‘It’s our roots’: Idaho Commission on the Arts project highlights Mexican diaspora

The Idaho Mexican Music Project documents musicians living in Snake River Plain farm communities

By: - October 24, 2023 4:30 am

Mariachi Cantares de Mexico are a youth group based out of Caldwell. (Courtesy of the Idaho Commission on the Arts)

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Long-forgotten Idaho Latino music is about to see the light of day.

While looking through old files, Steven Hatcher, a folklorist at the Idaho Commission on the Arts, discovered an album titled, “Soy Americano” which dated back to 1982 that included music from Mexican artists across southern Idaho. 

Noting the modern lack of artistic representation among Idaho’s Mexican-American community, this finding inspired him to create the Idaho Mexican Music Project, a multi-year effort to document musicians of Mexican heritage in the Gem State.

“I just thought it would be a good idea to revisit that project,” Hatcher said in a phone interview. “I hadn’t, nor had anyone at the arts commission gone through and looked at the Mexican-American community in many, many years.”

After years of interviewing musicians, the project is in its final stages of completion. 

The project consists of 20 short documentaries highlighting Mexican-inspired music from singers, bands and church groups living in southern Idaho’s small farming communities. 

Many of the artists are self taught and play popular Mexican genres including mariachi, banda, norteñas, cumbia and bilingual rock. 

The project features Jerome-based banda group, Cienega de Zacapu; Grupo Impulso from Heyburn; Nampa-based band, Tejano Outlaw; Caldwell-based group, Mariachi Cantares de México; and Idaho Falls cumbia band, Grupo Adikto, among several others. 

“The Commission on the Arts is giving them a bigger stage and elevating their voices and their style of music to a state that largely doesn’t even know it exists,” Hatcher said. “Our goal for this project is to get these films back to the community as some sort of way of saying thank you.”

Project keeps Idaho’s Mexican community at the forefront, Tejano musician says

Damian Rodriguez, a participant in the project, told the Idaho Capital Sun that the project is keeping Idaho’s Mexican community at the forefront.  

Rodriguez said that the project brings awareness to Idaho’s Mexican community’s talent while also carrying on tradition. 

Rodriguez is a self taught guitar player who lives in Paul, a small town five miles north of Burley. He identifies as Tejano, a term used to describe people of Mexican descent from Texas. 

His family first came to Idaho in the 1950s as seasonal farmworkers from Texas. His family, along with many others, would go back and forth between the two states for work. But eventually, many Tejanos would choose to stay in Idaho, Rodriguez said.

“We came to do the work that nobody wants to do,” he said. “That was working in the fields hauling beans, picking potatoes and picking onions. Instead of going back and forth, we stayed. The whole family found careers here, and our children were born here.”

In 1990, there were approximately 53,000 Hispanics living in Idaho, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2020, that number has more than quadrupled to about 240,000. 

Rodgriguez began playing guitar in high school as an outlet for him to gain confidence as a shy teen. Shortly after he started learning guitar, Rodriguez joined the U.S. Air Force instead of joining the draft for the Vietnam War. 

“I continued playing guitar while I was in the Air Force, and then when I got out, I had the GI Bill,” he said. “And then when I was going to the College of Southern Idaho, I started a little band of all Latinos.”

Since picking up the guitar, the bilingual singer has played jazz, rock, country, and Tejano music, which he described as a blend of Mexican music with country and jazz chords. 

“It’s [music] is our roots,” he said. “It’s our story. It’s like a mini time machine. A lot of these people listen to these songs, and it takes them back to that moment when they first heard that song.”

Idaho Mexican Music Project took several years of study, documentation

In 2017, Hatcher said the first step of the project was to send an ethnographer, or someone to study the communities in the Snake River plain, to come up with contacts for the project. 

His main concern about the project was getting enough participants. 

“The political climate in 2017 was very antagonistic toward immigrants especially immigrants from Mexico,” he said. “We halfway expected people to just close the door in our faces, but it was anything but that.” 

In summer 2019, Hatcher and his team spent about six weeks traveling across southern Idaho to interview and document the musicians in their homes, churches and bars and quinceañeras. 

“I didn’t want anything formal, and I didn’t want to go to a music studio,” he said. “I wanted to record these folks in their element. I was hopeful that we would get a half a dozen or so interviews, and I would call that a win, but by the end of the summer we had recorded 20 different groups which just made me thrilled.”

There are two more musical groups to be filmed until the project is complete, Hatcher said. 

“Their music is obviously an art form, but these musicians also serve a critical role to maintain the integrity of their cultural community,” he said.

About the Idaho Commission on the Arts

The Idaho Commission on the Arts is a state agency that supports the development of the arts in Idaho. It offers art education, access to the arts, and community investment in the arts.

The commission is funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, and the state of Idaho matches those funds each year. 

To learn more about the Idaho Mexican Music Project or to watch the documentaries, visit the Idaho Commission on the Arts website


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Mia Maldonado
Mia Maldonado

Mia Maldonado joined the Idaho Capital Sun after working as a breaking news reporter at the Idaho Statesman covering stories related to crime, education, growth and politics. She previously interned at the Idaho Capital Sun through the Voces Internship of Idaho, an equity-driven program for young Latinos to work in Idaho news. Born and raised in Coeur d'Alene, Mia moved to the Treasure Valley for college where she graduated from the College of Idaho with a bachelor's degree in Spanish and international political economy.