More than a decade ago, I taught at a small, rural high school near the border in southern Arizona. One year, the Spanish teacher had to take disability in the middle of the year.
Needing coverage, the principal pulled my personnel file. He noted that I had six college credits in Spanish. Seeing that her class met during the same period as my German section, he reassigned her students to me. For the rest of the year, I did my best to teach Spanish I-II and German I-II in the same room.
My students knew a crisis situation when they saw one, and they showed remarkable patience, especially the Spanish students. Many of them were native speakers who — having lost a teacher fluent in their mother tongue — had inherited a bumbling güero objectively unqualified for the job.
I devised what seemed like a workable plan: I put the German kids on one side of the room with seatwork while I drilled the Spanish students. In the middle of the period, the hispanohablantes got a book assignment while I taught the Teutonophiles.
My plan utterly failed. Instead of attending to their written assignments in class, the students started listening to the lesson in the other language. And participating. Some of them even took notes.
Initially, I resisted, but the kids promised to finish their assignments at home if I allowed them to learn the other language, and they kept that promise. (Mostly. They were teenagers, after all. Still, the homework completion rate for that elective section vastly exceeded the completion rate that my colleagues and I saw in our courses required for graduation.)
By the end of the year, all of the kids spoke both languages fairly well. I declared victory and looked forward to life returning to normal.
At that point, the principal informed me that my services as a German teacher were no longer required, but that I needed to continue indefinitely as the school’s Spanish instructor. Oh, and can you get certified to teach that subject as soon as possible?
I signed up for more Spanish classes and cast about for any resources that might help me and my students.
That is how I found Julieta Venegas.
Music was one of my go-to gimmicks for learning and teaching a foreign language. In most popular music, lyrics contain simple words and simple grammar, but rich with idioms — perfect fodder for beginning foreign language study.
However, my knowledge of Spanish-language music was almost nil. I knew about Linda Ronstadt’s recordings of Mexican folk songs, but I wanted something more current. Shakira has real merit as an artist, but lyrically and visually, the Colombian bombshell is not safe for public schools.
I found most of the music on Mexican radio repulsive, both musically (grating horns, hideous accordion, drunken shouting) and lyrically (“Let us now praise famous narcotraficantes”). I may flame-broil in a politically correct inferno for the shocking cultural insensitivity I just displayed, but if it’s any consolation, I’m an equal-opportunity hater of bad music: I also dislike dreary folk, all techno, most pop, country and rap, everything boring, and any metal that involves Cookie Monster growling or excessive shrieking.
I knew there had to be good music in Spanish; I just didn’t know how to find it. My students weren’t much help — even the hispanohablantes said they mostly liked English-language music.
Fortunately, the Arizona Republic ran a profile of some rock en español artists, which prompted me to give Venegas a listen.
She is one of the rare musical artists who truly transcends language. No matter how much Spanish you have, her music will speak to you.
It starts with her writing. Venegas composes or co-writes nearly everything she records. She has a knack for stirring melodies, haunting harmonies and compelling rhythms. Her cunning lyrics work well as poetry but even better as song, running the thematic gamut from dense introspection to earnest simplicity.
Of course, Venegas sings quite beautifully, but golden throats are not uncommon in the recording industry. The power, timbre and technical range of her voice are not particularly remarkable by professional standards.
It is her delivery that distinguishes her as a singer. Venegas displays an epic emotional range, from joyful exuberance to controlled fury, from sweet affection to rueful heartbreak. She mixes conventional singing styles with a stunning syncopated delivery — a musical rap that adds a rhythmic dimension absent from everyone else’s music.
Finally, she is a remarkable multi-instrumentalist. Venegas plays guitar and keyboards capably, but her mastery of the accordion is particularly impressive.
The accordion is a much-maligned instrument, a member of the unholy trinity of musical obnoxiousness, along with the harmonica and the organ. (I should know. My crazed paternal grandfather punished all of us in his declining years by taking up all three instruments and subjecting the entire extended family to his distended recitals.)
In the wrong hands, an accordion is a war crime. Squeezebox abuse, after all, was the chief atrocity that alienated me from the banda music that blared from my car stereo as I searched in vain for good Spanish-language music on border radio stations.
However, when played by a great musician, the accordion will break your heart, lift your spirits and make you dance — often all at the same time. Like “Maestro” Jimmy Fearnley of the Pogues, Venegas can and does do all three. (It is not known whether either can jam a frenetic psycho-polka like “Weird Al” Yankovic.)
Venegas is one of the few remaining artists who continues to produce solid albums that consistently invite and reward listening from start to finish.
I began with Sí (2003)—at that time her most current release. A collaboration with the Argentinian artist Coti Sorokin, Sí became her breakthrough album. The tour de force begins with the sweetly insistent “Lento” (Slowly) and the impossibly dreamy “Andar Conmigo” (Walk with Me), and concludes with the reflective and resolute “Oleada” (Wave), with much excellence in between. The album is marred in places by an overuse of synthesizers and soulless electronic percussion, but that might have been a concession to economic reality rather than an aesthetic decision.
The success of Sí gave Venegas the wherewithal to hire a full complement of top-notch musicians to record her follow-up Limón y Sal (2006), an even better album. It features “Me voy” (I’m Leaving), perhaps the fairest break-up song in the history of recorded music. After recounting some of her lover’s flaws, Venegas sings:
“No voy a llorar y decir que no merezco esto/Porque es probable que lo merezco pero no quiero/Por eso me voy”
(I’m not gonna cry and say I don’t deserve this/Because I probably do deserve it, but I don’t want it/That’s why I’m leaving)
Other highlights include the title track (Lemon & Salt), a dissertation on loving someone for their flaws instead of despite them — the adorable “Dulce Compañía” (“Sweet company”) and a powerful cover of Andrés Calamaro’s “Sin Documentos” (Undocumented), a commentary on the border crisis, featuring some of her most blistering accordion playing and impassioned singing. You won’t know whether to dance or cry, but if you’re human, you may find yourself doing both.
Those two albums — and their quirky music videos — provided plenty of material for my Spanish classes, and many of my students — Anglo and Latino — became fans of her music. At least a few of the boys confessed to monster crushes on Venegas.
With some musical tutoring from Venegas, more college classes and lots of practice, I passed the certification exam and taught Spanish for several years. I think I did OK. My kids tended to score respectably on their college placement exams.
Although I haven’t taught for years, I continue to collect Venegas. Her early work with the ska band Tijuana No! is good Zapatista fun. Aquí (1997) and Bueninvento (2000)— her first two solo albums — are her darkest and most challenging, both musically and lyrically.
Most of her recent work is accessible and excellent, including MTV Unplugged (2008) — an excellent live set — and Otra Cosa (2010), which is as beautiful as Sí and Limón y Sal, though more subdued.
Los Momentos (2013) was a relative disappointment. Recorded during and after the birth of her daughter, it contains several dreary tracks and an unfortunate aesthetic regression to synthesizers and programmed percussion. There is almost no accordion on the album.
Fortunately, this year’s Algo Sucede (2015) represents a triumphant return to form, with the squeezebox-driven “Ese Camino” (That Road), a meditation on the elusiveness of childhood memories.
You owe it to yourself to take a walk with Julieta Venegas. Thanks for reading. Me voy.