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Native Tongues

Tish Hinojosa's new album, Dreaming From the Labyrinth/Sonar del Laberinto is the most provocative and accomplished recording of the Austin singer/songwriter's career. But you won't hear it on mainstream radio for two reasons: It's musically complex and it's bilingual.

Forget that those same factors contribute mightily to the CD's luminescence. Hinojosa's blending of American folk with Americano music and the unique exchanges of Spanish and English phrases on several of the cuts on Labyrinth mark Hinojosa's special gifts as a songwriter. "Spanish tends to be the language of poetry--it's such a rolling, romantic language," says Hinojosa, "so this album forced me to find equally romantic language in English.

"The fun part was volleying between the languages and letting them weave together," she says, pointing to "God's Own Open Road," a catchy, intricate folk-pop song she describes as "a Bob Dylanesque thing that isn't like what you usually hear in Spanish." She first wrote it in English and followed up with an all-Spanish version that she hopes to release one day.

Hinojosa recalls a tough transition into bilingualism. The youngest of 13 kids (11 of them girls), Hinojosa was born and raised in a primarily Chicano section of San Antonio, Texas. As a sickly child, she often stayed home with her mother, who spoke only Spanish. "So even though my sisters would come home and speak English with each other," she remembers, "I was much more comfortable with Spanish."

School was an Anglo nightmare. All the teachers were English-only Anglos. And while a lot of the kids were Hispanic, most were second generation, and so spoke English.

"I felt like my whole being, really, was being pulled away from me," the singer now says of having to speak English then. "I felt like I was suddenly thrown into some very foreign territory."

Today, Hinojosa works on behalf of both the National Association for Bilingual Education and the National Latino Children's Agenda to combat the right-wing movement to make English the only language permitted in America's public schools.

"This is not about somebody speaking in some kind of code," she says. "We're trying to expand the mind and make people more aware of the world around them. Children shouldn't be made to feel that their language is something that needs to be taken away from them or washed away, as if it's some form of defect."

Musically, Hinojosa has always kept a foot planted in each culture. In her teens, she split her time between crooning Dylan covers in San Antonio folk clubs and gigging in the city's River Walk district, where she performed traditional Spanish songs. She moved to New Mexico in 1979, and with the exception of a soul-draining two-year stay in Nashville, she remained there until 1988, when she relocated to Austin.

Texas critics immediately raved about her music's cultural blend, and the acclaim drew attention from A&M Records. Homeland, produced by Los Lobos' Steve Berlin, followed and was roundly praised. Hinojosa's next release, 1992's Culture Swing (Rounder) was named folk album of the year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors.

Destiny's Gate (Warner Bros.) appeared in 1994, and while it's a lovely offering, Dreaming From the Labyrinth trumps it. As the title implies, the recording is suffused with elegant dream imagery. "When It Rains/Cuando Llueve," the introductory number, and "Laughing River Running/Riendo el Rio Corre" (the latter a brassy dance number) are impassioned and sinuous, while "Prisonary Life/Vida Prisionera" and "This Song/Esta Cancion" are as delicate as glass figurines.

Such romantic Latina imagery suggests Latin America as an obvious geographic niche market, but the recording industry's language barrier seems to cut both ways. Hinojosa's recordings aren't released there. "Latin America wants to follow the United States," says Hinojosa. Success on the American charts is the formula for Latin-American acceptance. "If you're not selling a lot of records here, they don't care if you have a Latin last name or that you speak the language," says the singer, registering her frustration.

And she lists yet another identity problem: She's lumped together with "Tex-Mex" artists she says sound nothing like her. "The Tex-Mex world is usually seen as making this kind of playful tejano thing--party music. You know, like the Texas Tornados singing 'Guacamole.' I like all of those guys, and I don't mean to be singling them out, but what they do isn't all that Tex-Mex is. It's seen as more of a novelty rather than something that's a rooted part of the American culture.

"There's plenty out there that can show the party-novelty side of our culture. And there are a lot fewer people coming from where I am, which is a little more difficult. I'm not a martyr or anything. I'm just saying this is how it works for me. This is what I feel comfortable with. It's what I wake up for."

Tish Hinojosa is scheduled to perform on Sunday, June 9, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale, with Bill Miller. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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Lee Howard

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