Each year the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recognizes artists in the category of “folk and the traditional arts”, and names them an “NEA Fellow”. 

By Abel Cruz 

This year, one of Texas’ pioneers in “musica Tejana”, known artistically as “Little Joe”, has received that distinction.  

According to the NEA, every year “since 1982, the program recognizes recipients’ artistic excellence, lifetime achievement, and contributions to our nation’s traditional arts heritage.”

José María De León Hernández, better known as “Little Joe”, got his start playing guitar in his cousin’s band called David Coronado & the Latinaires, recording their first song in 1958. 

Shortly after his cousin left the band in 1959, Little Joe took over, and renamed the band, “Little Joe and the Latinaires”. In the 1970’s after gaining some experience and being exposed to what he calls “Latinismo” in California, he renamed the band Little Joe y La Familia. 

That name has endured the test of time and there are very few people who like to listen to Tejano or Chicano music who don’t recognize his unique style, which he calls the “big brown sound”.

But is his music Tejano or Chicano music? And what is Latinismo? 

In an interview in the Texas Standard published online in September of 2021, he explains what Latinismo means, “That’s where I became aware of Latinismo, which we didn’t have here in Texas, everything here it was black and white. If you’re brown, you were on the other side of the tracks, which is you’re not very involved in all that’s happening.” He goes on to say that he “found the change he wanted in San Francisco – where being Latino, Hispanic or Chicano culture was being celebrated. The music, the movement, the whole atmosphere there, just brought me to shake off old Little Joe and the Latinaires.” 

In another interview with WFAA, an ABC affiliate in Dallas, Texas, he tells the interviewer that his music is Chicano music and not Tejano music, describing it as “American music in two languages. It doesn’t matter who wrote the song or in what language it’s the delivery of the song.” 

This writer has come to the conclusion that Little Joe’s music is a Tejano style of music. Whereas Little Joe’s persona and view of life seems to be based on Chicanismo. Appropriately named, his 2005 Album called “Chicanismo” wound up winning a Grammy award in 2006 for Best “Tejano” Album.

He has performed and filled many major Texas venues like Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1989, 1991, and in 2003 with Tejano artists Ruben Ramos and Roberto Pulido, a trio known as “Los Tres Amigos”. Over his 60 plus year career he has also appeared in probably every major city or region of Texas and in many places around the country. 

These days, at the age of 82, he is still going strong. He and brothers Gilbert and Rocky Hernandez recently put on a show in El Paso, Texas at the Abraham Chavez Theater, the “Little Joe y La Familia Hernandez Brothers Reunion”. He is scheduled to perform at the Cesar Chavez Celebration in San Antonio, Texas on March 31st, 2023. He also has a performance scheduled in Laughlin, Nevada this coming May. 

Over time, many of his greatest recordings like “Las Nubes” released in the early 70’s, “Recuerdas Querido Amigo”, and “Por Un Amor”, have become timeless classics. A remake of the original recording of “Las Nubes”, with its combination of trumpet and saxophone combined with the unique use of violins begins with a shoutout to his fans “Orale Raza, here’s my brown soul”. 

Las Nubes became what could arguably be his most recognizable song for many Chicanos during the Chicano movement. The lament of the singer is encapsulated in the one line “Yo voy vagando en el mundo sin saber a donde ir.” He describes that feeling of uncertainty and feeling lost in an unjust world not knowing where to go or what direction to take in life. 

Many Chicanos identified with that longing for a better life. Yet with the social conditions of the times, many Chicanos saw a very narrow path toward a more just life, or no path at all. Yet through it all, the rain from “las nubes que van pasando”, the passing clouds, “se paran a lloviznar” provides a sense of temporary joy and healing for the soul.  

Another one of his most notable recordings was a duet sung in English and Spanish recorded with Willie Nelson, a song called “You Belong to My Heart”. That was the English version of the very popular “Solamente una Vez”, written by Augustin Lara.  

His success as “King of the Brown Sound”, as he proudly called himself, would eventually lead to 11 Grammy Nominations, with 5 wins for “1991 Best Mexican American album, Diez y Seis de Septiembre, 2005 Best Tejano album, Chicanisimo, 2007 Best Tejano album, Before The Next Teardrop Falls, 2010 Best Tejano album (and a Latin Grammy in 2011), Recuerdos.”

“The 2023 National Heritage Fellows exemplify what it means to live an artful life,” according to NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, PhD. “Their rich and diverse art forms connect us to the past, strengthen our communities today, and give hope to future generations in ways that only the arts can. Our nation is strengthened through their meaningful practices, expressions, and preservation of traditional artistry.” 

Each NEA Fellow is also awarded a $25,000 dollar prize. This year there were 9 recipients in various artistic disciplines. The NEA is planning a public event to honor the selectees sometime later this year. 

Little Joe was born in Temple, Texas on October 17, 1940. He started out as a poor kid, living a life of poverty and trying to help his family by doing field work, going to “la limpia” and picking cotton for a penny a pound. Eventually that work set the scene for what he would accomplish in his life. 

“Being an American, being a Mexican American, a Chicano, I want to feel I have something a little special,” Hernández told WFAA. “Again, maybe not better, not worse, maybe just a little different. That’s our mix, that’s our capirotada, that’s our salad. Not better, not worse, but just as American.”

And American he surely was. And he did crack that door open a bit more when he sang at Farm Aid with Willie Nelson and went where other Chicano musicians before him had not gone. He is an example of the extraordinary American life of someone born in this country, but not recognized as solely American but rather Mexican American. 

He did the best he could with the talents he had, he overcame public shyness and eventually opened doors for others. He became a legitimate American trailblazer in Chicano culture and Tejano music.

Now, in the twilight of his career, with artistic and life accomplishments on a level not often seen by many Chicano artists he has received the recognition he deserves. 

Being named an NEA Fellow, he has reached the point where no one can deny his extraordinary accomplishments and through his artistic talents and musical vision, he has transformed from a young boy picking cotton, into an American musical legend who just happens to be a proud Chicano.  

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