the Cowboy Junkies, Nanci Griffith and Linda Ronstadt, who recorded Hinojosa's "Donde Voy" on her "Winter Lights" album.
"Destiny's Gate" could well be the release that thrusts the Austin songwriter into the national spotlight.
If it happens, it will not have been a smoothly paved Texas interstate to success. Her career has been marked with near misses and "almosts."
A child of the 1960s, Hinojosa began singing jingles for the south Texas Latino market, as well as some Spanish singles that became regional hits. The lights of Nashville lured her in 1983, and she spent two years trying to break into that market.
"I kept coming up with my hands empty," she recalls. "I knew I was singing as good as anyone else. As far as songwriting goes, I was trying to second guess the rhyme game. It was frustrating, and maybe I was feeling a tinge of discrimination.
"At that time, there was somewhat of a misunderstanding of our culture. It was pretty easy to see how they perceived us. They wanted to see the drinking and stealing and walking on the rougher side of life. I had nothing shady to write about. It was scary to them that I had a lot more social opinions, that I felt strongly about how I wanted to exploit the language in songs."
Hinojosa left Nashville for New Mexico in 1985 and released an independent cassette titled "Taos to Tennessee" two years later. The following year, Hinojosa, her husband and two children moved back to Austin where she became a standard bearer in the thriving Austin music scene.
Her big break should have been "Homeland," the 1989 release on A&M. Laced with social commentary and affairs of the heart, the album captured the attention of critics everywhere. Unfortunately, it was not the huge commercial success A&M had wanted.
Her follow-up had already been recorded and pressed. "They called the night before it was to be in record stores saying I was not on the label anymore, that I was not in their future. It was probably one of the most shocking things in my life. I wandered around saying, `Now what do I do with myself.' "
Hinojosa could have sat in a room and wallowed. She thought about it. But the disappointment gave way to determination, and in 1992 she released "Culture Swing" on Rounder Records. It was voted the folk album of the year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.
"Destiny's Gate" finds her back in the big leagues (she will record at least two more albums for Rounder, which released her to sign with Warner Brothers), but whether this stint lasts or not doesn't really seem to bother Hinojosa. She is firmly rooted in her family, her values and her heritage.
She is active in the Austin arts scene, she speaks regularly to schoolchildren about cultural pride, she is an activist in Hispanic affairs.
One of 13 children in a large immigrant family living in south Texas, Hinojosa learned early on the values of pride, character and integrity. It is reflected in the honesty and purity of her music and in her commitment to Texas' Mexican-American community.
"My memories are strong, but I did not realize until my mid-20s, when I started writing about it, that I was already losing it. When we become straight Americans, it does take an effort to stay in touch with the culture. It is easy to conform with television and the apple pie kind of life."
For millions of Hispanic Americans, Hinojosa's music is a prideful reminder that they too are part of the American dream, that their culture is to be cherished and preserved. They are songs that transcend ethnic boundaries.