Recently, the new biopic and telenovela Celia, La Serie on the life of Celia Cruz reminded me of how her iconic call “Azucar!”(translated as sugar) engaged audiences to feel the sabrosura of her music. The soap-opera included documentary footage of the larger iconic events in Celia’s career that could not be recreated, scenes that captured how Cruz and the audience connected. The scenes that best captured this are when Celia performs with Fania at Yankee Stadium in 1973 and in Zaire in 1974. When she felt the audiences’ joy in her performance she’d share that expressive sentiment of the sweetness in the moment, taking audiences to a deeper ecstatic place.
I also felt and witnessed this myself when I saw Cruz perform at the Hollywood Bowl decades ago. It’s akin to what I sensed when also hearing Damaso Pérez Prado’s guttural “Maaam-bO” in his “Mambo No 5.” While watching Celia, La Serie, I asked my mom if she had ever watched Desi Arnaz on I Love Lucy. Her response included a dislike for Arnaz, while I remembered enjoying his performance of “Babalú Aye.” Our exchange raised the question: can Arnaz’s performance, like Cruz’s expressive phrasing or Pérez Prado’s musical cue, unify a Latinx and African diaspora through sound and affect?
I posit that Arnaz’s televised performances of “Babalú Aye” like Celia’s “Azucar” or Prado’s “Mambo” exemplify what Alejandra T. Vazquez calls in Listening in Detail “vocal armament and ornament” (132), a sound that cultivates an afecto caribeño among Spanish-speaking diasporic migrants and their descents. My use of afecto here is a key sonic detail, playing upon the Spanish meaning to show tenderness and emotion. I also appreciate affect theory as it provides a framework by which to explore the emotionality and connection to experiences that have not been named. For example, in “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” Eric Shouse writes about affect as “the body’s way of preparing itself for action in a given circumstance by adding a quantitative dimension of intensity to the quality of an experience. The body has a grammar of its own that cannot be fully captured in language.” I attempt here to cultivate a language that address how Arnaz’s physical and sonic articulation sets an entry to examine contributions by members of the Latinx Caribbean diaspora and its reach to those of us hearing and seeing them in a US context.
Growing up bilingual and bicultural in Los Angeles, I saw how my mom retained a bit of her homeland by watching a variety show called Siempre en Domingo. Many of the artists who performed were also heard on the local Spanish language station K-Love. The ritual gathering on Sunday nights as we watched the show metaphorically united my mom with her family.I believe that viewing and hearing her Mexico made the distance away from her family soften. For me, listening to the songs I heard on Siempre en Domingo then replayed on the radio helped codify something more than Mexican; it was pan-Latino. These moments of engaging with television shows mediate my experience of sound and affect, which I’ve named afecto caribeño (translated to “caribbean affect”).
My fondness of Desi Arnaz stems from a familiarity of Spanglish when I saw my first episodes of I Love Lucy (1951-1957) on Saturdays on KTLA. Its stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, played a married couple, and the comedy of errors would inevitably involve “Lucy Ricardo” trying to scheme something. In real life, Ball and Arnaz were a Hollywood power couple who produced their show, establishing a practice of syndication rights paid to the actors. Arnaz played “Ricky Ricardo,” the owner of the Tropicana nightclub where he was also the bandleader. When scenes featured him at the club he would always play the congas, thus creating a continuum of his earlier career as a musician to now television star.
Hearing Desi Arnaz speaking inglés with a Cuban accent was familiar to my ears. I knew that sound of English blended with español because it was what I heard from my parents and their acquaintances. In the show, misunderstandings happened because one could not decipher what “Ricky” meant or said. The mistranslations led to some comedic moments and the establishment of a long-running comedic television trope at the expense of Latino characters and actors, as explored by Dolores Inés Casillas and Sebastien Ferrada in “Listening to Modern Family’s Accent.” However, in Life on the Hyphen, Gustavo Pérez-Firmat describes Arnaz’s nilingüe–someone who speak neither Spanish nor English—and argues his nilingüe-ism was personified through “Ricky Ricardo” as “Spanish utterances shot through anglicisms so that the monolingual viewer can understand what he was saying” (43). But, Arnaz did not reach only “English-only’ ears. To my pocha ears Arnaz spoke a familiar—and not incorrect—spoken Spanish. As a young viewer, I had no reference for his mistakes. Sonically “Ricky’s” familiarity came through when he complained about “Lucy” in Spanish. Hearing the español I spoke at home on “I Love Lucy” is how I connected to the hyphened Americano via tv. Nowhere was this more pronounced than with Ricardo’s frequent performances of “Babalú”.
