Sounding Out! Podcast #20: The Sound of Rio’s Favelas: Echoes of Social Inequality in an Olympic City
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Join Andrea Medrado for a sound tour of Rio as she explores the nooks and crannies of the city’s favelas. Lingering ominously above the narrative is the sense of competition and gentrification which the Olympics will bring to the city itself. As the rivalry of sport comes to town, this podcast focuses on the many ways that the contours of sound have been engineered by the city to further isolate and pacify the city’s poorer residents. But, even as the Olympics churn sonic borders, Medrado keeps a keen ear to ground and points out moments of resistance, hope, and enchantment in the ‘marvelous city.’
Featuring: Andrea Medrado, Maria dos Camelôs, Maurício Hora, Renata Souza
Dr. Andrea Medrado is a Lecturer at the Media School of Bournemouth University in the UK. She has an extensive academic background in media studies as well as professional experience in advertising as a creative writer. Andrea is also an experienced ethnographer. Her current research delves into issues of social exclusion, analyzing the ways in which the favelas (slums or shanty towns) are featured in the “promotion” of Rio as an Olympic city to a global audience. One of the key questions is: how are the favelas making themselves heard during the preparations for the mega events through the sounds that the residents produce? Her doctoral thesis (University of Westminster, 2010) was an ethnographic study about the practices of daily listening in a Brazilian favela. Outside of academia, she has worked as a creative writer in both advertising agencies and a number of political campaigns in Brazil. Her research interests include auditory culture and sound studies, alternative and community media, political communications, and media ethnography. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
Since the drug war began, the lives of approximately 95,000 people have been claimed, with an estimated total of 26,000 disappearances (“Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border” June 2013 Report). At the University of Texas, Pan American – an institution located 25 miles north of Reynosa, Mexico (a Mexican city that has been hard hit by drug violence in recent years) – I teach students who have been dramatically impacted by drug war violence. Many have close relatives affected or hear horrific stories of those who have been kidnapped by the cartels; many fear traveling to Mexico to visit loved ones as a result and, in some cases, they report having relatives involved in the drug cartel business. Dinorah Guerra, psychotherapist and head of the Red Cross in Reynosa, describes the devastating psychological and physical toll: “There is a huge risk for people’s self esteem. They cannot speak about what they have seen or what they have heard. [They] lose [themselves] and lose [their] identity” (qtd. in Pehhaul 2010).
I name the space of the drug war and its resulting terror in the U.S.-Mexico border the “soundscape of narco silence.” This soundscape includes death and intimidation, from the brutal killings of news reporters by cartel members to the decapitation of citizen-activists who use online media to alert communities of narco checkpoints. It also consists of those powerful acts that call attention to silence as a tactic of terror. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, for instance, brought together tens of thousands of people in Mexico to speak out against drug violence through silent marches. Cultural productions, such as narcocorridos, or contemporary drug ballads that document the cross-border drug economy, also become part of the soundscape. The narcocorridos function as a powerful critical response to silence and fear because they enable those in Mexican society, as Jorge Castañeda, author of El Narco: La Guerra Falllida, explains, “to come to terms with the world around them, and drug violence is a big part of that world. The songs are born out of a traditional Mexican cynicism: This is our reality, we’ve gotten used to it” (Qtd. in Josh Kun 2010).
In this blog post, I focus on the role of U.S. Latina/o theater produced in the South Texas border region as it responds to the soundscape of narco silence. Building on David W. Samuels, Louis Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Thomas Porcello’s definition of “soundscapes” in “Soundscapes: Towards a Sounded Anthropology” as “the material spaces of performance and ceremony that are used or constructed for the purpose of propagating sound” (330), I suggest that soundscapes of silence in theater function as material spaces of performance that focus the public’s attention on silence – with the intent of intervening in acts that propagate silence and fear. Soundscapes of narco silence are characterized not only by violence and terror, but by cultural productions that function as forms of critical resistance – those works that focus the publics’ attention on the economy of silence and fear that fuels the drug war, and in the process, enable communities to cope with narco violence.
To closely listen to the soundscape of narco silence, I engage with the play script and production of Tanya Saracho’s play El Nogalar at South Texas College Theatre (STC) under the direction of Joel Jason Rodriguez in McAllen, Texas in June 2013. The play was first produced at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in April 2011, with a West Coast premiere at the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles in January 2012. I critically analyze the STC Theatre production’s incorporation of a multi-genre soundtrack that included narcocorridos, rancheras, and nortec (norteño + techno). I argue that this soundtrack focused audiences’ attention not only on the devastating effects of silence, but also the function of silence as a form of capital for those most excluded in society. I also offer a brief critical listening of the script’s rendering of silence through character dialogue and stage directions.
