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.

Reflections on a Community of the Heart: Ethnographer and the people of Juchitan, Oaxaca

by Anya Royce

Bido’ xhu—Earthquakes

On September 8, 2017, a Thursday evening, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast of Chiapas and Oaxaca.  It was the strongest on record since 1932, almost one hundred years ago.  Of all the towns in Oaxaca, Juchitán de Zaragoza, the second largest city in the state, suffered the most devastation. I could not communicate with my family for almost two days.  The city had no electricity, no services at all. I finally succeeded in messaging a niece in Oaxaca City and found that my family was safe though the three extended families were all now living in the one part of the house that seemed sound.

60% of the homes and public buildings were damaged, most rendered uninhabitable.  Many families chose to move into the street in case of further tremors.  After the second 6.1 quake, my family went to stay with friends whose house had escaped almost intact. Many private and public buildings have been razed or are scheduled for demolition.  These include some of the oldest and most cherished buildings—the Escuela Central Juchitán, the first large secondary school in the city, brought by the efforts of local hero General Heliodoro Charis Castro; the Capilla Guzebenda (Chapel of the Fishermen) a landmark beloved by the inhabitants of the 7th section; the Charis home; the list goes on as inspectors go around the city, surveying and filling out forms, weighing the value as opposed to the cost of reconstruction.  Spared and marked for restoration, thanks to the experts from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, are the parish church of San Vicente, the Casa de la Cultura, and perhaps the Palacio Municipal. Juchiteco architect Elvis Guerra has begun a project that would rebuild or build new structures that are traditional, that are in harmony with the landscape and traditions of the Isthmus Zapotec.  He has asked for my help by letting him use photographs of homes, building, and parks that I have taken in Juchitán since 1968.

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Magnus Pharao Hansen’s “Nahuatl Nation: Language Revitalization and Indigenous Resurgence in 21st Century Mexico”

Page 99 of my dissertation “Nahuatl Nation” does present a key aspect of the argument, namely the proposition that the Mexican state has a specific interest in playing a key role in the revitalization of its indigenous languages. By centralizing the responsibility for language maintenance and development within the state, the state is able to legitimize itself as a legitimate proprietor of indigenous semiotic resources, which it in turn uses to brand the Mexican Nation within the international market economy. The page however is not representative of the dissertation as a whole because it doesn’t include the central piece of the argument. The main argument is that indigenous languages, such as the Nahuatl language that is the focus of the dissertation, are important to their speakers, not only for the way that they enable speakers to inhabit the “indigenous slot”, or insert themselves into the Mexican national narrative. I argue that indigenous languages are primarily meaningful to their speakers and speech communities because they play a significant role in the subjective, intersubjective and social lives of speakers and in the way local indigenous communities cohere and conceptualize themselves as distinct from the national community. Page 99 and the rest of the chapter that it is a part of presents a semiotic and political critique of the current cultural politics of the Mexican Nation state and its engagements with indigenous languages. The rest of the dissertation uses historical, linguistic and ethnographic evidence to show why local revitalization projects can fulfill important social functions in the communities where they take place. This includes using the language as a medium with which to form local counter publics and shape local political movements, or as an instrument with which to attain local political goals through the strategic use of the currently popular discourses of indigeneity, language endangerment and cultural heritage management.

Pharao Hansen, Magnus. 2016. “Nahuatl Nation: Language Revitalization and Indigenous Resurgence in 21st Century Mexico.” PhD dissertation, Brown University.

Magnus Pharao Hansen
Magnus Pharao Hansen
Nahuatl Studies Blog