Alana Mazur: One of the main themes running through your book is Indigenous audiovisual media and mediatized politics. You provide an in-depth and nuanced analysis of the role of videography in connecting the Ayuujk hometown community in Tamazulapam and satellite communities in Mexico and in the United States. Could you please situate the focus and the main arguments of your research?
Ingrid Kummels: The protagonists of my book who live in Tamazulapam, Oaxaca, and Los Angeles, California, may be characterized as pioneers of media practices battling remoteness. When I set out to do my research in 2012, my intent was to explore the local media histories shaped by the Ayuujk people of the Mixe Region in Oaxaca, Mexico, and give them greater visibility. I had become aware of their autonomous endeavors concerning photography, radio, TV, and video adapted to their own language and “ways of seeing” (Berger) when in 1993 (together with Manfred Schäfer) I filmed what was perhaps the first local TV station (TV Tamix) set up autonomously in a Mexican Indigenous village, precisely in Tamazulapam del Espíritu Santo. Before that, individual villagers had engaged in sophisticated single-lens photography and radio broadcasting, which they adapted to community needs. This motivated me to revisit Tamazulapam almost 20 years later, in 2012, and update these developments from the perspective of media anthropology. But when I returned to Tama (as the village is nicknamed), I realized how pervasive migration for higher education and job opportunities had become—mainly to the United States because of the possibility of earning up to ten times more than in Mexico. At the same time, this entails immobilization since migrants are forced to cross the border without authorization. b—and above all fiestas, large community celebrations in honor of the patron saint.
When observing and talking about village media practices it became obvious that culturally specific genres had been created such as fiesta, family rite-of-passage, and officeholder videos; these had not received much scholarly attention since they are at the intersection of politics, entertainment, and culture. Means of communications had been harnessed to facilitate community life and communal values even from afar, ranging from interpersonal cell phone calls to a veritable transnational video industry whose offerings included series of ten fiesta DVDs, which were ubiquitous not only at local markets, but also in Oaxaca City and in U.S. cities like Los Angeles. Ayuujk people had set up their own infrastructure and used mass media for practicing community politics. Migrants living in Los Angeles invested in their production in order to participate in the home village’s modernization, receive recognition as village members, and serve as political officials in the hometown. These media activities therefore contribute to political ideas about Indigenous autonomy, which is called Comunalidad in Oaxaca. Here it is important to emphasize how these practices challenge the way that Indigeneity has been constructed “from above” and as an antithesis to the modernity that media (often equated solely with mass media) allegedly embody. On the other hand, the use of media and the innovations devised by Indigenous peoples that combine storytelling, crafts, music and dance with analog and digital mass media often are not recognized as self-determined, cutting-edge developments. Nevertheless, these innovations have been achieved despite extremely adverse media structures in Mexico, where private mega media conglomerates dominate radio and TV, while alternative media are pushed into informality, against a “visual divide.”
Here is where the concept of media spaces comes in. Indigenous media makers open such spaces in multiple inventive ways when overcoming the uneven access to mass media due to racialized inequality, which is inscribed not only in the representations of Indigenous peoples but also in the contexts in which they received media training and engaged as practitioners. These are spaces that actors have been able to extend in terms of geography, practice, and imagination. Setting up their own media infrastructure, appropriating media knowledge and technology according to “one’s own” standards of professionalism, and managing transnational diffusion and marketing all form part of this endeavor.
Alana Mazur: In the introduction you mention that your ethnographic research was multi-sited and the fieldwork was conducted in Tama and Los Angeles between 2012 and 2016. What motivated you to pursue this ethnographic participatory research with Indigenous media makers in Mexico? How was this experience like for you?
Ingrid Kummels: I am a practitioner of media myself and after studying anthropology I started working as a professional filmmaker making documentaries for German TV. So, I know what it’s like to engage in filming, interact with people while doing it, and critically reflect on this work and issues of representation. I like to exchange ideas with people who have had similar experiences. To give an example: When I first met a fiesta filmmaker, I was fascinated to see that he had installed his entire store and production unit with editing equipment in his pickup: along with his son, he not only edited the films on DVD discs overnight, but also printed covers so that the next morning they could start selling DVDs to visitors during the five-day patron saint celebrations. He readily told me about arguments that can arise when “illicit” dance pairs were spotted on village videos; they had to do with transnational marriage and family life. The recording of sacred places and rituals that normally are not allowed to be viewed was considered an audiovisual transgression related to the special value attached to place and being on-site in times of deterritorialization. Women face particular challenges as both mediamakers and comuneras. These self-determined media activities therefore paved the way for negotiating novel visions of community life, gender, and Indigeneity in the twenty-first century. (See my portrayal of their work in “Ayuujk Cameras,” https://vimeo.com/293855233.)
Following these itinerant merchants during the month of May 2013 meant getting to know how they cultivate networks and forge alliances in many villages of the Sierra Mixe and beyond; some have more to do with commercial circuits, others with political solidarity. Mediamakers
are well informed on the different situations and aesthetic tastes of specific village audiences in their respective transnational outreach. As a result of specific migratory pathways taken, community celebrations in the home villages are pervaded by forms of transnational reciprocity. To compensate for their absence and their lack of participation in the village’s governance system called Usos y costumbres, migrants contribute with financial donations to hometown fiestas. Their sponsorships are announced publicly and above all documented in fiesta videos, which a transnational audience witnesses. These viewers participating from a distance are constantly in the mind of videographers and influence their choice of motifs, scenes, and camera settings. I moved along these networks, since mediamakers would orient me and introduce me to their colleagues and advisors. It was often through these contacts that I got to know a village for the first time, so I was immediately immersed in mediamaking there. On the spur of the moment, I would be invited to an event they were covering. While this work was delightful, I also learned about their strict professional discipline and soon was very conscious that there are no simple onlookers at a fiesta: community members have a moral obligation to participate which includes its sacralized dimension. So, in many ways, recording a fiesta is a solemn affair based on these same moral obligations.
Alana Mazur: The book provides a captivating analysis of the sociopolitical dynamics that involve diasporic movements among the Tama inhabitants across the Mexico-US border. Along the chapters, you elucidate, for instance, how remittances sent by migrant villagers to their families and “unpolitical fiesta videos” ostensibly sustain vibrant connections between the local “comunitario” and the growing “transnational village” (p.35). Through mediatization, as you conceptualize it, videographers both capture and create myriad of “media spaces” (p.391).
In this vein, could you provide a brief overview of these concepts and the processes they entail? What implications does the diffusion of Tama mediamakers’ work have on the Ayuujk ja’ay community members’ social life? Following on from that, how does Ayuujk videography constitute itself as “self-determined media,” as you suggest in the introduction (p.400)?
