Grammy Award-winning Tejano artist Joe Hernandez, 72, remembers bringing tacos to school and feeling ashamed about it.
Of Mexican descent, he grew up in Texas like many Chicanos, working with his family in the cotton fields at a young age. It was an austere existence, but he said he grew up with plenty of two things: love and music.
While Hernandez — who goes by the stage name Little Joe and performs with his band La Familia — has witnessed other elements of the Mexican American experience become more mainstream, Tejano music and its close cousin, Conjunto, largely remain an exception.
But the genre, also referred to as Tex-Mex, a blend of traditional Mexican music with country, blues, rock and even the oom-pah punch of polka, should be better recognized, he said.
“The musica Tejana is like breakfast tacos,” Hernandez said. “I remember when I was a kid taking tacos and being embarrassed about it. Now you can stop by at almost any service station between Los Angeles and New York and buy breakfast tacos — tortillas, frijoles and papas con huevos. Well, this is our music and it should be promoted like the food.”
The seventh annual Sacramento Tejano/Conjunto Festival, kicking off this weekend, is all about promoting and preserving the music and culture. The bill for Sunday’s big show at Cesar Chavez Plaza downtown includes eight Tejano-Conjunto bands, including Hernandez’s “The King of the Brown Sound” Little Joe y La Familia, Conjunto Romo, Silverados, Monica Castro and Juan Moreno.
“A lot of folks, when they hear this music, it takes them back to a happy time, a good time,” said Ramona Landeros, founder and director of Land Arrows Cultural Center, which organizes the event and works to preserve Tejano-Conjunto music as an American art form. “There are good memories attached to this music. For us it’s more than just a festival.”
Last year, the festival attracted more than 3,000 people, Landeros said, adding that each year attendance grows by 20 percent. But getting the word out continues to be a difficult process.
“I started reaching out to a lot of Tejano radio stations around California because Sacramento doesn’t have any Tejano radio stations,” Landeros said. “So we had to rely on the Internet.”
That helped raise the event’s profile in Sacramento and beyond. Landeros said the festival has been referenced by radio stations in Chicago, Portland, Ore., Houston and other locales in Michigan, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
“We’re introducing the music and reintroducing the music as well to people who had roots in Texas. Maybe their parents were from Texas, maybe they heard the music when they were younger,” Landeros said.
Hernandez said he hopes Tejano music becomes recognized nationally the way it’s appreciated in other countries.
“I’ve been fortunate to do some European and Japanese tours in the past and now; the music is well accepted,” Hernandez said.
Tejano is already making inroads in many communities around the country, Landeros said.
“We get a lot of Germans and we get a lot of Italians too, because of the accordion,” she explained. “The accordion has helped bridge that gap between the different communities.”
With 50 years and more than 50 albums under his belt, Hernandez, recognized as a pioneer in the Tejano music scene, said he will “contuinue to do his part preserving and promoting the distinctive music.”
“Some of my friends have passed on, but their children and grandchildren still come out to the shows,” Herndandez said. “I happen to be a hand-me-down commodity in families de las casas de nuestra raza. The albums and the music have been there and continue to be there.”
Call The Bee’s Kristopher Rivera, (916) 321-1101 Follow him on Twitter @kgrivera.