exhibit image
exhibit image exhibit image 
Reprinted with permission of The Regents of the University of California
from Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies, vol. 21, nos. 1-2, pp. 191-225,
UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
Not for further reproduction.
image

Return to Border Cultures: Conjunto Music - Index Page


Index of Article


Introduction Return to Index

Several years ago, Américo Paredes proposed that a geographic border be defined as "a sensitized area where two cultures or two political systems come face to face" (1978, 68). It follows from Paredes's definition that the degree of sensitization corresponds to the similarities or dissimilarities of the cultures in contact: the greater the dissimilarity, the more the sensitization. It follows, too, that a border is not confined to the imaginary line that may mark the boundary between the two cultures or systems (which in the modern world is typically two nation-states). Rather, the area of sensitization the territory wherein the two cultures interpenetrate and at times contest for hegemony extends well beyond the point of demarcation. This is especially applicable to international borders where a large population from one or both of the nation-states maintains a permanent presence in the opposite nation-state.

The U.S. Southwest would seem to offer an ideal example of a border as Paredes conceptualized it [Note 1]. Here, in what I shall call the Southwest Border, a sensitized area has been created by the face-to-face contact of two ethnic/cultural groups the Anglos [Note 2] and a large and continuously reinforced population of Mexican descent. The hallmark of this interethnic contact has been conflict, and in its wake a good deal of expressive culture has been engendered. Historically, this culture has addressed the interethnic contact and its attendant conflict directly as in the various ethnic stereotypes and slurs (Limón 1977; Paredes 1958a; 1966). As both Limón and Paredes have pointed out, however, the cultural output of the Anglo has been rather meager in comparison to that of the Mexican American, who has expended considerable symbolic energy on the interethnic encounter. The Mexican's intense expressive cultural activity vis-à-vis the Anglo may be the result of the former's subordinate position in the social order that prevails within the Southwest Border. Here, as Paredes noted, the Mexican has "experienced" the Anglo, while the latter has merely "observed" the Mexican (1978, 89).

Among the people of Mexican origin, however, expressive culture does not always address the interethnic encounter directly; the symbolic link need not be transparent. Indeed, in its articulation of interethnic conflict, the expressive culture of the Mexican Americans has often been oblique rather than direct, deflected by such factors as intraethnic class conflict and the ideology of cultural assimilation. This is particularly true of the cultural domain that this essay explores music which has functioned historically as an accurate barometer of the Mexican Americans' response to the social, economic, and political pressures that life on a border between two dissimilar systems exerts on them.

This essay, then, explores the musical culture of the Mexicans of the Southwest Border -- that sensitized area bounded by the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California -- where Mexicans and Anglos have been in contact long enough to develop an enduring set of mutually reinforced cultural responses. This essay generally excludes from discussion Anglo music of the Southwest, as this music displays little evidence of an interethnic exchange. Except for the ensemble known as norteño, the music of the Mexican side of the border is excluded as well, since other than a generalized tendency of Mexican music over the last twenty-five years to emulate American pop music, it too exhibits little direct intercultural influence [Note 3]. Mexican American music, however, is very much affected by the presence of the Anglo a result, again, of the disadvantaged position that Mexicans occupy in the social order of the dominant Anglos. Their disadvantage aside, the Mexican Americans have developed a strong musical culture in response and as a challenge to their domination. This musical culture has also served as a mechanism that mediates the contradictions arising out of the border's predicament -- for example, their status as a stigmatized and segregated minority in a society that demands conformity and allegiance from its citizens. But the concept of culture as mediation mechanism has some application to the Anglo response as well, since this group too has developed what can only be considered contradictory attitudes toward the Mexicans and their culture. Historically a function of interethnic accommodation between Anglos and a few Mexican American elites who shared a common class outlook, the more benign of these attitudes has mitigated to some extent the otherwise racist ideology of Anglo superiority which served so well in subjugating the Mexican masses. (An example of this racist ideology is the "Anglo-Texan legend" analyzed by Paredes [1958a, 15-32].) Of course, a certain romanticism toward the frontier also plays a role in softening Anglo attitudes toward the Mexican. As Robinson wrote, "The attraction which Americans felt [toward "old Mexico"] . . . is purely visual or sensual, the nostalgia of the northerner . . . for the splendor and warmth of a lost Eden" (1977, 147; see McWilliams on the Anglo "fantasy heritage" [1968, 35-47]).

In sum, over the long stretch of interethnic history, the Anglos and Mexicans of the Southwest have had recourse to cultural mechanisms that would make everyday relations tolerable, even if the reality of domination/subordination could never be completely masked (Foley 1988a, 1988b). These essentially mediation cultural mechanisms transcend the interethnic antagonism and combine elements from both cultures in symbiotic fashion to create new modes of experience for both peoples. For example, speaking of the Anglo-Texan's "love-hate" relationship with Mexican culture, William H. Goetzmann writes:

In fact a good many aspects of Hispanic culture appealed to the Texians [Anglo-Texans]. Thus endemic to the Texan myth is a love-hate relationship with the Spanish [Mexican] people. For example, the Texian admired life on "the Big Hacienda." . . . He also thrived on the food, the fandango, vaquero-cowboying, the violent macho lifestyle, and especially the Spanish sense of pride. Love and hate made the Texian myth complex from the beginning. (1985, 3)

Thus, in a paradoxical way, the "love-hate" relationship between Anglo and Mexican American results in a kind of Hegelian dialectic, wherein each can attain self-realization only at the expense of, or in contrastive interaction with, the other. Each mode of interaction leads to an inadequate response, or form of consciousness, which is then driven in dialectical fashion to strive for another, more adequate one. In contrast to Paredes's analysis of the course of Mexican American folklore vis-à-vis the Anglo, we might suggest that Anglo-Mexican relations within the Southwest Border have progressed through three dialectically driven (and overlapping) stages -- open hostility, veiled hostility, and hostile intimacy (1966). In short, as I wrote some time ago:

In their long history of face-to-face interaction the Anglo and the Mexican on the border have repeatedly attempted to "cancel" each other out, only to discover the other's existence is an extension of their own. Mutual antagonism, it seems, need not preclude mutual (if grudging) admiration. (1985c, 24)

The outcome of the two groups' search for an accommodation amidst a continuing asymmetrical, conflictive relationship is a common structuring of experience for both -- Anglo emulating Mexican and vice versa -- through a wide range of cultural practices. It is in this context that we can best understand not only Goetzmann's observation about the "Texian myth," but other aspects of the Anglos' romantic fascination with things Mexican, from the Southern Californians' penchant for Spanish-named streets in new housing developments to their love for fajitas, chili, and other foods based on traditional Mexican cuisine.

For their part, of course, the subordinated Mexican Americans have appropriated even more elements of Anglo culture, including such typical American manifestations as the chauvinistic belief that the American way of doing things is superior to that of other people, in particular the Mexicans from south of the border (see Reyna [1980, 27-30], for folkloric aspects of this chauvinism). At times, in assimilating Anglo customs, the border Mexicans have reinterpreted them in their own fashion, as in the case of the lowrider car and the zoot-suit cultures (see Pascencia 1982; Mazón 1984). A musical example of this kind of assimilation/reinterpretation is that of the "kikker" music-culture of South Texas, so popular for many years among Texas-Mexicans. It is permeated through and through with a country-western, cowboy style, yet is also quintessentially a border Mexican expression.

The historical encounter between Anglo and Mexican in the Southwest is thus one rich in complexity, albeit at its core conflictive, governed by the Anglo's dominance. And in this encounter music has contributed its share in defining the interethnic experience -- at least from the Mexican's perspective. In this respect three genres of musical performance can be singled out -- two are the styles of musical ensembles and the third is the style of the folksong. Each of these has played a powerful role in defining and mediating the interethnic relationship in all of its complexities. The three musical forms are: the Mexican-American orquesta, the Texas-Mexican conjunto, and the corrido of interethnic conflict.

All three of these musical expressions, it should be noted, contain important features that identify them as unique to the Southwest Border and therefore distinguish them from other types of music that Mexican Americans have inherited from Greater Mexico and Latin America. Indeed, while musical ensembles such as the mariachi, dances such as the Mexican bolero, song types like the canción ranchera, and a myriad of styles imported from Mexico and Latin America have enjoyed strong acceptance among Mexican Americans, these have played but a supportive role to the latter's own musical resources -- especially the dynamic orquesta and conjunto, which in any case have absorbed many of these musical imports. Thus, each of these three expressions has individually given eloquent voice to different aspects of the Mexican American experience.

The bulk of this essay, then, will concentrate on the corrido, the conjunto, and the orquesta. This does not by any means exhaust the range of musical expression within the area that I have designated as the Southwest Border -- such an effort would take far more discussion than is possible here. But the three genres are by far the most significant, both in terms of their widespread appeal and their contribution to a musical culture that is indigenous to the border. Moreover, the enormous appeal of these three expressive forms lends weight to the basic proposition put forth in this essay -- that interethnic conflict is the engine that powers the artistic culture of the border Mexican Americans. Last, since the discussion here is in the form of a synthesis, only a summary of each genre can be offered. The reader is referred to the appropriate sources for more comprehensive treatment. We begin with the corrido, specifically that which Paredes some time ago labeled the corrido of intercultural conflict (1976).


The Corrido on the Border Return to Index

Américo Paredes, who has devoted most of his scholarly life to border culture, once wrote that "borders and ballads go together and their heroes are all cut in the same mold" (1958a, 2). Paredes was referring specifically to ballad traditions and heroes that the oppressed people in a border conflict tend to create. In the case of the Mexicans in the Southwest, the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 is key to the emergence of a ballad tradition, as it set the stage for the subordinate role that Mexicans would assume in their relations with Anglos (Barrera 1979; Camarillo 1979; M. García 1981). Limón has written about the interethnic exchange in Texas:

Between 1848 and 1890, an Anglo ranching society established itself among the native (also ranching) Mexican population, living with them in a rough equality. However, beginning in the 1890s, a clear racial-cultural stratification and subordination began to emerge, as a new wave of Anglo-American entrepreneurs and farming interests established a political and economic hegemony over the native population as well as the thousands of Mexican immigrants entering the area after 1910. . . . With few exceptions, this total population . . . became the victim of class-racial exploitation and mistreatment. (1983, 216-17)

But, as Acuña (1972), Barrera (1979), and others have demonstrated, the subordination of Mexicans -- both native and immigrant -- took place throughout the Southwest, with Anglo-American capitalism creating, in effect, what Barrera has called a "colonial-labor" class system as it expanded dramatically in the first third of the twentieth century. In this system, of course, most Mexicans were for a long time relegated to proletarian status. Having experienced the brutal, demoralizing effects of conquest, economic exploitation, and racial-cultural prejudice, the Mexicans turned increasingly to symbolic expression, especially folklore and music, to give voice to their oppression. In this the corrido played a leading role, articulating in a direct manner the Mexican's reaction to the interethnic conflict.

Paredes has made the case that the modern Mexican corrido may have had its inception along the Texas-Mexico border (1958b). He wrote:

It should be noted that the Lower Rio Grande area (the region now half in Mexico and half in Texas that once was the Spanish province of Nuevo Santander) was producing corridos of its own at the very beginning of the Greater Mexican corrido period. Where did the corrido begin its ascent, then? In Michoacán, as Professor Mendoza suggested in El romance español y el corrido mexicano? In Durango, in Jalisco, or in Texas? (1958b, 102-3)

Paredes goes on to suggest that, given the climate of intercultural border conflict that, as noted earlier, provides a fertile ground for the germination and growth of ballad traditions, the Texas-Mexico border should be considered a prime candidate for the birth of the corrido. He is particularly interested in a special type of corrido that this border engendered, namely, the corrido of intercultural conflict. For Paredes, this corrido emerges as a major folkloric genre in the early period of Anglo-Mexican contact (from the 1850s on). During this time, the expressive culture of border Mexicans was dominated by what Paredes labels the "open hostility" stage in Mexican American folklore, when armed conflict was common and the Mexicans still entertained hopes of a possible victory. This stage was epitomized by the corrido of intercultural conflict (Paredes 1966, 115).

Thus, since the birth of the modern Mexican corrido happened to coincide with the open hostility stage of Mexican American folklore, Paredes believes that it is only fitting that the people on the border should be on the cutting edge of this important cultural development in Mexican history. To make his case, Paredes cites El corrido de Kiansis, which not only immortalizes the epic cattle drives from Texas to Kansas in the 1860s, but turns out to be the oldest corrido in all of the Greater Mexican corpus to have been collected in a complete form (1958b, 103-4). For Paredes, this attests to the relative antiquity of the corrido on the border. More important, already in Kiansis we see the evidence of interethnic competition. As Paredes notes, "there is intercultural conflict in Kiansis, but it is expressed in professional rivalries rather than in violence between men" (1976, 26). Such interethnic rivalry is nicely captured by the subtle language of the following stanzas:

Quinientos novillos eran,
todos grandes y livianos;
y entre treinta americanos
no los podían embalar.
Five hundred steers there were
all big and quick;
and thirty Americans
couldn't keep them bunched together.
Llegan cinco mexicanos,
todos bien enchivarrados,
y en menos de un cuarto de hora,
los tenían encerrados.
Then five Mexicans arrived,
all of them wearing good chaps,
and in less than a quarter-hour,
they had the steers penned up.

Even more significant, in my view, is the existence of another, though incomplete, corrido from the same period as Kiansis, called El general Cortina. Written sometime in the late 1850s, this ballad expresses in strong emotional language the resentment that border Mexicans harbored toward the Americans:

Ese general Cortinas
es libre y muy soberano,
han subido sus honores
porque salvó a un mexicano
That famed General Cortinas
is quite sovereign and free,
the honor due him is greater
for he saved a Mexican's life.
Los americanos hacían huelga
borracheras en las cantinas,
de gusto que había muerto
ese general Cortinas.
The Americans made merry
they get drunk in the saloons,
out of joy over the death
of the famed General Cortinas.

The corrido celebrates the exploits of Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, a Mexican from the Brownsville-Matamoros area, who, according to Paredes, "was the first man to organize a Texas-Mexican protest against abuses on the part of the Anglos who controlled the Border power structure after 1848" (1976, 22). A member of "one of the old landholding families on the Rio Grande" (Paredes 1976, 22), Cortina soon came to resent the actions of Anglo newcomers, especially the fortune-makers. After an incident in which he tried to defend a vaquero who worked for his mother from the abuse of the Anglo town marshal, Cortina was declared persona non grata, and thereafter he dedicated himself to a war of protest, until he was defeated and driven out of Texas by the U.S. cavalry.

Another apparently early corrido deserves mention here, one that perfectly exemplifies the Mexicans' expressive response to the bitter conflict that marked their relations with the Anglos within the culturally sensitized Southwest Border. I refer to El corrido de Joaquín Murrieta. Although the origin of this corrido remains in question, the events it describes date back to the late 1840s and early 1850s, when the legendary miner-turned-bandit, Joaquín Murrieta, terrorized a good chunk of California.

