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SO! Reads: Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda

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SO! Reads3

Deborah R. Vargas’s Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (2012) presents an alternate story of Chicana music through a collection of case studies in Chicana/o music history centering on Chicana/Tejana musicians active between the early decades of the 20th century to the present.  Vargas assembles a mix of archival documents, interviews, images, songs, recordings, performances, ephemera, fragments, memories and engages intersectional feminist theory and queer of color critique to trace the music scenes her subjects inhabit.

A feminist oral historian, Chicano/Latino cultural studies scholar, and Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, Vargas’s research overlaps these disciplines and facilitates a conversation between popular music and sound studies that significantly considers gender, sexuality, and racialization in the construction of borderlands imaginaries.  With Dissonant Divas Vargas makes an intervention both theoretical and methodological that greatly expands the Chicana/o musical archive and as well as the audiences for sound studies research. Furthermore, Vargas’s reflective writing voice locates her own Tejana/Chicana story in relation to her project and offers helpful insights into her research process at key moments.  [The brief essay titled “Selena, Jenni Rivera, Eva Garza—meditations on an author’s soundtrack” published on the Minnesota Press webpages for Dissonant Divas is a generous methodology piece that should be read along with this comprehensive, satisfying, highly readable and often riveting text.]

"Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music" copyright University of Minnesota Press, all rights reserved

“Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music” copyright University of Minnesota Press, all rights reserved

Vargas defines the term, la onda, in a general sense as “an umbrella term for Mexican American/Chicano/Tejano music (x).”  More critically, la onda also “operates to represent musics that have been prominent in academic and cultural sites that have produced dominant discourses of sexuality, gender, class, race, geography, and language in the constructions of Chicano music.”  “Dissonance” can be understood variously as “chaos, cacophany, disharmony, static” and “out-of-tuneness” that draws attention to “the power of music with regard to Chicana gender and sexuality (xiv).” Vargas’s main critique notes how the “limits of la onda” reveals the heteronormative and patriarchal underpinnings that construct dominant narratives of Chicano music historiography.  She argues that the force of these narratives have naturalized a way of thinking about Chicano music in terms of the various “fathers” of Chicano rock, conjunto music, and of the field of borderland studies itself. The distortions produced by the assimilating cultural nationalist logic of “la onda” have not only suppressed Chicana music histories and/or enabled their mishearing, but they also hide the complex ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality converge to produce Chicana subjectivities within and against the Chicano musical canon. In theorizing “dissonance,” Vargas thus productively sounds the Chicana histories in Dissonant Divas as alternatively gendered and/or queered against the heteromasculine concord of la onda.

The chapter “Borders, Bullets, Besos:  The Ballad of Chelo Silva” contains perhaps the most provocative pages, detailing Chelo Silva, a bolero singer with a distinct repertoire of songs that are still performed and kept alive by a diverse lineage of performers and audiences, yet whose renown is seemingly inseparable with her former marriage to Américo Paredes.   Ubiquitous in borderlands studies, Paredes’s name and legacy are defined largely by his study of the corrido, With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (1970). Vargas strategically positions Silva and Paredes as “embodied representations” of the bolero and the border ballad, respectively, taking up Sonia Salídvar-Hull’s proposal to “imagine new corridos” by proposing Silva’s boleros as “feminist border ballads.” Vargas parses the constructions, aesthetics, and values carried in each song form, exploring how the border ballad has been the primary counter-site for narrating the injustice of Tejano/Anglo conflict (bullets) while the bolero, whose constant subject is love, luxuriates in all its jouissance (besos).  Vargas reveals that the border ballad “has allowed its authors, singers, and scholars to sound the borderlands imaginary into being,” illuminating how the contest over historical representation is tied to musical representation. Silva’s story cannot be found within this articulation of la onda without, in part, redefining the border ballad (54).

Vargas innovates and meticulously crafts an alternative archive better suited to narrating and hearing Silva’s fragmented story, what Vargas felicitously calls her archisme of knowledge. Engaging the silences in Silva’s story, the archisme sounds her presence in the recorded memories of her fans which include testaments to her unique vocal qualities, her powerful and evocative performances, her improvisations in music and in life,,along with a healthy amount of the chisme or gossip surrounding Silva.  Proposing the archisme as a “feminist project for historicizing nonnormative Chicana/o genders and desires” Vargas extends both Sonia Saldivar-Hull’s directive for Chicana scholars to look in nontraditional places for theory and Lisa Lowe’s theorization of gossip as a destructuring site of knowledge production (Saldivar-Hull, 1998; Lowe, 1996).

As I read through the first three chapters, a question that kept coming up concerned why we should not consider this study on more specific regional terms, or why this book isn’t titled, “Tejana Divas”?  Vargas finds the overdetermination of these Chicana/Tejana musicians as “regional” subjects a problem not typically encountered by musicians from a city like Los Angeles, for example, because of its construction as a global metropolis.  I cannot dispute Los Angeles’s status as a world center and I wondered how to earnestly engage Vargas on this point. What are the stakes of locating this study of Tejana/Chicana musicians within a broader Chicano/a musical context?

