Review | Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño

Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño. By Alex E. Chávez. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. [440 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-7018-5].

Reviewed by Larissa A. Irizarry / University of Pittsburgh

In Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño, Alex Chavez asserts that huapango arribeño, a vernacular music derived from the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Querétaro, and San Luis Potosi, respatializes the lives of Mexicans living north and south of the border, due to this particular music’s improvisational practices between performer and audience, and the creation of a dialogic space that forms transnational pathways of “moving bodies and bodies of musical and poetic discourse” (6).

Chavez states in his introduction that the “transnational music making in everyday Mexican migrant life, specifically, positions itself at the tensive center of this volatile discursive terrain” (4). Throughout the subsequent chapters, Chavez narrates and poignantly depicts the discursive terrain which he is referring to. From northern Indiana, to Austin, Texas, to Mexico City, he documents the lives of those who are accused of “browning” the United States of America, but who, through the means of the huapango arribeño, “claim a place in the space of the U.S. nation-state, refiguring the borders of citizenship and alienage through embodied and agentive forms of cultural expression” (5). The study of huapango arribeño has been absent from the Mexican vernacular music scholarship. Because of this absence, and because of its unique transnational quality, Chavez has chosen huapango arribeño as a “lens by which to understand the cultural and spatial contours and politics of this transnational migrant world” (5).

Chavez’s ethnographic methodology is that of an active participant in musicking. One of the many examples Chavez gives of this methodology is seen in his performance and participation as a huapanguero in an Austin, Texas rally responding to the Sensenbrenner Immigration Bill in 2010 (280). Chavez’s insider status amongst the huapangueros enables him access to impromptu, casual, and arguably organic interactions with his subjects, such as the spontaneous breakfast invitation by a local after a night-long topada. (165). Chavez’s introduction “American Border/Lands” is representative of the sequencing and method in the subsequent chapters. Chavez begins each chapter with an anecdote that illustrates and drives home a particular point. The introduction also makes no pretense regarding Chavez’s positionality. The introduction tells the journey of Chavez’s parents, who illegally migrated to the United States and underwent physical hardship in order to enter the nation-state to the north, which promised a better and more prosperous life.

In this study, Chavez not only navigates the misconceptions of non-Mexican Americans, but he addresses the tensions between Tejanos and Mexicanos, which is exemplified in their musics, which portray divisive imagery of binary oppositions toward one another. What makes huapango arribeño distinct from these other Mexican-derived musics is that it is based on dialogic improvisation and is practiced both in the United States and Mexico. Due to its malleability to the distinct performers, environments, and the listeners and dancers, huapango arribeño is quintessentially representative of Mexican identities and people, from whatever form or place they herald—“As I write, I have presented stories imbued with history, culture, and politics in order to put on display the contortions and distortions of a coloniality that has historically denied the agency and subjectivity of ‘others’ as active participants in the making of the world in which they live” (314).

Chavez guides the reader through the rugged terrain of personal accounts, and his prose is both beautiful and intimate. Chavez’s use of personal voice and first-hand accounts, as well as his obvious sentiments of solidarity, border on sentimentalism, but this is tempered by extensive and enlightening use of linguistic tools and theories, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “reversibility,” Jill Dolan’s definition of the “utopian performative,” Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs’s definition of poetics, and Michel de Certeau's discussion on the role of poetics in relation to place and everyday life. Although I am not a native Spanish speaker, Chavez’s inclusion of Spanish vocabulary in the text without in-text translation was not alienating, and in fact his careful and regular use of Spanish emphasized the nearness of the migrant population, and pushes the transnational element of his work.

The topic of this book is strikingly apropos, considering the pervasive anti-immigrant and nationalistic sentiments recently bolstered by the Trump campaign and administration. An interesting angle that Chavez pursues is highlighted in his analysis of President Obama’s visit to New Mexico in 2013. When compared to the current right-leaning president of the United States, it would seem that the previous president, the left-leaning Obama, would be viewed favorably in the context of Mexican migration. And yet, Chavez makes a point that even a well-meaning visit in 2013 by a president spouting the virtues of globalization, used rhetoric of amity and positivity that was filtered through ideas of static Mexican-ness. This calcified version of identity bound by nationality is what Chavez seeks to dismantle through his analysis of huapango arribeño.

Huapango arribeño may perform the task that Chavez has set out, but it may not be singular in its ability to describe the porous nature of cultural identity. It would seem that there are multiple vernacular musics all around the world that are malleable to practitioners and listeners, other musics that are dialogic and dynamic, and so may also be just as transnational and post-colonial as the huapango arribeño. If the application of poetics to vernacular musics is new, then its benefit is in its translatability to other cultures where there may also be musics which possess rhetoric and poetics that blur the lines of officially built borders. In this way, this study can be a very useful way to investigate the engagement of musical form with the ideological and semiotic inflections of a given community.

With post-colonial studies maintaining its momentum in academia, Sounds of Crossing is a welcome study of coloniality in our own American backyard. Chavez’s first-hand experiences, positionality, and theoretical grounding have produced a work relevant to the current construction of subjectivities in twenty-first century America.


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