El Nogalar tells the story of an upper-class Mexican family comprised of three generations of women (Maité, Valeria, and Anita) whose land and home in the fictionalized estate of Los Nogales in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and its adjacent nogalar (pecan orchard), are under threat by the maña (drug cartels) moving into the region. The play focuses on the women’s responses to the drug war economy as a result of their different relationships to home (both their estate and the space of Mexico). It also centers the experiences of Dunia, their maid, and López, a former field worker who now works for the maña.
Cecilia Ballí, in her article “Calderón’s War: The Gruesome Legacy of Mexico’s Antidrug Campaign,” explains the particular circumstances of marginalized men in this society: “The worst casualties of this ‘civil war’ were the estimated 7 million young men to whom society had closed all doors, leaving them the options of joining a drug gang or of enlisting in the military, both of which assured imprisonment of death” (January 2012, 48). With the characters López and Dunia, the play asks audiences then to listen to the impact of the drug war on the most vulnerable populations in Mexico and the US-Mexico border region.
The play script conveys how “narco silence” can be used by those who either seek to preserve traditional class hierarchies (the story of the matriarch Maité) or to survive and profit in the new drug economy (the story of López). “Narco silence,” a term coined by reporter Jonathan Gibler in his book To Die in Mexico, refers to “not the mere absence of talking, but rather the practice of not saying anything. You may talk as much as you like, as long as you avoid the facts. Newspaper headlines announce the daily death toll, but the articles will not tell you anything about who the dead were, who might have killed them or why. No detailed descriptions based on witness testimony. No investigation” (2011, 23). In an early exchange between López and Dunia, López defends “narco silence” as a strategy of survival:
DUNIA: Why are you the only one they leave alone, Memo?
DUNIA: All the men your age. Killed. Why Memo? (Beat).
LÓPEZ: Because I know when to keep my mouth shut which is not something I can say for you….
DUNIA: So that’s all it takes to be best of friends with the Maña? That doesn’t seem so hard to do? (American Theatre Magazine July/August 2011, 74).
Later in the play, Dunia, heeding López’s advice, offers a powerful observation of how “narco silence” enables her community to cope with death: “We all just walk around like we’re a movie on mute. You can see people’s mouths moving but all you hear is the static (my italics)” (American Theatre Magazine July/August 2011, 73-74).
The STC Theatre production enhanced the script’s soundscape of narco silence through its sound design, with a soundtrack that included rancheras, narcocorridos, norteño and nortec. This music provided audiences with a connection to the world of Los Nogales and captured each character’s process of coping with narco violence. For example, Maité’s soundtrack consists of several rancheras, such as Lola Beltran singing “Los Laureles” and Chavela Vargas’s powerful rendition of “Que te vaya Bonito.” Beltran’s “Los Laureles” – a cancion ranchera that includes Beltran’s powerful female vocals and mariachi orchestra instrumentation – invites audiences to hear Maité’s nostalgia and desire for an idealized Mexican society and her wish to preserve traditional class hierarchies.
Vargas’s powerful rendition of “Que te vaya Bonito” captures Maite’s pain and suffering as she loses her home to the cartels. In Vargas’s version of “Que te Vaya Bonito” – a song about love and abandonment – audiences hear Vargas’s choking and sobbing voice, accompanied by a single guitar.
Vargas’s voice conveys, what Lorena Alvarado powerfully argues, is “the body’s dilemma between the hysteria of sobbing and the intelligibility of words, between resignation and retribution” (2010, 4). Vargas’s powerful singing also conveys, as Alvarado further describes, “un nudo en la garganta,” a common expression in Spanish that describes “the knot in the throat, when one cannot speak because words will not come out, but the desperate, or quiet, breath of tears” (Alvarado 2010, 5).
To sonically register the drug cartel economy and lifestyle underlying the “new” Los Nogales, the soundtrack also included narcocorridos. The first sounds we hear in the play are from the narcocorrido “El Carril Número Tres” – which includes two acoustic guitars and an electric bass – by Los Cuates de Sinaloa.
“El Carril Número Tres” – tells the story of a secret “lane number three” that allows a Mexican drug lord to freely go back and forth between the US and Mexico because he makes a deal with the CIA and DEA. With this focus on the US government’s involvement in the drug trade, the song centers how silences north of the US-Mexico border have perpetuated drug violence.
The music also included nortec, with songs by the Mexican Institute of Sound, particularly the track “Mexico,” which is a critique of the Mexican government’s complicity with the narcos.
With “Mexico,” audiences hear a fusion of norteño, electronic, and hip-hop with lyrics that use the symbols of Mexican national identity and culture to focus the public’s attention on violence and terror. With the lyrics “green like weed, white like cocaine, red your blood” (referencing the Mexican flag) and “at the sound of the roar of the cannon” (alluding to the national anthem), the song powerfully invokes the visual and sonic soundscape of violence that terrorize Mexican residents. With this charged critique of government corruption, “Mexico” momentarily interrupts the soundscape of narco silence rendered in the play script and rest of the soundtrack.
