Laura Goldblatt and Richard Handler on their book, The American Stamp

Interview by Pauline Turner Strong

Pauline Strong: Congratulations on the publication of your book! I very much enjoyed reading it and I look forward to sharing it with students. To begin our conversation, I’d like to hear what drew each of you to the topic of the cultural history and iconography of US postage stamps.

Richard Handler:  Like many children of my era (b. 1950), I collected stamps as a child, and like some of those people, I returned to stamps in my 40s, working on my collection more or less seriously since then.  It’s easy to immerse oneself in various obsessions of collecting that do not require a lot of creative analysis. I certainly did that (it’s a hobby, after all!), but also, as an anthropologist who studies nationalism, I thought some over the years about the iconographic content of US stamps. (I also collect French and French colonial stamps, but that’s another story.)

There is a particularly striking US stamp, featuring the Sicangu (Brulé) Lakota chief, Hollow Horn Bear and issued in 1923, that has always held my attention.

That stamp gave me ideas for a more extended analysis of Native Americans on US stamps, but I felt I didn’t have the necessary expertise in American studies or Indigenous studies to carry out such a project on my own.

As we explain in the acknowledgments section of our book, Laura and I met when she was finishing her dissertation (in the English department) on Manifest Destiny, conquest narratives, and the closing of the American putative frontier. As we got to know one another (talking about how her work intersected with mine, on nationalism), I got to talking with her about my idea for a paper about Hollow Horn Bear and Indians more generally on US postage stamps.

Laura Goldblatt: I found this topic very interesting for the reasons Richard mentions, but also because I continue to be drawn to questions of state messaging or propaganda. In this regard, postage stamps seemed so ripe for exploration: tiny pictorial messages, designed to travel broadly in their delivery of other messages, that end up in the intimate spaces of the home. And, while senders can control what they send and to some degree what stamps they choose, receivers don’t get to reject delivery because they don’t like the image on their parcel. And neither has any control of what happens as their missives move through the mail. It made me think about government messaging in new ways, as far more multifaceted than the term propaganda implies, but also as completely banal and woven into the fabric of the quotidian.

With that in mind, I also became interested in collectors because I wanted to know how people interacted with stamps, what they did with them, and how these instrumentalized objects could be used for non-instrumental purposes. Stamp collecting is more Richard’s ken, but I nonetheless became intrigued by how different collecting communities—Confederate collectors, Third Reich collectors, and so—described their interests, how they responded to changing political climates, and how they understood stamps’ meanings. Though the casual stamp user is different from these specialist groups, they, too, express opinions about stamps’ designs, have stamp preferences, see the images on their letters, and so on. In fact, the COVID pandemic really underscored how crucial the USPS–and home delivery in particular–remains to the US body politic.

These interests eventually superseded the reservations we both felt about diving into a topic with very little existing academic scholarship on it.

Richard Handler: So we took the plunge, starting with some shorter pieces and then committing ourselves to the book about five years ago.

Polly Strong: One of the main themes of The American Stamp is how the creation, circulation, and collecting of postage stamps contributed to the construction of citizenship during the second half of the 19th century and the entire 20th century. This is a very long timespan to consider! Would you each give an example of a notable change in the social use of stamps over this century and a half?  

Laura Goldblatt: For me, I think the most notable change is from the idea of postage stamps as representing the nation, to postage stamps being indicative of various consumer preferences. For instance, prior to 1893, when you wanted to mail a parcel, you had very limited options of imagery. You either selected the stamp with the exact postage for the item you wanted to send, or some combination of stamps to equal the correct postage—though again, you didn’t have multiple choices for one-cent, two-cent, half-cent stamps: there was just one of those varieties.

But then, in 1893, the Post Office released a set of stamps alongside the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The stamps were sold at the fair itself, where you could also have them postmarked and then keep them as souvenirs. These stamps depicted a variety of images from the narratives of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.

These were the first commemorative stamps: stamps produced to mark a particular occasion or person and available only for limited time. With the Columbian series, the Post Office realized there was money to be made from such commemorative issues, and more and more were produced over time.

People don’t mail letters as much as they once did, but when they do, they have a wide variety of stamps to choose from, all in the same denomination. The last time I went to the post office, I was able to buy stamps commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, two sheets of stamps from the Black Heritage series—Edmonia Lewis and August Wilson

—and a sheet of stamps dedicated to Shel Silverstein. That is to say, I was able to choose which stamps best represented my values and priorities, rather than solely national values or priorities. I think that’s a really big change in how we understand citizenship and the government’s relationship to citizens. 

