In Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio and Public Advocacy (NYU Press, 2014), Dolores Inés Casillas turns up the volume on the sonic and the political dynamics of the Latino immigrant experience in the United States. A theoretically rich yet accessible book, Sounds of Belonging jump-starts Spanish-language radio studies, proving that the broader field of radio and sound studies can no longer continue to ignore or silence the importance of Spanish-language radio—from its historical significance for Spanish speaking Latinos to its lucrative place in radio markets today. Spanish-language radio reveals the power of sound in shaping the lived experiences of Latina/o communities, including immigrants and those with deep roots in the United States. Casillas shows how sound acts as a platform through which Latin Americans insert themselves in the U.S. imaginary, despite the nation’s attempts to erase their presence.
Sounds of Belonging provides keen insight into the constant buzz of immigration on the airwaves. Some questions that propel this book: What sonically constitutes the Latina/o experience in the United States? Also, what immigration-related sounds are found on Spanish-language radio airways? Casillas’s emphases shows how little we know of how the Latina/o sounds.
Sounds of Belonging deftly navigates the historical and contemporary domains of Spanish-language radio, theorizing them as a dynamic sonic terrain where we can listen to struggles for and against power, as well as to modalities of difference. Beginning with the traces of Spanish-language radio that emerged early in American radio’s so-called “Golden Age” in the 1930s-1940s, moving through the activist-driven bilingual Chicano community radio of the 1960s and 1970s, and then laying out the landscape of the highly profitable world of Spanish-language broadcasting today, Casillas guides readers through a historical trajectory of Spanish-language radio. She draws from Spanish-language radio broadcasting in its commercial and non-commercial iterations, while keeping tuned to the transnational connections transmitted through these frequencies.
Casillas engages with critical cultural studies, Chicana/Latina studies, and radio/media studies to explore the production of masculinity on El Cucuy’s morning radio program. Casillas studies El Cucuy as both an on-air personality and a political figure advocating for immigrants’ rights, illustrating the “complex interplay of gender, labor, and globalization” (104). While El Cucuy’s “shock-jock” style–imbued with sexual humor–often garners him comparison to Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, El Cucuy does more than shock and entertain his listeners. Casillas argues that sound and immigrant listening practices are integral to El Cucuy’s discursive aural constructions of a transnational working-class male audience, one that is not shamed for speaking Spanish, enjoying ranchera music, or laboring in “women’s work.” However, by highlighting how El Cucuy and his listeners reinscribe traditional gender roles that silence and marginalize Latinas, Casillas reveals the complexity of El Cucuy’s political advocacy for male workers on the one hand, and the program’s misogynistic message on the other.
Sounds of Belonging pushes scholars to think more thoroughly about the role format and genre play in the characterization of radio stations, as well as the audience constructed through these programming choices. She characterizes Spanish-language radio as both on-air dialogues and conversations between callers and radio hosts. This approach provides an intersectional analysis comparing radio listeners to those working in production. Casillas opens a line of inquiry into non-normative or non-hegemonic radio practices by positing that Latino radio listening is public and communal and not a solitary practice. Casillas shows how research that frames listeners as a market—simply audiences or consumers—polarizes our understanding of radio practices, particularly within research on Spanish-language radio.
One of Casillas’s most important interventions is her granular analysis of the role of radio in Latino communities, particularly within migrant and working class groups who may have easier access to and familiarity with radio, as opposed to other media such as the Internet. For these communities, radio becomes as an anchor, grounding the cultural ties Latinos have to the communities they migrated from—through stations’ language and music—but it also functions as a way to aurally migrate between borders, specifically when listeners-turned-callers locate themselves bi-nationally.
Casillas also argues that Spanish-language radio is an alternative site of congregation and dialogues amongst communities that are marginalized and made hyper visible by mainstream English-language media. Anti-immigrant policy and legislation—heard and seen in popular media as a narrative of “illegal aliens” invading America—is the backdrop against which Casillas explores the role of Spanish-language radio as an “acoustic ally,” a concept she explores in the chapters “Acoustic Allies: Early Latin-Themed and Spanish-Language Radio Broadcasts, 1920s-1940s,” and “Sounds of Surveillance: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio Patrols La Migra.” She explains that Texas and California were home to the debut of U.S. Spanish-language radio in the 1920s, crafted specifically for Mexican listeners. Radio announcers such as Pedro J. Gonzalez brokered airtime, typically broadcasting during the unfavorable times of late night or early morning. As a method of resistance, radio provided Spanish-language audiences with the capability of listening to “home.”
In the chapter “Mixed Signals: Developing Bilingual Chicano Radio, 1960s-1980s,” Casillas uncovers a major gap in research on the aurality of the Chicano Media Movement. She pivots the analytical lens of Chicano movement activism from urban to rural areas and traces the emergence of bilingual community in conjunction with farm worker activism in California and Washington. Bilingual community radio stations such as Radio KDNA in Granger, Washington, KBBF-FM in Santa Rosa, California, and Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, California—places that rely heavily on low-wage farmworker labor—showcase how the political activism of this movement era took place on emergent community airwaves. Listener-focused Chicano community radio stations “sought to broadcast independent of commercial influence, produce local programming, and, perhaps most significant, operate under the full control of Mexicans and Chicanos themselves” (52-53). While under the control of Chicano/a community radio producers, Casillas demonstrates how the funding model for community radio stations—namely, a heavy reliance on grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—underscores the bureaucratic limitations for public broadcasts.
Sounds of Belonging opens the path for a new line of inquiry regarding Spanish-language radio while revealing that there is much work to do in the area of Spanish-language radio studies. Despite the chapter “Mixed Signals”’s focus on the community radio format, Casillas’s dedication to commercial radio highlights an urgent need for scholarship on non-commercial radio. Studying non-commercial stations will advance necessary conversations around content and innovation rather than economic success and failure.
Overall, Sounds of Belonging is an exciting and foundational text for scholars and readers interested in Latina/o media studies, sound, radio, cultural production, immigration and the Latina/o experiences in the United States as experienced and lived through sound and listening. Casillas’s agility in drawing from various theoretical and methodological perspectives provides a rich analysis of Spanish-language radio situated in a transnational context that reflects not just the listenership, but also the continued importance of radio for Latina/o communities living throughout the U.S. borderlands.
Monica De La Torre is a doctoral student in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Her scholarship bridges New Media and Sound Studies by analyzing the development of Chicana feminist epistemologies in radio and digital media production. A member of Soul Rebel Radio, a community radio collective based in Los Angeles, Monica is specifically interested in the ways in which radio and digital media production function as tools for community engagement. She is an active member of the UW Women of Color Collective and the Women Who Rock Collective. Monica earned a B.A. in Psychology and Chicana/o Studies from University of California, Davis and an M.A.in Chicana/o Studies from California State University, Northridge; her master’s thesis was entitled “Emerging Feminisms: El Teatro de las Chicanas and Chicana Feminist Identity Development.” Monica received a 2012 Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, which recognizes superior academic achievement, sustained engagement with communities that are underrepresented in the academy, and the potential to enhance the educational opportunities for diverse students.
Featured image: “Hi-Fi” by Flickr user Feans CC BY 2.0
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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.]
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).
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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