Ultimately, the production’s combination of rancheras, narcocorridos, and nortec captured the class tensions in Mexican society and emphasized the play’s critique of class structures that have enabled drug war violence to persist. With this range of music, the director explains he wanted to “maneuver between the [various] aspects of [the story]: the nostalgia, the corridos, the narcocorridos, and also this fusion of saying ‘we want something more,’ and so that was the whole aspect of it; the blending of the old, the new, and what the present is” (Interview with author July 2013).
The production also deliberately incorporated the sound of silence, particularly in the final scene. By the end, López buys the Los Nogales estate, thereby increasing his class status and social power. Saracho’s stage directions in this final moment indicate “an interpretive sound of trees falling. Now don’t go cueing chainsaws because it’s not literal. Just make me feel trees are falling. Along with the upper class” (87). The play’s reference to the staging of “an interpretive sound of trees falling” brings to mind the philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We might then interpret the final sounds of El Nogalar as inviting audiences to listen attentively to the soundscape of narco silence, implicating audiences as social actors in the politics of the drug war that continue to devastate Mexican society.
Featured Image: Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico, Courtesy of the Knight Foundation
Marci R. McMahon received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California with affiliations in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She is an assistant professor at the University of Texas, Pan American, where she teaches Chicana/o literature and cultural studies, gender studies, and theater and performance in the Departments of English and Mexican American Studies. She is the author of Domestic Negotiations: Gender, Nation, and Self-Fashioning in US Mexicana and Chicana Literature and Art published by Rutgers University Press’ Series Latinidad: Transnational Cultures in the United States (May 2013). Her essays on Chicana literature and cultural studies have been published in Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies; Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of MALCS; and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. Her second book project, Sounding Latina/o Studies: Staging Listening in US Latina/o Theater explores how contemporary Latina/o drama uses vocal bodies and sound to engage audiences with recurring debates about nationhood, immigration, and gender.
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Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2013 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. Once again, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO! regular Regina Bradley, questioning how American racial ideologies impact listening as a cultural, embodied act. Listen carefully, because we will be following Regina’s post with a special Sounding Out! Comment Klatsch on Wednesday, July 3rd that considers the consequences of racialized refusals to listen. What are the consequences of a listening that is interrupted? distorted? denied? perpetually deferred?—Editor-in-Chief, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman
Rachel Jeantel gave me life with a curt “that’s real retarded, sir.” Responding to George Zimmerman’s attorney Don West’s suggestion that Trayvon Martin pursued and wanted to hurt Zimmerman, Jeantel undoubtedly lifted many eyebrows and possibly a few “hell naws” under the breaths of those watching her testify. Her response to West regarding his lack of understanding can be extended to assess the firestorm of controversy surrounding her testimony: questions of her literacy as oppositional to the prosecution’s hopes of conviction, surprise at her brashness and demonstrative gestures of irritation, and, worst of all, judgments about the literal and figurative fullness of her girlhood/womanhood and chocolate skin as signs to ring the alarm as grounds for dismissing justice for Trayvon Martin. Because her testimony operated outside of normal constructs of witness etiquette and respectability, it was greeted with a hailstorm of controversy paralleling the rawness of responses to scripted reality shows. The shallowness of “critique” of Jeantel—whom, it must be continually repeated, is not on trial—was disgusting.
But you don’t need me to tell you that, because if you were really listening to Rachel Jeantel, SHE told you. Jeantel’s delivery was particularly striking, offering her audience low timbred and often emphatic quips of “what?!” and “you ain’t get that from me” to indicate her irritation and frustration with West. Jeantel’s refusal and inability to conform to expected cultural and aural scripts of black womanhood within the confines of the courtroom – the epitome of a hyper-respectable space – destabilizes not only racial paradigms of black (southern) respectability but Americanized expectations of black women’s scripts of respectability. As Brittney Cooper points out, “Rachel Jeantel has her own particular, idiosyncratic black girl idiom, a mashup of her Haitian and Dominican working-class background, her U.S. Southern upbringing, and the three languages – Haitian Kreyol (or Creole), Spanish and English – that she speaks.” Her people ain’t from hea and because of her upbringing can’t be categorized like other black girls from hea. In this sense, Rachel Jeantel is ratchet.
As I previously define in an analysis of Beyonce’s “Bow Down,” [sonic] ratchetness is a means of navigating sliding representations of respectability within American popular culture. Jeantel’s testimony, however, thinly treads between ratchetness as performative discourse and lived experience. Her reference to the television show The First 48, during a line of questioning regarding how she knew the police would contact her, for example, signified to some that Jeantel was oblivious to the judicial process.