Richard: Piggybacking on what Laura said, before the Columbian commemorative stamps, most US stamps feature what we called “dead heads”: the great men (and they were men) of American history. These supposedly definitive stamps were, unlike commemoratives, meant to stay in circulation for many years. For example, most people mailing a letter in the 1940s would have used the three-cent Thomas Jefferson stamp from the Presidential definitive series of 1938.

This type of stamp remained dominant until the post-WW-II period, when commemorative stamps really took off, with more and more new stamps being released, placed on sale, and then withdrawn every year. 

As Laura said, commemorative stamps became a vehicle of consumer choice. But something else was happening: as various kinds of multiculturalism became politically more salient in the last third of the 20th century, the post office found it ever more difficult to produce sets of dead-head stamps that represented the nation in all its diversity. A consequence of this, we argue, is that a different iconography came to the fore for the representation of the nation in definitive stamp series. Instead of featuring representative persons, these stamps featured iconic objects like flags, scenic views, and nostalgic items of material culture. It’s as if on the eve of the 21st century, the post office stalled out on the iconographic recognition of a truly diverse America.

Polly Strong: This brings us to another major theme of the book: collecting. Richard, how was your research on stamp collecting influenced by your previous research on collecting and display at Colonial Williamsburg? Laura, could you comment more on how consumer demand and economic imperatives have shaped postal iconography? What do you make of the marketing of stamps for national, religious, and secular holidays?

Richard Handler: Your question suggests another chapter to be written, comparing genres of collecting. We focused on two aspects of stamp collecting: the creation (over time) of a system that defines collectible objects and assigns values to them; and the ways in which individual collectors interact with that system. One of the striking things about stamp collecting that is not true of all genres of collecting is the high degree to which the average collector, with very little financial investment, can interact with the larger system to create collectible objects—for example, by sending letters to oneself, stamped with interesting stamps, which will be returned, postmarked. I’m not sure what the analogue to this would be in the art or museum worlds. That’s the next paper to write!

Laura Goldblatt: Richard mentioned the post-WW II explosion of commemorative stamps. Looking at the pattern of new commemorative issues since then, it seems clear that the post office has responded to the increasing number of requests for stamps coming from various demographic and interest groups not by articulating a new or revised model of ideal citizenship but simply by producing stamps for each group. I mentioned the Black Heritage Series, which is a response to those who want Black culture celebrated on US stamps. But what are we to make of the 1995 Civil War commemorative series, which honors both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Frederick Douglass and “Stonewall” Jackson?

Rather than make a political decision about how to commemorate the Civil War—a decision that might lead to the depiction of only Union actors, and thereby offend Lost Cause warriors—the post office treated both Confederate and Union figures as equals. Similarly, the advent of special stamps for Christmas in 1962 was not hindered by critics who worried about the separation of church and state, but led instead, over time, to stamps for Hanukkah (1996), Kwanzaa (1997), and Eid (2001).

This is the kind of consumer logic we see at the grocery store: do you like one brand of milk or another? But the fact is that Confederates are not the same as Union soldiers, nor is honoring various religious holidays the same as refusing in principle to honor any. In sum, the US stamps program has come to instantiate a consumer logic: letting the market decide instead of deciding that some political positions ought not to be celebrated by the state.

Polly Strong: I really appreciate hearing about the new directions your research could take now that the book is published. I’d like to close by asking each of you about the collaboration that gave rise to this book. Richard, in addition to your single-authored books and edited volumes, you have co-authored an unusual number of publications for an anthropologist, including The Fiction of Culture (with Daniel Segal); Schneider on Schneider (with David Schneider); The New History in an Old Museum (with Eric Gable); and now The American Stamp. Why has collaborative work been so compelling to you? Laura, in addition to The American Stamp you have been working on a single-authored monograph, After Destiny: Propaganda, Settler Colonialism, and Community, and you have published both single authored and co-authored articles. What do you see as the rewards and risks of collaborative work as an early career scholar?    

Richard Handler: The simplest and in some sense truest answer I can give is that writing with a co-author is more fun than writing alone! Perhaps fun isn’t quite the right word; to put it slightly differently, co-authoring is a social experience in a way that solo writing (which is also, of course, a social experience) is not. Co-authoring means you have someone to talk to about the work that is important to you; and co-authoring only works well if you enjoy talking to your co-author about your shared project.

