Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Celebrating Latin American Heritage, Arts, and Culture
In the United States, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is observed as National Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrating the diverse histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans of Spanish, Mexican, Caribbean, Central American, and South American descent. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill creating Hispanic Heritage Week which later was expanded to a 30-day Hispanic Heritage Month under President Ronald Reagan in 1988. The 30-day period spanning from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 includes the anniversaries of independence for many Latin American nations including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chili as well as Indigenous People’s Day which honors the cultures and contributions of indigenous peoples.
To celebrate, many cities and towns across the United States hold local celebrations and ceremonies to commemorate the contributions of Hispanic Americans. The Smithsonian Latino Center offers online resources for including virtual exhibits and musical performances and other cultural events via their Youtube channel. You may also wish to visit a local museum of Latin American arts and culture in your local area. We have two right here in Chicagoland—the National Museum of Mexican Art and the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture and both of which offer free admission!
Latin American cultural contributions are is no way be reduced to a short list or article. Even if we only focus on musicians or visual artists we will find a wide variety of top-notch artists across who create and created music and arts across genres, styles, time periods, and through the different lenses of diverse life experiences.
So, in today’s post, we are celebrating Latin American composers of music for concert hall, stage, and screen. These composers are listed chronologically, and this is by no means an exhaustive or complete list. You may wish to listen to the accompanying playlist on Spotify or Apple Music where you will find selections by other Latin American composers including American composers Lena Frank (b. 1972) and Clarice Assad (b. 1978), Chilean-born Canadian composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer (b. 1973), as well as Cuban composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer, who studied in the United States, among others.
Apple Music Playlist
Besides listening to music by these composers and others like them to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, I urge you to seek out indigenous folk music of the peoples who have lived in what we currently call “Latin America” before the Spanish colonization as well as popular music from Latin American artists while we celebrate. Use this month as a starting point and explore the Latin American stories in the United States. As Dr. Geraldo Cadava, historian and director of Latino and Latina American Studies at Northwestern University said,
“I wish that in some ways there weren't a need for something like Hispanic Heritage Month because we would be recognized, every day, all year long, every year…I’m waiting for this moment when Americans broadly come to think of Latino history as American history at large, and therefore every day becomes a celebration of Latino history because that is American history.”
Teresa Carreño – Prodigious Pianist
Musical prodigy María Teresa Gertrudis de Jesús Carreño García was in Caracas, Venezuela on Dec. 22, 1853, Teresa Carreño. Her father was a composer and worked hard to keep up his musical skills while having a political career as the Minister of Finance. Her talent was recognized early, and she began presenting her own compositions at the age of six! Her family relocated to New York City in part so that Teresa could receive musical training as well as because there were political changes in Venezuela.Teresa began performing and touring as a pianist at the age of only nine!
Teresa did not just have success as a pianist but had a lifelong career as a composer, soprano, conductor, and music educator as well! Carreño composed more than 70 works for piano, voice and piano, choir, as well as orchestral and instrumental chamber works. She also composed several merengues, a style of music that originated in the Dominican Republic. Her musical style has been recognized for its emotional depth, a depth which may have come from life experience. She suffered much tragedy during her life including several failed marriages and the premature death of one of her children. She died in New York on June 12, 1917. Listen and follow the score to her piano piece “Vals Gayo” (“Merry Waltz” ) performed by Clara Rodriguez in the video below.
María Grever – The Woman of the Americas
María Grever was born María Joaquina de la Portilla Torres in Leòn, Guanjuato, Mexico to a Spanish father and a Mexican mother on Sept. 14, 1885. She grew up in Mexico, Spain, and France. While in France, she studied piano with none other than Claude Debussy! In 1907, she married an American oil company executive, Leo Grever and became an American citizen in 1916 and living in the United States for the rest of her life.
Grever composed her first song, “Christmas Carol,” at the age of four. She released her first record, “A Una Ola,” (“To A Wave”) in 1912. She had a prolific career as a vocal instructor and a film and stage composer; she composed over 1,000 popular songs in her lifetime. Her most famous song was the 1934 piece “Cuando vuelva a tu lado” (“What A Difference A Day Makes”) made popular by singer Dinah Washington.