Before his film career, Arnaz was known as the mambo king. Due to his lackluster rise as a “Latin Lover” in Hollywood, Arnaz returned to work as a musician and began singing his signature “Babalú” around 1943. The song is attributed to Margarita Lecuona and published in 1939. “Babalú” conflates the popular 1940s-50s big band sound with a Cuban folksong (or son) sung to the Orishas (deities or gods). Babalú is an Orisha deity who oversees health and is revered because of his power over life and death, and is also known as San Lázaro within the pantheon of Catholic saints. By the time Arnaz made the song popular in the United States, the song had also been associated with Miguelito Valdés, who was known as “Mr. Babalú.” Other musical contemporaries like Damaso Pérez Prado were also making a name for themselves by developing a new sound that Latinized dance music in the U.S. According to Ed Morales in Living in Spanglish, it is in the 1950s that Prado creates his signature sound in Mexico City by “mixing North American swing and bebop” known as mambo (152). However, it is Arnaz’s performance that I reference because of its reach to a multi-generational audience through syndication of the “I Love Lucy” show.
Each time Arnaz performs “Babalú” it serves as an offering to the Orisha to heal the longing for a homeland he left long ago, as experienced by many musicians like Cruz who live in exile. With each performance on the “I Love Lucy Show,” Arnaz reconnects to his cultura. Performing this on national television it’s not about the Anglo viewer who only sees Arnaz as the “Rhumba Rhythm King” (sic) (Pérez-Firmat, 52) made famous in movies; rather it is about Arnaz creating a space of agency through a prayer and healing ritual in song, thus an expression of Afecto Caribeño connecting the Latinx diaspora to something beyond national borders and generations.
For example, in Season 2 episode 21 “Lucy Takes a Job at the Bank,” Arnaz (as Ricky Ricardo) brings out his son Ricky Jr. to play the congas alongside him. Ricky as proud father shares his joy in this moment. The camera pans out to Lucille Ball and her co-star Vivian Vance sitting at the table. Arnaz instructs his son to “say thanks” and he replies in Spanish “gracias.” This exchange is profound because it accentuates the bilingualism and bicultural exchanges that happen in the home space now introduced to many via television. Arnaz continues, “Even though Little Ricky was born in America, there’s lots of Cuban in his heart.” The Cuban in his heart plays out in sonic beats through a father-and-son performance on the congas and the calling upon “Babalú Aye.” Both Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are happy parents, not just stage parents, who revel in this moment. As Ricky Jr. plays, his mother bangs on the table too and Arnaz looks up to the sky as if in gratitude for this moment to the Orisha Babalú.
Upon reflection, I am aware of how television informed my childhood search for something that reflected how I spoke and heard the world. In these linguistic-sonic moments I reconnected to my mother’s homeland and sought to make sense of my pocha identity when I heard English spoken with a Spanish accent. In Relocations, Karen Tongson names these moments of connection that occur through a technological network as “remote intimacies” that can “account both technically and affectively, for the symbiosis that can happen between disparate subjects. . .I like to think that these imaginary correspondences sometimes have to happen across greater distances, both conceptually and topographically with other ethnicities, accents, nations (130)” The conceptual and topographical correspondence informs afecto caribeño as a means to enable critical connections to a Latinx diaspora centered en el Caribe highlighting the mestizaje of African and Spanish heritage, thus expanding upon Paul Gilroy’s notion of the “black Atlantic” on how the Atlantic slave trade also impacted culturally el Caribe. Upon singing “Babalú Aye” Arnaz’s performance not only is a disruption to Anglo American viewers, but also “disrupts the myth of Cuban whiteness” (Vasquez, Listening in Detail, 150).
I am drawn to sonic experiences that can help unpack Latinidad and the multicultural roots that are informed by other migrations of Africans, Asians, and Spaniards to the Américas. I am a descendant of these mestizajes, as Gloria Anzaldúa writes in her canonical text Borderlands / La Frontera. A concept like afecto caribeño addresses the social and emotional exchanges that emanate from the complexity of these migrations and how they reveal themselves in momentary connections. When Arnaz performs as “Ricky,” he breaks that character upon playing the congas. Here he does not act as the nightclub owner; the reverberation of the conga mediates an embodiment of his true self exemplifying un afecto caribeño.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and adjunct lecturer in the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and Liberal Studies Department at CSULA and in the Critical Studies Program at CALArts. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
Featured Image: Desi Arnaz performing with Diosa Costello, 1948.
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SO! Amplifies: Shizu Saldamando’s OUROBOROS–J.L. Stoever
SO! Reads: Dolores Inés Casillas’s ¡Sounds of Belonging! – Monica de la Torre
In the current anti-immigrant climate, the visual, sonic, and textual modes of representation are becoming battlegrounds we must consider. Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama’s takes on immigration policy and eliminations of ethnic study course offerings from college and high school curricula, are signs of a climate fraught with discontent. However, these fights are not limited solely to the political sphere; in fact, the arena of cultural production—music, literature, theater, and film—facilitates a generalized outlook on Latinidad in the United States by representing Dreamers (the generations of children who were raised in the U.S. from a young age but are not citizens), and/or the thousands of undocumented immigrants who sustain an infrastructure of cheap labor. Within these often stereotypical representations, it is frequently sound that produces the strongest sense of social, cultural, and political difference for Latino subjects.
In this post, I analyze the 2006 film Nacho Libre, a comedy starring Jack Black as a friar who becomes a Lucha Libre fighter, as symptomatic of what I term “sonic brownface,” an aural performativity of Mexicanness. My interest on Nacho Libre is to elucidate how sonic brownface manifests on the big screen, and what is at stake through these seemingly innocent (re)presentations of Mexicanness. I characterize “sonic brownface” as a “speedification” of a Mexican accent, named after Speedy Gonzalez’ infamous call “¡Ándale! ¡Ándale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Epa! ¡Epa! ¡Epa!” Although comedian Jack Black intends to present a respectful portrayal of a Mexican, his speech enables my analysis of “sonic brownface” within popular culture, a sound that reproduces ideologies about an invisible majority that is also perceived as non-American: Latinos, undocumented immigrants, and dreamers.
Voicing the Other…
The last scene of the Academy Award winning film The Artist (2011), presents why the silent film Artist was against the industry’s move toward the “talkie.” His voice collided with the visual representation of the suave debonair cosmopolitan man—and audience expectations of what such privilege sounds like. Though French actor Jean Dujardin plays the lead character in the film The Artist, it must be noted that several Mexican and Latin American actors did quite well in those early years of Hollywood cinema. Their exotic looks made them desirable and allowed audiences to fantasize about the man or woman on the screen because they could not hear them speak. Moreover, their physicality allowed some actors to “pass” as white. When talkies became the norm, Latino actors began performing now familiar stereotypical characters because in the U.S., their voices were indelibly associated with their “foreignness.”
In the realm of popular culture, both Disney and Warner Brothers created their own “Mexican” characters. In 1944, Disney introduced a Mexican and a Brazilian in the animated film Three Caballeros. Joaquin Garay was a Mexican voice actor featured in the voice of Panchito Pistoles in the Three Caballeros.
