The LeAnn Rimes of mariachi music

Talented and determined, Nydia Rojas is forging a pop career while remaining true to her roots

Nydia says that she regards what she does as something of a "game," but she stops herself, again dissatisfied with how the word sounds out loud. "Not a game," she says, "but a challenge, I guess--let's see if I can learn that instrument, sing this song."

Or move from one genre to another. Her latest release, Florecer ("to bloom") is a much more pointed bid for the kind of dance-pop-love-song dominance that Selena enjoyed. For every mariachi-punctuated number like "Te Equivocas" or "Quiero Estar Contigo," there's a corresponding pop number--the soft-jazz burble of "Di cmame Mas" or the anthemic ballad "Paso Las Noches." While her debut featured pictures of her in charro regalia, most of the photos on Florecer show her in street clothes--she only appears in el traje on the album's back cover. Still, perhaps to ease the shock of transition, the album's first single, "Que Te Vava Bien," is perhaps the most mariachi-sounding of the bunch.

Nydia's desire to widen her appeal wasn't the only motive behind Florecer's pop slant. As she grew hotter with each hit off of Nydia, she began to attract attention from established Latin artists like Ana and Juan Gabriel. In fact, Carlos C. Junior--Ana Gabriel's longtime collaborator--was even brought on board as Florecer's producer.

Ana herself contributed two songs, the disc-starting "Llevame Contigo" and "Amor con Desamor." "When I heard that Ana Gabriel wanted to work with me, I was like, 'cool, all right!'" Nydia recalls. "She has a lot of songs, and she went through her files looking for the ideal song for me. She found two.

"I listened to them, and I thought they were great, but I had to go back to Carlos and say that the only problem was that there was no way to do the songs within the confines of mariachi. He said, 'I know. Are you willing to take that risk?' I said that they were Ana Gabriel songs, and I had to record them."

The gamble appears likely to pay off. The pop craft behind songs like Juan Gabriel's "Di Amame Mas" is impeccable, and Nydia's hybrid sound adapts itself to Tejano tastes as well, which is something of a happy accident: Even though Texas is her second-biggest market--behind Southern California--she knew nothing of Tejano culture before a recent visit to Texas.

"Before I came to Texas, I'd never heard Tejano music in my life," she exclaims. "I didn't know Jay Perez, or Emilio [Navaira], Shelley Lares, or La Tropa F. I don't think most people in California--L.A. especially--do; all that stuff is called norteno."

Naturally (although somewhat surprisingly to those of us here in the thick of the culture), Tejano--primarily a regional definition--doesn't mean a whole lot in California. "In Texas," Nydia says, "it seems that Mexicans want to be called Tejano and nothing else. In California, we don't consider ourselves "Californians"--we're Mexican-Americans.

"I consider myself fairly open-minded," Nydia adds. "I like to look at other cultures, and my own. I think that every culture has it flaws, just like every culture has its good things."

If, at times like this, Nydia comes off as a bit scripted or studied, consider that study has always been something she's been good at. Right now she's apologizing for being tired and a bit worn out after studying all night for the classes in philosophy and Mexican-American history that she takes at Mount San Antonio Junior College in L.A. "I think I may be the only 17-year-old there," she says with a giggle.

Although remarkably self-possessed and determined, she seems in no hurry to become an adult. "This is my childhood," she says. "I'm still living my childhood. I take everything seriously, but only up to a point. As far as I'm concerned, this is my hobby, what I love doing. That's anyone's dream, isn't it? To work at what you love doing."

She's aware of the power that a pop figure--never mind a star--can wield, but rejects the idea of being an out-and-out role model. "Eventually I want to have a role like that, but right now, what I'm learning, I'm learning for me. For Latinos--especially Mexican-Americans--there's been a lot of hardship and oppression, and we tend to limit ourselves. We've been brought up to believe that we can only rise to a certain level and never go beyond that. What I want to demonstrate is how that's not the case, how you don't have to be afraid to go for it. It's different for us, because we live our lives in two different worlds--our Mexican roots and our lives here in the U.S."

As during the Mexican Revolution, mariachi lives and grows at the edge of two overlapping cultures. Then, it was the fusion of rural Mexico and cosmopolitan Mexico City. Now, those two cultures are that of native Mexico and a new life in a land where foreign concepts like dance-pop and Tejano can capture both the imagination and the industries that feed off of it. Mariachi exists not only in its quasi-Disney restaurant identity, but in the cross-pollinated realms of regional Mexican music, Tejano, and international pop, based perhaps upon an essential identity that can survive any mixing.

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