The precise historical details surrounding the life of Murrieta have never been documented, but he was reportedly a youthful Mexican from the state of Sonora who had migrated to the California gold mines in search of fortune. Murrieta apparently "experienced" the Anglo at his most brutal, as he was driven under physical threat, first from a gold mine he was working and later from a piece of land he had cleared for farming (Mitchell 1973, 37-38). Like Cortina, Murrieta swore eternal revenge against the Anglo. Thereafter he dedicated himself to a life of banditry and, according to Richard Mitchell, before long "had robbed many -- killed many and more [would] suffer in the same way" (1973, 48).

The corrido that bears Murrieta's name was composed sometime after his exploits, but no one knows the historically critical date of composition. Joaquín Murrieta actually came to the attention of modern scholarship in the 1970s, when recording entrepreneur Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie/Folklyric Records (El Cerrito, California) included it in one of his Music of La Raza series (vol. 2, edited by Philip Sonnichsen). According to Sonnichsen, the corrido was recorded in Los Angeles in 1934 by Los Madrugadores, a group popular in the early days of Spanish-language radio in southern California. Víctor Sánchez, one of the Madrugadores, told Sonnichsen that "the corrido was written before I was born; it is from the last century" (Sonnichsen 1975, 6). However, he also admitted that Felipe Valdez Leal, a prominent music promoter and composer during the 1930s and 1940s, had "added three or four verses to make it fit both sides of the record" (Sonnichsen 1975, 6).

While even an approximate date of composition has so far eluded corrido scholars, Joaquín Murrieta does conform to the classical corrido of intercultural conflict so unique to the Southwest Border: it depicts a larger-than-life hero who either defeats the Anglos or goes down before overwhelming odds. This corrido, if its origin can ever be pinpointed, may yield proof that the californios -- themselves experiencing pressure from the Anglos -- were in the vanguard in realizing this important folk music genre. I cite a couple of the corrido's most trenchant stanzas:

Yo no soy americano
pero comprendo el inglés.
Yo lo aprendí con mi hermano
al derecho y al revés.
I am not an American
but I understand English.
I learned it with my brother
forwards and backwards.
A cualquier americano
hago temblar a mis pies.
Por cantinas me metí
castigando americanos.
And any American
I make tremble at my feet.
Through cantinas I went
punishing Americans.
"Tú serás el capitán
que mataste a mi hermano.
Lo agarraste indefenso,
orgulloso americano."
"You must be the captain
who killed my brother.
You took him defenseless,
you boastful American."
(Sonnichsen 1975)

The corrido of intercultural conflict has a long history along the border, one that extends beyond the period suggested by Paredes. I have elsewhere described this history, using two corridos as interpretive sources (Peña 1982). Paredes saw the period of this type of corrido wind down sometime after the turn of the century. However, there is ample evidence to indicate that such corridos continued to be composed and sung well after World War II. But the post-World War II corridos do evince a sharp thematic contrast from those of the earlier period. They differ not only in theme but also in structure, reflecting critical changes in the social organization of the border Mexican Americans as well as a changing relationship with the Anglo. The principal difference lies in the portrayal of the protagonist. Whereas in the pre-World War II period this protagonist was invariably presented as a potent, larger-than-life hero who in a symbolic sense avenged the collective insults against his people, in more recent times this hero has all but disappeared. He is replaced by a diametrically different character -- a more-or-less helpless victim.

This shift in the corrido of intercultural conflict is too fundamental to be a random event. In fact, it is not difficult at all to infer from the equally fundamental shift in the socioeconomic makeup of the Mexican American society since the end of the Great Depression that there is a connection between the expressive-cultural and the social-structural domains. It thus happens that the newer corridos appeared precisely at a time when Mexican Americans of the border initiated a wholesale movement from rural to urban, from folk to modern, from a monocultural to a bicultural orientation, and from a working-class status to a more differentiated social organization. Moreover, with increasing numbers of Mexicans escaping the shackles of colonial-labor status and achieving some integration into the regular Anglo class structure (Barrera 1979, 139-45), the interethnic relationship was altered. A measure of accommodation between the Anglo and Mexican American middle classes became evident (Foley 1988b) at the same time that the latter forged a semblance of political cohesion, as nascent political organizations gained strength throughout the Southwest (e.g., LULAC, PASSO, G. I. Forum).

In this climate of emergent political and economic movement, new cultural directions were charted, and new modes of interpreting the Mexican American experience evolved. Fully conscious of their newfound power, the Mexican Americans began to rethink their relationship with the dominant Anglo society, demanding more economic and political equality (as well as acceptance). However, despite the tentative beginnings of an accommodation, the Anglo was not yet ready to accept the Mexican as an equal, and the interethnic friction that had long prevailed in the Southwest Border persisted. This friction at times forced Mexican Americans to put aside growing class disparities in the face of racial discrimination. In this atmosphere of heightened political awareness, the corrido continued to play an important, radically different role. As I have stated elsewhere:

I suggest that Chicanos, having developed more effectively organized political machinery to challenge Anglo supremacy, rely less on their corridos to uplift a battered cultural image and more to rally support for active political causes. The reasoning seems self-evident: a corrido is more likely to elicit an active response, i.e., outrage and group mobilization, if it depicts a helpless victim rather than a potent, larger-than-life hero. In a sense, the two types of corrido are antithetical -- one reflecting pent-up frustration and powerlessness, the other active resistance. (1982, 38)

The corridos that appeared in the 1930s began to reflect the shift from hero to victim. In El corrido de Juan Reyna, which dates from 1930, the protagonist is portrayed in heroic terms, but the emphasis is on his victimization and the intercession of the Mexican community -- an emphasis, moreover, that is in sharp contrast to the earlier corridos, in which the collectivity is the passive beneficiary of the hero's exploits.

Juan Reyna was involved in an altercation with three police officers on May 11, 1930, in Los Angeles, after his car bumped into theirs. As might be expected, accounts of the sequence of events following the accident conflict, but Reyna was arrested and, on the way to the police station, verbally and physically abused. Harassed to the point of desperation, Reyna wrestled the gun from one of the officers, killed him, and wounded another. He was charged with first-degree murder, and the prosecutor asked for the death penalty. The case aroused the Mexican community, and a legal defense fund was quickly organized. Meanwhile, Reyna's first trial ended in a hung jury. Another trial took place, and this time he was found guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to serve one to ten years in prison (Sonnichsen 1975, 12-15).

