The story of the Rio Grande Valley’s rich musical legacy was largely untold until filmmakers Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza premiered their documentary, As I Walk Through the Valley, at SXSW 2017. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Vela since we were teenagers, and I appear in the film as a talking head.) That film generated a lot of interest in the music that came from the southernmost tip of Texas—not just artists with hits, like Freddy Fender and the Mysterians, but unknown generations of musicians working in every genre under the sun. It screened at the Texas History Museum and at universities around the country and has earned the Valley’s music scene attention from places like NPR and indie tastemaker Pitchfork.
It also caught the eye of Stanford Ph.D. candidate Jonathan Leal, who was working on a project last fall for the university’s Creativity in Research Scholars program, which was intended to get students working on projects related to their research that weren’t a part of their dissertation. While brainstorming ideas, it occurred to him that there weren’t a lot of Rio Grande Valley natives in situations like his, where they’d have a university’s resources backing them up to pursue a project that involved studying creativity, so he decided to look to the home region he’d left when he was eighteen.
“I thought about how to do that, sketched out a few examples for how to integrate my love for music with growing up in that area, and it dawned on me that it should just be a record,” Leal says. “And it should involve as many people as possible.”
Leal cold-called Vela, who was initially suspicious—since the documentary debuted, he’s heard from more than a few people who want access to Valley musicians for reasons that raise some flags. But after learning that he was speaking with a fellow Valley native whose interest was the intersection of culture and identity, he got excited. “It’s the kind of thing I wish I could be doing all the time,” Vela says.
They approached a number of artists working in a variety of genres for the project, which became known as Wild Tongue. (The title is from a line by Borderlands/La Frontera author Gloria Anzaldúa, who was born in Harlingen.) The record is a compilation album that shuffles conjunto bands, rappers, indie rockers, country bands, eighties-style darkwave, and dance music alongside each other, singing in English and Spanish (sometimes within the same song), all specifically writing songs about what it’s like to be from the Valley.
“When people write songs here, it’s always been, ‘Write like you’re any other band in the country,’ ” says Vela, who also produced Wild Tongue at Sounds of Rain, the recording studio he co-owns. “It’s never really dealt with [the Valley] explicitly. And one of the things I noticed in several of the songs is feeling like you don’t like a place when you’re growing up, and then coming to a new understanding about it. I feel like that particular theme is interesting to hear expressed by several different people in different ways.”
The Valley is an alienating place to grow up. It’s a four-hour drive to San Antonio and five or more to Austin or Houston. Between those cities lie hundreds of miles of land punctuated by the occasional small town or citrus grove. The metropolises are places like Alice (population 19,000) or Victoria (population 67,000). That means people with roots in the region often have complicated feelings about it, whether they left or stayed.
“I moved away from the Valley when I was eighteen, and I’ve been away since then,” Leal says. “But since I’ve been away, I’ve tried to figure out my relationship to the place, and I know a lot of people who feel that way.” He wasn’t as familiar with the feelings of those who stayed. “The cultural expression I’ve found that’s explicitly about leaving the Valley was totally satisfactory—so the story about what it means to be from the place should be told by people who are still there. Even just giving that prompt and asking that question was, in a literal way, like, ‘Here’s the microphone.’ ”
The resulting project is what Vela, a lifelong Valley resident, calls a snapshot of the current moment: not a historical artifact of eras of past Valley music but a living document of artists whom one can see playing in the small towns of the Valley on any given weekend.
The music itself is fascinating. Various artists took Leal and Vela’s prompt in different directions, reflecting how different genres reflect different approaches: the indie rockers tend to introspect, the rapper spits lines in both Spanish and English about organizing and resistance along the border, and the country band recounts the unexpected joy of finding home in the same close-knit Texas community your grandparents came from. Those are perspectives on the Valley that we haven’t heard much of, even from musicians who’ve broken out in the past.
“I was trying to write the liner notes essay for it, and the impression that I had is that I wish I’d had this album when I was a teenager,” Leal says. “I really wish that I could turn on the radio and hear the place around me, and the complexity of it, reflected in the music I love.”
At the same time, Wild Tongue was produced with a university, as part of what Leal describes as a quest to better understand the relationship between academic practice and the creation of public goods. The album is part homage to home and part preservation of a rarely heard perspective.
“We were able to approach it the way a cultural anthropologist might, collecting stories and people’s testimony as songs,” Vela says, recalling how projects that document regional music tend to focus on more-traditional folk music or field recordings rather than pop music that captures the current moment. Vela believes framing these contemporary songs in that same context brings them a certain legitimacy that they deserve. “It casts them as things that we need to be taking seriously and things that we’re going to refer back to culturally in the future. We need to treat these songs in the same way that we treat a more-traditional class of cultural research project.”