The final two chapters make the case for remapping Chicana music, advanced in part by the capacious notion of queer “diva-scapes.” In “Sonido de las Americas: Crossing South-South Borders with Eva Garza,” Vargas employs what she calls a “transfrontera musical compass,” a feminist methodology deftly juxtaposing the notion of a “musical scale” with the concept of “geographic scale.” Eva Garza’s career begins in her San Antonio hometown but she eventually came to embody the “la vóz de las  Américas” in a hemispheric sense via her participation in early Spanish language radio, recordings, and live performances in nightclubs and films that took her to Mexico City and Havana for significant periods; her genre-crossing repertoire mirrored her travels. Garza began as a singer of the appropriately feminine bolero, but through her contact with Cuban musicians, the Afro-Caribbean guaracha song–decidedly phallocentric and risqué in its subject matter–also became part of her repertoire. The song she was most known for, “Sabor de Engaño” adds a sensual register to her transfrontera compass, a lingering sabor or taste exceeding regional, national, formal, and gendered limits. This is most evident in the repeated examples of impromptu performances of a song verse or refrain of “Sabor de Engaño” by many Cubanos Vargas encountered in her research travels. Vargas employs the transfrontera musical compass as a “listening instrument” to trace Garza’s musical trajectory through spatial-temporal moments disrupting rigid and normative notions of community, nation, and Chicano music (147).

"Selena Live" by Flickr user hellboy_93, CC BY-ND 2.0

“Selena Live” by Flickr user hellboy_93, CC BY-ND 2.0

In “Giving Us That Brown Soul: Selena’s Departures and Arrivals,” Vargas addresses the multiple problems in the mainstream media’s designation of “crossover star” to narrate Selena’s story as a spectacular rise in fame marked by her violent death in 1995. Vargas seeks to correct the assimilationist narratives of Selena’s musical history that, in addition to figuring her as a marginalized Latina on the verge of “legitimate” status, problematically narrates a south-north trajectory “devoid of blackness and queerness.”  Vargas both critiques how “brown soul” has been musically deployed to stand in for cultural nationalist “brown power” and extends previous work focusing on blackness in Chicano/Latino music that includes R&B and Afro-Caribbean influences but not necessarily the Afro-diasporic. Cumbia, an Afro-Columbian dance form popularized in Mexico in the 1940’s – 50’s is central to Selena’s Tejano sound as are 70’s era disco and 80’s freestyle, particularly in the cultivation of her iconic diva look which together resonate a queer of color musical legacy on the sonic and visual planes.

Selena’s “brown soul” and style moves Tex-Mex cumbias in what Vargas calls “queer misdirections” by traveling north-south, for example, while sounding counterhegemonic femininities that continue to reverberate in the many tribute drag performances to Selena in and beyond the borderlands of Tejas.  In these ways, Vargas traces the “topography of Selena’s transformations and remappings of Chicano music (205).  Just as audio technologies have been key in circulating Eva Garza’s and Selena’s music in multiple directions, so are the memories, repeated performances, and queer embodiments of their music by their diverse audiences. For both of the these artists, sound expands Vargas’s engagement with spatialization theories so that we may hear these productive dissonances and in these ways begin to imagine alternative borderlands imaginaries.

Upon finishing, a question that remains in considering “diva dissonance” is the implied consonance of  Vargas’s theorization of “la onda.” At times, the term becomes too totalizing, and I would argue for the presence of heterogeneity and other musical diversities even within what Vargas denotes as la onda. We must both make and leave room to imagine the possibility of many unrecorded, captured, or yet unsounded transgressions for Chicanas whose paths may appear to follow a heteronormative logic.  For this reason I found the reiteration of such rich findings against la onda asomewhat repetitive distraction from the richer tales Vargas’s archival work tells. What would these histories sound like if they weren’t always positioned against la onda—if they were sounded instead more toward each other?

What Deborah R. Vargas richly accomplishes in Dissonant Divas responds to Alejandro Madrid’s call for musicologists to establish critical conversations beyond “the conservatory” and to engage larger intellectual dialogues (AMS Vol. 64, No. 3, 2011).Vargas’s intersectional feminist-of-color argument extends the body of feminist Chicana/o cultural studies scholarship and equally extends Chicano music histories that may engage gender to some degree but do not fully interrogate those categorical constructions. Her theorization of the title’s key term “dissonance” as “both a methodological and analytic device” and her construction of a differential archive combine to create “alternative sonic imaginaries of the borderlands (xii).”  More broadly, Dissonant Divas is an intervention to the problems of conducting research in marginalized communities and the racialized subjects often left out of official archives, institutional records, and studies of sound (Trouillot, 1995; Taylor, 2003). Each chapter reveals and addresses various barriers to conducting research on Chicana musicians whose uneven historical representation lead Vargas to turn to other sites, methodologies, and embodied practices where Chicana voices resound across temporal and spatial lines. In these ways, Vargas’s sustained engagement of race, class, gender, and sexuality with Chicana/o borderlands music is thoroughly new.