Upon closer examination, however, The First 48 is a touchstone in understanding her negotiation of the criminal justice system as a series of steps/performances surrounding the policing of black bodies from her native Miami (which, it seems, is always on the show). It provides a widely acknowledged– and commodified – representation of black trauma in relation to the U.S. justice system. Jeantel’s ratchetness, then, is a tragicomedic site of cultural and gendered trauma accessible to the national public. Her personal loss of a close friend is overshadowed by her performance of that grief in a space of hyper-respectability. Her emotionally charged question “are you listening?” jolted not only West but those watching the trial. Were we listening? What were we listening for?
Jeantel’s performance of ratchetness both pointed out and disrupted America’s racialized and gendered listening practices. I’d like to suggest her two-fold performance of ratchetness – sonic and cultural, imposed and embodied –presented ratchetness outside of a strictly pop culture lens. Instead, Jeantel’s performance and lived experiences present ratchetness as an antithetical response to (hetero)normative politics of respectability currently in place in the black (diasporic) community.
The lightning-speed meme-ification of Jeantel invoked flatter, more familiarized representations of ratchet. Because of our inability to translate Jeantel’s grief as “respectable,” she bore the brunt of public scorn and attempts of humiliation. The idea that Jeantel signifies a real life Precious, for example—the main character of Lee Daniel’s Oscar-nominated 2009 film adaptation of Sapphire’s novel Push, played by Gabourey Sidibe—demonstrates increasingly blurred lines between black women’s performative and lived experiences. It should be noted that Sidibe herself was frequently attacked in the press and on the Internet, to the point where she told her co-star Mo’nique in Interview Magazine, “I try to stay off the Internet. Just because people hurt my feelings sometimes. . .a lot of people commented that I’m an incredible actress. But other opinions weren’t so nice, physically or whatever.” Jeantel-as-Precious inadvertently suggests Jeantel’s ratchetness is grounded in the sense that she is plus-sized, dark, “illiterate,” and from a working class background. Precious-as-Sidibe becomes the medium through which Jeantel’s (il)legible womanhood is comprehensive.
Further, meme-ing Jeantel as Precious solidifies her working class background and ultimately her testimony as a threat to Trayvon Martin’s (re)deemed middle class respectability as a portal of victimization. Returning to Cooper’s observations of Jeantel’s use of hybrid-linguistics, it is Jeantel’s sonic delivery that most threatens Martin’s perceived and scripted middle class respectability. Jeantel’s use of so-called “broken” English has overwhelmingly been heard by what Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman calls America’s dominant “listening ear” in “Reproducing U.S. Citizenship in Blackboard Jungle” as a marker of her working class background – not her trilingual background – and thus, it sonically aligns Martin with the black working class and voids prospects of him being considered a victim of violence rather than its perpetrator. Don West’s treatment of Jeantel on the witness stand attempted to impose a parallel between Jeantel’s alleged “illiteracy” and Martin’s criminality. The “crime” of illiteracy within the courtroom and supposed “crime” of Martin beating Zimmerman into shooting him co-exist within a policed space of (white) respectability that black bodies are frequently forced to adhere.
Jeantel retaliated against West’s attempts to back her into this tight space, however, with her emphatic use of “sir.” Jeantel’s brilliantly subversive tactic demonstrates ratchety resistance because it provides a subtle inversion of the white supremacist discourse directed towards her. Her use of “sir” reminded me of the unnamed protagonist’s grandfather at the beginning of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who on his deathbed commanded his family to “live with your head in the lion’s mouth:” “I want you to overcome ‘em with yeses, undermine ‘em with grins, agree ‘em to death and destruction, let ‘em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open” (16). Indeed, Jeantel busted “the lion’s mouth” wide open vis-à-vis a hybridized slang and an emphatic “yes sir” or “no sir.” Most importantly, Jeantel sustained her dignity and self-respect in the process. Jeantel’s mastery of a low, monotone “sir” signifies her existence outside of the politics of respectability that frame not only black women’s experiences but blacks’ submission to white supremacy.
Where West and others focused on her facial features or even her delivery of “sir” as a sign of (dis)respect, what was lost upon many was how her aurally subversive delivery of arguably the most hyper-respectable word in (American) English kept her in command of her testimony.
Rachel Jeantel is ratchety brilliance. She witnessed, performed, and sounded her truths in ways that complicated if not contradicted the normative discourse policing black women’s bodies. Although much of her cunning was shortsightedly heard as uncouth and aural evidence of a lack of (middle class) home training, Jeantel signifies the usefulness of ratchet as a form of resistance to the white privilege that dictates respectable spaces like the U.S. courtroom. Sir.
R.N. Bradley recently graduated with a PhD in African American Literature at Florida State University and is a regular writer for Sounding Out!
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The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?-Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman