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Commentary: Straight from the heart, in the language of Spanish

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opinion Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO--Every ethnic group leaves its fingerprints on U.S. culture, which constantly evolves and expands. It's the natural order. It's also one of the things that make the United States such a remarkable place. And, when cultural changes happen, they occur gradually and without much fanfare.

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That's just what Mexican-American essayist Richard Rodriguez predicted nearly 20 years ago.

"People have this idea that culture is going to show up in an evening gown," Rodriguez told me at the time. "She's coming in a taco."

He was right. Today, you'll find potato chips with limon y chile (lime and chili) in supermarkets, Latina sex symbols on magazine covers, soccer matches at suburban elementary schools, breakfast burritos at fast-food restaurants, and bilingual cartoon characters on morning television.

You'll also find Hispanics in the spotlight. They accounted for most of the Chula Vista (Calif.) Park View Little Leaguers, who recently won the Little League World Series. There are also two Hispanics--astronauts John Olivas and Jose Hernandez--on the space shuttle Discovery, which will soon wrap up a 13-day mission to deliver supplies to the international space station.

That's already enough to say grace over during the latest installment of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

But I didn't fully realize the world had changed until I got a download on my i-Pod. On his newly released 38th album--titled "Twang"--country music superstar George Strait has a little surprise for his fans: a perfect rendition, in Spanish, of the classic Mexican song "El Rey."

Written by Mexican songwriter Jose Alfredo Jimenez and recorded countless times by various Mexican singers, including the legendary crooner Vicente Fernandez, "El Rey" tells the story of a man left by his sweetheart. Defiantly, the man declares that the woman is going to regret leaving him but that it'll be too late to return. He says that, rich or poor, he'll do what he wants to do and roll with the punches. His word is still the law, he says, and he's still the king.

So who better to introduce this song to an English-speaking audience than the undisputed king of country music?

With a stellar career that spans more than a quarter of a century, George Strait has had 57 No. 1 hits. He is only the fifth person to be named the Academy of Country Music's artist of the decade. This summer, Strait headlined a concert kicking off the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium and sold out the venue in less than an hour. And with 33 platinum or multiplatinum albums, he leads the field in country music and places third in all genres. Who's first and second? The Beatles and Elvis Presley.

Since he lives near San Antonio, Strait is well acquainted with the music that comes from south of the border. He said in a recent interview that he had always liked the song "El Rey" even if he didn't quite grasp its meaning.

"For years, I never knew what the song was totally about," Strait said. "It was something new for me. I had never recorded a song in Spanish before. Then I got the translation and saw what a really cool song it was."

That's when Strait knew he wanted to record the song. And judging from the reaction on YouTube, Strait's official Web site, and other country music sites, there are a lot of fans out there who are awfully glad he did. It was a gutsy move that looks like it's going to pay off.

It's worth mentioning that Hispanics are no strangers to country music. Johnny Rodriguez and Linda Ronstadt both produced hits in the genre in the 1970s. There were more country hits from Baldemar Huerta, better known as Freddy Fender, and from Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona, or--in the shorthand by which she is known--Vikki Carr. In fact, the Lone Star State is home to Tejano music--a Hispanic version of country music that, in the 1990s, got the attention of the mainstream with crossover artists such as Selena Quintanilla-Perez.

That's how it works. Music can't be fenced in with concrete and barbed wire. It goes back and forth between audiences and countries. Sometimes, it crosses genres. And, in the end, if you're lucky, you get something that's hard to come by on the border: perfect harmony.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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