Sometimes the act of not listening can chart new territories for Chicano borderlands music.
BY DEBORAH VARGAS
Associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside
The recent unexpected passing of singer Jenni Rivera—born Jenny Dolores Rivera Saavedra in 1969 in Long Beach, California—once again placed the spotlight on histories and experiences of Mexican-American Spanish-language singers in the U.S. and across the Américas. The outpouring of public grief over Rivera’s passing as it was covered on Spanish-language television and the continual playing of Rivera’s music on the radio resonated with me because this event took me back to the days following the passing of Selena in 1995. In fact, commentators on Spanish-language television and radio consistently expressed that they had not witnessed such a dramatic public display of grief among Latinos since the passing of Selena. Watching and listening to the continual coverage, music performances, and fan interviews in days after Rivera—nicknamed “la diva de la banda”—tragically passed away induced a flashback to the earliest queries and curiosities that framed my book Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music for the ways it prompted me to listen for Chicana singers of previous generations.
Yet, before I could listen to Chicana singers of decades earlier, I had to learn how to listen for them.
Chicano music scholarship taught me, as a graduate student, to search, query, document, and follow leads. What I learned in the research for my own book was how to be lead by unanticipated musical imaginaries held in people’s memories, the songbooks of singers, and the desires of fans. The musical canon of Chicano borderlands music is highly based on the recorded, the legible, the chronological, the audible, and the verifiable. The process of researching and writing Dissonant Divas taught me to listen for Chicana singers by being unprepared, following uncharted territories, and trusting the unexpected and intangible. Thus, one goal of the book is to affirm a way of listening to Chicana music that includes hearing singers’ voices describe life experiences, gossip, “off-the-record” tales, as well as memories that surround and move through musical notes and rhythms; these too are Chicana musical imaginaries. Such considerations certainly allowed me to propose arguments, histories, and analysis toward what I argue is “Chicana music.” Yet, such ways of listening to and for Chicana music also produced what I refer to as my own “author’s soundtrack,” that is, a musical soundtrack composed of the “off-the-record” unexpected interactions and unforeseen journeys.
One of the earliest musical additions to my soundtrack occurred while I was a graduate student conducting research at the Cineteca Nacional (National Cinematic Archive) in Mexico City. I had learned some details about films Eva Garza had appeared in from her sister. I recall sitting in a large movie theater waiting for Garza’s archived Mexican movies to be screened for me because most have not yet been transferred to DVD and are not easily acquired through mass circulation. Through the magic of visual technology, I met Eva Garza playing the character “Lucha Medina” in Bolero Inmortal (1958) and appearing as a caberatera singer in Mujeres Sin Mañana (1951; see clip below). In this performance of “Así así así” Garza’s voice hovers over the scenes of the movie as the camera moves to and away from Garza. Movie appearances by Garza such as this one would come to symbolize the way her voice has lingered around the sounds of Chicano borderlands music.
Another musical moment in my soundtrack occurred the day before I departed Havana when I had an unexpected visit with Manuel Villar, the disc jockey and musicologist I interviewed during my research trip. Mr. Villar, in his late eighties, was sitting in my hotel lobby waiting and hoping he would run into me. He explained that he had come by to bring me a gift. He handed me an old reel of audiotape wrapped in a makeshift cardboard cover that had some of Garza’s songs listed, written in ink by Villar. Villar had painstakingly transferred copies of his 78s of Eva Garza’s songs, many of the ones he still plays on his Sunday-morning Havana radio show “Recuerdos” (“Memories”) to make sure I was not missing any in my discography. Even though I had versions of the songs already, the songs on this audio reel were different and I believe they represent a different set of music by Garza than the versions I have heard in my compilation of her songbook.
My soundtrack also includes the day I walked into my office after teaching to find a voicemail on my campus phone. There was a message from someone named Harrison, an elderly man with a Southern accent, who said he was calling from Alabama. He expressed in his long message that he found me while doing internet searches for Eva Garza and located an essay I had written on her for the San Antonio-based Esperanza Peach and Justice Center Newsletter. He explained that he wanted to know more about her, where she was from, and what other song recordings she made. When I asked how he knew about Garza’s music he recounted how he fell in love with her music when he first heard it on a restaurant jukebox while stationed at military base near Monterey, California, in the late 1940s. He went on to tell me how he purchased one 78rpm of Garza’s music soon after and “played it until it was worn out.”
“I still have it,” he expressed. It’s the only record he ever owned by Garza and he never forgot her.
There are many soundtracks and songbooks of Chicana singers that are not included within the pages of my book that are still waiting for someone to listen to. I believe these soundtracks—stuffed in manila folders, recalled through gossip, and created each time someone sings along with a song that conjures a memory—is what creates a potential power of music and of music scholarship. My soundtrack to this book is continually playing and consistently offering me lessons on thinking critically about music, that sometimes not listening, not following the material leads, and instead hearing the sounds around music can offer new meanings for what Chicano borderlands music can imagine.
Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda. She is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside.
"With Dissonant Divas, Deborah R. Vargas makes us the gift of a more vibrant and expansive soundscape for hemispheric cultural studies. By broadening and interrogating the archive of Mexican and Mexican American popular music, Vargas restores a pantheon of Mejicana recording artists to their place at the center of a musical scene where artists contested the boundaries of gender, sex and nation through innovative performance and subversive self-styling. Like the music it so artfully engages, Dissonant Divas is a landmark text, beautifully conceived and written, with much to offer a wide range of audiences."
—Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Yale University