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  • Resounding Chicana Music:Listening to Eva Garza
  • Deborah R. Vargas (bio)

This essay is based on a keynote address given at the twentieth anniversary of the Feminist Theory and Music conference (FTM 11). The keynote address was based on my forthcoming book Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).


Lydia Mendoza and Selena represent the musical bookends of Mexican American women singers during the twentieth century. Both Mendoza and Selena have become not only the Chicana icons of borderlands music but, for the most part, the Chicanas who have garnered the most sustained attention by scholars and curators of public cultural exhibits. While well deserved, such vast attention devoted to so few Chicana musical figures also has been vulnerable to reproducing what I refer to as a gendered politics of exceptional exemptions in music, the reproduced narratives and names of the few women greats considered exceptional enough in talent and skill to be exemptions to the heteromasculinist rule of canonical music histories. As feminist music scholarship has taught us, the idea that other Chicana singers must be as exceptional of a guitarist as Mendoza or as dynamic of a singer as Selena in order to be worthy of historicization and musical analysis enacts a willful oversight of the rich potential for analyzing issues of classed femininity, racism, and the production of nonheteronormative sexualities among countless other Chicanas who made music throughout the decades.

When I began my research for what would eventually become my book, Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music: The Limits of La Onda, it became clear quite quickly that assembling an archive for analysis would lead to an ongoing [End Page 113] questioning of the very notion of a legible Chicana archive. My task of analyzing Chicana music performers therefore required that I develop alternative modes for listening to and for past artists as well as a commitment to taking risks to trust their alternative meanings for what music making represents, including desires to leave home, broken marriages, and commitments to self-cultivated style. My research agenda has thus taken me to numerous places, metaphorically and geographically, that I did not expect. Thus, as a way of leading in to my focus of Eva Garza in this essay, I want to briefly introduce some of the artists who represent a significant call for a feminist "retuning" of Chicano canonical musicology, that is, singers who require critical engagements with alternative borderlands social identities, gender performance, and class aesthetics.

In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, Chicana singer Rita Vidaurri traveled from Mexico City to Bogotá, Colombia, singing her rancheras, often characterized as love songs contextualized in rural settings, which gained enormous popularity during the 1950s. Once nicknamed "la Jorge Negreta"—the female version of the popular charro figure and actor Jorge Negrete—Vidaurri and Lucha Reyes were also among the first mexicanas to wear charro pants while performing rancheras, thereby bucking the gendered norms of Mexican female performance and disrupting gendered national iconography.1

The 1950s represent a highly underexplored and yet significant context for the exploration of Chicana singers in an emergent post-World War II Mexican American cultural production era.2 Vicki Ruiz reminds us that during the first half of the twentieth century, Mexican American women consistently negotiated the gendered expectations of parents and church while being drawn to American consumer culture through radio and advertisements.3 While musicologists have contributed important insight into the ways in which labor, post-World War II nationalism, and Mexican American experiences are reflected in music, less attention has been devoted to thinking critically about music consumed and produced by Mexican American women during this era and how musical production transformed varied classed femininities, citizenship and cross-racial/ethnic relations, and gender and family constructions.4 The mid-1940s through the 1950s comprise a rich era during which Mexican American women were quite active recording in the musical form of duets, as lead singers [End Page 114] for Mexican American orquestas, and sometimes even local high school rock and roll dances.5

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Fig. 1.

Rita Vidaurri, XEW Radio, Mexico City, circa 1940s. Reprinted with...


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pp. 113-132
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