How Little Joe Hernández Discovered Latinismo And Became King Of The Brown Sound

The Texas native and front man had been in the music industry for years – but it wasn’t until he spent some time in California that he developed more understanding about his culture.

By Marian NavarroSeptember 17, 2021 1:35 pm, ,

Little Joe Hernández leads one of the most enduring and innovative Tejano bands in the country –  “Little Joe y La Familia.” They’ve won four Grammy Awards and one Latin Grammy and their song, “Las Nubes,” became the anthem for the Chicano Movement.

But Hernández says he didn’t really discover the movement behind his music until more than a decade into his career.

Born José Maria de Leon Hernández in Temple in 1940, Little Joe was given his nickname to distinguish him from his – much taller – best friend, who was also named Joe. Through his first jobs were in the Texas cotton fields, music was a constant in Little Joe’s childhood.

“Well my dad and uncle were musicians, and aunts, they played instruments and wrote songs and sang. A very musical family and that came from my grandmother on my dad’s side,” Hernández said.

When he was 13, Little Joe began singing with his cousin’s band “David Coronado and the Latinaires.”

“I learned I could make some money doing that and it was better than picking cotton for sure, you know,” Hernández said.

In 1959, cousin David left the group, and Little Joe became the band leader of what became “Little Joe and the Latinaires.” The Latinaires began signing recording contracts with small Tejano labels. Little Joe even created his own independent labels.

“I had to,” Hernández said. “We had no recording opportunities … for the Chicano groups, there was no opportunities.”

The Latinaires became famous when they released their first album in 1964. It featured a unique blend of Norteño music, influenced by country and blues.

A newspaper clipping of a photo of a protest for farmworkers featuring Hernández.

But music and culture began to shift in the 1970s – and so did Little Joe. The Latinaires traveled to the San Francisco area and witnessed the rise of the Chicano movement. Little Joe supported the farmworkers’ movement and befriended Cesar Chavez.

“That’s where I became aware of Latinismo, which we didn’t have here in Texas,” Hernández said. “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.”

Little Joe 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.” Hernández said.

To reflect his dedication to the Latino community and his pride in his culture, he renamed his group “Little Joe y la Familia.”

“It’s not about Joe. It’s about the people. It’s about the cause. It’s about the movimiento. And that’s bigger than any one person,” Hernández said.

Little Joe Hernández.

Little Joe y la Familia received their first Grammy award in 1991 for Best Mexican American album. It’s a moment he says was important for Chicanos.

“It was really, a breaking a barrier of somewhat there … for our industry and for our genre,” Hernández said.

The group has continued being awarded – and it’s also continued changing. It now includes his children.

“Being an American, being a Mexican-American, a Chicano, I want to feel I have something a little special,” Hernández said. “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.”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Voces Oral History Center at UT Austin’s Moody College of Communication as part of Texas Standard’s recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month.

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