As a teenager, Edgar Barrera used to work at his local mall, folding clothes. But Barrera was the kind of guy who wanted to be employee of the month. If he was going to fold clothes, he wanted to be the best at it. So it’s no surprise that decades later, after becoming the Latin industry’s go-to songwriter and producer, his work ethic has helped him stand out — so much, in fact, that he’s nominated for more than 13 Latin Grammys this year, more than any other artist.
Still, despite multiple accolades, Barrera remains humble as ever. Currently, he is nominated for Song of the Year, Regional Mexican Song, Songwriter of the Year, Producer of the Year, Pop Song, and Tropical Song. He has also been nominated for Songwriter of the Year for the Grammys. Barrera is the only Latino in the songwriter category. But if you ask him, all his ambition and perseverance stems from his immigrant-family roots.
“My grandparents crossed that border to look for a better future, and I feel that it is part of the culture. It’s always moving forward one generation by generation. And I come from that culture, where we don’t know how to do anything other than work 24/7,” he tells Rolling Stone.
Barrera is a border kid. He was raised between Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Tamaulipas, Mexico, and the border with McAllen, Texas. Because of his background, he decided to open his own label, called BorderKid Records. He’s become a mentor to Grupo Frontera, who is also from the area and who he writes and produces for. For him, the grind never stops. He has worked with artists such as Selena Gomez, Camila Cabello, and Ariana Grande, and to him, so much of his success comes from loving the work he does.
“I don’t consider myself the most talented person, but I am the most hardworking. Sometimes I am even afraid to work with new people. But I think it’s part of it. I think that the day I lose the fear of insecurity, of what I’m doing, will be the day when I’m going to stop liking what I’m doing,” he says.
Growing up in McAllen, Barrera says, he always had his parents’ support. He dropped out of college and is the only one out of his siblings without a college degree. He jokingly calls himself the black sheep of his family because of it. But he kept working hard, and soon, he had an impressive roster of artists, including Christian Nodal, Camilo, and Maluma.
Something he truly enjoys is working with up-and-coming stars. “I feel that the key is to grow with the artist,” he explains. He’s seen many of these artists start from the bottom and make it to the top: Barrera shares that in the beginning, he and Nodal could go out for tacos in Guadalajara without anyone recognizing Nodal.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s much easier to get there with an artist who is already developed. I prefer to be part of a growth, of a career: a sound that was developed together,” Barrera says.
But he’s also worked with artists who are already established. His credits include “Cuidadito” by Becky G and Chiquis, as well as “Gucci Los Paños” by Karol G. Both songs have lyrics you can imagine being yelled at during concerts, tapping into female empowerment and rage: “Te poncho las llantas, dormirás afuera,” go the lyrics of “Cuidadito.”
“It’s like giving that feeling of pain, giving it an angle of fun,” he said about “Gucci los Paños,” where the pain comes from crying in Gucci scarves. Barrera has certain signs he waits on to test to see if the songwriting works: He feels butterflies when working and feels intensely, just like the track commands.
His dedication to each song has meant artists have sought him out for bigger projects. He collaborated for two years with Becky G in the creation of her recent album, Esquinas. He was drawn to her project because of the duality it represents of being Mexican American.
“She wanted a sound to her roots, that sounded Mexican but that had the influence of alternative, rock, and pop. And that’s why you have songs like Iván Cornejo’s. They don’t sound like anything, they sound like the sound that I’m giving to Becky,” he says.
That duality comes up for him often. He says one of the reasons he’s so close to Grupo Frontera is because of the understanding they have of each other’s culture. He jokes that as close as he is to Nodal, who is from Sonora, they’d always have a few things that got lost in translation. “Christian Nodal would always tell me, ‘Güey, es que la cura tuya es diferente a la de nosotros,’” he says in Spanish (“Your jokes are different from ours”).
When Barrera started BorderKid Records, one thing he set his heart on doing is highlighting artists from similar backgrounds. “When I created my label, I wanted artists who had the same roots as me and that I could talk to and say ‘Te estaba echando aguas y no me pelaste,’” he says.
Even at this phase of his career, Barrera does not consider himself famous. In fact, he considers himself just a “regular” guy. He said he can still go out to dinner in peace without being followed. However, at this year’s Latin Grammys show, he’s becoming an even bigger star with brighter ambitions.
“I was always very clear that this was what I wanted to do,” he says. “I never had a plan B. I’m also very stubborn. I mean, if they don’t open the door for me, I’ll knock it over. I’m looking for new opportunities. Right now I’m in New York working with new producers, different, those I’ve always wanted to work with.”
He still has other people in mind. He says he would love to collaborate with Post Malone and maybe one day someone like Taylor Swift. He would want to work with producers like Benny Blanco or Max Martin. But he’s excited about the important global movement happening in the Latin music industry. Though Latin genres have scaled commercial heights, he emphasizes what’s happening now is not something new. The artists and the music that people are just finding out about have been around for decades.
“The music we are making with Grupo Frontera is music that comes from the time of Ramón Ayala, in the Sixties. We have been doing it for years, and it is not a movement that was just invented a month, or two years ago, but it is a movement that has foundations well laid out,” he says.
“More and more artists want to do something on this side. I’m doing something with an American artist that I’m bringing to our world, and that’s it: It’s putting him to sing in Spanish and see what happens,” Barrera explains.
And even so, it’s just the beginning for him. “I think people have slowly been discovering me, but my objective has always been not for people to know who I am,” he says. “It’s for people to discover me and get surprised and to say, ‘This dude is behind the song I like.’”