Ingrid Kummels:In short, transnationalism as a single field of social relations between two or more nation states due to the regular flow of people, commodities, money, and ideas across the borders is communalized by Ayuujk people. Migration, even in the many cases in which it is motivated by individual, personal interests, becomes at some stage a communal joint venture—in the more literal sense. Transnationalism scholarship has looked into the communal logics on which migration is based, but has often emphasized material, financial transfers. Nevertheless, transnational community building depends on the desire, the urge to be involved with a community. This is where self-determined media come into the picture.
As I examined the scholarship, I became aware of how transnationalism forgoes a perspective on media. On the other hand, media anthropology tended to view Video Indígena within the national container of Mexico. But in fact, the political Indigenous movement and the use of media to overcome distance in the transnational context, which includes connecting with the cross-border community in an entertaining way, are interrelated. The focus of my research is situating media use both within the contested field of Indigeneity as well as identifying it as an indispensable glue of transnationalism. There is nothing natural or matter-of-fact about maintaining a connection with one’s community of origin. In the case of Tama, reliance on self-developed media practices is key to new social arrangements between the hometown and the satellite communities that allow them to continue their communal way of life despite the restrictive border. These arrangements systematically integrate the migrating population. Many individuals participate in this endeavor due to a communal spirit. So, it is important to explore these communitarian values, Comunalidad or simply “lo communal,” as most people refer to it. It upholds the logic of owing service to a community, which at the same time is a sacralized entity worshiped in the patron saint. All of this is reflected in fiesta films and is understood by people with similar experiences who are socialized in this “way of seeing.”
Self-determined media practices are key for the creation of community connected to similar values. The hometown is one of its main motifs, since the future aspired to is projected onto this special place. Videographers are comuneros and comuneras, that is, they perform duties that influence their media practices and products. Despite being merchants and commercializing DVDs in a transnational outreach, they must also conduct themselves in a way that accommodates the values of community life (for example, not charging too much and paying the community a fee for filming); it is expected that their work portray those communal values. Moreover, they themselves have to invest in the community when needed. On the whole, they are an essential part of the transnational communal tissue.
Grace East: Your book takes us on an immersive journey through the complex and varied social worlds of Lachixío, where we are invited to see how meaning, relationships, and material objects are co-constructed through linguistic and multimodal pursuits among users of Zapotec. What do you see as the book’s central argument or message?
Mark Sicoli: Thank you for your close interaction with this work and for your thoughtful questions. Before starting this book, I had lived in two Zapotec villages that contrasted by language use. In one, the Zapotec language was in the memory of a few elders. In the other, Zapotec-language conversations coordinated everyday life. From the one case a language could be imagined to be an individual’s knowledge, but from the other it was irreducibly something the people built together. So, when I began this project, I wanted to develop an ethnography of a language where the language’s people and what they made together told the story. This is seen in part through the book’s illustrations and transcriptions depicting daily life interactions, images and tracings of video frames, as well as access to videos for each chapter, and in part through the participatory methodologies that brought it to being. Rather than see this project as bringing together linguistic and multimodal pursuits in a juxtaposition, I aimed to exemplify a multimodal linguistics, engaging with a scale of life emergent when participants come together in the joint commitments of interaction. The focus on joint actions sets language in relations of mutual aid. In this perspective, rather than an autonomous system, any language is inherently incomplete in an evolved openness to the participation of the people and artifacts collaborating in its uses. I work with the concept of resonance to build an understanding of mutual relations built across semiotic modalities, between participants, and through iterations of action-forms across events.
Grace East: At its core, this book seems to work to answer the big question of how humans get things done together. We see variable ways in which co-creation and joint action occur, primarily from the creation and negotiation of social relationships through offers, recruitments, repairs, and resonances. Yet you make an important shift toward the second half of the book and address the ways in which joint actions leave imprints in the material world. What was your goal in drawing parallels between often abstract and intersubjective actions and those that leave material residues?
Mark Sicoli: This is in part to show that there is a certain materiality to relations we’ve conventionally come to view as abstract. For the language of joint actions this is a materiality built between local memory and future obligation and through which future obligation becomes local memory (like semiosis more generally). The book illustrates emergent orders of joint actions in which language participates, and exemplifies the affordances of Lachixío Zapotec for their achievement. While the joint actions considered are generic universals of social life (as in the chapter titles), the resources by which they are achieved are local and particular. A pair of chapters focuses on how offers and recruitments are joint actions through which people build social relationships. A second pair of chapters titled repair and resonate work with an emergent order in which human intersubjectivity is made possible by relationships built through offers and recruitments. Both critique a Cartesian concept of mind prevalent in cognitive and social science that locates mind and language within individuals and their productions. The intersubjectivity building practice of conversational repair is shown to be a way that conversations think in a minded process emergent between participants. Dialogic resonance is shown to be an inter-individual syntactic order that presents an exponentially richer stimulus for language learning and analysis than the order of the sentence. The shift you mention comes with the chapter Build which projects another emergent order from these two, one where offers and recruitments, and sequences of repair and resonance building track through multimodal interactions where participants together build material artifacts that bear traces of their dialogic history. These emergent relationships are also involved in the building of languages which similarly preexist an interaction as guiding potential and are transformed across the actual moments of their dialogic co-creation. This argument is further developed as the last chapter, Living Assemblages.
Grace East: Participatory methods and collaboration seem to be the backbone of your methodology in this book (and the fifty-hour video corpus is really an amazing testament to that!) It’s such a wonderful example for newer ethnographers to model in their own project designs with community members centered as partners and collaborators. How did taking a community centered approach to research and your own long-term relationships in Lachixío shape the book? How are participatory methods a part of your overall ethical practice?
Mark Sicoli: As a book about participation in joint actions, it was important that it be made through participatory engagements. My partners chose scenes and daily life activities to film, operated cameras, and participated in locally-situated conversations about language as social action. One method we developed used video playback as a common object for focused conversations. Though what we achieved is to some degrees aspirational for participatory action research, we developed a community-engaged language documentation focused on how a language also participates in human collaborations. The beginnings of this project for me were in choosing to apply a Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics field manual task for building a multimodal corpus at my fieldsite where I had worked already for 10 years mainly focused on oral-aural modalities. I wanted to think about this task with my collaborators in Lachixío to produce a more auto-documentary corpus and extend participation to analysis. Our playback dialog method was developed to counter a tendency for extractive practice that takes materials collected with Indigenous communities to institutional settings where they are analyzed in the absence of the research subjects. Inspired by a continuum of ethnomethodological practices known at the one pole as Video Watching, where iterated collaborative viewings of untranscribed videos interactionally generate ideas for analysis, and at the other pole as Data Sessions, where the objects of joint focus also include a transcript analysis, we resituated these practices in Lachixío. The book was shaped and reshaped in the process. This last year I have been working to publish a Spanish translation of the book and have shared drafts in Lachixío, and with Indigenous and Latin American graduate students and scholars. I’m grateful to see the translation aiding a Zapotec graduate student researching everyday collaborations in kitchens and another incorporating playback dialog methods into research on Zapotec weddings.