Featured Image: Pauline Oliveros by Flickr user Horacio González Diéguez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wanda Alarcón is a doctoral candidate of Comparative Ethnic Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of California, Berkeley where she is writing a dissertation titled: “Sounding Aztlán:  Music, Literature, and the Chicana/o Sonic Imaginary”. Her research interests include Chicana/o cultural studies, U.S. ethnic literatures, popular music, sound studies, queer of color theory, and decolonial feminism. At Berkeley she has facilitated the working groups, “Decolonial Feminisms” and “Popular Music in Chicana/o Cultural Studies” at the Center for Race and Gender (CRG). Wanda is originally from Los Angeles and before starting graduate school she created the poetry zine, JOTA (2002 – 2006) and is updating that project by creating an archive for queer Chicana writing in cyberspace. She is a fan of radio genres and podcasts and writes micro radio plays while on the road. She is suspicious of the MP3 format yet enjoys curating party, tribute, and mood themed playlists on Spotify immensely. You can find her on Twitter depending on writing deadlines @esawanda.  

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Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs

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Start a band3 (1)Welcome back to Start a Band, our two-part series on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, focusing on what the band’s sonic provocations mean for sound studies today. Last week, we heard from Jake Smith, who introduced us to a way of thinking about the Velvets that emphasized the “haptic” qualities that emerge so often while listening to them. Following that idea, Smith took us on a kind of journey from the skin to the musculature and the viscera through a deep analysis of key songs in their catalog — “This is your body on the Velvet Underground.”

This week, we’re delighted to welcome to Sounding Out! a writer whose work we’ve been eager to feature for a long while — Tim AndersonAssociate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Tim has written extensively on popular music and sound, and is currently a leader of the Sound Studies Scholarly Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, one of the scholarly groups associated with the SO! Thursday stream. It’s such a pleasure to present this sensitive and personal account of the Velvet Underground — and of learning to listen.

- NV

Lou Reed and Andy Warhol as the respective definers of audible  and visual cool for misfits and undergroundlings for the last five decades.

Lou Reed and Andy Warhol as the respective definers of audible and visual cool for misfits and undergroundlings for the last five decades.

Reports of Lou Reed’s death came on a Sunday. Even though he was 71, it was still a shock. To many present-day friends and colleagues Reed’s  Velvet Underground are a band that they understand are important, but just don’t get. In the case of an artist like Lou Reed, an artist who never had a top ten charting single and only two gold albums, you could see their point.

Still, I obsessed. Rattled from my travels in Washington, DC, I called my wife and we talked about his music for about an hour or so, after which I took a long walk to the Washington Mall. It was a sunny fall day, October 27, 2013, and I walked past the Smithsonian with its prominent memorials, such a clean space for so much past, some of which the nation has buried and  some of which we don’t even bother to think about. The deceased have always done the most important work in our nation’s capital.

The day after,  I really don’t remember doing much. I took a train home, read everything I could online about Reed, and thought a lot about his records. The ones I liked —New York and The Blue Mask—the ones I learned to like —it took me years to enjoy Transformer—and the ones I loved —The Velvet Underground and NicoWhite Light, White HeatThe Velvet Underground and VU. Those four records, more than any records I can remember, altered me, many of my friends in my teens and in college, and almost every rock musician I admired in the 1980s. Velvet Underground records were simply foundational. Writing about Reed’s death, rock critic Greg Kot summed up the Velvet’s influence by claiming that they were “as influential as The Beatles” and if you named “just about any left-of-centre band or artist since the ‘70s”, some of whom like R.E.M., U2 and Talking Heads “became mainstream giants”all of them would “acknowledge a deep debt to the Velvet Underground.”

This influence is the reason that the collective mourning of such a marginally popular figure swelled to such a crescendo. However, to paraphrase the words of one of Reed’s most storied rivals, Lester Bangs, on the death of John Lennon, this was not the mourning of a person. Most of us never met Lou Reed. Instead, we were mourning ourselves. To lose Lou Reed was tantamount to losing the author of a proverbial urtext of a kind of secret rock language that has been passed down since the late 1960s on how to be cool. It was a language of composed of style, gestures, and reactions. It was one that was filled with a fun that was not of the obligatory “hey-dude-let’s-party!” party. The Velvet’s overdriven guitars repeatedly underscored that teenage kicks included other aesthetic pleasures such as contemplation and melancholy.  Most importantly, the Velvet Underground offered a language of listening passed down from one rock underground to another.

Because pop fans of all stripes must learn how to be a fan, learning how and what to listen to is a taste-defining social exercise. Simon Frith once explained that, for him, “one aspect of learning how to be a rock fan in the 1960s was, in fact, learning to prefer [original records made by black artists of the 1950s] to covers [made by white artists of the same era]. And this was, as I recall, something that had to be learned [by Frith]: nearly all the records I had bought in the late 1950s had been the cover versions” (Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, 1996). In my case, learning to listen also meant learning what to listen to while listening to The Velvet Underground, a process involving peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews.