Grever felt that as a songwriter, she was to “share Mexican music with the world.” She found popular appeal mixing popular song forms along with Latin American folk rhythms and styles. Many of her songs, including “Cuando vuelva a tu lado” were boleros, a slow tempo Latin American musical style and dance. Besides composing, she toured the United States, Latin America, and Europe with cabaret shows in which she would perform as well as one-act operas, choral works, and instrumental compositions.
Grever was ill from the 1930s until her death at only 57 in New York City. The following year she was named “The Woman of the Americas.” Watch a moving performance of Muñequita linda by Grever performed by Orquesta Sinfónica de Minería in the video below.
Robert Xavier Rodríguez – A Composer Unbound by Genre
Although a composer of many genres, including orchestral, and chamber works, Robert Xavier Rodríguez is best known for his operas and children’s compositions. He was born on June 28, 1946 in San Antonio, Texas. He studied composition with noted teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887 – 1979), the teacher of many of the leading composers of the 20th century, among other prominent composers.
His works have received many accolades including the Prix de Composition Musicale Prince Pierre de Monaco by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace at the Palais Princier in Monte Carlo, the Prix Lili Boulanger, a Guggenheim Fellowship, four National Endowment for the Arts grants, and the Goddard Lieberson Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
His compositions touch on all genres and often combine musical concepts from according music history with folk and contemporary materials. His opera, Frida, based on the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) was called the “The Best Opera/Musical Theater of 1991 ...a fascinating, magically engrossing evening ...The music is subtle and atmospheric ...genuinely original and genuinely accessible, a neat combination not that often achieved.” By John Rockwell, of the New York Times.
Listen and watch to singer Catalina Cuervo sing an aria from Frida in the video below. You can also listen to one of his chamber works for strings, “Les Niais Amoreux: I. Larghetto Amoroso” in the playlist.
Rodrigeuz is currently the Endowed Chair of the Univserity Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas where he also directs the Musica Nova (New Music) ensemble. He also is a sought after guest lecturer and conductor.
Miguel del Águila
Uruguayan-born American Contemporary classical composer Miguel del Águila was born Sept. 15, 1957. His has composed over 130 works that combine “classical music” with the music of his South American roots. His music is called “brilliant and witty” by the New York Times as well as “expressive and dramatic” by the American Record Guide. After leaving Uruguay in 1978, he studied at The San Francisco Conservatory and Vienna’s Hochschule für Musik.
Águila has been honored with three Latin Grammy nominations and other awards as well as high profile commissions. Other honors include Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in 1995, a New Music USA/Music Alive grant, Magnum Opus Award, Lancaster Symphonic Composer of the Year, and a Copland Foundation award. His New Music USA/Music Alive Extended Residency grant resulted in the opera Time and Again Barelas (2006). It was a partnership between the New Mexico Symphony with the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N. M.
His works have international appeal and are performed around the globe in 200 or more performances each year! He is the current artist in residence wither Danish Chamber Players/Ensemble Storstrøm. (Learn more about his music in the brief video by the Danish Chamber Players/Ensemble Storstrøm below.) He resides in the Los Angeles area.
Watch a beautiful performance of the seasonally titled, Herbsttag (Autumn Day) for Flute, Bassoon and Harp in the video below.
American actor, singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda was born Jan. 16, 1980 in New York City. He is best known for being the creator and original star of Broadway’s Tony- winning musicals, Hamilton and In the Heights. For Hamilton, he composed the book (the story in musical theater terms), music, and lyrics. He received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Drama and earned a record-breaking 16 Tony Nominations, winning 11! The Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording won the 2016 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. He also contributed music, lyrics, and vocals on several songs in Disney’s Moana for which he earned 2017 Oscar and Golden Globe nominations as well as a 2018 Grammy Award for the original song, “How Far I’ll Go.” He other contributed music to Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns.
Miranda is the son of Puerto Rican parents. His mother is a clinical psychologist mother, and his father is a political consultant father. He grew up in Manhattan, New York. His parents supported his interest in music and theater and encouraged him and his sister in their piano lessons.
Growing up in New York City, he was exposed to a wide range of musical genres and developed a love of hip-hop. He was active in school musical theater productions and went on to major in theater studies at Wesleyan University, graduating in 2002. Before his artistic career took off, he worked as a high school English teacher. He married his wife, scientist and lawyer, Vanessa Nadal in 2010. Miranda currently resides in New York City with Vanessa, their two sons, and dog.
Watch a scene from Hamilton in the video below.
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