His accent and his singing sounded like someone who is Mexican speaking English, as oppose to an exaggerated Mexican accent heard later in the cartoon character of Speedy Gonzalez. Panchito Pistolas showcases a pride in being Mexican as heard in the singing of a ranchera and wearing his gun like the Mexican Revolutionaries of the 1910s. In the 1950s, Warner Brothers introduced Speedy Gonzales to their pantheon of animated characters, coinciding with the next wave of anti-Mexican sentiment during the campaign of Operation Wetback.
In his essay “Autopsy of a Rat,” William Nericcio posits that viewers come to recognize a series of stereotypes about Mexicans through the animated character of Speedy Gonzales. Nericcio incorporates historical references that influenced the design and creation of Gonzalez. He stipulates that this animation creates visual cues which American audiences connect as qualities of Mexicanness, “how this popular animated star comes to function in a way that reinforces politically charged, visions/versions of the ‘Mexican’ on ‘American’ soil” (212). Nericcio emphasizes the “visuo-ethnic clues” to deconstruct the Speedy Gonzales cartoon, and his definition of the stereotype helps corroborates my interest in how “sonic brownface” manifests as a “Speedification” of a Mexican accent. “Strapped for existential input as to the dynamic of Mexican subjects, we turn to stereotypes to provide us with visuo-ethnic ‘clues’ that fill in for empirical data and satisfy the lazy desire of our collective curiosity (219). Whereas Nericcio emphasizes the visual, however, I argue that sound has also held a strong purchase on the American racial imaginary in the case of Latinos. When audiences see and hear Jack Black as Nacho Libre, for example, they already recognize the accent.
Nacho Libre, sonic brownface personified
I propose the concept of “sonic brownface,” which pairs auditory with visual signs of Mexicanness as mediated in popular culture, to characterize the Mexican as a perpetual foreigner within the national imaginary. My interest in a film like Nacho Libre is to elucidate how audiences already recognize “Speedification,” a voicing of Mexicanness that manifests as a performance of “sonic brownface.” This conceptualization of “sonic brownface” is informed by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on the “sonic color-line.” In “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York,” she posits that “sound is not merely a scientific phenomenon—vibrations passing through matter at particular frequencies—it is also a set of social relations … the “sonic color-line” begins to theorize the mutually constitutive relationship between sound, listening, and race.” She elaborates how “aural signifiers of race are thoroughly enmeshed with the visuality of race [because] they never really lose their ultimate referent to different types of bodies” (65). In the case of “sonic brownface,” Jack Black does not need to be a Mexican actor, he just needs to sound “Mexican” to conjure a physical referent.
In utilizing the term “brownface,” I also reference minstrel entertainment in which blackness fetishized and simultaneously disavowed African American entertainers consequently framing racial codes onto a spectrum of racialized bodies. In his analysis of the first talkie The Jazz Singer (1927) “Blackface, White Noise,” Michael Rogin proposes that the “protagonist adopts a black mask and ventriloquiz[es]the black, sings through his mouth” (419). Through this masking, the Jazz Singer becomes Americanized through “appropriat[ing] an imaginary blackness” (421). Even as our contemporary sensibility would call out any form of contemporary blackface performance, we have yet to identify a similar masking when it occurs with Mexican or Latino characters. I contend that the models seen in blackface entertainment have already placed familiar scenarios of seeing White or Jewish actors performing an ethnic Other. When American audiences see Jack Black as “Nacho Libre,” they do not need to see him brown his skin; it is enough to hear a “speedification” of Spanish to have us entertain his believability. When “sonic brownface” occurs, it does not Americanize the performer, rather it perpetuates the Mexican and by extension Chicanos and Latinos as always already foreigners.
In order to recognize how “sonic brownface” is performed in the comedy Nacho Libre, it is also necessary to understand how its sound echoes a political climate that conflates “Mexican” with “Immigrant,” thereby representing Mexicans as undocumented people who have no right to be on this side of the U.S./Mexico border, and lumps all Latinos together as “Mexican.” The film was released a month after the nation’s largest immigrant rallies on May 1, 2006, occurring throughout many cities. The timing of the film also coincided with the first series of policy measures on immigration reform proposed by Congress. Whereas before the May Day marches, some members of congress discussed immigrants as criminals, after the big turnout Congress changed their tune, beginning to consider amnesty or easier paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including generation Dreamers, already raised and finishing their schooling in the States. Cue Jack Black.
