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The Latin Grammys are in Spain this year. So what?

The debates unfolding now about what it means for Spain to host the Latin Grammys hint at much larger questions about how the Academy decides what constitutes Latin music.
Jackie Lay/NPR
The debates unfolding now about what it means for Spain to host the Latin Grammys hint at much larger questions about how the Academy decides what constitutes Latin music.

For the first time in its nearly 25-year history, the Latin Grammys ceremony will be held outside the U.S. this week. But Thursday's ceremony isn't headed to Mexico City or Bogotá, Colombia; instead, the awards — and the week of events leading up to them — will take over the city of Seville, Spain.

The change in location is the result of a nearly 19 million-euro deal between the government of Andalusia and The Latin Recording Academy, which will promote music programming in the region over the course of three years. An additional economic incentive, says Latin Recording Academy CEO Manuel Abud, is the opportunity for Radio Televisión Española to co-produce the bilingual telecast with Univision.

"I know it sounds cliche to say that music has no boundaries, but in our case, it's a reality," Abud tells NPR. "So for us now to also cross the physical boundaries, it makes perfect sense."

The move is part of a larger effort for the Latin Grammys to strengthen their relationship with audiences globally. In the last few years, the Latin Recording Academy has hosted acoustic sessions and other smaller-scale events in Brazil, Mexico and Spain. Still, Abud stresses that 2023 is the only year under the new partnership with the government of Andalusia that the Latin Grammys week will be held there. His goal, he explains, is for the ceremony to eventually alternate: one year in the U.S., one year outside.

"We were exploring the possibility of doing it in a Latin American city," he says. "The conditions were not there for this time. Most likely next year will be in the U.S., but perhaps for 2025 it will be somewhere else."

The aspiration to turn the awards ceremony into an international, traveling phenomenon echoes sentiments expressed by the Academy during the very first annual Latin Grammys, which took place in Los Angeles in 2000. But the decision to make the ceremony's first, non-U.S. location Europe, in a country that colonized much of Latin America, has stoked controversy. The move also comes on the heels of last year's ceremony, where Rosalía took home the album of the year award over Bad Bunny, a win that raised eyebrows because it honored a white European artist liberally dabbling in tropical genres like bachata and reggaeton (though it's important to note that the backlash has not been equivalent for male European artists in the Latin label — see Julio and Enrique Iglesias or Alejandro Sanz).

But the debates unfolding now about what it means for Spain to host the Latin Grammys hint at much larger questions about how the Academy decides what constitutes Latin music, and whether or not the genres and artists it has uplifted as emblematic of that label promote a whitewashed and sanitized version of Latin artistry.

A new Academy is born — and scrutinized

"Since 1989, there were a lot of people complaining about the fact there were a couple of Latin categories in the mainstream Grammy Awards," says musician Rudy Pérez. "They barely gave us anywhere between five and seven minutes. It just didn't seem right. [People] felt that a lot of artists and music was not being recognized and represented in the show."

At the time, Pérez was one of the few Latin artists already being awarded by the regular Grammys. He produced José Feliciano's song "Ya Soy Tuyo," which won best Latin pop performance in 1986, and earned another Grammy for his producing and songwriting credits on Luis Miguel's Aries, which won best Latin pop album in 1993. But as president of the Florida branch of the National Recording Academy of Arts and Sciences, he says, he and industry leaders like Emilio Estefan started petitioning then-chairman of NARAS, Michael Greene, to create a separate Academy and awards ceremony dedicated to Latin music.

"At the beginning, [Greene] was a little skeptical because he felt like a lot of people were going to be segregated, and then all of a sudden, everybody was going to want their own academy," says Perez. "After a while, he was convinced that because of the diversity of Latin music, a Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences needed to exist. It was a must."

As Latin music exploded throughout the 1990s, growing at double the rate of the industry overall thanks to artists like Gloria Estefan, Selena and Enrique Iglesias, the newly formed Latin Recording Academy — officially established in 1997 — started preparing criteria for its own awards ceremony, which would feature 40 categories as opposed to the eight Latin categories in the mainstream Grammys.

But from the very beginning, the Latin Grammys became an ongoing site of contention. The first year that the awards were held, the Academy received stark criticism from regional Mexican labels and artists for failing to properly recognize regional within its nominations and performances, given that it was the top-selling genre within the U.S. Latin market. (Similar accusations have been made this year about the Academy snubbing Peso Pluma and the regional pop breakthrough.) Back then, Michael Greene, who resigned in 2002 following allegations that he had sexually harassed and abused another Academy executive became public, allegedly had to fight for ranchera star Alejandro Fernández to take the stage amidst advertisers' concerns that regional would not widely appeal to audiences — all while NSYNC's bilingual performance at the inaugural ceremony was being highly publicized.

In 2001, the Latin Grammys were moved out of Miami after anti-Castro, Cuban exiles led protests against the ceremony's inclusion of artists from Cuba. And since the early 2000s, the Latin Grammys have maintained a complicated relationship with reggaeton and — much like the regular Grammys — what it calls "urban" music. As both the regular and the Latin Academy have learned over the past 24 years, the "Latin music" umbrella term — meant to fortify a unified label under which music from across the Ibero-American diaspora can be expanded and commercialized — comes with its own set of tensions about who is included and uplifted by the industry.