Shortly thereafter, El corrido de Juan Reyna appeared; it was recorded commercially by a group popular in Southern California at the time, Los Hermanos Bañuelo. In the corrido, Juan Reyna is clearly portrayed as a hero, though not of the stature of a Joaquín Murrieta. In one stanza, for example, he is referred to as a man with valor and destreza:

Entonces el mexicano
con valor y con destreza
le arrebató la pistola
y le clavó la cabeza.
Then the Mexican
with bravery and agility
snatched his gun away
and hit him on the head.
In the final stanza, Reyna is given a hero's farewell:
Adios Juan Reyna, supiste
defender tu dignidad;
y hasta tu vida expusiste
por tu nacionalidad.
Goodbye Juan Reyna, you knew
how to defend your dignity;
you even risked your life
for your nationality.
(Sonnichsen 1975)

What is especially noteworthy in this corrido is the role of the Mexican community as it heroically intervenes to defend one of its own against mistreatment from a prejudiced Anglo legal system. In this respect, the corrido accurately portrays the political culture of border Mexicans (i.e., both native-born and immigrant) as it evolved vis-à-vis Anglos. Thus, after the details of the case are laid out in explicit detail in the first three stanzas, the corrido shifts scenes from the personal travails of Reyna to the community's reaction:

El cónsul de la colinda
y el vice-cónsul Quiñones
hablaron luego por radio
mostrando sus opiniones.
The consul from the area
and vice-consul Quiñones
spoke over the radio
expressing their opinions.
Explicaron bien el caso
y la colonia atendió
porque al insultar a Reyna
a México se insultó.
They explained the case very well,
and the community attended,
because by insulting Reyna
Mexico was insulted.
Mandaron todos su ayuda
como buenos mexicanos,
probando lo que nos duele
el maltrato a los paisanos.
They all sent their help
like good fellow Mexicans,
proving the hurt to us all,
the mistreatment of our countrymen.
(Sonnichsen 1975)

In another well-publicized case, Felix Longoria, a soldier killed during World War II, became the symbolic victim around whom the Mexican community rallied to protest against discrimination and injustice. A native of Three Rivers, Texas, Longoria had enlisted in the Army in 1944. Early in 1945 he was assigned to the Pacific Theater, where the Allies were in fierce combat with the Japanese. Longoria was killed in the Philippines during one of the final Allied assaults. Like many other soldiers, Longoria was temporarily buried in a military cemetery in the Philippines, but when his body was finally exhumed (in 1949) and flown to his relatives in Three Rivers, the local mortuary refused to accept it, citing past practice and a policy against funerals for Mexicans (Peña 1982, 18-23).

The Mexican American community was outraged. Led by G. I. Forum president Dr. Héctor García, it was able to apply intense pressure on authorities to vindicate the sullied honor of the fallen soldier. Upon hearing (and heeding) nuestras quejas, Lyndon Johnson, then senator for the state of Texas, interceded, and the remains of Felix Longoria were finally laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. With this symbolic gesture, the insult to the soldier and the Mexican American community was rectified. It was not long before a corrido celebrating the moral victory was composed and recorded. Like other modern corridos of the Southwest Border that address the theme of interethnic conflict, this one emphasized the victimization of the hero and the collectivity's intervention. The following stanzas graphically convey the basic theme of the corrido:

Cuando el cuerpo del soldado
llegó con sus familiares,
la mortuoria de su pueblo
le negó sus funerales.
When the body of the soldier
arrived with his next-of-kin,
the mortuary in his town
denied him a funeral.
Eso es discriminación
para el pobre ser humano;
ni siquiera en el panteón
admiten al mexicano.
That is discrimination
against a poor human being;
not even in a cemetery
do they allow a Mexican.
Johnson siendo senador
por el estado de Texas,
se le ablandó el corazón
al escuchar nuestras quejas.
Johnson being a senator
for the state of Texas,
felt his heart soften
when he heard our complaints.
Collection of Manuel Peña, 1982

Many other corridos of this type have been composed and sung throughout the Southwest since World War II, each one of them documenting specific events of interethnic conflict, in which the Anglos abuse the basic rights of a Mexican victim (or victims), and each celebrating the community's resolute actions in challenging the tyranny of the Anglo. In the end the grievance is resolved, as in Juan Reyna and Discriminación, or, at the very least, the Anglo is publicly excoriated while an impassioned call is made for the listener to heed the corrido's message and join in collective action.

The corrido of interethnic conflict is not only a musico-literary genre truly indigenous to Southwest Border culture, but also an effective vehicle for articulating Mexicans' view of their intermittent strife with dominant Anglos. Moreover, of the three types of music considered here, the corrido is the one that most directly addresses interethnic conflict; its message is readily apparent. This is understandable, since the verbal nature of the corrido always links it to some concrete event -- the cattle drives to Kansas, the exploits of a Joaquín Murrieta or a Gregorio Cortez, or the discrimination against a Felix Longoria. In contrast, the genres to be considered next -- deriving their meaning from their musical as opposed to their verbal content -- by their very nature address the complexities of border conflict only in an oblique, highly mediated fashion. We turn first to the conjunto.


The Texas-Mexican Conjunto Return to Index

As an expressive symbol, norteño music might well be considered the quintessence of border Mexican culture -- its soul, as it were. We are particularly interested here in the Texas Mexican variant of norteño music -- the conjunto, as it is called by the tejanos -- since this is the ensemble that was originally subjected to the most intense artistic elaboration. My contention, of course, is that just as the Anglo-Mexican conflict engendered a culturally powerful corrido tradition, it also activated the development of the modern conjunto (see Peña 1985a).

A musical group anchored by the diatonic, button accordion, the conjunto included a twelve-string Mexican guitar known as a bajo sexto. In its embryonic stage, up to the early twentieth century, the conjunto was no different from the norteño group across the Texas-Mexican boundary -- just as there was little difference between a Mexican living in, say, Robstown, Texas, and another living in General Terán, Nuevo León. Then, the ensemble on both sides of the Rio Grande consisted of the same rudimentary instrumentation and adhered to the same musical repertories. Having been introduced by German immigrants into northeastern Mexico sometime after the middle of the nineteenth century, the accordion quickly gained favor and solidified its position in the musical celebrations of the working-class folk, both in northern Mexico and South Texas.

As I have explained elsewhere (Peña 1985a), the rapid ascendance of the accordion and its ensemble among the Texas-Mexicans (and norteños generally) can be attributed to the instrument's ready availability and low cost, as well as an abundance of affordable folk musicians who specialized in its performance. More important, as the instrument gained in popularity it also gained in symbolic value. Culturally, it had been appropriated by the tejanos/norteños by the early part of the twentieth century. The accordion thus became a favored instrument for bailes (dances) of every type -- weddings and funciones (festivals, birthdays, and the notorious baile de negocio, a taxi dance connected with working-class cantinas). Its musical repertory consisted of the salon music introduced into Mexico from Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries -- the redowa, schottishe, polka, mazurka, and the waltz, as well as the Mexican huapango.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of the accordion in the musical activities of the norteños, the conjunto did not achieve hegemony over other musical groups until the 1930s. Prior to that it was still an ad hoc ensemble with little stylistic direction and plenty of competition from the working-class orquestas (discussed next) that occupied a prominent place in the musical life of border Mexicans. In fact, the history of the conjunto can be divided into three distinct stages (Peña 1985a). The first, to the late 1920s, was the formative one, when the ensemble was strictly improvisational and the accordion was still played either solo, with guitar or bajo sexto, or with a folk drum native to the norteños, the tambora de rancho (ranch drum). As already noted, this embryonic ensemble was common to the Mexicans on both sides of the Rio Grande.

The second stage began in the late 1920s, when the Texas-Mexican conjunto began to change and diverge radically from its counterpart across the border. The change was no doubt hastened by the intervention of the major American recording labels, which began in 1926 to exploit the rich musical traditions that were flourishing in the Southwest (see Folklyric/Arhoolie Records, Music of la Raza series). But, as we shall see, the rapid development of the Texas-Mexican conjunto can best be explained in terms of the ethnic-class dichotomy that came to shape the culture of the Southwest Border, beginning first in Texas.