Beyond fun, I am a person who is conscious of my scholarly limitations: what I’m good at and not so good at, what I know and what I don’t know. Co-authoring is a sensible response to one’s limitations; it allows writers to share in each other’s expertise. It also allows for quick and engaged feedback, as when you call up your co-author and say, “I can’t figure this out, can you help me,” or “I can’t make this paragraph come out right; will you see what you can do with it.”

A final thought: egalitarian co-authoring requires both a strong ego (you have to be willing to write your fair share) and a lack of ego, in the sense of allowing the other person’s ideas and writing to change yours. 

Laura Goldblatt: I’d echo Richard in the list of rewards. I often think of all writing and thought as collaborative. Even my single-authored publications and research grew out of a series of rich conversations with others, and aid that included reading and commenting on drafts. Co-authorship makes those collaborations visible. I also just really like co-writing. I largely decided to go to graduate school because of how thrilling—really!—I found class discussions about rich and complicated ideas as an undergraduate. Co-writing takes that process beyond the classroom.

In terms of risks, co-authorship often isn’t legible to others as legitimate scholarly work, which is a problem as an early-career academic. It can also make it difficult for peers and search committees to glean what my expertise is separate from that of my co-authors. But still, the benefits for me far outweigh those risks. I’ve learned as much about scholarly and professional praxis from Richard as I have about stamps, which is a kind of mentorship I think we could all gain from.

Laura Goldblatt is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia, where Richard Handler is Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies.

List of Illustrations

  1. Cover, The American Stamp, 2023,
  2. Hollow Horn Bear, 1923,
  3. Columbian Exposition issue: Landing of Columbus, 1893,
  4. Black Heritage series: August Wilson, 2021,
  5. Presidential series: Thomas Jefferson, 1938,
  6. Civil War commemorative series, 1995,

Siv Lie on her book, Django Generations

Django Generations

Interview by Lynn M. Hooker

Lynn Hooker: First, beginning with the title, your book uses a variety of terms for your chief musical subjects–most often Manouches, Tsiganes, or Romanies, but also sometimes Sinti, Gitans, and Gypsies. How do these terms and the distinctions between them reflect some of the issues you write about?

Siv Lie: I discuss some of these terms in the “Notes and Terminology” section (pp. ix-x), but there is much more to say. The very existence of all these terms and disagreements about what they “actually” mean says a lot about both how Romanies have dealt with racialization and about how they constitute an extremely diverse array of people. The terms Tsigane, Gitan, and Gypsy are all exonyms imposed by Europeans and have become more or less commonplace synonyms for Romanies. They are used by Romanies and non-Romanies (Gadjé) alike. Whether or not they are considered pejorative depends entirely on their contexts of use, and while some Romanies refuse these terms, many use them unproblematically. I think this evolution of usage has to do both with Romanies reclaiming pejorative labels and with the conventionalization of some of these terms over time. For example, on pp. 13-14 of the book, I describe how legislation targeting nomades was a way for the government to continue to not-so-covertly racialize and disenfranchise Romanies. In 1969, this legislation was revised and nomades were renamed Gens du voyage (“Travelers”). Today, nomades has definitely fallen out of use, but many mobile Romanies in France still proudly refer to themselves as Voyageurs despite any negative connotations.

Even with decades of pan-Romani political movements and some linguistic and cultural consistencies across populations, Romanies do not constitute a unified group. I deliberately use “Romanies” instead of the more common “Roma” because Sinti (to which Manouches are closely related, if not synonymous with) tend to see themselves as quite distinct from Roma and sometimes reject a Roma-centric view of Romanies. For example, just recently I was speaking with a Manouche/Sinti friend who kept using “Sinti” to refer to all Romanies, which I understood as his way to de-center “Roma” from pan-Romani politics. It’s an interesting way to assert an ideal of pan-Romani unity while challenging the terms on which that unity has been conceived in the political sphere.

Lynn Hooker: How does the question of group naming in this case contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology? How do other issues in your study contribute to current discussions in anthropology? In ethnomusicology?