R.E.M.'s 1983 LP release of "Murmur" on cassette

R.E.M.’s 1983 LP release of “Murmur” on cassette

As a young rock fan who began first collecting cassettes —that’s right, cassettes —this process would begin through an obsession with R.E.M.’s Murmur, a cryptic, odd inscrutable cassette with no lyrics, a black and white picture and layers of reverb. The copy I found had been severely discounted in a ma and pa record store in Globe, Arizona. In Summer 1983 I read a rave review in a copy of Rolling Stone and at 14 had purchased a cassette unlike anything I had ever heard; I wasn’t sure I enjoyed it. Why did so many reviewers seem to fall over themselves about this record? To solve this puzzle, it meant learning how to listen to music invested in tone rather than ostentatious chops. It meant paying attention to drones rather than solos. It meant following those features to Velvet Underground records after peers, record clerks, friends, musicians and reviews made a point that Murmur reminded them a bit of VU records.

Murmur was also the first record I ever purchased that embraced what Jacob Smith so wonderfully identifies as a distinctive trait of all Velvet Underground records. For Smith, these pop records are part of a genealogy that “stress evocative timbres, idiosyncratic voices, and signature sounds over structural or lyrical complexity.” The distillation of this pop ethos onto record was one of the reasons that so many musicians whose abilities may have been limited but whose tastes tended toward the poetic found The Velvets so influential. As Jonathan Richman explained, “I didn’t start singing or playing till I was 15 and heard the Velvet Underground. They made an atmosphere, and I knew that I could make one too!” (Quoted in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, 61). Indeed, Smith notes that the deceptive complexity of VU Records “can be found more on the level of timbre than in musical structure or instrumentation” and “lyrics often encourage a blurring of listening and touching”; his post actually reads like many of the conversations and reviews surrounding R.E.M.’s debut LP. The same could also be said of records released by other 1980s and 90s artists such as The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Opal, Mazzy Star, Radiohead, The Dream Syndicate, Galaxie 500, The Rain Parade, Green on Red, New Order, Joy Division, The Feelies, Spacemen 3, Sonic Youth, The Pretenders, The Sisters of Mercy, Ministry, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and The Violent Femmes, to name but a few who drew water from the Velvet Underground well.  Bands sonically inspired by the Velvets often providing feedback before solos, drummed without cymbals, and portrayed dark themes sung in monotones that sounded sophisticated and obscure.

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However, actually hearing a Velvet Underground record in 1983 and 1984 was a significant problem for newer fans, as their MGM catalog was out of print. Many understood these records to be effectively buried by label president Mike Curb’s infamous axing of the act from MGM along with seventeen others who allegedly promoted and exploited “hard drugs through music” (Tiegel, Eliot “Mgm Busts 18 Rock Groups.” Billboard, November 7 1970, 1, 70). As Lou Reed himself once noted, “it’s depressing when you’re still around and your albums are out of print.” I have often wondered if this was one of the reasons that The Velvets catalogue would have such a profound effect on so many of us. Sure, I had found a copy of Loaded, the band’s fourth official release, but its bright tones had none of the subversive menace that so many reviewers alluded to when speaking of the Velvets. Even in a mountain town in Arizona, I had a better chance of finding used copies of  The Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood or Blues for Allah than I did The Velvet Underground and Nico. In other cities, in other record stores, when I did find those records they were used and prices started at $15 and up. They were records I simply could not afford to listen to.

The Velvet Underground's "lost" fourth album, "VU"

The Velvet Underground’s “lost” fourth album, “VU”

All that changed after 1985, when every MGM Velvet Underground record would appear in my life for less than $25. Bill Levenson’s efforts as Polygram’s then A&R manager to reissue the buried and lost MGM catalog on Verve provided me and every other young person who had only “heard of The Velvet Underground” the chance to finally to listen to all of these records at once.  Indeed, the moment of the catalogue’s reissue was simply a sonic flood, one where sounds filled in gaps that had been cut deeply by conversations, descriptions and my own imagination. Writing at the time about these reissues and the unveiling of a lost album’s worth of material that would be titled V.U., David Fricke argued that “rock historians and fans alike owe Bill Levenson, the executive producer of V.U., a debt of thanks for resurrecting these tracks and for giving the band’s first three LPs the proper reissue they’ve long deserved. At $5.98 list price, The Velvet Underground and Nico,White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground are essential purchases —certainly essential listening for any study of Seventies and Eighties punk evolution. As for V.U., the Great Lost Velvet Underground Album is no longer lost. It is simply great” (Fricke, David. “The Velvet Underground – V.U.” Rolling Stone, March 14 1985).

2012 ad for another reissue of the MGM Velvet Underground catalog and Nico's first solo LP

A 2012 ad for another reissue of the MGM Velvet Underground catalog and Nico’s first solo LP

Is it too much to suggest a that the pent up desire to hear a secret history sparked by The Velvet Underground’s reissues created the 80s/90s iteration of “alternative rock”? Perhaps, but history is filled with desires asserted, accepted and denied. Indeed, most of those aforementioned 80s alternative acts I came into contact with had been performing and recording and releasing records years before 1985. However, there is no doubt that the VU reissues turned a number of ears predisposed to hearing in a certain way onto new ways of listening to the Velvets concentrated doses of moody darkness, modes that earlier Velvet Underground fans simply had little access to.

Ignoring the impact of the sonic flood of VU material that fell upon my ears during this period turns away from a specific history of listening that, while personally unique, was an opportunity available to so many of my contemporaries. Indeed, if sounds have histories because their traces persist, then listening must have histories guided partially by testimonial. To hear these histories we might ask ourselves to remember how, why, and with whom did we listen, and to trade in this information. If we did so, we might better understand how we learned to listen: especially what to listen to and why it was important. And, without these testimonials of our pasts as listeners, we just may lose sound’s crucial other half.

