Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño

Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño

by Alex E. Chávez


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In Sounds of Crossing Alex E. Chávez explores the contemporary politics of Mexican migrant cultural expression manifest in the sounds and poetics of huapango arribeño, a musical genre originating from north-central Mexico. Following the resonance of huapango's improvisational performance within the lives of audiences, musicians, and himself-from New Year's festivities in the highlands of Guanajuato, Mexico, to backyard get-togethers along the back roads of central Texas-Chávez shows how Mexicans living on both sides of the border use expressive culture to construct meaningful communities amid the United States' often vitriolic immigration politics. Through Chávez's writing, we gain an intimate look at the experience of migration and how huapango carries the voices of those in Mexico, those undertaking the dangerous trek across the border, and those living in the United States. Illuminating how huapango arribeño's performance refigures the sociopolitical and economic terms of migration through aesthetic means, Chávez adds fresh and compelling insights into the ways transnational music-making is at the center of everyday Mexican migrant life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822370093
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/01/2017
Series: Refiguring American Music Series
Pages: 456
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Alex E. Chávez is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame and produced the album Serrano de Corazón by Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra de Xichú.

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A mild and enervating climate and their constant intercourse with the aborigines, who were and still are degraded to the very lowest class of human beings, all contributed to render the Mexicans a more ignorant and debauched people than their ancestors had been.


Now sounds the march of new conquistadors in the American Southwest. ... Their movement is, despite its quiet and largely peaceful nature, both an invasion and a revolt.



Nothing connects us all but imagined sound.


In beginning to explore the contemporary politics that surround Mexican migrants' musical expression within the cultural space of the U.S. nation-state, we must first historicize the aural constructions of Mexican culture as a nationalist project in Mexico and a racializing discourse in the United States. While twentieth-century cultural constructions in Mexico have positioned Mexican vernacular musics as authentic expressions of the national soul, to be found in the space of the idealized (though socially backward) countryside, narrative constructions in the United States have braced primitivist claims with regard to Mexican culture in the service of the projects of white racial hegemony and imperialism — or, in other words, a well-documented anti-Mexican xenophobia (Chavez 2008; Santa Ana 2002). I introduce the phrase the long American century to help frame the historical linkage between these ideological scriptings, which are central to both countries' nation-building projects.

Writing of the rise of industrial capitalism and the modern nation-state, British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm coined the long nineteenth century to refer to the period from the French Revolution to the start of World War I (1789–1914) in his striking trilogy The Age of Revolution, 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital, 1848–1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire, 1875–1914 (1987). We can identify similar processes of political and economic development in North America — in Mexico and the United States, specifically — from the mid-nineteenth century through the late twentieth century, beginning with the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), continuing through the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), and lasting up through the passage of NAFTA (1994). While Hobsbawm's sequel, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, makes the case for a short twentieth century — which according to him ends with the failure of state communism in 1991 — I call on Time publisher Henry Luce's infamous moral endorsement of the rise of U.S. hegemonic influence in global politics after World War II, which he terms the "American century." In other words, for ethnic Mexicans, the "American century" of U.S. political and economic domination began long before World War II — nearly a century earlier, to be precise. With this temporal frame in mind (1848–1994), two questions emerge for the purposes of this chapter: historically, how has the United States come to hear Mexico? And, indeed, what does Mexico sound like?


The sonic landscape of Mexico is expansive, including everything from the popular regional Mexican stylings of contemporary banda and norteña to the electronic global chic of Nor-tec, the folk-inspired rock-hybrid sounds of Mexico City band CaféTacuba, and the vernacular afromestizo stringed music of Veracruz. However, more emblematic styles that have been deemed the sounds of a presumed national tradition — mariachi, for instance — come with their share of cultural baggage, always in need of disarticulation. Huapango is no exception.

The etymology of huapango is debated. To restate, Gabriel Saldívar (1937) maintains it is of Nahuatl origin, from the word cuahpanco, signifying "atop of the wood," a reference to the stomped zapateado dance performed atop a wooden platform. This seems to indicate that huapango refers explicitly to dance, and in part it does, for it may be seen as synonymous with the fandango social gathering centered around dance and music making in eighteenth-century New Spain, later banned during the Spanish Inquisition (G. Saldívar 1937; Sheehy 1979). Yet, over time, huapango has come to identify the musics played at such gatherings, particularly the huasteco and arribeño varieties. In music scholarship, within popular culture, and among practitioners of Mexican musics, the term huapango is, nevertheless, usually invoked as a reference to the galloping 6/8 rhythm that is typical of the style but has been interpreted across genres. This and other musicological features make it familiar and recognizable — many ethnic Mexicans and appreciators of Mexican music know huapango when they hear it in all of its variations, from huapango norteño to its echoes in the work of tribal DJs and its bel canto performance by the immortal stars of Mexican cinema. The last example is what sounds in the ears of many as a type of classic or authentic huapango. While the popularity of the form outside of its region of origin — along the Gulf coast and in the central states of Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Puebla, Querétaro, and San Luís Potosí — owes much to the silver screen, this stylized representation is, ultimately, a complicated one that reveals much about the knotted relationship between performance, the semiotics of authenticity, and the sonic borders of national identity.

A life lived in a sepia film — smoky mountains tower in the distance, endless plots of lush farmland roll out from the foothills, and a Spanish-tiled hacienda glows beneath a big, open sky dotted with giant feathery clouds. Impeccably dressed charros (horsemen) on horseback patrol caliche-paved streets flanked by primitive jacal dwellings as women sheepishly dash from one abode to the next, their heads down, tugging firmly at their rebozos. Swells of ambiguously folkloric music suddenly flood the landscape, flowing in diegetically from beyond. The atmosphere is now sonically poised for men (and rarely women) to croon heartfelt serenades beneath picturesque balconies or cry out passionately in crowded cantinas, projecting out in the full-throated estilo bravió (bold style). This is the visual and sonic scaffolding of a Mexico artfully constructed by the comedia ranchera, the most commercially successful genre of Mexican national cinema in the twentieth century, popularized the world over. Indeed, this space-time dream world is a vital component of the first film of this kind, Allá en el Rancho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch). Directed by Fernando de Fuentes and released in 1936, this pastoral drama starred Tito Guízar and Esther Fernández and featured the music of Lorenzo Barcelata, an actor and composer. Like most films of this type, its plot involves a love triangle, and subsequent twists and turns (involving revenge and betrayal) play themselves out amid the webs of unbridled patriarchy, beneath the surface of which we find a highly stratified race- and class-inflected hierarchy integral to the hacienda political economy. Hailed as the film that marks the beginning of what many term the golden age of Mexican cinema, Allá en el Rancho Grande's music deserves as much attention as its visual lexicon, for its scoring plays a crucial role in authenticating certain ideas concerning Mexican identity through the sounds of tradition — a formula that would be re-created time and again in this genre of film.

Music is the expressive form that rings loudest in Allá en el Rancho Grande's folkloric collage. In some of the film's pivotal scenes, music serves as a powerful vehicle for sonically illustrating sentiments crucial to the narrative plot; this not only bestows on the featured sounds an air of ideal-typical Mexican music culture but, more important, casts the feelings conveyed through them as authentically Mexican — a true window into mexicanidad (Mexican cultural nationalism). And while certain canciones tipicas (traditional songs) and canciones rancheras (country songs) are overtly melancholic, with expressions of pastoral longing ("Canción Mixteca," for instance), the featured huapango performances most densely embody a near-cartoonlike Mexican aesthetic of machismo, particularly given their placement in presumed masculine spaces: the palenque (cockfighting arena) and cantina. In the former, an eager crowd of men with a few scattered chinas poblanas (women in traditional Chinese Pueblan dress) welcomes two huapango guitar trios who ready themselves for a musical duel, symbolically anticipating the cockfight about to take place between the rival haciendas, Real Minero and Rancho Grande. The two groups, Trío Murciélagos and Trío Tariácuri, are introduced as "los meros cancioneros del alma nacional" (the bona fide singers of the national soul) by the ring announcer, presenting their performance — and the message it conveys — as a true expression of the Mexican spirit. Wearing wide-brimmed sombreros and starched charro costumes (one ensemble is dressed in white, the other in black), with zarapes (shawls) draped carefully over their shoulders, the musicians each rest one leg atop a chair placed in front of them as they assume a boastful stance and prepare to face off in this choreographed bout of musical flyting.

Both ensembles proceed to interpret huapango-esque songs authored or arranged by Barcelata that retain the galloping 6/8 styling but with added musical and vocal flourishes. The first trio performs "Lucha María," a song that depicts a male fairgoer as a fearless gamecock requesting the company of a woman, comparing her beauty to that of a mermaid. "La Presumida" (the presumptuous gal) is performed by the second. Its lyrical stanzas describe an apple bird that calls out longingly for the attention of his fickle loved one, who is all too eager to find love with another. This portrayal of huapango-crooning charros is indeed seductive, inscribing a sexual charisma on huapango performance that positions it as an apt vehicle for casting romance — or, more appropriately, the conquest of a woman — as a battle, a confrontation between men, where the winner is the one who displays superior skills, or in this case musical talents, symbolically representative of male virility. While no winner is declared in the film, it is clear that the aesthetic nexus of traditional song, image, and performance is meant to offer a glimpse into the essence of the Mexican character (el alma nacional), which, when examined closely, is bound to an idealized masculinity: true Mexicans are machos who boast and successfully win a woman's favors.

Later, we are folded into yet another bout of huapango dueling in the immediate wake of the film's namesake ranchera performance — the climactic aesthetic act of the entire feature — as the main protagonist, José Francisco (played by Tito Guízar), performs the song "Allá en el Rancho Grande" in a crowded cantina. After a bit of coaxing, he asks those present what song they want to hear; an anonymous voice offscreen answers emphatically, "Rancho Grande!" José Francisco agrees and is swiftly handed a guitar from behind the bar. As he performs in the forceful bel canto style, the end of each of his verses is punctuated by carefully scripted gritos and jeers from the bar's patrons, who joyfully sing along during the ranchera's refrain. However, the convivial mood generated by this communal hymn is suddenly compromised by the huapango duel that follows, after an individual in the bar calls out for a "huapango retachado" (huapango challenge), a request seconded by another, who wants one "de mucha contestación" (with back-and-forth responses). JoséFrancisco accepts and baits the audience, asking who will exchange verses with him. Martín, played by Barcelata, takes up the challenge. He works under José Francisco and has also fallen in love with Cruz, José Francisco's sweetheart. However, while José Francisco has just announced that he intends to marry Cruz, Martín and everyone present know that the hacienda boss, Felipe, has made advances toward her. Angered by this and jealous of José Francisco, Martín reveals this public secret during the musical duel, and the scene becomes one of restrained violence, as José Francisco's manhood is threatened. Authored by Barcelata, the ensuing coplas de huapango (huapango couplets) articulate a poetics of macho one-upmanship that culminates in this final verse:

Vale más saber perder y guardar bien el honor con la mujer que uno quiere no hay que hacer combinación;
You must be graceful in defeat and steadfastly keep your honor the woman that you love you must not share;
What begins as a series of witty jibes between the two men quickly descends into heteronormative claims in defense of Cruz's virginity.