Thus, by the mid-1930s when Narciso Martínez, the influential "father" of the modern conjunto, began his recording career, the first steps toward cementing a permanent, modern ensemble had been taken with the standardization of the accordion-bajo combination. Now inseparable, the two instruments formed the unmistakable core of the evolving ensemble. Adding to the distinctiveness of the Texas-Mexican conjunto was the new style of playing that Martínez introduced. He adopted a technique that differed radically from the Germanic style of earlier accordionists on both sides of the border. He neglected almost entirely the left-hand, bass-chord elements on the accordion, concentrating on the treble, melodic buttons, leaving the bassing and harmonic accompaniment to the bajo sexto.

The final stage in the modern conjunto's development began to take shape at the hands of what is known as la nueva generación -- the New Generation -- that group of Texas-Mexican musicians who established themselves after World War II. Foremost among them was Valerio Longoria, a talented accordionist who, among other innovations, was responsible for introducing the modern trap-drum set, as well as the canción ranchera, which soon replaced the redowa, schottishe, and polka as the mainstay of the conjunto repertory. Another notable figure among the members of the new generation was Paulino Bernal, whose conjunto is frequently hailed as the greatest in the history of the tradition. Responsible for a number of innovations during the 1960s, including three-part vocals and the addition of the larger, chromatic accordion, El Conjunto Bernal's greatest distinction lay in its ability to take the traditional elements of the conjunto and raise them to a level of technical proficiency unmatched to this day.

After 1960, the Texas-Mexican conjunto and the older norteño ensemble across the river began to converge once more, as the norteños came under the influence of their counterparts in Texas -- adopting many of the innovations of the latter (for example, the modern trap-drum set). Especially responsible for the convergence were Los Relámpagos del Norte -- accordionist Ramón Ayala and bajo sexto player Cornelio Reyna -- who were strongly influenced by El Conjunto Bernal in particular. (Paulino Bernal "discovered" them in a cantina in Reynosa, across the river from McAllen.) Los Relámpagos rose to unparalleled fame on both sides of the border in the late 1960s and remained unchallenged until the mid-1970s when Reyna and Ayala went their separate ways. Ayala soon organized his own conjunto, Los Bravos del Norte, and that group also went on to dominate the norteño market for a number of years.

Such, in brief, is the developmental history of the symbolically powerful conjunto, which became a virtual emblem of working-class tejano culture (see Peña 1985a for a more comprehensive history). Yet, not all tejanos embraced the conjunto. In fact, from its inception it was rejected by both the Anglo and the genteel Texas-Mexicans -- the "respectable class of Mexicans," as contemporary newspapers were pleased to call the middle-class tejanos. The Anglos' rejection of the conjunto is easily explainable and is related to their constant efforts to demean the Mexican. An early account of the dance activities of the Texas-Mexican folk, an article that appeared in the San Antonio Express, succinctly summarizes the Anglo attitude:

The fandango is their prime joy. For days and nights they beat their drums and whirl in the dance. These fandangos are becoming so frequent they are a great curse to the country. The respectable class of Mexicans do not attend them. (San Antonio Express 20 August 1881)

The "respectable" Mexicans' hostility toward the conjunto is a more complex phenomenon. In brief, that hostility is linked, at least partially, with the conflict between Anglos and Mexicans. From early on, but especially after the 1930s, the Texas-Mexican conjunto and its music and dances were associated in the minds of the upwardly mobile Texas-Mexicans with a class of people and a culture so profane that it constituted a barrier to the integration of the Mexican into mainstream society. Quite simply, it symbolized an ethnic reality that middle class (or at least "respectable") tejanos wished to put behind them as they pushed forward in the drive toward cultural assimilation. In the blunt words of Arnaldo Ramírez, a well-known recording company executive, "El acordeón era instrumento del pueblo. A la gente de posición mencionar el acordeón era mentarles la madre" (The accordion was an instrument of the folk. To mention it to people of position was to call their mother a name [Personal interview]).

The working-class folk were perfectly aware of the middle class's aversion to the conjunto and in reaction they developed an even stronger attachment to the music. Thus, much of the cultural power acquired by the conjunto during the twentieth century derives from its emblematic character -- its appropriation by and close association with working-class folk. As an artistic expression it articulated the working class's response to a dual conflict -- with an intransigent middle class and a hostile Anglo majority (see Peña 1985a, especially chapter 5).

It is critical to an understanding of the conjunto's significance that its complex social context be taken into account. Its emergence was a response to interethnic conflict, of course, but it was, above all, a response to intraethnic, class friction. In its musical expression, its dance styles, its very existence, the conjunto stood for -- symbolized -- the Texas-Mexican working class's most fundamental orientation toward life. I suggest, following Fredric Jameson, that as an artistic expression, conjunto ultimately communicated the "political unconscious" (Jameson 1981) of the tejano working class -- the unarticulated recognition that it constituted an ideological bloc with cultural and economic interests that diverged considerably from those of its middle-class antagonists. It is only against this backdrop of class antagonism that the words of the celebrated Paulino Bernal make any real sense (note the code-switching; it is typical of border speech):

Siempre había entre la raza, entre los Chicanos, lo que llamábamos nosotros, "N'hombre, te crees muy 'high society';" O sea, había una clase entre los Chicanos de gente que era más high y quería vivir como el americano, y vivir mejor. Claro ya habían alcanzado alguna posición más alta económicamente, y todavía había mucha raza que apenas estaba llegando, y con mucho -- struggling all the way. Entonces sí había la división; y allí es donde se dividía no tan sólo la posición social o la posición económica, sino que también se dividía la música -- el de la orquesta y el del conjunto.

(There was always among la raza, among the Chicano, what we used to call, "No, man, you think you're really high society." That is, there was one class of people among Chicanos that was higher, and they wanted to live like Americans, and live better. Of course, they had already reached a higher position economically, and there was still a lot of raza that was just arriving, and with a lot of -- struggling all the way. So there was a division; and that is where not only the social or economic position was divided, but the music was divided as well -- that of orquesta and that of conjunto.) (Peña 1985a, 144)

But a study of conjunto music cannot confine itself to the Texas-Mexican border. In fact, beginning as early as the 1930s, the music began to migrate northward and westward, as tejanos and norteños moved into Arizona, California, and the Midwest in search of better working and living conditions. Especially after World War II, the music established strong bases in many parts of the Southwest. And, just as the migrating Texas-Mexican and norteño workers were subjected to close scrutiny and even rejection by the resident Mexicans in other regions, so too was the music in large measure spurned by the non-norteños. Thus, in Arizona conjunto music came to be known by the unflattering label of el catachún (from the alleged monotony of the drum beat: catachún, catachún, catachún). Meanwhile, in California it was widely considered music appropriate only for "low-class" cantinas where rowdy tejanos gathered.

Despite such obstacles, in time a generalized conjunto/norteño music sprouted roots throughout the Southwest. In California, for example, the music has played a supportive role since the 1960s in keeping alive a distinctive mexicano, working-class culture, not only among norteños and Texas-Mexicans, but also among working-class people from distant regions who came to subscribe to the lively character of the music. Included among the converts to conjunto are immigrants from Michoacán, Guanajuato, Durango, Sonora, and other Mexican states. Indeed, the concept of norteño, as applied to this particular ensemble, has in recent years expanded from the original states of Texas, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila to include all of the northern tier of Mexican states -- Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California.

Last, since the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the music has also gained a new audience among a politicized population of upwardly mobile Mexican Americans who are sensitive to their folk culture roots and who perceive the music as a symbol of the Chicanos' resolve to maintain their autonomy and cultural inheritance in the face of the assimilative pressures exerted by the dominant Anglo majority. For these individuals the conjunto (like the mariachi) is something like an apotheosis of the Chicano "soul." Thus, for example, in choreographed form, the norteño music dance has become a staple in the grupos folklóricos that date back to the days of the Chicano movement and that are such an integral feature of cinco de mayo and other nationalistic Chicano festivals.