Grace East:One of the most exciting aspects of the text for me was how you work to uncloak the mystery of how large-scale dynamics originate at smaller interpersonal scales. In the final chapter, you highlight “the place of language in collaborative world-building projects achieved through complex assemblages that connect human and nonhuman participants into living webs of causality” (207). What was the importance for you to portray the origins and outcomes of joint actions in this way? More broadly, where do you see ripple effects and resonances emerging from the minutiae of everyday interaction in other settings?
Mark Sicoli: I like your metaphor of uncloaking how action at one scale of social life affects others. Why do such connections between everyday interpersonal dynamics and the emergence and reproduction of large-scale institutions seem shrouded from attention? More scholars have focused on how large-scale social dynamics limit individual action than have engaged the question of how locally situated and everyday recurrent turns and responses build both the systems’ reproduction and possibilities for their transformation. A question in the background of the book is how can people imagine and achieve another future when there’s been a history of joint commitments to something that’s turning out badly. The first chapter begins with a translation of a dialog that initiates an intervention to reject and establish a need to reimagine an ongoing collaboration. This will require the assent and aid of the other women and men of the work detail who are already committed to the way things are going (badly). The form of the turkey corral they were building ultimately came to show material signs of the dialogic transformations that took place between them, which we examine in a later chapter. We track these transformations through multimodal assemblages that proffered moments ripe for participants to pursue another way. But because prior joint commitments to the current state of the project and to each other tilted the scale to its reproduction, the collective rejection of the ongoing collaboration only took place when its momentum was disrupted, creating space and time for the interactional work needed to unwind the tangle of prior commitments. Examples like this run throughout the book and include repairing a ritual where an overly-generous wedding gift motivated the interruption of the gift procession to resolve the social implications of the offer, a daughter introducing multiple lines of action across modalities that simultaneously complied with and rejected a gendered recruitment for water at the dinner table, the many examples of conversational repair, and the work of dialogic resonance which can transform as it replicates. When considering the wholes of world-building, these component joint actions emerge as answers to questions of how worlds are shored up and how they may be transformed. We know that at any given moment of discourse there is a world of limited possibilities. How do people rupture the membrane of limited choice presented from prior discourse to build a different world, whether that be embodied in the next conversational move, a home for a family’s turkeys, the work of reversing a language shift in process, or repairing our relations and obligations to a living ecology?
Grace East:Throughout the book, you model for us what a new kind of linguistic anthropological ethnography looks like, in which language is examined as just one piece of a “multimodal ecology.” In fact, you explain that any linguistic analysis is incomplete without attention paid to the purpose-laden environment, participant assemblages, and co-occurring semiotic dimensions in which meaning is created. What do you see as the possible future(s) of the discipline through this lens and what advice would you give to aspiring ethnographers who hope to engage with such a capacious view of language and human interaction?
Mark Sicoli: Our intellectual ancestors have taught us that the boundaries of languages and disciplines are ideological, which is in part to say that what we see as pattern at one scale is creatively connected through semiotic processes to others. Where some disciplinary perspectives produce knowledge through reductionistic decontextualization, anthropological approaches to linguistics have distinguished themselves for their rather serious attention to context. But too often appeals to context are vague and mere varieties of add-ons for what is already predefined as language (often as “text”). Context as a term may be used in one breath to refer to asymmetrical power relations between participants and in another to historical era, social setting, functional purpose, or the existence of prior talk. A turn to multimodality may at first seem capacious but actually the whole of a multimodal assemblage in which we find the language of joint actions is smaller than what is often ideologically imagined for a Language. Success stories of Indigenous language revitalization through task-based learning in actual collaborations rather than by the goals and settings of traditional-grammar study makes this point well. One move for aspiring ethnographers turning to multimodality is to recognize context as one of those weak nouns that can make the very object of study disappear before our eyes. Multimodality forces us to go beyond context to the intersectional dimensions between modes of semiosis and the affordances of participants and participating objects to relate to each other and to possible futures. For me this shifted the focus to the multimodal resonances that animate living assemblages, which I show in the last chapter is related to concerns of biosemiotics, the Batesonian field becoming known for asking questions that dissolve the institutional divide between the sciences and humanities. Here I’ll point to the resonant history of anthropology where it has included concerns to integrate subfield perspectives as one way that anthropology has offered, and sometimes tended to lose, its achievements to the wider academy. In some ways though these academic developments are just catching up with Indigenous epistemologies. Perhaps an important future for anthropology is in the question of what can emerge in an ethical interrelationship of the three.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I am turning your question around because I have had two professions each of which I have loved greatly; the first of which, classical dance, has been instrumental in what I have done in the second, anthropology.
At the age of seven, I began taking ballet classes. It was a neighborhood studio but the owner/teacher had had good training, a combination of Danish (Bournonville) and the American version of Fokine. She was strict and the yearly recitals demanded a command of the technique as well as interpretation. My last year of elementary school, I began commuting to the San Francisco Ballet school in the city—a bus to the F train at the top of the Alameda, the train to SF, a bus to the ballet school for a 90-minute class, then the reverse, doing homework on the way. By high school, I was taking 5 classes a week, taught by dancers who were trained by those Russian dancers of the Diaghilev company who came to the US as teachers after the great impresario died. It was thrilling! The demand for mastery built a confidence that was empowering, never mind the chance to be a lady-in-waiting in the annual Nutcracker on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House.
Then came a pause. I had been given a full scholarship to Stanford. Ballet was still my passion but trying to do both, I decided to go to school and continue my classes at SF Ballet. For that year, I commuted to San Francisco, bicycling to the Palo Alto bus station—bus to SF then another bus to the school. At the end of the academic year, I realized I could not continue this way. My Stanford Russian instructor had Russian friends and family in New York, and I was able to rent a room in the apartment of the Makedonovs. I went to NYC with one suitcase, $400, and their address. For the next three and a half years, I lived with them, took classes at the School of American Ballet and Ballets Russes, danced with the Brooklyn Ballet and for a year with the Deutsche Operetten Teatr, and lived on the upper West Side where I spoke Russian at home and Spanish on the streets. Money was always an issue. We were paid by the performance by Brooklyn Ballet and in good times, like the Nutcracker season which also had the opera’s Hansel and Gretel, I could pay the rent and feed myself. I had odd jobs otherwise; the best was processing checks at First National City Bank on the midnight to 8 shift during my last NY year.