Siv Lie: The naming processes I describe – as highly context-dependent and semantically malleable – relate directly to my use of “ethnorace” to explain how Romanies are understood, and in turn understand themselves, through situated and shifting lenses of “race” and “ethnicity.” When I first came across ethnorace as coined by David Theo Goldberg, I was energized by how perfectly it captured the tensions I was exploring, but I was also confused as to why it had not been taken up more widely in anthropology or ethnomusicology. I thought I must have been missing something obvious! But the more I’ve used it and developed it in the context of struggles for Manouche political recognition and economic justice, the more I’ve realized its much wider potential to better understand how social difference is made.

Ethnorace also feeds into my development of ambivalent essentialism (which I outline on pp. 6-8). The idea of strategic essentialism always seemed appropriate to the maneuvers I observed among Manouche musicians and their supporters, but it never captured the full scope of the tensions they had to deal with. Ambivalent essentialism gets at how the process of self-essentialization involves quite a bit of uncertainty and unresolvable contradiction. I often observed musicians feel quite comfortable presenting themselves in rather stereotypical ways to certain audiences while downplaying or challenging such representations in other contexts, and/or voicing real dilemmas about how they felt compelled to engage in these representations. I point to ambivalent essentialism throughout the book because it’s an apt way to account for these tensions and for the negotiations that must occur within any ethnoracially-associated music scene. I think that this book can therefore contribute to current discussions about identity politics and cultural commodification in ways that embrace contradiction without trying to resolve it.

This book engages with a range of concepts both well-established and emergent in anthropology (such as raciolinguistics/raciosemiotics, cultural citizenship, cultural expediency, colorblind racism, erasure, and so on). I try to foreground the interstices of social difference as negotiated through music and talk about music. Some similar conversations about racial politics are happening in ethnomusicology, but I see this book as encouraging ethnomusicologists to engage more robustly with current conversations in anthropology.

Lynn Hooker: I am struck by the tension you describe not only between Manouche and Gadjé (non-Romani) identity but also between Manouche and pan-Romani identity. What are the pros and cons of a broader view of Romani-ness for your interlocutors? I myself have observed some musicians and organizers, mostly in Hungary, embracing a more pan-Romani approach in some contexts; this view seems akin to the musical pluralism you discuss in chapter 3, and sometimes it appears to claim cosmopolitan-ness. But it seems from what you imply that some Manouches want to avoid the “taint” of Eastern Europe.

Siv Lie: As I alluded to earlier, some of the Manouches/Sinti I work with have mixed feelings about proclaiming a pan-Romani identity. Doing so has its advantages: it provides access to resources (social networks, logistical support, financing, publicity, and so on) as well as a certain public legibility. It also reflects aspirations to a kind of borderless cosmopolitanism, such as by using “Gypsy” instead of the conventional French terms for Romanies. This can be especially important for musicians who want to be seen simultaneously as part of a global jazz community and as ethnoracially distinctive. They want to counter the idea that they are backwards and unintelligent by playing up their creativity and cultural plurality (as Romani, French, European, and global). Of course, at the same time, cosmopolitanism can be construed negatively, and Romanies are often perceived as rootless and even threatening wanderers. For this and other reasons, Manouches/Sinti sometimes refuse ideas of pan-Romani identity. They may want to avoid politicizing their work through associations with Romani solidarity movements, or they might seek to avoid further racialization by distancing themselves from immigrant Romanies in France.

The important point here is that these stances aren’t definitive. People emphasize different allegiances depending on context, and they change their opinions over time. Such tensions are reflected in the music the book explores. For example, Alsatian jazz manouche has roots in both jazz (a practice so widespread it often gets labeled as “universal”) and Hungarian csárdás, which has specifically Romani connotations. Musicians are very selective about how they use these different legacies depending on how they want to be perceived.

Lynn Hooker: In chapter 4, there is this fascinating discourse where various speakers talk about how they can tell the difference between Manouche musicians and Gadjo musicians by sound–what you describe as ethnoracial qualia of sound. I am curious about something that you do not talk about as much, and that is the practice of jazz manouche among non-Manouche (Gadjo) players. How do the Manouche musicians you work with feel about this?

