Growing up along the Texas-Mexico border, life in the Rio Grande Valley was all Rafael Garcia had ever known.
In high school, Garcia would cross the International Bridge into Matamoros, Mexico to play with his alternative rock band at night. The following morning, he would cross back to Brownsville, pick up breakfast at a taco shop, and make it to school in time. These Latinx communities shaped him over the 18 years he spent in South Texas and Mexico. Then, a decade ago, he headed north to attend college.
“I’m just a kid from the Valley trying to reach the world my way through Dallas,” he says.
Despite having a life in the United States and Mexico, his identity as a White-passing Hispanic put him between two worlds. He was labeled either “not American enough” or “not Mexican enough.” Dallas introduced him to various cultures—and he felt even more displaced.
This cultural shock and identity crisis inspired Garcia to break stereotypes and show off his Mexican American pride through music.
Under the name Rafa, Garcia makes Latinx trap music that blends his heritage and his romanticist, emo-leaning personality. For the past two years, he has focused on writing Spanish songs centered on his coming-of-age story and angsty love. His deep, sober vocals are layered on top of often upbeat musical production. Just like his upbringing in the Valley, his music crosses genres and reflects his most authentic self.
“I’ve been writing songs alone in my room because that’s how I dealt with my emotions. It’s my only outlet, my diary,” he says. “I’ve got plenty of English songs on the way for the English homies, but I owe it to myself to say what I need to say in Spanish for a while before then.”
Brownsville raised him, but Dallas pushed him to thrive. As a Latinx artist, he wants to create music authentic to his heritage, but he does not want to lose touch of where he’s from—or the city he calls home now.
He spent his teenage years listening to 2000s emo bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy alongside ’90s Mexican rock bands like Pxndx and Molotov. He picked up a guitar when a childhood crush told him she liked guitarists. He began performing at high school talent shows to impress her; it got him nicknamed a Jonas Brother.
He left Brownsville at 18 to attend The University of Texas at Dallas, pursuing a degree in Emerging Media Technologies and Communications. “When I was 18, I had no creative skills,” he says. “But I kept telling myself, I’m creative, until I finally sat down and worked at it.” In college, he began writing songs. The musical ability came effortlessly. It wasn’t long before he was writing a song each day.
Two years ago, he started to share videos to Instagram of himself performing original songs. He saw a steady increase in followers and engagements.
When he was introduced to Bad Bunny, a switch flipped inside him. Bad Bunny, one of the world’s most popular artists, specializes in Puerto Rican trap music.
“I remember the first time I heard Latinx trap,” he says. “I was like, ‘this sounds like the emo music I grew up with.’ All the sounds were very familiar to me, so I remember being at home with my guitar and keyboard like I can do this.”
Garcia shared his first Latinx trap song on Instagram, which received more likes than his usual posts. He interpreted that as a green light of the direction he should take his music.
“The reason why it took me so long to finally start writing in Spanish, I think, [is] because of a deep-seated mentality from [Hispanics] that I wasn’t Mexican enough,” he said. “People can give me all the hate, gatekeep being Mexican all they want, but I come from two lines of hard-working and preserving Mexicanos.”
He lived next to the local singer-songwriter Sudie. After seeing his videos, she recommended he work with Gomey, a producer who helped Garcia release “Plata Bebe,” his first single, in August 2020. The song put him on the radar of a local manager who wants to develop him into the next big Latinx artist.
The manager, Vince Chapa, had managed Frank Ocean, Grammy Award winning rapper Bobby Sessions, and the local rapper Snow Tha Product. Despite having a musical career steeped in hip-hop, Chapa comes from a family of Chicanx activists who encouraged him to be proud of his heritage and make a difference for his culture.
“Since entering the music business, my grandparents would consistently ask when I was going to work with Spanish music,” Chapa says. “I knew that working in Latinx music is something I wanted for myself but I had my doubts. Transitioning to Latinx music would essentially be starting over and, to be honest, my Spanish isn’t the best so I was definitely intimidated.”
Last year, Chapa lost his maternal and paternal grandparents. He vowed to start looking for Latinx artists to lift up in their honor—but not just any artist. Chapa was looking for someone who could blend genres, languages, and themes; someone who has the potential to be the biggest Latinx artist in the world.
After one studio session with Rafa, Chapa knew he found his artist.
“Rafa’s vocals and melodies over Gomey’s musical landscape is something truly unique and I instantly began to see how this artist is not only capable of competing with the best in the industry, but also had the depth and range to be around for a real long time,” he says.
Now, a year after “Plata Bebe,” Rafa has assembled an all Mexican team in Dallas to help create his platform, which includes his own record label. Out of the five tracks in his discography, three have been added to popular Spotify playlists, including New Urban, Radar US Latin, Trapland, New Music Friday Latin. Urbano Rising featured him as its cover artist in August.
It is no surprise that Rafa is getting traffic on his music. After all, he strives for the best, he is unapologetically ambitious, and he is doing it in support of his community.
“I think I can make it here in Texas and I don’t want to leave,” he says. “I’m happy to be here in Dallas and I want to be a role model to other Latino kids and show them all this music, all these visuals, [are] all made with Mexican hands.”
The music video for “Abajo” displays scenes of the city’s Latinx culture in Oak Cliff along Jefferson Boulevard. The German Torres-directed visual features Rafa in the passenger seat of a lowrider, while Sushiiimilk, a local tattoo artist, drives down the Margaret Hill Bridge on the way to Downtown Dallas. The song’s message is similar to Drake’s “Started From The Bottom.” Like the Canadian rapper, Rafa believes he is on his way to success. He also has a more literal translation: “I say ‘started from the bottom’ because I’m literally from the border,” he says.
Rafa plans to release a new track every month until next year, leading up to NeoMex, his upcoming EP. The EP’s title references the Neo-Mexicanism movement in the ‘80s. NeoMex will feature Rafa’s newest tracks and original artwork. The EP will be released under his production label, goodjuan studio.
“I just want to make music and be able to pay for my family, for my dad to stop working, for my mom to stop working,” he says. “It’s the passion that I’m going to use to give back, and if being a worldwide musician is the stars, then I’m gonna go for it.”