Featured Image: “Velvet Underground Yellow Label Mono” by Flickr user Simon MurphyThe Velvet Underground – Yellow label mono 

Tim J. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University where studies the multiple cultural and material practices that make music popular. He has published numerous book chapters, refereed journal articles, and two monographs: Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) and Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy: Problems and Practices for an Emerging Service Industry (Routledge, 2014). His latest research project focuses on recordings, musicians, listeners and the public sphere. His website is timjanderson.weebly.com and he can be contacted at tjanders@odu.edu.

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Hold this Thread: A Partial History of a Rock n’Roll Relationship-Benjamin Gold

Radio Ambulante: A Radio that Listens

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Radio Accion2Welcome back to the final article in our three-part series, Radio de Acción. Special thanks to you, our readers, and to editors Jennifer Stoever and Neil Verma at Sounding Out! for hosting this addition to a burgeoning field of Latin American critics and producers who are changing the way we hear radio as history, as theory, and in practice.

Over the past several weeks we have tried to bring you into the multiple worlds made possible by radio in Latin America. If you missed our previous posts, please find Alejandra Bronfman’s stunning history of radio in the Caribbean here, and Karl Swinehart’s fascinating study of Aymaran-Spanish radio here.

Both of these critical approaches set the stage for Carolina Guerrero’s extraordinary work with radio in the Americas. An executive director and co-founder of Radio Ambulante—a program that fellow co-founder and novelist Daniel Alarcón calls “This American Life, but in Spanish, and transnational”—Guerrero’s post takes us behind the scenes of her show to consider how the sounds on radio come to life for us as listeners, and the significance of hearing someone’s words in her or his own voice and language. For more Radio Ambulante after you finish reading and listening to Carolina’s post, please visit their website and download their podcasts.

–Guest editor Tom McEnaney

In late 2007, novelist Daniel Alarcón was hired by the BBC to produce a radio documentary about Andean migration in his native Peru. He spent 10 days traveling around the country, from the highlands to Lima, conducting interviews in both English and Spanish, talking to a wide range of people with very personal stories about migration. But when Daniel received the final mix from London, he was disappointed to find that the editor had privileged the English language voices, and left out many of the most compelling Spanish language storytellers. Daniel was left with a question: what if there was a space for those voices on the radio waves? What would it sound like?

Over coffee in San Francisco in January 2011, Alarcón and I decided to create that space, inspired by US public radio shows like This American Life and Radiolab, which had no Spanish counterpart. We knew that poignant, fun, surprising, unique, sometimes sordid, sometimes romantic, absurd and incredible stories we often heard in Latin America were out there, just waiting to be reported. We knew that they would make great radio. And we knew there was an audience—in Latin America and the US—that wanted to hear it. The result became Radio Ambulante.

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FIRST STEPS

We began by asking many of our print journalist friends in Latin America to share stories with us. We sent them links to stories from some of our favorite American radio programs, and then contacted a few bilingual independent radio producers here in the US, and asked them for advice on the basics of radio production. Many directed us to Transom.org, which was an absolutely essential resource.

In March of 2012, we launched a Kickstarter campaign. All we had was an idea and a sampler with less than 45 minutes of audio—and still, we managed to raise $46,000 with the support of 600 backers. The success of this campaign was a huge confidence boost, and we knew we were on to something. We used this money to produce our pilot season.

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Since then, we’ve worked with more than twenty different producers in more than a dozen countries. These are the characters that emerge from Radio Ambulante stories: a transgender Nicaraguan woman living with her Mexican wife in San Francisco’s Mission District; a Peruvian stowaway telling his harrowing tale of coming to New York in 1959, hidden in the hold of a tanker ship; the Chilean soccer player who dared challenge the authority of General Pinochet; a young Argentine immigrant to North Carolina, trying to find his way through the racially charged environment of an American high school. Taken together these voices create a nuanced portrait of Latino and Latin American life:

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PERSONAL STORIES FOR ALL EARS

Now in our third season, we’ve been working hard to create a group of trusted producers and editors across Latin America; people we can turn to with an idea, people we know we can trust with our limited time and resources; reporters we can send to Cuba, send to Honduras, send to Venezuela, and be certain they’ll come back with usable tape, and a good story. We want these first time producers to become long-term contributors.

That’s the case of Camila Segura, Radio Ambulante’s current Senior Editor. She had no prior experience as a radio producer when she reported her first story for us in 2012. That piece, El otro, el mismo (The Other, The Same) is about two men, one Colombian, one Argentinian, who not only share the same name, but who look almost identical. From this coincidence, the story becomes something much stranger, funnier, more subtle, and ultimately quite moving:

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We want the listener to be able to relate and identify with the characters, to feel what they feel. A good Radio Ambulante story should be universal and shouldn’t have an expiration date.