Latin, as defined by language

Whereas Latino/a/e is used in the U.S. as a marker for people from Latin American origin, and Hispanic is used to classify Spanish-speakers, those parameters work quite differently as it pertains to how the music industry — and the Academy — uses them. More than geography or identity, the Latin Grammys are organized around language. In order to qualify, music must be recorded predominantly in Spanish or Portuguese, or in a language native to the countries where Spanish and Portuguese are primarily spoken.

"The label 'Latin' is created in the States, so it can seem from Latin American countries and from Spain as some colonial tag that is trying to homogenize all these artists and make them easy to understand and easy to listen to for people that live in the States," says Eduardo Viñuela Suárez, a musicologist and professor at the Universidad de Oviedo in Spain. But at the same time, he explains, Hispanic and Latino communities in the U.S. represent a rapidly growing market that consumes a wide range of music where language is often the only common denominator.

"There are no musical parameters and there is no [one] Latin style, because there are many musical genres and styles that are all together under the umbrella of Latin music," says Viñuela.

He points to the fact that Laura Pausini, an Italian artist who's been recording music in Spanish since 1994, was named this year's Latin Recording Academy person of the year and will be honored during the Latin Grammys week in Seville. In some circumstances, he says, Italy could be included as a country within the music industry's definition of Latin music, as the home of the Latin and Roman empires.

"There's [a way of] connecting Latin with the Mediterranean because of its Latin-Roman roots, and that also creates links amongst the countries that are in the southern parts of Europe," he explains. In that sense, he says, Andalusia is especially significant as the destination of this year's Latin Grammys because it's the birthplace of flamenco and the setting of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen, two of the most influential and globally popular representations of Spanish music.

The reality is that music — where it comes from, who it's shaped by, who becomes the face of it — carries political and social implications that cannot be ignored in favor of linguistic similarities. When language is the only measure of Latin identity taken into consideration for the Grammys, the complexities of race, geography and cross-cultural exchange often get lost in the process.

"In the United States, [Spanish and Portuguese people] are not racialized as Latinos in the same way as people from Latin America," says Petra Rivera-Rideau, a professor at Wellesley College whose research focuses on race, identity and pop culture. "Latin music as a category that's just language-based — so you don't have to think about race, you don't have to think about national origin, you don't have to think about any of those tricky things that can provoke a lot of contention and just celebrate Spanish — is very convenient."

Mirroring cycles of oppression

As there are more and more debates about using Spanish — a colonial language — as a measure of Latinidad in the U.S., the organization of Latin musical identity around language, as it is for the LARAS, feels more and more in flux. By moving the Latin Grammys to Spain and continuing to embrace European artists, the Latin Academy is mirroring the ways in which whiteness and its privileges are disproportionately valued in Latine communities, both in and outside of the U.S. The question then, says Rivera-Rideau, is not so much about where the Latin Grammys are held, but whether the Latin Academy is fixing the problem it set out to solve.

If the Latin Grammys were created as a separate entity in order to celebrate the diversity within Latin music and the audiences they serve, how much has the Academy actually fulfilled that mission — or how much is it reinforcing systemic, historical inequalities around race, gender and class that exist in the mainstream music industry and society at large?

"There is a profound underrepresentation of Black and Indigenous musicians and artists nominated and performing at the Latin Grammys every single year, despite the fact that you wouldn't have reggaeton, salsa, bachata if you didn't have Black communities in [the Caribbean]," says Rivera-Rideau.

The genres and artists that are most often excluded from the Latin Grammys — including regional Mexican, reggaeton and hip-hop — are typically genres associated with Black and working-class communities. They're marginalized and looked down upon by the cultural elite both in Latin America and in the U.S., says Rivera-Rideau, until they're popularized by artists with lighter complexions. And even then, they're slow to be recognized by the Latin Grammys.

Tego Calderón, one of the pioneering, most unabashedly political voices in reggaeton, has only ever won one Latin Grammy — meanwhile, Bad Bunny, who cites Calderón as one of his biggest inspirations, has nine. Even still, Benito's groundbreaking Un Verano Sin Ti, which features some of his most direct criticism of Puerto Rico's colonial relationship to the U.S., controversially lost the Latin Grammy for album of the year to Rosalía's Motomami.

This year, despite carrying corridos tumbados to unprecedented highs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, Peso Pluma is notably missing from the Latin Grammy nominations. So are artists like Young Miko and Villano Antillano, queer women who've been dubbed the new face of urbano.

For the past quarter century, the Latin Grammys have played a pivotal role in normalizing non-English music in the United States and around the world. But even as Latin music tops global charts and breaks streaming records, it's glaringly absent from the main categories of the recently announced regular Grammy nominees. The Latin Recording Academy was founded to better recognize and represent the vast diversity of voices within Latin music, but today it undervalues its most boundary-pushing players and marginalized perspectives.

Latin music is going to keep growing and diversifying in exciting new directions; if the Latin Grammys want to keep up, the Academy has to take a hard look at how it's defining the art it's supposed to represent, and who it's choosing to champion.

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Isabella Gomez Sarmiento is a production assistant with Weekend Edition.