Siv Lie: Gadjé make up a huge part of the performing circuit within and outside of France and are not necessarily looked down upon by Manouche musicians. In general, there is a lot of mutual respect between Manouche and Gadjo musicians. A Gadjo sound isn’t always considered bad, and not everyone claims there are significant or inherent differences between Manouche and Gadjo sounds. Musicians of various backgrounds often tell me that the most important thing is respect – for other musicians and for the music (however that is defined). Interpersonal problems tend to arise when Gadjo musicians adopt signs of “Gypsiness” and, in some cases, may exploit real or imagined connections to Manouches to further their careers. I don’t think the Manouche musicians I work with are terribly concerned about the whitewashing of an ethnoracially unique practice; those who believe in a distinctive Manouche sound will point to its inimitable qualia, and others might accuse Gadjé of cultural appropriation, but the practice still remains marketable and meaningful for them. More broadly, given the context of Romani disenfranchisement within France, there can be a sense of distrust among Manouches toward Gadjé. It’s not totalizing, but I see it crop up when some Manouche musicians do business with Gadjé and want to ensure that they’re not exploited. That said, musicians of any background tend to be on guard when maneuvering within the music industry, and rightly so!

Lynn Hooker: You started this project years ago, including identifying colorblind racism within French civic society as manifest in, for example, festivals that present jazz manouche but that try to keep Romaniesand Gens du voyage at arms’ length. (This topic is sprinkled throughout the book, but the introduction and chapters 3 and 5 deal with it in the most detail.) How have your interlocutors responded to the recent surge in anti-racist activism around the world?

Siv Lie: Like the US, France is undergoing a very fraught and necessary reckoning with deep-seated racism, energized in part by the protests of 2020. Much of the resistance to antiracist discourse stems from the idea that racism is a US problem, not a French one, and that US understandings of race and racialization are entirely inapplicable to France (so much so that in February 2021, President Macron denounced critical approaches to race supposedly imported from the US, and the minister for higher education proposed restricting research on the topic). Many groups have participated vigorously in these debates, but I haven’t had the chance to probe the issue with my interlocutors. I am really looking forward to being able to travel to France again and talk about all of this. I think aspects of this activism have probably resonated with my interlocutors, especially those who already draw parallels between their own racialization and that of African Americans (see chapters 1 and 4). I’m working to get a French translation of the book published so that it can better contribute to these discussions. For now, I’m not optimistic about any changes within the French state, but I’m glad that colorblind racism has come to the fore in public debate.

 Alex E. Chávez on his new book, Sounds of Crossing

Interview by William Cotter

William Cotter: In the introduction to your book you mention that for Mexican migrants, transnational forms of music making claim space, both materially and symbolically, in the United States.  In doing so, you note that music making as a form of cultural expression serves to reconfigure the varied borders that affect migrant life. By way of introducing readers to the book, I wonder if you could tell us about how music claims space in this way, how it serves to reconfigure those borders, and how it is deployed by the communities you worked with in your book?

 Alex E. Chávez: First, we should begin by interrogating the very notion of the border as materially lived and experienced by, in this case, ethnic Mexicans—though “Mexican” certainly operates as a gloss for Latinas/os/xs writ large—and as the centerpiece in a racializing regime that currently produces migrant illegality and criminality, but which braces a generalizable otherness that fuels the United States’ relationship to Latin America as a whole. hPut bluntly, the U.S.-Mexico border as physical site fuels both primitivist fears and fantasies regarding alterity to the South—it is a contaminating threat to be contained, and Mexico figures as its most proximal menace. That boundary (as the physical limit to the nation and national culture)—as discursive, political, and cultural logics go—must be policed and its people may only be integrated in a subordinate status.

Now, let me back up a moment. I arrive at this understanding thanks to a robust legacy of scholarly work that has long written about the U.S.-Mexico border ethnographically with great theoretical acumen, for the border is not a given, but continually produced and re-inscribed. So, in order to understand how expressive culture, for instance, reconfigures the border—to use your language—we have to, once more, attend to what the border signifies, how it operates. Let me tease some of this out. Critical analyses of the U.S.-Mexico border region have understood it as a historical site of racialized violence wherein political technologies have enabled the hostile management, surveillance, and indiscriminate killing of ethnic Mexicans since the nineteenth century. And although the scholarly field of border studies and the metaphorical use of the borderlands are often conflated, they are distinct. Border studies typically examines the material conditions of the U.S.- Mexico border as a concrete physical place, largely from the perspective of the social sciences. The borderlands are used metaphorically to speak of a liminal state of in-betweenness in work in the humanities, largely cultural studies. A seminal figure in the development of the latter theoretical framework, Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), also distinguished between “a dividing line” (or border) and “the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (borderland). Nevertheless, while the borderlands are often considered the symbolic divides among various social groups, the former, more concrete geopolitical perspective is equally undergirded by a broader consideration of the boundary work implicit in social and cultural ideologies of difference making. One cannot fully understand the physical presence of the U.S.-Mexico border as a result of U.S. imperialism without accounting for the racial ideologies that drove westward expansion in the nineteenth century. Centered on illegality and border inventions/inspections/crossings, respectively, the contemporary work of people like Nicholas De Genova (2005) and Alejandro Lugo (2008) explores how the materiality of U.S.- Mexico border policies extends across the continental United States and subsequently shapes cultural logics that produce and restrict citizenship in everyday life, inspecting, monitoring, and surveilling what travels in and out with a critical eye toward issues of class, gender, race, and nation.

