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  • Southern BorderlandsMusic, Migrant Life, and Scenes of a “Mexican South”
  • Alex E. Chávez (bio)

It’s a typical sweltering July evening in central Texas, close to ten o’clock. The incandescent buzz of city lights in the distance washes over the night sky, an amber glow that crowns the ballroom outside of town where an anxious gathering of Mexican migrants saunters along concrete bleachers; some lean out across the flanking metal railing and peer toward the crowd of several hundred below. The buzz of laughter and conversation nervously crescendos every now and then in anticipation of the musical performance everyone is awaiting. These soon-to-be dancers are nestled between two tablados (raised benches) positioned at opposite ends of the dance floor.

A few of the musicians drove in from northern Mississippi for the night—just south of the Tennessee border. It’s hard to imagine, considering Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast a mere two weeks prior. Fallen trees and downed power lines marked the damage. Surely—they knowingly anticipate—they will be folded into the rapid response labor force required to clean up and repair the region. They already work construction, pave roads, and plant pine trees in those parts. A few years later I’d find that most would make the move up to Tennessee: “En Mississippi ya no hay gente, se han ido a Memphis . . . se puso dura la ley.” (There aren’t that many people in Mississippi, they’ve all gone to Memphis . . . the law [local authorities] got tough.)

Four silhouettes appear on one tablado, moving leisurely, but with purpose, positioning themselves with their instruments—two violins, a guitarra quinta huapanguera (eight-string bass-guitar), and a vihuela (small five-stringed chordophone). They assume their positions, exchange glances, quietly confer, subtly coaxing the music soon to be produced. They gaze over at the tablado yonder, now similarly occupied by a matching ensemble, waiting patiently. The audience instinctively focuses on the shadows that have emerged above them. And as if without warning, the strumming of stringed instruments booms out through the PA, elaborate fiddle melodies erupt, followed by the soaring voice of the poet-practitioner, embracing those present, scanning the scene before him, his mind weaving through the audience, drifting, shaping, moving verses that elicit a chorus of gritos (shrill cries of emotional release). The moment grows dense, binding, stretching, reaching, as his improvised poetics skillfully layer the present-tense currency of this time and place with that of far away rural communities in central Mexico.

In an era marked by intensified Mexican migration to the United States, linked to [End Page 35] increased transnational economic integration between both countries in the guise of “free trade,” the free movement of people across the U.S.–Mexico border is ever-more restricted as that geography becomes outrageously militarized; and this gathering is that which thrives, as displaced families cross the border clandestinely in efforts to improve their life chances and mitigate the “ruins of nafta”—despite the low-intensity violence mobilized against them.1 Dancers bend long and pivot rapidly, shaking and twisting. Their inertia extends out to different parts of the body only to tumble back to its core, giving off heat, exchanging energy, carefully patterning their individual movements, shadowing those of others, heads bobbing up and down or thrown back, arms swinging, hands swaying, bottoms rocking back and forth, huffing and puffing along. Steps grow louder, building a sonic wake that mirrors the vigorous bowing and strumming of the musicians. Its tones sweep across the skin and its utterances linger, caught in the air, fading, but slowly, as the poets dynamically maneuver between the warmth of the gathering and distant places, crafting poetics that are close at hand, that pull things into view, tracing the assemblages and trajectories of Mexican migrant life.

A music relatively unknown outside its region of origin in the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Querétaro, and San Luis Potosí, huapango arribeño takes its name from the Nahuatl word cuauhpanco—signifying the expression “atop of the wood,” which is a reference to the tarima (wooden platform) atop which people dance zapateado (patterned footwork) to various styles of vernacular Mexican...


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