One story from our first season captures this universal quality. In 2011, River Plate, one of the most famous soccer clubs in South America, was relegated to the Argentine Second Division. This event shook the entire nation, and anyone who listens to this story could relate to the sadness and pain that the protagonist is feeling. Two years later, the story still has that raw power:

Translation

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HOW WE SOUND

Martina Castro, Senior Producer, has designed most of Radio Ambulante’s sound, finding the balance between music and sound effects in order to support the voice of the main characters. As she explains,

There are many kinds of pieces that make it to Radio Ambulante. Sometimes the story is focused on one person and their experience: something that happened long ago. Like with Mayer Olórtegui in Polizones (The Stowaways), and the story of how he and his friend Mario jumped aboard a ship headed to the United States. There is no substitute for a dynamic storyteller like Mayer. He not only recreates moments, sometimes even imitating the sounds of what he heard, but he remembers the emotion of what happened, and really feels deeply what he is talking about, like when his voice breaks up at the mention of saying goodbye to his friend Mario.

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Other, more symphonic, multi-voiced pieces provide a different kind of production challenge. The script must showcase the many characters, while giving the listener enough grounding so as not to get lost. A particularly successful example is our award-winning piece “N.N.”, about Puerto Berrio, Colombia, by reporter Nadja Drost. Nadja gathered recordings of this river town, and conducted interviews with many locals, always focused on the issue of the floating, anonymous dead and the town’s strange relationship with these bodies. The music in a piece like this is only meant to support those real-life sounds and characters, and a repeated melody serves as a ghost-like echo of the dead, those voices we never hear.

Translation

We use music carefully to shift the mood, to mark the end of a section, and to alert the listener that something new is coming. The music is also meant to break up chapters of a story, give us a moment to reflect on what we just heard, or to indicate when something is about to change. There are examples in Yuri Herrera’s “Postcard from Juárez,” produced by Daniel Alarcón. It tells the story of Diana la Cazadora, or Diana the Hunter, a vigilante who set about killing bus drivers in one of the world’s most violent cities, allegedly as revenge for years of misogyny and sexism.

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In this particular story, we were able to do something that the English version (produced for This American Life) could not: read in the original Spanish the letter that the supposed killer sent the local Ciudad Juárez newspaper explaining her actions. We had this read by Lizzy Cantú, a Mexican journalist who’d worked with us before, and then distorted her voice, to give it that dark ambience. The listener is supposed to feel the grim violence in those words: the desperation.

bienvenidosTHE STORY IS KEY

In three seasons producing the show, we’ve learned that the craft of radio comes from listening, and that the most challenging aspect of producing radio is not in the technical details of recording those voices or sounds, but in the story itself.

The most basic building block of a good radio story is a good interview. The technical aspects of gathering sound are less important than phrasing the questions to get vivid, almost filmic answers, full of details that set the scene.. As Executive Producer Daniel Alarcón explains,

We ask our reporters to push interviewees to describe scenes in great detail, to unpack moments. Our interviews can last two hours or more, and many are surprised that we go so in depth. We like our reporters to circle back, and then circle back again, so that we’re sure we’re getting the most vivid version possible of a given story’s crucial moments.

We ask our reporters to write colloquially, to imagine they’re telling the story to a friend at a bar. It’s important to have immediacy in the language, an expressive tone that can seem almost improvised, even when it isn’t. The emotional impact of radio is that it feels as though a secret is being shared. The script and the production should always be in service of this intimacy.

Before a script is final, it’s shared with other editors on the team around the globe (California, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Chile), mixed, edited, soundtracked, and refined through hours of collective work online.

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ONWARD

While creating our own sound and storytelling style, Radio Ambulante is constantly experiment with different formats and looking for new ways to interact with our listeners. We’ve done three live radio shows, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In addition, we’ve produced two English Language specials, and partnered with writers and animators on hybrid multimedia storytelling. With our partners at PRI, we’re developing a new interview series, and are working with Latin American universities and media outlets to teach more journalists to use radio. Our hope is that Radio Ambulante’s success will mean more innovative radio work in Spanish, and more experiments in the possibilities of bilingual radio.

Carolina Guerrero is the Executive Director of Radio Ambulante. Before getting into journalism, she was a promoter for cultural and social projects, creating a bridge between organizations in three different continents. She has worked with public and private institutions in several countries, for which she has designed and overseen festivals, art exhibits, teaching workshops and fundraising events. Carolina is a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University 2014-15. She is the proud mother of León and Eliseo. (@nuncaduermo)

All images courtesy @radioambulante on Twitter

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Speaking “Mexican” and the use of “Mock Spanish” in Children’s Books (or Do Not Read Skippyjon Jones)

SJJ LBC

Cinco de Mayo. ‘Tis the season when many Americans don sombreros, order their frozen margaritas, and, God help us, speak “Spanish.”   We are well used to hyper Anglicized renditions of “amigo,” “adios,” and happy hour specials brought on by the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo.  The holiday celebrates a significant event in Mexico’s history – the battle of Puebla and victory over France in 1862 – through narrowing ideas about language, culture, and tequila. That said, let’s not just blame Cinco de Mayo for the disconcerting use of Spanish. Unfortunately, the incessant use of phrases such as “ay caramba” and “no problemo” are heard much, much earlier in contemporary children’s books.

The New York Times recently published the startling figure that just 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013 were about African American children. Within these few 93 texts, African American children all-too-often read about themselves within the past tense, in reference to slavery and civil rights legacies. Children of color are left to identify with the adventures and imaginative stories of white characters amid white settings.  Aptly characterized as an, “apartheid of children’s literature,” two moving first-person accounts from Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers detail the significance of incorporating more characters of color for all readers.  One major effect of this dearth of representation, according to Christopher Myers,

…is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated.

Just as significant, is the number of children’s books about Latino children from the 2013’s trove of 3,200 books: 53. That’s 5-3. As a reminder, the United States Census tallied 53 million Latinos in the United States, representing the nation’s youngest demographic (children!).

However, perhaps worse than the actual lack is the rise of stereotypic in-your-face representations of race within children’s books – award-winning ones, actually – and their role in teaching children troubling ideas about race, language, and “difference.”

My name is Skippito Friskito. (clap-clap)

I fear not a single bandito. (clap-clap)

My manners are mellow,

I’m sweet like the Jell-O,

I get the job done, yes indeed-o.

Case in point: Skippyjon Jones, a Siamese cat that pretends to be a Chihuahua superhero. Skippyjon speaks English, but his super hero alter ego speaks in Mock Spanish in his recurring and imaginative quests.  Speaking “Spanish” in hyperanglized fashion recasts Skippyjon from an English-speaking (white) cat to a Spanish-accented (brown) dog. His auditory performance of Mexicanness, what Reina Prado considers “sonic brownface,” reeks of white privilege as he code-switches from cat/white/English to dog/brown/”Spanish.” What’s worse, as a children’s book, directed at those between the impressionable ages of 4-8, Skippyjon encourages both adult readers and young readers to read out loud and perform sonic brownface. Listening to the book’s trite word choice (amigos, adios, frijoles), fake Spanish (indeed-o, mask-ito) and embellished accents (“ees” for is) trains the ear on how to speak “Mexican,” presumably, of course, for the listening amusement of non-Mexicans.

Image by Flickr user Howard Lewis Ship

Image by Flickr user Howard Lewis Ship

“I am El Skippito, the great sword fighter,” said Skippyjon Jones.

Apparently, these tried and true tactics sell quite well. This award-winning children’s book character, by Judy Schachner, has spawned into a lucrative empire that includes fourteen books, a coordinating plush toy figure, online webisodes of the books’ stories, CDs of Schachner reading out loud, the obligatory Ipad app, a starring role in the department store Kohl’s “We Care” charity campaign in 2012, and get this, a children’s musical. Of course, Skippyjon is not really recognized as a book series about Latinos (like fellow television darlings, Dora the Explorer, Handy Manny, or Dragon Tales) yet it taps into every flinching stereotype we know of, and should avoid, about Mexicans. Equating Mexicans and Mexican tales to the canine of a Chihuahua is hardly new but it does not make it less problematic.

For instance, in the inaugural self-titled Skippyjon Jones book, the cat’s adventures take place “far, far away in old Mexico.” Much like the perpetual placement of African Americans in the past tense within children’s books, situating Mexico in the imaginative past reinforces perceptions of all-things-Mexican as distant, foreign, and old.  Skippyjon and his chimichangos – his sidekicks (good guys) –set out to save their rice and beans from Alfredo Buzzito and Bumblebeeto Bandito (bad guys). Zorro-esque masks, swords, fiestas followed by siestas, fellow Chihuahuas, piñatas, plenty of cacti, and lots of clap-clap cues frame the rice-and-bean rescue. His adventures, book after book, via a Skippito brown identity sends a disquieting message about power and privilege. Skippito, even when masked, still plays the role of Great White Hero to the masses of “Mexican” dogs.

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Image by Flickr user Tomas Quinones

Then all of the Chimichangos went crazy loco.

Several of Schachner’s Skippyjon books have received notable accolades including, for instance, the 2004 E.B. White Read Aloud Award and a spot on the coveted “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” by the National Education Association in 2007. The former comes with an adorning gold seal on future editions of honored books.  A sampling of the series’ laudatory press, from the E.B White Read Aloud press release, “Peppered with Spanish expressions and full of energized fun, SkippyJon Jones is not only entertaining for the listener, it’s also enjoyable for the reader.” And from the author’s webpage: “Each of my adventures are ay caramba, mucho fun but they’re educational too!” The insinuation that the Skippyjon Empire teaches Spanish not only ignores the richness of Spanish but it also feeds popular ideals that Spanish is an “easy” and “fun” language to learn.