Social relations are always shifting and embedded in much broader and more complex cultural conflicts that are historical in scope, and thus the racialization of ethnic Mexicans in the United States is inseparable from the U.S.-Mexico border as a concrete physical site (of crossing and inspection) that in turn operates as an (invented) allegorical social divide in the U.S. American imagination that renders ethnic Mexicans “policeable subjects,” to quote my colleague Gilberto Rosas (2006). This critical and ethnographically grounded integration of geographic/physical and cultural/conceptual perspectives is what Robert R. Alvarez Jr. (1995) termed an “anthropology of borderlands.”

Now, returning to your question, the indignant policing of migrant bodies in everyday moments is indicative of the enduring cultural and racializing logics that restrict Mexican migrant life across the continental United States, of the ways the boundaries of the United States are intensely present in informal managements at the level of the everyday. And so, given this complex understanding of the border, part of my work attempts to understand how expressive forms speak to/relate to/grate against the structures in which they are positioned—in the case of the book, how they sound out, how the spaces convened by and through huapango arribeño performance emerge as politicized moments of congregation amid the vulnerabilities of migrant life.

William Cotter: In the book, you discuss the economic, social, and political conditions under which huapango arribeño emerged, as well as those conditions that facilitated its crossing into the United States. Can you tell us about what some of those specific economic or political conditions are?

Alex E. Chávez: I’ll start big again and tie my response to your previous question. The deepening political-economic relationship between Mexico and the United States throughout the twentieth century has only further inscribed the imagined social differences described above. Here, I refer specifically to transnational migration in the devastating wake of the Mexican Revolution; U.S. labor demands extending through World War II and the Cold War era, contractually managed through the Bracero Program (1942–1964); the era of structural adjustment in the 1980s alongside an imagined moral panic surrounding undocumented migration that resulted in heightened border militarization; the dissolution of both protectionism with regard to domestic industry and the foundations of agrarian reform law in Mexico in the 1980s; and, finally, the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a decade later. Let me pause here.

The book begins in the 1970s, though it necessarily attends to a cursory history of huapango arribeño before that time— more as a point of reference than as a matter of focused inquiry. Seminal years considered along the way include 1982, which marks the beginning of the Mexican debt crisis; 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in the United States; 1994, the year of the ratification of NAFTA (the trilateral trade deal among Canada, Mexico, and the United States, which  has been one of the largest and most lucrative in recent history), in addition to a groundswell of heightened U.S.- Mexico border militarization and anti- immigrant laws across the United States; 2001, which brought the events of September 11 and the ensuing conflation of the issues of terrorism, border enforcement, and undocumented migration; and 2006,  when massive mobilizations occurred throughout the United States in support of migrant rights. NAFTA, perhaps, looms largest as a matter of economic policy with respect to apprehending intensified levels of migration from Mexico to the United States in the 1990s and into the 2000s. The crucial piece in this equation in Mexico, however, came three years earlier, in 1991, when President Salinas de Gortari rewrote agrarian reform law, ostensibly doing away with article 27 of the Mexican Constitution and bringing an end to ejido land policy (which also included subsidies, price protections, and access to basic agricultural resources), thus making it easier for portions of low- producing lands to be used for large-scale commercial agriculture. Because of this, combined with NAFTA provisions that allowed for imports of subsidized agricultural products from the United States, especially corn, it is no surprise that a Public Citizen report (2015) stated that the number of undocumented migrants in the United States increased 185 percent since NAFTA’s signing (3.9 million in 1992 to 11.1 million in 2011).

In response to the increase of Mexican migration, a number of state-level and national laws were implemented, particularly disciplinary policy measures aimed at border enforcement, which were guided by the twin strategies of territorial denial and prevention through deterrence. These include: Operation Hold- the- Line in El Paso, Texas (1993), Operation Gatekeeper in the San Diego area (1994), Operation Safeguard in central Arizona (1995), and Operation Rio Grande in South Texas (1997). The lives of the migrants that populate my book all unfolded amid these extreme circumstances.