In my time in NYC, I was a regular in the standing room line at the Met for opera, dance, symphonies on those nights when I did not have a performance myself. My access to the best of opera was made easier because opera was a staple at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and we were always hired for the dance interludes. That experience took my naïve love of opera and gave it a more knowledgeable base. I shared the BAM stage with the likes of Zinka Milanov and Robert Merrill in a memorable Aida. I met artists and impresarios like Marcel Marceau, Sol Hurok, Igor Moiseyev, Jose Greco and his dancers, Ludmilla Schollar, Anatol Vilzak, Sviastoslav Richter at Carnegie Hall for his first US recital, dancers from the Kirov Ballet whose first US performance overlapped with my time in NYC—I was one of the interpreters during their stay and got to take company class with them. Many of these artists became friends and mentors. And much of what I have written about the arts, especially those performance arts, comes from watching their performances and classes and listening to them, especially when we talked about what created those performances that lifted up both performer and audience.
I left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and started teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to SI left New York for San Francisco where I was a principal dancer with the San Francisco Russian Opera and Ballet Company and teaching at the Temoff School. As is so often the case, I was injured during a rehearsal. My last performance was as Zobeide in the Fokine ballet Scheherezade. I decided to return to Stanford to finish my BA. I no longer had a scholarship, but I funded myself by teaching classes at the Temoff School in San Francisco, this time making the trips in my second-hand Volkswagen beetle. I planned to major in Comparative Literature because I had accumulated five languages. Then I took an introductory Social Anthropology class with George Spindler, one of the founders of the subfield of Anthropology and Education. He was a mesmerizing lecturer and I found the notion of listening to rather than reading about compelling. I became an Anthropology major with an outside major, Honors in Humanities. Luckily for me, the Ford Foundation had a program to fund undergraduate research over the summer. It had to be in Latin America but all topics were open. I applied to look at folk and indigenous dance in Mexico, the first month to be working with the Ballet Folclórico de Amalia Hernandez and the remainder of the summer to look at dance in Oaxaca and in Veracruz. I spent the first 3 weeks in classes and rehearsals with the Ballet Folclórico learning the repertory and the rationale for the choices of dance cultures and their restaging. The next months I traveled to Oaxaca for the annual festival of dance just outside of Oaxaca City and then to the coast of Veracruz to document dance. And that was the beginning of my work in Juchitán, Oaxaca, now in its 6th decade. I began that work first in the summer of 1968. My husband, Ronald Royce, and I were married just weeks before leaving for Mexico. Our combined fellowships allowed for few luxuries so we drove in my by-now well-broken-in Volkswagen. Ron’s grant was to investigate the state of social science research in Mexico; this was the summer of protests and strikes everywhere, much of it directed at universities, so we went to Juchitán planning a two-week stay. The car broke down on our way out of the city and was not ready to travel for another month. Despite all the unforeseen difficulties, we returned to our PhD programs determined to work in Juchitán. We spent our first full year there in 1971-72. Ron was a linguistic anthropologist working on the Isthmus Zapotec language and a brilliant photographer. I was looking at indigenous identities and the social and political strategies that supported a strong Zapotec community. Our partnership, our different projects, our different ways of seeing and listening, of being able to talk about what we saw and what it meant made us more productive—more field notes, maps, photos, questions, as well as helping us see more connections and through-lines; that second level of understanding and interpreting. Being there as a couple established us as more settled and responsible with different obligations and prerogatives. More than all those things, it was comforting to share the joys and heartaches of fieldwork.
Coming to Indiana University, I was able to satisfy my need for the performing arts as well as finding a wealth of support for my Mexico work. While based in the Anthropology department, I was invited to teach advanced technique and classical variations in the School of Music Ballet Department. More recently I have been a guest lecturer in the History of Ballet class. I was for many years the dance reviewer for the Herald-Times. The existence of great teacher-performers on the cello faculty allowed me to satisfy both a personal desire and a scholarly interest. I enrolled in cello classes with Helga Winold for three years and learned from the extended cello faculty, attending master classes and performances and informal gatherings. On some occasions, I was invited to play 2nd cello in an IU performance. In 1986, I collaborated with Thomas Binkley of Early Music, he as musical director and I as historical director for the Teatro Antico and Early Music Institute production of L’Amfiparnaso, by Orazio Vecchi (1550–1605), performed at the Creative Arts Auditorium, Indiana University. I was charged with reinventing the commedia dell’arte interludes.
In 2008, I began what has become an ongoing commitment to both teaching and research in Ireland. It was in that year that I was invited to be part of a small group at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick. Our task was to plan the next ten years of the Academy programs. In 2010 I was appointed an External Examiner in the MA Choreology program and in 2014 began working with the PhD students in the Arts Practice program. It has been an extraordinary time working with performance and performers as they situate their craft in cultural and historical contexts. With that as a base and my work on landscapes of transformation in Oaxaca, I was invited in 2015 to become a member of the UL LANDscape research group.
I am continuing to work in Oaxaca. A collaborative grant with colleagues in Juchitán will make 3D maps of the three most rural sections of the city, those that go from the settled to the wild. We will also be making 3D story maps of places in those sections that are important to the communities. For the last two years, I have been photographing the three sections. In addition, I am working on a book about ritual and especially pilgrimage in Juchitán. The latter map onto the work with the rural sections since at least three of the oldest pilgrimages originate in those sections.
What’s the story behind the publication of your first book?
Prestigio y Afiliación en una Comunidad Urbana: Juchitán, Oaxaca was first published in 1974, Translated by Carlos Guerrero. Serie de Antropología Social 37. México, D.F.: Instituto Nacional Indigenista/Secretaría de Educación Pública.
INI published a series of works on indigenous peoples and, at their request, mine was translated and published in that series. It has been republished twice, once in 1990 and then in 2016. The 2016 publication was part of a series of the 25 most important books on indigenous communities. Copies were given free to the young people in Juchitán. It has been used as a text in the Juchitán secondary schools. Any royalties go back to INI and now to the new publishers, the 2016 one located in the city of Juchitán and glad to have the income to work on projects for the community.
The book, based on my dissertation, focuses on the social, cultural, and political structures and networks in this indigenous Isthmus Zapotec community. I discuss how these shape relationships and prestige and support communal responses to change at both the local and national levels. It is the first book to address matters of tradition and change in this community. While still in the field in 1972, I had given lectures about my work to great interest on the part of the community. When I was approached by INI about a Spanish publication, I replied with an enthusiastic yes, realizing that this was an excellent way to continue the dialogue that I had begun in Juchitán. The book has not been published in English though much of its substance has been published in English in articles and chapters. As a book, it did not count toward my academic career because it was not in English. Works like mine, however, based on such a close and longterm engagement with the community, need to be available to that community and to my Mexican colleagues. I publish as much as I can in Spanish so that it is available to both. My longterm work was recognized in 2016 with the awarding of the Medalla Binniza (Medal of the Zapotec People), given by the Fundación Histórico Cultural Juchitán for distinguished scholarly contributions to the Isthmus Zapotec. It was the first time it was awarded to a non-Mexican.