The Mexican American Orquesta Return to Index

If conjunto is the quintessence -- the soul -- of the border Mexicans, its rival style, orquesta, might well epitomize their collective consciousness. Surely no other music of the Southwest Border expresses the Mexican Americans' ambivalence toward class and ethnic loyalties as does the native orquesta, a ballroom dance ensemble patterned after the American dance band and its counterpart in Mexico. It is within the orquesta tradition that antithetical class ideologies clash and are ultimately synthesized; it is also within this tradition that Mexican and American cultures collide and penetrate, with neither able to dislodge the other from its position. It is as if this tradition were a battleground -- or playing field perhaps -- on which two cultures jockey for possession of the Mexican American's musical consciousness. In the end, however, neither claims outright victory; the two become hopelessly entangled. Another synthesis results: the Mexican American orquesta becomes a hybrid. It draws from both musical cultures for identity, in the process becoming a bicultural expression unique to the Southwest Border. Biculturalism, then, in the form of a bimusical repertory and style, is the key to orquesta's dynamism. But bimusicality was not always the norm for the Mexican American orquesta. A dual identity and repertory did not emerge until the 1930s, when Mexican Americans first experienced the winds of change. As noted earlier in connection with the corrido, this was the historical moment when Mexican society of the Southwest Border initiated the move from rural to urban and from folk to modern. It was also at this time that the society first witnessed class differentiation on a broader scale. But improved economic conditions and the promise of a better life brought their own complications; the process of change was not without turmoil. Cultural and ideological ambiguity began to creep into the collective consciousness, as contradictions related to class difference and divergent cultural allegiances surfaced. It was against this background of change and uncertainty that orquesta was cast.

The modern orquesta is thus a product of the transformation of Mexican American society, which began in the 1930s and accelerated after World War II. It was nurtured and propelled forward by a new bloc of upwardly mobile Americans of Mexican descent -- the Mexican American Generation, as Mario García called it (1984) -- that had begun to redefine its cultural and political loyalties. Responding to the logic of its circumstances, the new generation ultimately adopted an ideology of biculturalism (R. García 1983). This ideology aimed at bridging the chasm between the folk, ethnic heritage of the Mexican American Generation and the demands that "Anglo conformity" (McLemore 1980) makes of ethnic minorities in exchange for admission into the dominant social order. Thus caught in a classic border situation, where two antagonistic cultures have squared off in sporadic conflict, the Mexican Americans since the generation of the 1930s have had to walk a narrow path between the assimilation of American culture on the one hand and the retention of a Mexican one on the other. This is where the ideology of biculturalism has played its role. Paul Taylor, the man who pioneered the study of Anglo-Mexican relations, explored this ideology in the late 1920s and 1930s, when it was in its infancy. It was poignantly voiced by his informants, several of whom expressed their yearning to be both Mexican and American in an effort to maintain their ethnic integrity while gaining the Anglo's respect (Taylor 1971). The Mexican Americans' thorny dilemma was summarized by one of Taylor's informants:

There were a number of men who had served in the war. Then when they came home, they found that they were not served drinks (at some fountains), and were told that "no Mexicans were allowed." They raised the question then, "What are we, Mexicans or Americans?" (Taylor 1971, 245)

That question has never been entirely resolved. In fact, a number of more recent studies have explored the individual tensions and social contradictions that life within this interethnic border promotes, especially when class factors are considered (see, for example, Jordan 1981; Paredes 1966; Reyna 1980; Peña 1985b). Américo Paredes, for one, admirably demonstrated the conflictive biculturalism of middle-class Mexican Americans in his seminal essay, "Folk Medicine and the Intercultural Jest" (1968). The people studied by Paredes, highly acculturated middle-class Mexican Americans, used their verbal art -- their jests -- to reject certain elements of their Mexican folk heritage, while simultaneously expressing their resentment at an American society that condemned most members of their ethnic group to proletarian status and second-class citizenship. In Paredes's words:

This is not, then, a relatively simple case of second-generation Americans ridiculing the culture of their ancestors and thereby rejecting it. . . . There is an underlying conflict between [the jest tellers'] Spanish-Mexican heritage and an Anglo-American culture they have embraced intellectually without completely accepting it emotionally, in great part because Anglo American culture rejects part of themselves. (1968, 114)

The modern orquesta shares in the ambivalence of Taylor's informants and Paredes's jest tellers. To begin with -- and to recall Paulino Bernal's words -- historically there has indeed been a musico-ideological division between working- and middle-class Mexican Americans, especially in Texas. Historically, this division has been embodied in orquesta and conjunto, with supporters of the former considering themselves a better class of people -- jaitones (hightone), as the working-class border Mexicans derisively referred to them. Orquesta musicians themselves have always displayed a patronizing, if not disdainful, attitude toward conjunto, which they consider crude and unsophisticated. Yet, as one orquesta musician admitted, most Mexican Americans find it hard to turn their backs completely on the "roots" that conjunto represents. Commenting on the dances of "elite Mexicans" whom he played for, Moy Pineda said:

The first hour we play nothing but American music -- and nobody's dancing. Then we take off with Los laureles, El abandonado ranchera, [conjunto tunes] -- everybody starts dancing. When they start drinking they go back to the roots. (Personal Interview)

Ironically, until the 1930s the orquestas that existed in the Southwest were not much different from the conjunto. That is, they were for the most part rudimentary ensembles that had not yet felt the effects of intercultural influence. Consequently, they retained a strong, folk, Mexican character. Consonant with the working-class orientation of most Mexicans in the Southwest -- and similarly to the conjunto-the early orquestas subscribed to simplified, unpolished versions of the genres associated with Mexican music and dance since the nineteenth century -- the waltz, redowa, schottishe, and the like. And, like the working-class (not the bourgeois) orquestas typical of Greater Mexico (Mayer-Serra 1941), the ensembles of the Southwest consisted of sundry instruments assembled in ad hoc fashion, the most typical featuring a violin with guitar accompaniment. However, other instrumental arrangements were not uncommon, their composition ultimately dependent on the availability of both performers and instruments.

The improvisational character of early orquestas was clearly a function of the relatively undifferentiated organization of early Mexican American society. A folk society to begin with, the Mexican Americans remained in a marginalized state well into the twentieth century -- a result of the semicolonized status they occupied in the racist, exploitative social order of Anglo capitalism. Marginalization and a lack of socioeconomic stability made it difficult for the Mexican Americans to maintain well-organized ensembles -- except in urbanized areas, where a small but stable middle class could provide the training and financial support a full-fledged orquesta needed to survive. Lack of financial support was one major reason why the smaller, more portable norteño ensemble began to eclipse the orquesta among the Texas-Mexicans in the early part of the twentieth century.

The old-fashioned orquestas disappeared soon after the advent of the Mexican American Generation. They were replaced by the surging, modern-style orquestas, which were capable not only of keeping alive the Mexican Americans' musical "roots," but also of catering to the new generation's more modern and Americanized outlook. Thus, the new orquestas emphasized a musical ideal that was quite different from that of their predecessors, one that was strongly influenced by the urban, middle-class orchestras that remained comparatively small -- often limited to a single trumpet, a saxophone (or clarinet), and a rhythm section of electric guitar, drums, and, when available, a contrabass. The more expensive piano, so prominent in the large Mexican and American orchestras, was not always available to orquestas of the Southwest.