The world's introduction to huapango arrives with a healthy dose of machismo, a casting that passes with ease into officialized academic accounts that further treat this musical form as a prototypical vehicle for masculinist aggression. Octavio Paz's treatise in The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico echoes this, also making references to popular music — no doubt that diffused through the folklore of national cinema — to brace his own claims: "Narcissism and masochism are not exclusively Mexican traits, but it is notable how often our popular songs and sayings and our everyday behavior treat love as falsehood and betrayal. ... The Mexican conceives of love as combat and conquest" (1961: 41). A long list of intellectuals — from Paz to Samuel Ramos and Jorge Portilla — have simultaneously chastised the perils and extolled the virtues of machismo to exaggerated heights that would make it seem that violence and fatalism are a uniquely Mexican condition. Scholars, including both Américo Paredes (1993) and Olga Nájera-Ramírez (1997), have called this psychoanalysis into question. Nájera-Ramírez (1997), in particular, has examined how the embodiment of these macho notions in the constructed figure of the singing charro as an emblem of cultural patrimony powerfully (en)genders a highly masculinist mexicanidad. In other words, the above-described visual and aural lexicon has authenticated a specific type of maleness subsequently enfolded into commonsense notions of Mexican culture and identity, notions that have also informed academic accounts. For instance, in the article "The Huapango: A Mexican Song Contest" (1942), Jean B. Johnson describes a coastal music from southern Veracruz characterized by the "noisy jarana" (small Mexican chordophone) and the fandango dance space, in which singers interrupt the performance with recited verses, typically original compositions, ranging from barbs to declarations of love. While he identifies the style as huapango, it is clear that the music, which he suggests retains a close affiliation with Caribbean song, is son jarocho. And the contest he refers to is in fact the practice known as florear la tarima, or adorning the tarima with décima verses. This practice opens up the gathering for dancing before experienced practitioners adorn the platform with their patterned footwork. These recitations indeed provoke pauses in the music such that the audience members enter into an evaluative role as they judge the skill of the décima performer. Irrespective of these nuances in performance or the differences between what are entirely distinct musical styles, Johnson manages to voice a matter-of-fact claim that derisively caricatures these poetics: "It is hardly necessary to add that these contests frequently become heated, and often end tragically in a flash of daggers beside the river" (234). Paredes's influential essay "On Ethnographic Work among Minority Groups: A Folklorist's Perspective" (1993) comes to mind for the misguided representations of this music as tragically violent are "somewhat unreal" (74). While Johnson provides no evidence to support the above assertion of habitual violence provoked by huapango, one may assume that he was influenced by the popular media of the day, indeed by films like Allá en el Rancho Grande and the dueling displays of aggression they featured. Similar contests dramatized on the silver screen worth mentioning include those between Luis Aguilar and Cuco Sanchez (El Gallo Giro [The Game Rooster], 1938), Pedro Infante and Blanca Estela Pavón (Los Tres Huastecos [The Three Huastecans], 1948), and Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete (Dos Tipos de Cuidado [Two Careful Types], 1953). Set in a utopian world where heavy drinking, womanizing, and violence are as natural as the landscape, the traditional huapango sound transcribed onto that world has become metonymically linked to the trope of the Mexican character.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction: American Border/Lands  1
1. Aurality and the Long American Century  34
2. Companions of the Calling  62
3. Verses and Flows at the Dawn of Neoliberal Mexico  130
4. Regional Sounds: Mexican Texas and the Semiotics of Citizenship  198
5. From Potosi to Tennessee: Clandestine Desires and the Poetic Border  232
6. Huapango sin Fronteras: Mapping What Matters and Other Paths  278
Conclusion: They Dreamed of Bridges  316
Epilogue: "Born in the U.S.A."  327
Appendix A: Musical Transcriptions  331
Appendix B: Improvised Saludados  349
Notes  361
References  387
Index  411

What People are Saying About This

Nor-tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World - Alejandro L. Madrid

"In this masterful ethnography, Alex E. Chávez focuses on huapango arribeño, its performance, its circulation, and its consumption, to explore the everyday politics of Mexican migrant life in the United States. Evoking the border crossing of décimas and zapateados huapangueros, Chávez's beautiful writing continuously challenges the boundaries between storytelling, theory, and real life to offer a dispassionate glimpse into the emotional paradoxes that inform the making of Mexican American spaces and subjectivities in twenty-first-century America."

Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture - Aaron A. Fox

"I am almost left at a loss for words, except: wow. Alex E. Chávez's writing is vivid, rich, and sensuous, and the command of voicing as he switches between perspectives and crosses theoretical, ethnographical, and analytical divides is effortless and constantly clarifying. One hears the sound of a major ethnographic voice emerging here. Sounds of Crossing is one of the best musical ethnographies I've read in years, and it will surely rank with the very best books in its category of this or any generation."

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