What moment of fieldwork interaction do you still think about, amazed that you got to witness it?
March 23, 1997, Palm Sunday in Juchitán (my 25th year of fieldwork in Juchitán)
I was not usually in Juchitán during Holy Week so this was a chance to see the week-long celebrations from the beginning. On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the image of San Salvador is taken from his home in the parish church of San Vicente to the home of one of the members of the community that cares for him near the Panteón Domingo de Ramos (cemetery Palm Sunday). He is received and feted with garlands of flowers, and then spends the night. The next morning he is taken to the chapel in the cemetery where he oversees the blessing of the palms. Then he is carried in a procession back to the San Vicente parish church. I had seen the Saturday preparations and had returned with Na Mavis, an aunt, to the cemetery to arrange the flowers in the family tomb and to stop by the chapel for the blessing of the palms and the beginning of the procession. We then went quickly to San Vicente to await its arrival. The following are my field notes on that arrival:
Palm Sunday 1997…the sky is electric blue, cloudless on this early morning. I was in the courtyard of San Vicente Ferrer, the parish church, just having returned from the cemetery where I helped the family arrange the armloads of flowers necessary for this day of remembrance. I waited for the arrival of the Palm Sunday procession, winding its way through the streets after distributing palms to all participants at the small chapel of the cemetery. I could hear them now, voices raised in those joyous songs welcoming Christ the King to Jerusalem. The higher-pitched voices of children rise above with cries of “Vivo Cristo Rey.” Thechurch behind me is filled with flowers, white gladiolas, dozens of them, jasmine and frangipani scattered at the feet of all the saints. The fragrance swells with the heat of fat, beeswax candles. All is ready and the crowd is dancing with anticipation. A scout returns, “They are just turning the corner!” Then, as if my ears deceive me, I hear the low, elongated notes of funeral sones. Jesús Urbieta, one of a cadre of talented young painters who died in Mexico City two days earlier, is being borne by silent comrades to rest a moment in the Casa de la Cultura where his paintings had often hung. The parish church and the Casa de la Cultura sit next to each other, separated only by a wrought-iron fence. The two processions arrive simultaneously. San Salvador, borne on the shoulders of the men who care for him, heavy garlands of frangipani hang around his neck; jasmine, frangipani blossoms, and petals of roses of Castile rain down on him, making his way sweet. The children in white shirts too big for them wave their palms. Beaming women carry huge vases of white flowers. The Glorias fill the courtyard announcing the happy arrival. Urbieta too is carried on the shoulders of his closest comrades, men who have cared for him. His coffin is heaped high with flowers of the wild–white jasmine, long, ropy palm flowers, tuberose, hibiscus, frangipani all on a bed of the healing herbs–dill and cordoncillo. Everyone brought jasmine, guie-xhuba in Zapotec, in honor of the club Urbieta had founded by that name to help young artists. Urbieta has begun his journey to his new home among the dead. Christ, in the midst of celebration, has begun his death.
Field notes, March 23, 1997
It is the visible markers that catch one’s attention especially but not exclusively in early stages of field research. The meaning behind them and the why of them take much longer to understand. One of the demands on ethnographers is to record everything, even when you have no sense of what it means or where it fits. At some point, you can see the larger meaning. While our first field research is usually a year, succeeding visits must be worked around an academic teaching schedule, broken up occasionally by sabbaticals and fellowships. Much of my field work happens in the summers. The annual cycle is exactly that—a year’s worth of activities and ritual, so you miss much of it except via WhatsApp and Facebook. Your obligations continue even when you are not there.
This Palm Sunday was one of those moments in the field when suddenly disparate pieces come together and make a greater sense. In this case, it was realizing the fundamental importance of notions of “wild” (gui’xhi) and “settled” (guidxi) and the transformations that happen when one moves from one state to another. Christ comes from the cemetery in the gui’xhi to the heart of the settled parish church and to his new identity as Christ the King whose death is already assured. He has begun his journey to the land of the dead. Urbieta has also begun the slow forty-day progress from the land of the living to that of the dead. Both are accompanied by those who care for them and who rain down on them the flowers of the wild that will keep their journey slow, stately, and moist.
That journey is one of transformation and while we associate journey with physical movement, in Juchitán this is not always the case. For example, Ta Feli, the healer with whom I worked, would fall regularly into trance as part of his healing sessions. When he “returned,” he would relate what he had learned when going to this other place. Similarly, when one walks a pilgrimage—and I did not do this until 2011 (another 14 years!), you often walk it in the name of another. You are transformed by being a pilgrim but so is the person for whom you walked. It is the shared terrain of being human. That shared experience of death, above all its transformative nature, became my 2011 book Becoming an Ancestor: The Isthmus Zapotec Way of Death.I am currently working on the fundamental importance of transformation in a book on ritual in Juchitán.
Which book that you wrote are you most pleased with? Could you talk about the story behind writing it?
Anthropology of the Performing Arts: Virtuosity, Artistry, and Interpretation in a Cross-Cultural Perspective. 2004. AltaMira Press. It was in this book that I could bring together the experience of my work on performance and my life as a performer, with the social and cultural implications of embodiment. I examine performance and performers in their lives on stage, in the classroom, in rehearsal and creation. It includes the voices of great performers such as Marcel Marceau, Janos Starker, Violette Verdy, Maria Callas, Bando Tamasaburo and Peter Brook reflecting on virtuosity and artistry, silence and sound, movement and stasis. It also includes performance in daily life, the artistry of trance and altered states, an examination of Tewa ritual as a native aesthetic.
Writing it made me see the bones and blood of the ethnographic enterprise. If we examine ethnography as a kind of performance requiring us to be interpreters then we see that, whatever the unique circumstances of our work, we must refine a craft, making ourselves into the most finely tuned instruments possible. And lest anyone think that this means the absence of passion, let me offer up the examples of all the great artists and performers who knew and know that the presentation of the deepest emotions requires the greatest discipline. It was one of our former colleagues, poet Yosef Koumenyaku who said that “passion without discipline is sentimentality.” My years of working with performers and as a performer made this book inevitable and collaborative. Conversations with my community of friends in the world of performance, some the best in the world, some just beginning, made it possible to see commonalities and differences, to discover the through-line that made a performance inevitable rather than predictable, to see cultural similarities and differences across genres. It was extraordinarily satisfying to see the fundamentals of staged performance genres (usually assuming a fourth wall) appear in communal performance like Tewa ritual, in the practice of trance and healing, and the ways in which we perform in everyday life. The time and place for writing much of this book was made possible by the Bogliasco Foundation where the staff and a small group of witty, serious, creative colleagues with whom to share ideas freed me from all responsibility except to write, and in the writing to find the through-lines that characterize all good stories.