Speedification del Celluloid: “sonic brownface” in Nacho Libre
Nacho Libre, directed by Jared Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite fame) presents a comedic fictionalization of the story of Fray Tormenta, a career Lucha Libre fighter who was actually Reverend Sergio Gutiérrez Benitez. The film highlights Black’s strengths as a singer and presents him in a character that is the classic underdog trying to achieve his wrestling dream. As Nacho, the cook for the orphanage, he also wishes to provide the children a better meal, at least once in a while. I will highlight a few scenes in which Black’s sonic brownface performance stands in contrast to the other Mexican cinema actors who speak English. I will conclude with a proposition as to why sonic brownface is already so familiar to us.
From the opening sequence, we see the quaint orphanage located in a small Mexican pueblo. “Sonic brownface” is introduced in the film from Black’s first words “Be grateful Juan Pablo today is especially delicious.” In the next sequence, Hess films the Father saying mass in Spanish with no translation, or subtitles. I point this out because it sets up a type of authenticity with the Mexican orphanage, and that the film brings together both American actors speaking “Es-Pan-ish” and Mexican actors speaking in English. Ana de la Reguera, “Sister Encarnación,”–a nun who arrives to teach the children–also does not perform sonic brownface. She sounds like a Mexican actress speaking English, very much like other Mexican actors preceding her in Hollywood, adding a third later of sonic representation that actually works to heighten sonic brownface’s effects.
However, the sequence that most prominently presents the visual and auditory cues of sonic brownface appear in a twenty-minute segment when Nacho recruits his partner, Esquelito, and they transform into luchadores. In the midst of Nacho’s transformation, he must also contend with his carnal feelings for Sister Encarnación and to instruct the boys that wrestling is not good. Black goes from Italian in “taste of glory” (19:114-16); to Cuban “take it easy” (24:03); to urban Mexican American “my life is good, really good. It’s fantastic” (35:50). The sequence ends as Nacho cannot defend Sister Encarnación and blames Esqueleto for the mishap. Here sonic blackface culminates this performativity of Other with “get that corn outta my face. I looked like a fool last night. What took you so long?!” (39:54-40:29).
One could read this performativity of Otherness in the remix of accents as Black’s self-awareness that he is voicing something not of his experience. However, that he is Jewish and a comedian implies a privileged position already granted to him through blackface performances: the permission to co-opt ethnic and racial identities. When he inflects a Cubanesque accent, audiences can recall Al Pacino in Scarface, an earlier articulation of “sonic brownface.” Or the urban Chicano accent as seen in Born in East L.A. when Cheech Marin teaches the Mexicans waiting to cross the border how to blend in with Chicanos. By the time Black performs sonic blackface, as audiences we have been cued to these auditory references, thus we do not need him to alter his physicality to match the accent. It is enough to hear it to understand the referent. The sequence reaffirms Nacho as the luchador, since we also see his persona of the fighter come to life.
Rogin’s analysis can help us understand these slippages, as well as the role of “sonic brownface” in representations of Latinos by white actors. Rogin posits how Jolson’s performance in the first talkie simultaneously killed Vaudeville entertainment and reintroduced blackface into popular media (429). It is Rogin’s conclusion that it is with the appearance of “Jack Robin” in blackface, that the Jewish individual “Jakie Robinowitz” becomes white and thereby successful, mediating this success through visual codes of blackness. Similarly, in Nacho Libre, sonic brownface operates as both the visual and sonic cues of Mexicanness that enable Jack Black to become the luchador who doesn’t need to live behind a mask. As the film ends, Nacho is content, becoming a hero to the orphans who no longer bemoans his lot in life. This ending is contrary to the plight of immigrants from Latin America who must leave their home in search of better economic opportunities.
By identifying sonic brownface, we can see how American audiences fetishize the sounds of the Mexican/Latin Other yet simultaneously disavow their presence by placing non-Latino actors in these roles. Through the performativity of sonic brownface, popular media and film reify codes of Mexicanness as always foreign, silencing their accents because español is still an unwelcomed sound. Sonic brownface can also be a useful tool by which to investigate similar auditory articulations of Latino sounds. I’m thinking here of Rita Moreno in West Side Story (1961)—see Priscilla Peña Ovalle‘s Sounding Out! post “Aurally Other: Rita Moreno and the Articulation of ‘Latina-ness’” (January 2011)–George Lopez in Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008), Wilmer Valderrama “Fez” in the television series That 70s Show, and the panoply of Latino actors in Machete (2010) by Richard Rodriguez. Given that media tends to recycle tropes and stereotypes, as audience members we have developed a keen awareness of these sonic markings of Otherness.
Most importantly, my intent in identifying sonic brownface concerns its re-appearance during another surge of anti-immigrant rhetoric. The rallies that occurred on May Day 2006 became synomous with immigrant rights. The release of Nacho Libre shortly after these rallies unknowingly silenced immigrant Spanish speaking voices in the popular imaginary until the film A Better Life (2011) staring Demián Bichir, connected undocumented immigrants with an empathetic experience. The strongest counteractions, however, have not been channeled through Hollywood. With the 2012 election, another surge of immigrant rallies happened at the Democratic National Convention with UndocuBus riders arriving in time to call attention to immigrant rights (start at 8:10-11:24).
As seen in this video clip, undocumented immigrants, Dreamers, Latina/s, and Chicana/os committed acts of civil disobedience because their voices will not be silenced.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and an adjunct lecturer in the Social Science Division of Glendale Community College in Glendale, California.As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!
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Sound and Curation; or, Cruisin’ through the galleries, posing as an audiophiliac-–reina alejandra prado saldivar
Chicana Radio Activists and the Sounds of Chicana Feminisms–Monica De La Torre
Listening to Modern Family’s Accent–Juan Sebastian Ferrada and Dolores Inés Casillas
But to love this turf is love hard and unrequited.
To love L.A. is to love more than a city
It’s to love a language.
–“L.A. Love Cry” (1996) by Wanda Coleman
Los Angeles, an enigmatic metropolis to many who arrive here with a dream in hand and hope for a better tomorrow, still challenges historians, artists, and troubadours on how to best represent it. Poet Wanda Coleman, born in Watts, captures the pain and wonder of loving this city in “L.A. Love Cry.” Because the city is “hard and unrequited” one must also be willing to love its nuances and see it as“more than a city.” To love this city, “it’s to love a language,” a cultural immersion that goes beyond the seeming ease of words into the complexities of sound and rhythm.
Through a Museum Studies course I teach at Claremont Graduate University entitled Welcome to L.A., I introduce students to varied texts in which scholars and artists challenge the imaginaries created by outsiders, boosters, and apocalyptic cinema. Instead, the course readings present how we in L.A. actively engage with one another by fostering communities of creative praxis. For the students’ final project, they curate and develop educational programming for an exhibition at a local museum or art center. On May 3, 2012, this semester’s project, re : present L.A., opens at the newly-renovated Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM) located on the East Los Angeles College Campus. Showing works from over thirty artists from May 3-July 27, re : present L.A serves as an extension of the conversations we had in class, not only celebrating the interconnectedness of our communities but encouraging new associations and encounters within the visual and resonant space of VPAM’s Community Focus Gallery. For a look at the Virtual Exhibit Catalogue, click here.
In each exhibition for Welcome to L.A., I try to include something that challenges myself to think outside the white-box, per se, of the gallery. Given that we had read several texts that highlighted in the importance of music to build and uplift communities of color in Los Angeles, it was both important and necessary for me to include sonic elements in re: present LA that exhibits L.A.s vibrant musical legacy as intermingled with and fundamental to its visual culture. Among the challenges to document the cross-cultural connections between ethnic communities in Los Angeles is how to unpack what Anthony Macias calls “the cultural networks” that facilitated these exchanges through the music scenes at music halls, clubs, youth centers and record stores in Mexican American Mojo (10-11). Studies done by George Lipsitz, Macias, and Victor Viesca, provide readers a means to understand how the music in Los Angeles is much more than entertainment; it is political; it is a lifestyle; it defines spaces of multicultural interactions. In How Racism Takes Place, Lipsitz points out how integral the reclamation of space defined the political outlook and music in Horace Tapscott’s Arkestra based in South L.A. Viesca’s research documents the rise of an East L.A. rock sound, post-Los Lobos, that was defined by the activism of the Zapatista Movement and California’s Prop 187 through the work done at the Peace & Justice Center, Self-Help Graphics, and Regeneración.
Therefore, in order to engage both the history and the sound of Los Angeles’s musics with the city’s visual representations, I invited Rubén Funkhuatl Guevara from Ruben & The Jets, is a multi-threat musician, performer, writer, and producer, and Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (of Binghamton University, Sounding Out!, and of course, Riverside, CA) to curate playlists for a “sound booth,” which will consist of a stationary iPod™ Nano that gallery visitors can use at their leisure. The classic circular wheel allows the viewer to advance tracks or play the playlists on shuffle. Headphones will be set up so that the viewer can either focus on their listening experience or, listen while viewing the artwork around them. Since the gallery is relatively small, the pieces on the opposite wall are recognizable though are distant. In addition, Maya Santos of Form Follows Function will screen their short documentary on Radiotron, a youth center that presented Hip-Hop shows during the 1980s.
Guevara’s playlist Los Angeles Chicano Rock & Roll is included in the exhibition thanks to the Museum of Latin American Art. Stoever-Ackerman’s playlist Off the 60, unites the two spaces of East L.A. and Riverside through a mix of intra- and trans-cultural musical experiences. Guevara’s rock & roll selections highlight many of the bands that emerged in East L.A. Both the musical listings and the liner notes for the sound presentations will be accessible on the re:present L.A website when the exhibit goes live on May 3rd, 2012.
My sonic intervention in the white, often silent, spaces of the gallery was especially inspired by two recent precedents: the inclusion of the iPod™ in MEX/LA (2011) at the Museum of Latin American Art and Phantom Sightings (2008) at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. Both experiences invited me as a viewer to see the artwork through another sensory experience. The first time I saw music included in an exhibition not specifically about music (such as the Experience Music Project’s 2007 American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music, or Marvette Peréz’s curation of ¡Azúzar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History) was LACMA’s Phantom Sightings, which garnered much critical acclaim and criticism due to the premise of presenting contemporary Chicano Art inspired ‘after’ the Chicano Movement. However, I want to focus on one aspect of the exhibition, a corner display with books that informed the curators’ conceptual approach and on the bookshelf was an iPod™. The iPod™ included playlists from some of the artists reflecting their inspiration for their artwork. I enjoyed listening and reminiscing while sitting in the gallery. However, I wanted the music to take more of a central role in the exhibition, especially because much of the artwork so obviously revealed traces of Los Angeles’ musical influences, partly due to the recent generation of artists who actively engaged in subcultural expressions and referenced it in their art. For example, as Ondine Chavoya describes in the Phantom Sightings catalogue, Juan Capistran’s The Breaks (2000) is a giclée print documenting the artist break-dancing on Carl Andre’s minimalist floor pieces. The guerilla performance then is presented through a series of twenty-five still images showing the various movements seen in how to break-dance books (125). Shizu Saldamando’s ink on fabric portraits of Siouxsie (2005) and Morrissey (2005) showcase how post-punk and new wave music from England is part of her life as an Angeleno (and that of her friends), yet the medium is reminiscent of pinto drawings. Saldamando also does portraits of her friends at clubs, backyard bbqs “documenting a world where identity is fluid” as Michele Urton describes in the catalog (197).
