Cinco de Mayo is not just about margaritas and Mexican food. Here are five iconic songs (what other number could we possibly choose?) that celebrate Mexico’s rich cultural heritage.
This Mexican folk song has long been an anthem of cultural pride and resistance — and it’s also the very first song sung in Spanish to hit No. 1 in the United States. The seminal 1958 recording by Richie Havens, a then 17-year-old kid from the San Fernando Valley, was similar to the popular rendition sung by Andrés Huesca in the 1940s, but with a distinctive rock’n’roll beat. Nearly thirty years later, the cover version by East LA band Los Lobos topped the charts … and their music video would win a 1988 MTV Video Music Award too. Listen to the Andrés Huesca version here, the Richie Valens version here, and the Los Lobos version here.
Written in 1962 by Tito Puente and popularized by the rock group Santana in 1970, this feel-good song will have you doing the cha-cha in no time flat. Carlos Santana’s arrangement dispenses with the brass section in the original version, but adds Hammond B-3 organ and rock drums, with his electric guitar front and center, soloing up a storm and carrying the main melody — a melody that in Puente’s version is played by piccolo. Listen to the Tito Puente version here and the Santana version here.
No Cinco de Mayo playlist would be complete without a Selena track. The chorus of this catchy 1994 tune suggests the palpitating heartbeat of the lovestruck. After a shot of tequila, you might even try to bust out your best Selena dance moves. Word to the wise: Don’t. Listen to it here.
Thalía has been dubbed the “Queen of Latin Pop” with good reason: she has sold over 25 million records worldwide. This sultry pop cumbia (a style of music that originated in South America, with sensuous dance movement as an important element) became one of her biggest hits upon its release in 1997. The lyrics celebrate love, Mexican-style, with “horse, boots and sombrero; tequila, tobacco and rum.” Listen to it here
This 2005 song, written and sung by the late Jenni Rivera, features lyrics that are at once defiant and liberating. Early in her career, Rivera was criticized for performing traditional banda music — not least because it’s a genre that has long been male-dominated — but she persevered, and by the time of her tragic death in a 2012 plane crash, she had become one of the best-selling, and best-loved Mexican-American artists of all time. Listen to it here.