How has teaching changed for you over the years?
More listening, less talking. A distinguished scholar and teacher came to watch me teach a ballet class at the SMU campus in Taos. Afterward, she said, “you were so quiet; you said hardly anything.” I answered, “I was listening to their bodies.”
In my first year at IU, when I stood in the classroom in the old School of Education building, facing the 35 undergraduates in the Anthropology of Dance class, I wanted to disappear. I had never taught–at that time no one thought it might be an important part of graduate education. I suffered from an excess of information about a very narrow subject and the absence of any method for communicating it.
Parker Palmer once used a strip of paper as his only prop to deliver a masterful lecture about front stage/backstage personas. He introduced it as an example of just how high-tech Quakers ever got! In my case, imagine two funnels with the small ends coming together–I call this “Lifelong Learning” –babies, children, even teen-agers set no limits on what might be interesting to explore, try out, or learn. Our system of education is like a funnel, gradually narrowing the possibilities until our children enter a track that corresponds to their career choice (one they probably make so that we will stop hounding them). This point where the two funnels come together is the PhD or highest terminal degree. This is the point where we have a great deal of information about something that few people have any interest in and, in the process of getting it, we have stopped living a balanced, explorative life. Fortunately, there is life–and learning, after the PhD. We realize, perhaps in the process of trying to convey our passion for the field to others, that there are more skills, more areas, more challenges, and that, if we work at it, we might become knowledgeable rather than simply stuffed with information.
How do we ever get to be reasonably good teachers? I think that it is like becoming a good ethnographer–we rely on the kindness of strangers. Strangers who are our students and who, generally, respond with good will when we need help.
For us to do this requires three things. First is to acknowledge that there is a craft and that we don’t control it; second, and I take this from performing, that the audience/students matter and shape our performance. These are hard enough but the third is the greatest challenge: to acknowledge that, while we too learn in the classroom or lab or one-on-one with graduate students, we are not the main event in any learning context. We may be the facilitators, but it is not about us.
Watching colleagues whom I thought were fine teachers, I realized what they had in common. They gave students permission to bring their own personalities and experiences and passions to bear on the topic at hand. The best teachers are those who are passionate not only about their subjects but about the world in which they and the students live. We teach ways of thinking and being using our discipline as an example or point of departure and return. Given the balance of power, if we as teachers bring our egos into the mix, the students will simply disappear because we expand to take up all the space–the talking space, the thinking space, the reflecting space. Students deserve to know what we think, however, especially about topics that matter to them. And the most difficult teaching situation, at least for me, is when we feel most deeply about something. My best teaching has been setting a context in which I help students confront the subject on their own terms. And in which you resist commenting on everything from your own point of view. We know most of the disadvantages–we give up control (in the blatant form that we know it); and we must forget trying to cover everything and be selective about what is important. Acknowledging that they can learn a lot of material quite well on their own is a humbling experience. We must somehow make our own passion for the subject clear without talking about it all the time– showing, not telling. Showing makes us more vulnerable–telling lets us stay one remove from both the subject and the students.
The last class I taught before retiring was E500 the required class on theory for our social/cultural graduate students. COVID meant it was online. I asked the students to use the Canvas discussion link to post their reflections on the readings each week. Everyone posted theirs, reading and commenting on each other’s. I read them and posted my comments as well. The zoom class at the end of the week was lively, a conversation, with students commenting on the assigned readings and acknowledging each other’s and my interpretations. They were thoughtful, generous, smart, and supportive. While their research interests were varied and quite different from mine, their work and the way in which they collaborated made me realize that the field was going to be in good hands.
My teaching has included just about every context in which we share our craft and hold out the promise of discovery: undergraduate classes, graduate seminars, doctoral mentoring, our field school in Oaxaca, 30 years of MINI University lectures, Lifelong Learning seminars, coaching classical ballet variations at the Jacobs school, as an Erasmus visiting scholar in Budapest and Szeged, and as an External examiner and adjunct professor at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance.
Some final thoughts about what being a researcher and a teacher means:
*listening, hearing people into speech;
*seeing worth in every person and valuing their particular perspectives and histories;
*building collaboration and community so that learning takes advantage of unique backgrounds and experiences
*Working on the principle that both kinds of knowledge—the poetic and the practical, are necessary and reinforce each other. Irish poet Seamus Heaney elaborated this. I found it too in Juchitan in the Zapotec recognition of two kinds of knowledge, remarkably similar to Heaney‘s: binni naana—people with words and binni guendabianni—people who create light.
*Being comfortable in that middle-ground between what we know and what we might discover is essential to continued learning. Or in the words of another mentor, Sir Peter Brook: “Not knowing is not resignation…it is an opening to amazement.” From Between Two Silences: Talking with Peter Brook
Destiny again. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. It had to be page 99.
Upon entering, I immediately saw why the place was called legendary. It oozed underground Hip Hop. Graffiti covered every wall. In the past, there had been a waist-high mural that wrapped around the bar featuring skeletons in fluffy rat costumes. Now most of it was covered over in aerosol paint, paint pen, postal stickers, and permanent ink throwies. The above-waist, mirrored walls were now covered over in tattered black plastic tarp, which was itself covered over in white mop paint pen tags. The tile floor was thick with dried beer and tracked-in road grime. Google Maps had not been wrong. The place had been permanently closed; but it was still quite active that night. A crew of two dozen men and a few women sat drinking beer, listening to the Chicano music of my youth. Most of the audience seemed to be in their late 30s. Their clothes were baggier than Heticko’s which was a sign of his relative youth at 25 and the changing trends of a scene. Most wore tan Dickies pants and either a plain white cotton tee-shirt, a tan khaki shirt, or a black one with La Sociedad Café printed in Old-English style font. Most wore thick löc-style sunglasses. The darkly lit scene could have passed as a sepia-toned photograph save for the glints of the deep red and thickly lined lipsticks of the women, and then there was the pop and lock dancer wearing the royal blue tracksuit and white gloves. Two beautifully maintained, chrome laden lowrider bicycles sat on the stage. Tomás, the owner of TT Caps arrived after me. He sat at the bar to chat with El Bombay’s owner. Both were in their late 50s and had invested in Hip Hop as more than a fad years prior. They had both given the youth culture space to flourish, but now had to watch as their business dried up.
My dissertation explores life in desmadre, or the overwhelming, noisy chaos that continually changes underfoot in the streets of the metropolitan valley surrounding Mexico City, the largest urban landscape within North America. I chronicle the experiences of contemporary rap artists as they move through the city, creating a Hip Hop scene in looped interconnectedness. And while my work is attuned to the Voice of these artists, it’s always grounded by my relationship to the streets and by that feeling of destiny I feel when I’m in the wrong place and the right time, when I encounter everything I need to be Hip Hop, to be ethnography. After weeks of futile attempts to find a Hip Hop scene by safe and traditional means, I found Bombay in a moment wondering aimlessly and dangerously down a dark alley in Tepito, a barrio born into its bad reputation. Following that moment, dedication and destiny launched me across the entire valley from La Paz, Iztapalapa and La Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl to Tacubaya, Colina Del Sur, and el Reclusorio Norte, all to find Hip Hop.
Ultimately, I find that by practicing their poetry and their breath control rappers learn to render the aural sensorium and echo the city itself through their bodies—from the noises of its mass transit to the acoustic registers of its ambulant vendors; from the sounds of familiar language games, poetics, and popular culture to appropriated Nahuatl vocabulary and place names. By learning to navigate through the city, flowing against its conservative logic for their own artistic and cultural purposes, rappers come to embody a difficult to explain yet deeply felt awareness of desmadre. Rather than seeing chaos as a source of frustration (to state control), as inefficient (to capitalist profit), or as unnecessary imperilment (to fearful citizens of the general public), rappers find direction and purpose in creativity and community. By engaging with others in desmadre they recognize their place, authenticate their experience, and overcome anonymity through the choral voice, hearing their own subjectivity echoed back and affirmed by others who have travelled a different route. …And so do anthropologists.
It had to be page 99. It had to be El Legendario Bombay. Desmadre again.
Ruben Enrique Campos III. 2020. Word To Desmadre: Hip Hop, Voice, and the Rhythm Of Chaos In México. University of Hawai’i, Phd.
Patricia G. Lange: According to your book, the people of the remote community of Talea in Oaxaca, Mexico have a saying that “a bad compromise is better than a good fight.” How does this maxim emblematically illuminate what it took to secure their right to be connected to mobile networks and the internet?
Roberto J. González: For almost a decade, villagers dreamed of being the first in northern Oaxaca to have cellular service. They repeatedly petitioned the big telecom firms Telcel and Movistar, and when these companies turned them down, they petitioned state and federal regulators, who weren’t any help either. Eventually, in 2012, villagers decided to work with Rhizomatica, an NGO dedicated to helping indigenous communities get connected, and together they were able to create their own non-commercial DIY cellular network. Like most fledgling technologies, it had glitches and limitations—but it worked.
Now, I suppose when Big Telecom denied them service and government regulators ignored them, Taleans could have occupied the state capital, or kidnapped government officials, or had a protest march or hunger strike. But instead of a fight, they decided to find a compromise, a nonconfrontational kind of direct action—building the community cellular network—which worked well for several years.
By 2014, some people began accusing those operating the network of mismanagement. In this case, in order to avoid a “good fight” that might have politically divided the pueblo, village authorities came up with a bad compromise: to give Movistar another chance to provide cellular service. The company accepted.
Patricia G. Lange: A key cultural characteristic that you focus on is Talean openness to outside ideas. The Taleans’ willingness to experiment with innovation seems to have ironically both spurred support for their community-based, autonomous network—and hastened its “downfall.” Given that Taleans ultimately abandoned their community cell network in favor of a major telecom company, what does it mean to say that they are “ecumenical when it comes to technology”? How was your perspective and analysis influenced by teaching in Silicon Valley?
Alejandro I. Paz: Your book follows the ways that, given the entanglements between the US and Mexican economies, Mexicans who don’t migrate still imagine what their lives might be like on the other side of the border. Why is looking at the Mexicans who don’t migrate important and how does such a study illuminate the relation between the US and Mexico?
Hilary Parsons Dick: I use the term “nonmigrant” to refer specifically to people who haven’t migrated, but who live in places with active migration pathways, like the neighborhood where I centered my ethnographic research in Mexico, in which nearly every household has a member with migration experience. In this neighborhood—and in the migrant enclave in Southern Pennsylvania where I also conducted field work—images of life “beyond here” profoundly shape people’s understandings of relationships with their family and the countries of Mexico and the United States. This reality resonates with a way Arjun Appadurai described globalization, as a process that that leads people to live their lives refracted through other possible lives they imagine they could live elsewhere. I wanted to understand how such refraction, such imagining, unfolds in practice and with ethnographic particularity. The connections nonmigrants forge with the imagined lives of migrants offer a productive vantage point from which to explore this problem.
I found that considering how Mexican nonmigrants live in the company of imagined fellows illuminates the role ideas about migration play in nation-building and, especially, the variegation of national belonging: the idea that not all people who are legally authorized to be in a territory are positioned as fully belonging to it. As the anthropology of nationalism and citizenship has shown, such variegation is a key feature of nation-building across settings. And, as studies of immigration and citizenship law in migrant-receiving countries show, including your fabulous book Latinos in Israel, imaginaries about who migrants are or can be contribute profoundly to the constitution of variegation. One of Words of Passage’s contributions is to show that migrant imaginaries also play a central role in shaping national belonging in migrant-sending countries. Certainly, this has been the case in Mexico. Since the late 19th century, migrant imaginaries have helped organize what it means to “be Mexican” in ways that are consequential to the people with whom I did my research, as I discuss later in this interview (the third question). As for how this process tells us about the relationship between Mexico and the US, scroll down to the fourth question.
Alejandro I. Paz: More than anyone else in linguistic anthropology, you have theorized migration discourse, and in your book you have expanded that term’s scope, using history, ethnography, and close readings of transcripts. How does this combination of methodologies enable you to tackle the question of how migration discourse impacts, and is adapted by, working class Uriangatenses?
Hilary Parsons Dick: One of the key things I aimed to do in Words of Passage was to theorize the “imaginary” in a way that gives it concreteness. This concept is used frequently, but often without being fully operationalized. Yet, it is a productive concept for thinking through how the variegation of national belonging is produced and enacted. As Words of Passage shows, the (re)creation of imaginaries is fundamentally a discursive one. And critical to understanding the production of imaginaries of Mexicanidad/Mexicanness is studying talk and writing about the causes and consequences of migration—or migration discourse.
The combination of methodologies highlighted in your question grows from the understanding of discourse that undergirds the book. I analyze discourse in the Foucauldian-genealogical sense and in the linguistic anthropological sense of actual language-use. This approach allows me to show how particular moments of interaction contribute to broader processes, like the variegation of national belonging. To track whether and how imaginaries produced or authorized by the state, what I call state-endorsed imaginaries, inform the lives of actual people, I needed to establish that there are enduring state-endorsed imaginaries, which people variously contribute to, adapt, reformulate, and/or resist. I also demonstrate how people achieve these ends in interaction, through producing their own imaginaries of Mexicanidad that are informed by state-endorsed imaginaries, but which also critique and revise them in ways that envision their full belonging in the country.
Equally important to examining migration discourse in Mexico historically, ethnographically, and textually is the transnational aspect of my ethnographic research. Although Words of Passage focuses on the lives of nonmigrants, the insights it offers are deeply informed by the dual-sited fieldwork I did. This research helped bring into relief how the experience of migration is different for migrants and nonmigrants—and, also, how imaginaries of national belonging are informed by and resist the framings of Mexican migrants in the US.
Alejandro I. Paz: Class is an important aspect of this study. You encourage us to think about the interpellation of the Mexican working class. You show how interpellative processes work their way through gendered, religious, and racial dynamics. What does such a study reveal about class in general and the Mexican working class specifically?
Hilary Parsons Dick: The concept of interpellation, understood as a process of call-and-response in which one is hailed to see oneself as a member of the nation-state and variably responds, is essential to the way I theorize the production and enactment of variegated national belonging. The assertion is that imaginaries of national belonging are a form of interpellation that call to people to see themselves as being part of the nation in ways that are not uniform or egalitarian.
In Mexico, state-endorsed imaginaries of Mexicanidad have designated certain groups as simultaneously representing the true “essence” of the nation, as embodying what is means to “be Mexican,” and also the country’s central obstacles to achieving full sovereignty and economic power. These paradoxical positionings create a double bind of belonging for people identified as part of these groups. As in many other contexts, this process of designation is raced, classed, and gendered: it is indigenous people, women, and rural peasants and the urban working-class who state-endorsed imaginaries place in the double-bind. I focus on class and gender in my study because the people with whom I did my research are monolingual, Spanish-speaking mestizos who identify as working-class, but have a certain race privilege as part of the unmarked racial category in Mexico. Words of Passage shows how people who occupy the position of “working-class” respond to the state’s interpellative call, taking up some of its terms while revising others. This type of analysis is relevant to the understanding the lived experience of class—and race and gender—in Mexico. And I think one could address a very similar set of problems in any modern nation-state through the theoretical framework I lay out.
Alejandro I. Paz: You write about the importance of the foil of the US, and the ethical and moral judgments made of the US, for how Mexicans have come to conceive of national belonging. Are there moments where the imagining of life in the US is more intense for Uriagantenses, and what regulates that intensity?
Hilary Parsons Dick: The lives of nonmigrants, and their experiences of variegation, add another layer of understanding to the enduring entanglements between the US and Mexico. Migration, not only the act itself but discourse about it, has been pivotal in producing this enmeshment politically, economically, and socioculturally since the late 19th century. People in Mexican migrant communities on both sides of the border are acutely aware of this fact—a common saying I would hear was that the US economy was built by la mano de obra Mexicana, by Mexican labor. Indeed, migration politics in the US would probably look very different if the profound, positive contributions migrants make were held in the center of the discussion.
More specifically, both state-endorsed and working-class Uriangatense imaginaries of Mexicanidad are ordered around a concept of moral mobility: the idea that Mexico and its people should “progress”(be mobile) economically, but in a way that is moral, where “being moral” is understood as the opposite of “being US.” So, being Mexican has historically and contemporaneously been about not being like the United States, posited as a land of economic opportunity, but moral depravity. For working-class Uriangatenses, it is Catholic understandings of personhood and collectivity that inform what “being moral” means. Imaginaries of moral mobility, therefore, are both visions of what the “good life” is and also a form of political commentary that rejects the imperialism that marks the US’s relationships with Mexico. For working-class Uriangatenses, and also for their relations living in the United States, there are times when this ethico-moral encounter with the US is more intense. These typically correspond with moments of impending cross-border movement, whether it’s going back to Mexico or facing US-bound migration.
Alejandro I. Paz: Have you been surprised by the way the new right in the US, apotheosized in the presidency of Donald Trump, has successfully turned up the temperature on migration discourse to gain political advantage? What do you see will be some of the results of this intensification of anti-immigrant messaging and policy for working class Mexicans, and especially do you think it will reinforce or change the kinds of imaginaries that you describe?
Hilary Parsons Dick: I am not surprised that the contemporary right-wing populism in the US, and elsewhere, has been bolstered by an intensification of (anti-)migration discourse. Since the 1970s, the US Republican party has used fear mongering about migrants to boost their political fortunes—and not all migrants, but racialized groups, such as migrants from Mexico and Central America. Throughout US history, there have been periodic moral panics about the migration of racialized groups, ginned up for political advantage. Generally, these happen at times of economic contraction and restructuring, like the neoliberalization of the global economy, in which political elites make racialized migrants into scapegoats for economic woes. So, Trump and his ilk are building on long-term racial projects and political economic strategies. One way they are contributing to these processes is by using migration discourse to endeavor to re-mainstream overt racism, which became taboo in public discourse after the Civil Rights movement: a problem I am working through in my second book.
The consequences of the intensification of right-wing migration discourse has been the authorization of policy measures and practices that have created a shameful humanitarian disaster on the US-Mexico border, and within other sectors of the US deportation regime. These policies disproportionately affect migrants from Mexico and Central America. The use of anti-migrant discourse to legitimate ever-more draconian policies is a practice that has been going on since the late 20th century. Though now this ratcheting up of the ‘law-and-order’ approach to migration is happening with even more vigor and extremity, as the Trump administration disregards some of the factors that used to partially temper such crackdowns, such as compassion for children and families and a commitment to family reunification.
Given the devastating impacts of crackdown policies, I doubt that core elements of Mexican imaginaries of moral mobility—which critique the US’s imperialist stance towards its southern neighbors—will change substantially. In many ways, recent events provide fodder for their reinforcement. In addition, return migrants have consistently been positioned as important figures in Mexican state-endorsed imaginaries—as both harbingers of “progress” and as threats to state power. The mass deportations of the Obama and Trump administrations have led to a large number of return migrants who present complications for Mexican state institutions. It will be interesting to see whether/how older framings of returnees are taken up as the Mexican state manages this period of return.
At the same time, since my ethnographic research for Words of Passage ended in the mid-2000s, Mexico has undergone a dramatic transition to becoming a country of significant migrant passage and reception, as migration from Central America has increased. This transition is forcing Mexico to reckon with being a nation of immigration and not just emigration. In this, the Mexican federal government is increasingly adopting policies that mirror the US crackdown approach. This suggests that it is producing a new state-endorsed migration discourse that situates Central American migrants in ways that unfortunately mirror how Mexican migrants have been positioned in US state-endorsed migration discourse.
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.
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.
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.