It would be another three years before MEX/LA would further marry music with art, now casting it in relation to the politics of Chicano and Mexican presence in Los Angeles. MEX/LA, among the many Pacific Standard Time exhibitions presented throughout Los Angeles, was among the best curated due to the range of artifacts representative of the city and the cultural production emerging in post-war L.A. Another striking element was the influence of Méxicano popular culture among Chicanos and vice-versa. As curator Rubén Ortiz-Torres, and associate curator Jesse Lerner write on the MoLAA website: “The purpose of the construction of a ‘Mexican’ identity in the South of California is not to consolidate the national unity of a post-revolutionary Mexico, but to recognize and be able to participate in an international reality, with all its contradictions and conflicts that this entails.” One of the ways this cultural exchange was embodied was in the playlists curated by Rubén Funkhuatl Guevara and Josh Kun that were prominently displayed alongside the artwork and heard in the interactive iPod™ “sound booths,” that invited viewers to sit on beanbags and listen. The music served to contextualize the art in relation to popular culture of the time. For example, Guevara presents a Chicano rock & roll genealogy that followed the chronology of the visual exhibit, 1930-1980, that begins with boogaloo and swing of the 1940s era culminating with the punk rock sounds of The Bags.
In both these exhibitions, the music served to complement the artistic elucidations of identity, race, and American popular culture seen in much of the artwork. The simplicity of the presentation was due to the inclusion of a familiar object like the iPod™. What is surprising is that more exhibitions have not incorporated more sonic elements to engage viewers’ other sensory experiences beyond the podcasts, or cell-phone audio listening tours set up at most major museums. While musical playlists can serve as another didactic component of an exhibition like the more established audio tours, I am arguing for a different use of sound in museum space, one that provides a wider sense of agency, connection, and encounter with the visual elements on display rather than a one-way transmission of information. In the cases of MEX/LA and Phantom Sightings, the inclusion of iPods™ provided a tool to understand the cultural production of a “post-Chicano movement” generation of artists while at the same time enabling an experience that recognized—and resonated with—my bicultural experience.
Being that L.A. is a car culture moving to the rhythms of the radio waves, I’m always seeking to find synchronicity between music that feels me with joy and my work as a cultural worker. Part of my impetus to locate Los Angeles sonically in re : present L.A. was driven by the question: is it possible to capture my sonic landscape growing up in the city of Los Angeles that ranges from Hip-Hop – British Rock – Mexican Pop? The playlists curated by Guevara and Stoever-Ackerman are familiar to me personally. Stoever-Ackerman’s Off the 60, reminds me of the sounds of my youth, when KDAY and KROQ rocked the radio waves and my students banded together in my high school quad according to their favorite music – metal-heads, b-boys, alternative rock, and the cha-chas, who traveled across town every Friday night to Franklin High, where DJs spun L.A. disco. At home, the music was different. My mom and tías used to reminisce about their homeland every Sunday night through the variety show Siempre en Domingo, binding us to the t.v., religiously following the rising stars. Through the bi-lingual selections in Guevara’s Los Angeles Rock & Roll, there’s a familiarity of home and the music heard at backyard parties and quinceañeras.
By including my iPod™ nano, I bring together my lived experience as a cultural worker through the sounds of L.A. and activate the white walls of the museum. The playlists created by Guevara and Stoever-Ackerman serve to reflect the history of the community surrounding VPAM, as well capture the diversity of the city sonically re:presenting L.A. to our audiences. While the playlists can stand alone as audio curations in their own rights, I hope that they will engage audiences to rethink the relationship between music and art, and feel their lived experience inclusive within the museum.
reina alejandra prado saldivar is an art historian, curator, and an adjunct lecturer in the Social Science Division of Glendale Community College in Glendale, California and in the Cultural Studies Program at Claremont Graduate School. As a cultural activist, she focused her earlier research on Chicano cultural production and the visual arts. Prado is also a poet and performance artist known for her interactive durational work Take a Piece of my Heart as the character Santa Perversa (www.santaperversa.com) and is currently working on her first solo performance entitled Whipped!