Schachner’s recurrent use of “Spanish,” in particular, not only structures the silly narrative adventures of Skippyjon as he imagines himself to be Skippito but the racialized language play has also become the hallmark element of Skippyjon.  Written and read out loud by parents and teachers, some of Skippyjon’s signature phrases include “Holy Guacamole!” and “Holy Frijoles!” – textbook examples of Jane Hill’s renowned writings on Mock Spanish (or fake, incoherent Spanish uttered and deemed “funny” by non-native Spanish speakers).  Because we already hold native Spanish-speakers (U.S. Latinos) with such little regard in the first place, Mock Spanish done for laughs, as argued by Hill, comes quite easily. Carmen Martínez-Roldán takes the Skippyjon Jones series to task in necessary detail; see her analysis of Mock Spanish in the equally troubling, Skippyjon Jones  in the Doghouse.  Her emphasis on the cultural representations of Mexicans vis-a-vis language in children’s books supports my tirade against this cat/dog. Martínez-Roldán found that several teachers, particularly those from the Southwest, expressed a sense of inexplicable uneasiness to these books.  Amazon ratings are (painfully) positive for Skippyjon, yet, according to Martínez-Roldán, those who expressed low ratings were “accompanied by lengthy explanations, mostly related to misrepresentations of Mexicans and the poor use of Spanish.” Her research calls for more diversity within children’s literature but, central to this essay, reminds us that U.S. Latinos hold both a personal and political relationship to Spanish.

Image by Flickr User John Graham

Image by Flickr User John Graham

Anthropologist Bonnie Urciuoli explains how Spanish, when overheard in designated public spaces (think: Cinco de Mayo or Mexican restaurants) is safely “ethnified,” yet Spanish is regarded as out of place or “racialized” when heard as bilingual announcements at local grocery stores or school sites. When heard by monolingual English speakers outside of its designated spaces in the U.S.,  Spanish carries “racialized” connotations such as “impoliteness” and “danger.” The insistence many American employers place on speaking English and prohibiting non-English language conversations at workplaces, for instance, speaks to the public boundaries imposed on Spanish and Spanish-speakers. (Yes, Whole Foods. I am looking at you.)

Jane Hill’s provocative argument, built from Uricuolli’s writings, examines Whites’ use of Spanish (Mock Spanish). Unlike Latinos, who learn early on to self-monitor where and how they speak English and Spanish, non-native speakers of Spanish do not carry this same burden, according to Hill. In fact, they have the privilege of speaking grammatically incorrect Spanish, in hyper Anglicized Spanish, or mockingly (by adding a stupid “o” or prefacing a phrasing with “el”) without surveillance.

Then, using his very best Spanish accent, he said, “My ears are too beeg for my head. 

My head ees too beeg for my body. I am not a Siamese cat… I AM A CHIHUAHUA!”

In addition to overplayed colloquial expressions, Schachner demarcates a racial line with “visual accents” (“beeg” for big) (see Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, Priscilla Peña Ovalle and Sara V. Hinojos). In line with Uricuolli’s ideas, even Skippito’s English is accented and marked while in “Mexican” character. Readers stammer through “ees” and “beeg” in an effort, as prepped, to use their “very best Spanish accent.” The practice teaches children that accents are performative and easy to take on and off rather than hear accents as indicative of someone’s larger family histories of migration and culture.

The Frito Bandito, Image by Flickr user Bill Futreal

The Frito Bandito, Image by Flickr user Bill Futreal

For children unfamiliar with Mexicans and Latinos, these books cast Spanish with archaic imageries of Mexican bandits and modern-day Frito Banditos. Spanish is not used as a language to communicate given its incoherence. Instead, Schachner uses Spanish to laugh at Skippito and by extension, Mexicans and Latinos in the U.S.; its runaway success is indicative of how “funny” Spanish and Mexicans continue to be to White and/or monolingual English speakers.

For Latinos, these books plant early attitudes about their own language differences. For children positioned as the family translator or struggling to maintain a bilingual, bicultural existence, these books teach children to shun their accent and those of their families. These books are clearly not for my two kids, whose young ears are already familiar with their grandmother’s Spanish-accented English and their own mother’s English-accented Spanish.

 “Vamos, Skippito- or it is you the Bandito will eato!” 

Reading children’s books out loud and listening to race through scripted accents sends troubling messages about “difference” at an early age. Educators have long argued that children’s books serve as both mirrors and maps to affirm and inspire readers’ identities, experiences, and future motivations. True. But I would also argue that the woeful absence of more diverse children’s tales mirrors a number of campaigns directed at working-class, communities of color; namely, our nation’s shaky commitment to universal preschool, lack of public support for Women Infant and Children (WIC) and Food Stamp programs, and outdated approaches to parental leaves (six measly weeks). In particular, Skippyjon Jones is a kid’s rendition of grownup racial and language politics, a pint-size version of NAFTA and English-only propositions presented for five-year old audiences. These policies, like the woeful crop of contemporary books, do little to provide a map for the livelihoods of children of color. Instead, Skippyjon’s use of language, a reincarnation of Speedy Gonzalez normalizes English, white characters (even in brown drag), and helps keep Cinco de Mayo antics alive.

Image by Flickr user Manchester City Library

Image by Flickr user Manchester City Library

NOTE: On 5-8-14, the author added a passage to this article to reflect the relationship of her work to Carmen M. Martínez-Roldán’s “The Representation of Latinos and the Use of Spanish: A Critical Content Analysis of Skippyjon Jones” published in The Journal of Children’s Literature (2013).

 

Featured Image by Flickr user The Long Beach Public Library, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dolores Inés Casillas is an assistant professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies and a faculty affiliate of Film & Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes and teaches courses on Latina/o sound practices, popular culture, and the politics of language.  Her book, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy will be published this fall by New York University Press as part of their Critical Cultural Communication series. 

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