From Selena to Juan Gabriel, This Designer Put a Face on Latino Music

Aug 25, 2016

To Ruben Cubillos, an album is like a home for music. Albums hold two of his passions: music and graphics.

Cubillos was born in El Paso, Texas. That’s where he learned to listen. At the end of the day, his grandparents would sit on the porch and sing Mexican songs by José Alfredo Jiménez. When his grandmother fetched for an item in her purse, Cubillos perked up his ears. He listened. 

“You could hear everything,” he said. “You could hear the pennies. You could hear the bobby pins … Call me crazy, but I loved that.”

Music beckoned Cubillos to San Antonio. 

“This is the place to you want to live,” he said. “This is where the vibe is.”  

“Sometimes when I design, I build the house from the ground up. Sometimes they bring in the doors. Sometimes they bring in the chimney."

  Cubillos started his singing career with The Latin Breed, a popular Tejano band that mixed traditional Mexican repertoire with jazz and R&B. But he left the stage to study graphic design at the Art Institute of Houston.

One day, he approached Joe Hernandez who was the lead Tejano singer for a band called Little Joe and la Familia. They were big at the time. Cubillos showed Hernandez a couple of concept album covers he designed for the band. Weeks later, Cubillos was sketching album covers for "No Quiero Más Amar," Little Joe and la Familia’s first international record.

“That’s where everything started,” Cubillos said.  

Cubillos described albums as little homes as he showed off his concept designs for a particularly significant one for his career and for the future of the musicians he was designing for at the time  — Selena y Los Dinos. The 1989 album was titled “Selena.”

“Records are (like) a house and the album cover is the door,” he said.

Cubillos designed Selena’s album cover while working full time for an advertising agency. The photo album cover depicts the Tejano music queen standing at the top of a cliff looking at a bright sky just before sunset.

“It’s just perfect,” Cubillos said looking at the album cover. “I didn’t have to do anything, I didn’t have to touch it! Selena’s skin is coming out so beautiful!”

Even more momentous for Cubillos is that he had a hand, literally, in designing Selena’s signature at the bottom of the album cover. He said when Selena became famous, she started to use this signature as her own.

“This is my own hand script I dropped in there, which later became her icon,” Cubillos said. “And that’s how it lives today.”

If records are like little homes, and album covers are its doors, then, all the records this 60-year-old graphic designer has created are similar to a life’s map.

After decades of doing marketing for Latino audiences and creating album covers for musicians, a Mexican pop artist appeared in Cubillos’ life.

“The Juan Gabriel story is a story of destiny,” he said.

Juan Gabriel is a superstar in the Latino music industry, and he, as Selena in 1989, was trying to reinvent himself.

At the time Mexican music producer Gustavo Farías was working on Gabriel’s then-recent record "Los Dúos," a duet album. He invited Cubillos to design the cover.

“Sometimes when I design, I build the house from the ground up. Sometimes they bring in the doors. Sometimes they bring in the chimney,” Cubillos said.

In this case, Farías and his team gave Cubillos the door and the chimney – in the other words, the concept and the photos. Cubillos worked his magic just as he did when he worked on Selena’s.

Now, that Cubillos is working for Universal Music, he reflects on whether his style has become classic. He knows he can be trendy but he questions whether he really wants to be. 

“I just want to be who I am,” he said.

Ruben's life in 10 songs

Cubillos love for Tejano music has never gone away. Here are his top ten Tejano songs that define him, his passion and life.

“These songs live on my radar,” he said.

Ana's reflection

This week has been like learning a new language — more like three …  all at the same time.

As a native Spanish speaker, I had to push my English thinking process to a previously unknown limit in order to match the supersonic speed of a newsroom. I have learned a very specific journalism language in a foreign language for the first time taught with love by real, professional journalists. I learned that “to log” es como transcribir. To “pitch” is to sell your story in a compelling and coherent way. And my vocabulary now contains the technical lingo of audio-editing language, a refined skill you need to bridge the worlds of radio storytelling and journalism.

All of this. All at once. All in one week.

It worked out fine. 

When I think about what my mentor and I have been doing these past days, I think about sewing. Drafting scripts for non-narrative radio stories is like sewing someone else’s voice with the thread of that person’s story; only the storyteller decides how and where to sew. Life is like a piece of fabric; storytelling is the active verb. Literature has used this analogy countless times but the craft of making radio also requires the steady and careful hands of a needleworker. For example, silence … a pause … a quiet moment … can change the whole story. This is called pacing. The storyteller pushes the needle through the fabric with her hands and therefore literally touches someone’s life. The limit on how far to push is based on the respect you have for the story that was trusted to you and, of course, the voice itself.

I was fortunate this week. I found a beautiful story of a passionate person who also creates artful portraits of people: he designs album covers for musicians. I worked with an amazing mentor who drove me to her city, listened to me, made me question myself, translated my thoughts into comprehensible pieces of text and audio and pushed me —  quite literally (Go get the sounds, Ana!)  — to craft the best possible story.

All at once. All in one week. I couldn’t be happier. 

I learned to sew. My grandma was a dressmaker — she would be proud of me.


My mentor!

A video posted by Ana Cecilia Calle (@anaseca_) on

Aug 18, 2016 at 12:58pm PDT

This story is a part of the Next Generation Radio project, a full-scale, digital-first multimedia training project with an emphasis on “radio storytelling.” We are committed to the professional development of undergraduate and graduate students who are focused on journalism. Our projects are hosted by NPR member stations and/or the nation's journalism and communications schools.

The 2016 project at KUT can be found at