William Cotter: One aspect of your book that I was struck by was the depth and complexity your analysis of huapango arribeño from a musical perspective. Throughout the book, you provide the reader with musical transcriptions, lyrics, and discussions of changes in musical key or structure throughout performances. I know that you’re also a musician and composer, what do you feel your own personal perspective and experience performing and composing music adds to your analysis of the sounds of crossing that you discuss?

Alex E. Chávez: As a researcher, artist, and participant, I have consistently crossed the boundary between scholar and performer in the realms of academic research and publicly engaged work as a musician and producer. These experiences have shaped the politics of my intellectual and creative work, particularly how I’ve engaged both to theorize around the political efficacy of sound-based practices, the voice, and certain disciplinary futures. Having said this, in the depths of ethnographic research around this project I was uniquely positioned to both observe huapango arribeño—with a critical eye toward the musical, poetic, and sonic resources brought to bear in managing performance—and to perform the music myself. In fact, I came to this project first as a musician—eager to learn. And part of my process involved engaging in what ethnomusicologists refer to as bi-musicality, that is, actively performing the music being studied. This has been a critical research methodology in ethnomusicology since the days of Mantle Hood in the 1960s—he actually coined the term. He described this notion as learning music from the inside, which is of importance in apprehending not only rudimentary skills and technical know-how, but also—and perhaps most importantly—in understanding how music participates in forming and sustaining all manner of bonds of sociability, identity-based or otherwise. As a scholar of language, music, and sound, I am ultimately interested in tracing the meanings generated by vernacular performativity, or the aesthetic in social life. In the case of huapango arribeño and Sounds of Crossing, my positionality as an artist certainly shaped both my analysis and level of access.

William Cotter: A final aspect of the book that I found particularly powerful was that although you make continual connections throughout the book to enduring realities of violence against Mexican migrants in the United States, the book also offers what feels like a response to the present state of U.S. politics in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In the epilogue, you call for a critical aurality, and an ‘urgent listening to the whole of America’. Can you talk about what you feel a critical aurality provides us, or what kinds of spaces those forms of voicing or listening may make possible?

Alex E. Chávez: A critical aurality, which I call for at the end of the book, is both a social and intellectual intervention, for it calls out broader inequalities that need to be confronted so that we may live in a more just society, while also drawing attention to how those same disparities and injustices are reproduced within the academy. In the end, the book is an exploration of the contemporary politics of Mexican migrant cultural expression manifest in the sounds and poetics of huapango arribeño. That context, however, is one that we all live in, that we are implicated in, that we all have a responsibility of standing up to, and part of that involves, as I say in the book, “an always urgent listening to the whole of America and voicing its story amid the deafening swell of a lethal white supremacy . . . We [must] listen past the chorus of “U.S.A.” and the harmony it presumes—which is braced by a chauvinistic exceptionalism that has no room for others—and lend an ear to the multitude of voices whose experiences rest at the tensive center of the verses of the American story.” That deafening chant is the same that wants to “Make America Great Again” or “Build the Wall!” And so we return to where we began this conversation, to the bordering that takes place in this country—at the levels of race, citizenship, class, gender, and so on—and the loud embodied counterveiling and self-valorizing voices (of women, Dreamers, Black lives, and children taking to the streets, for instance) who are sounding out self-determining positive projects of self-constitution and creative affirmation.

Sounds of Crossing calls attention to the embodied dimensions of performance in contexts where migrant bodies are subject to various forms of structural and cultural violence. Following these sounds is to trace how this community’s own chosen form of expression is projected out as a way of binding lives and geographies across the dense, lingering, and knotted dissonance of class, race, politics, and transnational mobility as key dimensions of the Mexican migrant experience. And so we may ask: as emergent communicative modalities, what politics of visibility, belonging, and incorrigibility do these voices acquire vis-a-vis competing/dominant/national representations of migrant personhood? In pursuit of this question over the years, my research has extended beyond the academy and into adjacent forums of publicly engaged scholarship, cultural advocacy, performance, and work with high profile institutions like Smithsonian Folkways. In my work, I continue to draw on these experiences to consider the ways Latinas/os/xs are challenged to engage and reorganize the ways that they identify as residents of the United States, transforming their soundings as aesthetic sites of democratic citizenship along the way.