The orquestas nevertheless strove to emulate their better situated models in both countries, and, true to their bimusical orientation, they subscribed to the music and dances that were then sweeping the two commercial markets. Thus, from Mexico and Latin America came the danzón, bolero, guaracha, rumba, and other music-dance forms; from the United States came the boogie, swing, and the fox-trot. Very quickly, however, the orquestas of the Southwest began to experiment with various bimusical combinations -- especially the groups in Texas, which after the war assumed a leadership role in innovation. As a result of their increasing exposure through commercial recordings, the most professional and innovative tejano orquestas became the models that others around the Southwest followed. Coincident with this professionalization was the advent of the public ballroom dance, which allowed the most popular orquestas to rely exclusively on performance for full-time employment.

Thus, during the 1940s and 1950s some of the most renowned names in orquesta music hailed from Texas. There was Beto Villa, from Falfurrias, sometimes called the "father" of the Mexican American orquesta (see Peña 1985b). Acclaimed for a folk, "rancheroized" polka that came to be known as "Tex-Mex," Villa deftly juxtaposed this Mexicanized, ranchero-style polka against more modern and sophisticated music (música jaitona, as working-class people called it) that included American fox-trots, swings, and, of course, Mexican boleros, danzones, and other genres from Latin America.

Villa's influence on orquestas throughout the Southwest was enormous, and he was to inspire many others, especially in his native state of Texas. Important successors to Villa include Isidro López, who deliberately emphasized the ranchero mode of performance in an attempt to garner a larger share of the conjunto-loving working class. A singer-saxophonist, López concentrated on a working-class song known by then as a canción ranchera, which he embellished with a blend of mariachi and Tex-Mex that López himself dubbed "Texachi." Another orquesta of note during the 1940s and 1950s was that of singer-pianist Balde González, which specialized in a more jaitón, middle-class style anchored by the suave Mexican bolero and the American fox-trot. For an added international touch, González often injected Spanish lyrics into the latter. In Arizona, Pedro Bugarín achieved a modest share of fame by pursuing an eclectic approach that combined the Tex-Mex polka style of Villa with American and Latin genres. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, a number of orquestas operated, most of them specializing in the Afro-Caribbean styles that shortly came to be known as salsa. Noteworthy among them was Lalo Guerrero's orquesta. He fronted his own band for a while, composing his share of novel, bimusical tunes that fused musical and linguistic elements from the swing, rumba, and caló, a folk dialect popular among working-class youth in the Southwest and elsewhere (e.g., "Marihuana Boogie"; see Loza 1993). However, none of these orquestas approached the broad-based popularity attained by Beto Villa or Isidro López.

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a burst of innovation, with the Texas-Mexican orquestas again leading the way. The most prominent of these was undoubtedly Little Joe Hernández's orquesta -- the Latinaires (renamed La Familia in 1970). Little Joe y La Familia exploited the ranchero sound fashioned by Isidro López to its utmost, fusing it to American jazz and rock styles within the same musical pieces to achieve a unique bimusical sound that soon acquired the label of la onda chicana. This sound was first exploited in an enormously popular LP album, Para la Gente, released in 1972 by Little Joe's company, Buena Suerte Records. La onda chicana spread rapidly and in the 1970s it was the premier sound throughout the Southwest, with semiprofessional weekend orquestas from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to the San Joaquin Valley in California all attempting to duplicate the music of Little Joe y La Familia.

The orquesta occupied a central position in the musical activities of the Mexican Americans of the Southwest Border for the better part of the twentieth century because it so masterfully expressed not only their biculturalism, but also the contradictory nature of their existence at the margins of two divergent cultures. Like its supporters -- the Mexican American Generation and others who followed -- orquesta vacillated between Mexican and American, between its ranchero roots and its newfound urban modernity, and between its working-class origins and its increasing affluence. It is no small wonder that in mediating the cultural ambivalence of its constituents, orquesta should itself resort to such drastic stylistic swings.

In sum, as an artistic expression that sensitively reflected the changing social and economic conditions of the Mexicans of the Southwest Border during a fifty-year span (1930 to 1980), the multistyled orquesta best embodies the essence of Mexican American musical culture -- its collective consciousness. Depending on the time, place, and socioeconomic makeup of their audiences, orquestas were fully capable of extreme stylistic variation -- from Mexican to American, from folk-traditional to modern, and from working class to middle class. By their command of such disparate modes of performance, orquestas were able to capture the increasing diversity and mediate the internal contradictions of the society. Thus, in its most urbanized and cosmopolitan guise -- crystallized in the romantic bolero and the American fox-trot -- the orquesta spoke for the assimilative and middle-class yearnings of Mexican Americans. Conversely, in its performance of folk-derived music like the polka and canción ranchera, it evoked the ethnic, working-class origins of the Mexican Americans.

Orquesta music has suffered a sharp retrenchment since its days of glory in the 1960s and 1970s. Innovation has come to a halt during the 1980s and 1990s, and in many areas of the Southwest it is in steep decline. As an example, in one city of central California, Fresno, the number of orquestas dropped from a high of twelve in the early 1970s to three in the early 1990s -- and two of them work only sporadically. Even the brightest star of la onda chicana, Little Joe y La Familia, is but a fading ember of its former brilliance. Worse, no new commercial orquestas have appeared since the 1970s to carry the torch. And, while the style survives in attenuated fashion in its tejano stronghold, even there it lacks the luster of yesteryear.

What has happened? Although a thorough investigation of the rise and fall of the orquesta tradition needs to be undertaken (see Peña 1989), the evidence at present indicates that a major factor for orquesta's decline is the passing of the generation that nurtured it -- that group of Mexican Americans born, roughly, between 1920 and 1950. Uniquely situated in time and circumstance, this group of people participated in the great transformation that overtook Southwest Border society beginning in the 1930s -- the shift from folk to modern, the increasing socioeconomic differentiation of the society, and, above all, its changing relationship with the dominant Anglo majority. The one characteristic that distinguished this Mexican American group was its pronounced biculturalism. The one artistic expression that perfectly mirrored that biculturalism was the bimusical orquesta.

The 1980s, meanwhile, witnessed the ascendance of a new generation of Mexican Americans, born after 1950 and, on the whole, better educated, more affluent, and more Americanized than its predecessors. A numerically preponderant, less Americanized working class exists, of course, composed of both Mexican Americans and immigrants, but this group has never been the primary constituent of the orquesta. In the meantime, the upwardly mobile Mexican Americans, historically the backbone of orquesta music, have begun to modify their musical preferences. Thus, the musical groups emerging from the ranks of the new generation are far less bimusical than the old orquestas (Peña 1987). Indeed, they have forsaken the orquesta label as a self-referent, preferring names reminiscent of top-forty American music, such as "Dawn," "The Latin Connection," or "La Mafia." Having yielded substantially to the assimilative pressures of a hegemonic American culture, the newest generation of border Mexican Americans is turning to other sources for the everyday expression of its musical preferences. The musical groups it is spawning reflect this basic reality.


Conclusion Return to Index

I mentioned at the outset that the Southwest constitutes a border -- a sensitized area where the contact between Anglos and Mexicans could be expected to foster a climate in which intensive intercultural expression would thrive. The musical history of border Mexican Americans makes it demonstrably clear that this has indeed happened -- that the music of this subordinate minority has been deeply affected by the interethnic encounter. The three great musical traditions examined here are a testament to the power of intercultural conflict to channel expressive culture.

Upon closer examination, however, we can see that the Mexicans' response to intercultural conflict has not been uniform, that it has taken a dual track. On the one hand, traditions like orquesta and its even more Americanized offspring attest that cultural assimilation proceeds apace for the upwardly mobile segments of the Mexican population, although not without considerable backtracking. On the other hand, the persistence in the Southwest of strongly Mexicanized styles like conjunto (and mariachi, for that matter) demonstrate that an expressive culture, Mexican in character, continues to challenge the hegemony of Anglo-American culture throughout the border states. What conclusions can we draw from these contrasting developments?

First, the presence of expressive cultures like conjunto, which perpetuate ethnic resistance on the American side of the border, calls into question the assertion made not long ago that a "massive penetration of American culture on the Mexican life-style" is hastening the Americanization of life on the Mexican side of the border (Ross 1978, 5). Economic, political, and even cultural assimilation may be inevitable for border Mexican Americans, given the reality of their absorption and domination in American life. But the process advances unevenly, slowed or hastened by historically driven factors like the formation of classes, immigration, and enduring interethnic conflict. The culture embodied by conjunto music is one of those factors that inhibits assimilation. In this respect -- and contrary to what some analysts of border culture may have concluded -- the cultural absorption of the Mexican is complex and certainly far from complete, even on the American side of the border.

Finally, if we take their musical record as a case in point, we may justifiably conclude that although the Mexicans of the border may have been forced to yield ground to Anglos, they have not done so without resistance or a determined effort to dictate the terms of their capitulation to the stronger power. They have done this musically by preserving antecedent symbols like the conjunto, the corrido, and Mexican music generally. On the other hand, they have negotiated their assimilation into American life by creating highly novel, hybrid expressions like the orquesta. Musical forms like the conjunto, then, evoke and defend a strong ethnic culture; forms like orquesta prepare the ground for the transition from a Mexican to an American consciousness.

University of Texas, Austin


Notes Return to Index

Note 1. return to text Conceptualized more broadly, the border would of course include the area on the Mexican side of the international boundary. Cultural interpenetration is also evident there (see Martínez 1988; Ross 1978). However, as conceived here, the sensitized area where politico-cultural interpenetration and contestation occur is properly the American Southwest. In any case, it is in this region that musical activity has been most sensitive to the interplay of cultures.

Note 2. return to text In common usage, the term "Anglo" refers to most Euro-Americans, regardless of national origin. The term is imprecise, of course, but in the context of interethnic relations with the Mexicans of the Southwest, these Euro-Americans present a common, pan-ethnic American identity, welded together by the language and customs of the dominant British group (the Anglos), and set against an "alien" Mexican people and their culture (see Gordon 1964; McLemore 1980).

Note 3. See note 1 above. return to text

Works Cited Return to Index

Acuña, Rodolfo. 1972. Occupied America: The Chicano's Struggle Toward Liberation. San Francisco: Canfield Press.

Barrera, Mario. 1979. Race and Class in the Southwest: A Theory of Racial Inequality. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Camarillo, Albert. 1979. Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Foley, Douglas. 1988a. From Peones to Politicos: Class and Ethnicity in a South Texas Town, 1900-1987. Rev. ed. Austin: University of Texas Press.

---. 1988b. "The Legacy of the Raza Unida Party in South Texas: A Class Analysis." Ethnic Affairs 2: 47-73.

García, Mario T. 1981. Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920. New Haven: Yale University Press.

---. 1984. "Americans All: The Mexican American Generation and the Politics of Wartime Los Angeles, 1941-1945." Social Science Quarterly 65, no. 2: 278-89.

García, Richard T. 1983. "The Mexican American Mind: A Product of the 1930s." In History, Culture and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s, ed. Mario T. García et al. Ypsilanti: Bilingual/Review Press.

Goetzmann, William H. 1985. "Anglo-American Dreams: Keep the White Light Shining." The Texas Humanist 7, no. 3: 30-32.

Gordon, Milton. 1964. Assimilation in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1981. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Jordan, Rosan A. 1981."Tension and Speech Play in Mexican-American Folklore." In "And Other Neighborly Names": Social Process and Cultural Image in Texas Folklore, ed. Richard Bauman and Roger D. Abrahams. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Limón, José. 1977. "Agringado Joking in Texas-Mexican Society: Folklore and Differential Identity." In New Directions in Chicano Scholarship, ed. Ricardo Romo and Raymund Paredes. La Jolla: University of California Press.

---. 1983. "Folklore, Social Conflict, and the United States-Mexico Border." In Handbook of American Folklore, ed. Richard M. Dorson. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

Loza, Steven. 1993. Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

McLemore, S. Dale. 1980. Racial and Ethnic Relations in America. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

McWilliams, Carey. 1968. North from Mexico. New York: Greenwood Press.

Martínez, Oscar J. 1988. Troublesome Border. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Mayer-Serra, Otto. 1941. Panorama de la música mexicana. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Mazón, Mauricio. 1984. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Mitchell, Richard G. 1973. "Joaquín Murrieta." In Furia y Muerte: Los Bandidos Chicanos, ed. Pedro Castillo and Albert Camarillo. Los Angeles: Aztlán Publications.

Paredes, Américo. 1958a. With His Pistol in His Hand. Austin: University of Texas Press.

---. 1958b. "The Mexican Corrido: Its Rise and Fall." In Madstones and Twisters, ed. Mody C. Boatright. Dallas: Publications of the Texas Folklore Society.

---. 1966. "The Anglo-American in Mexican Folklore." In New Voices in American Studies, ed. Ray Browne. Lafayette: Purdue University Press.

---. 1968. "Folk Medicine and the Intercultural Jest." In Spanish-Speaking People in the United States, ed. June Helm. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

---. 1976. A Texas-Mexican Cancionero. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

---. 1978. "The Problem of Identity in a Changing Culture: Popular Expressions of Culture Conflict along the Lower Rio Grande Border." In Views across the Border: The United States and Mexico, ed. Stanley Ross. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Peña, Manuel. 1982. "Folksong and Social Change: Two Corridos as Interpretive Sources." Aztlán 13: 13-42.

---. 1985a. The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music. Austin: University of Texas Press.

---. 1985b. "From Ranchero to Jaitón: Ethnicity and Class in Texas-Mexican Music (Two Styles in the Form of a Pair)." Ethnomusicology 29, no. 1: 29-55.

---. 1985c. "Música tejana." The Texas Humanist 7, no. 6: 23-25.

---. 1987. "Music for a Changing Community: Three Generations of a Chicano Family Orquesta." Latin American Music Review 8, no. 2: 230-45.

---. n.d. "The Rise and Fall of the Mexican American Orquesta Tradition." Unpublished manuscript.

Placencia, Luis F. B. 1983. "Low Riding in the Southwest: Cultural Symbols in the Mexican Community." In History, Culture, and Society: Chicano Studies in the 1980s, ed. Mario T. García et al. Ypsilanti: Bilingual/Review Press.

Reyna, José. 1980. Raza Humor: Chicano Joke Tradition in Texas. San Antonio: Penca Books.

Robinson, Cecil. 1977. Mexico and the Hispanic Southwest in American Literature. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Ross, Stanley. 1978. "Introduction." In Views across the Border: The United States and Mexico, ed. Stanley Ross. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Sonnichsen, Philip. 1975. Texas-Mexican Border Music. Vols. 2, 3. Corridos. Part 1, 2 (LP booklet). El Cerrito: Arhoolie/ Folklyric Records.

Taylor, Paul S. 1971. An American-Mexican Frontier. New York: Russell and Russell.



Return to Border Cultures: Conjunto Music - Index Page