Cumbia, transnationally…

Proyecto Sonidero, Livia Radwanski

The transnational soundscapes of cumbia – born in Latin American as testimony of exploitation, perseverance, and intersection during the african slave trade in Colombia and Panama – reverberates through the dance halls of Mexico City and Los Angeles, where people of many languages vibe and dance to music fused together by delicious melodic and rhythmic arrangements.

To dance and play cumbia in any of these two cities is to participate in a translocal musical and corporal dialogue of sorts – mingled among the crowd there are folks who have known cumbia for generations, a rhythm which seems to have informed their corporal movement since time immemorial.

At first it is difficult to write about cumbia because it is difficult to transmit with words the seductive beats and melodic arrangements that entrance souls and bodies into movement, as if palabras are unfit to capture the essence of the music and context in which I’ve experienced this Latin American and always innovative sound. The rhythms, varieties and sensations inspired are difficult to communicate because I approach cumbia, like I approach everything else – transnationally.

My first introduction to cumbia was at a young age at family parties in Los Angeles, Califas – the tex-mex and cumbias norteñas of Selena Quintanilla and Los Relámpagos del Norte would blast from stereos and would inspire a humble dance crowd, where tios and tias would twirl and side step to the flirtatious beats of Suavecito. As child of Duranguense, Sonoran, and Jalisciense predecessors, this was my first encounter with one of more than twelve cumbia varieties.

Through countless hours of thrifting for cumbia sounds, it is hard to miss that many producers make note of its transnational nature; in the introduction to the Danza de Los Simpsons by the Chicha Libre – a cumbia chicha revival band born out of Brooklyn, NY – dice: “se baila así en Colombia, Chile, México, Argentina, Panama y también se baila así, en Peru” – It is danced all over Latin America, and increasingly, all over the world.

My second and most intensive primer on cumbia was in one of the most creatively resplendent and musically innovative cumbia capitals of the world, la Ciudad de México. Mexico City is home to the quintessentially chilango cumbia rhythms of sonidera culture, where cumbia meets public space. Strolling through el Centro Histórico, downtown Mexico City, on a Sunday afternoon you could find dozens of couples of all ages twirling and meneando to the classic guaracha tunes by the dozens in Parque Alameda. And an overview of any YouTube video and many-a-chilango testimonies illustrate the mythical cumbia gatherings in Tepito, a barrio famous for its boxers, Santa Muerte, and cumbia sonidera. But Mexico City is also an incubator of psychedelic cumbias and kumbia queers.

It is in this great city that I was introduced to chicha, a cumbia melodic masterpiece born in the Peruvian Amazon in the 60s, via the quintessentially chilango band, Sonido Gallo Negro. Chicha was born in Peru from Columbian cumbian influences, Andean melodies and Cuban guajiras but with a psychedelic injection. Bastioned by bands like Los Mirlos and Los Destellos, chicha quickly spread to Lima and congealed with the musical likeliness of rock, Andean folklore and Peruvian creole music – and it was radically popular in Peru. With time many of these bands become relegated to the nostalgia of dancers of decades past but recently this 9-piece, instrumental band from east Mexico City took on a project to recuperate the chicha sound but with a chilango flair.

In many ways, dancing to cumbia psicodélica in Mexico City is a ritualistic and spiritual experience; the sweat of a venue filled with the spirits of cumbia psicodélica of the past and the sensual and licentious energies emanating from bodies persuaded by the timbales, congas, güiro and electric convocation of Sonido Gallo Negro in Multiforo Alicia is one of my most cherished and hazed memories.

I recently attended a cumbia gathering in La Cita, a bar once frequented by sombrero wearing and tecate sipping dones in Los Angeles, where I danced to the music of La Chamba Chicha – a resident Los Angeles band – along with a few cumbia loving friends. To the rhythm of sonideras and chichas I was twirled by a querida amiga, where through giggles and smiles we innocently bumped into our neighbors, perhaps over extending our spins and footwork when we heard Guaracha Sabrosona come on.

But within this transnational soundscape in which cumbia rules, there is no room for timidity. La cumbia se baile, y se baila sabroso.

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Mexico City: Ciudad Noir

“La Alameda de noche”, Silver Gelatin Print 8″ x 10″

La ciudad de México es Ciudad Noir y el Centro Histórico is its quintessential noir quarter. Strolling across El Zócalo on an October evening, right after the torrential rain habitual of otoño has ceased and the sun begins to set, all along the square both lovers and hollering vendors alike can discern the orange sunset reflected in the rain puddles that adorn the volcanic stone square. The night breeze, recently unburdened of its normal toxicity, feels cool on faces exposed above scarves and skin under polyester Pumas jerseys.

As I climb out of the grumble of the underground world of trains and twisted drainage pipes and cross the square, I direct my course toward the northeast of the historic center. On a side street off Moneda in front of El Convento de Ex Teresa, nestled in between an army artillery store and the ruins of El Templo Mayor, sits a small restaurant of chilango delicacies. As I indulge in flautas de papa that exceed the standards of chilango street food, I engage in a quick and murmured conversation with the proprietor regarding the particularly symbolic location of his establishment. He lives with his family on the second floor of the building and although they live rather peacefully and unperturbed, he explains that on certain nights he discerns a tension throughout the corridors of his home and can hear sounds of inaudible laments. El Centro is a battle ground of both primordial and modern spiritual and political wars.

Flautas devoured, I make my way back to Moneda, and opt to walk west toward Alameda Central through the sullen but tranquil calle 5 de Mayo in order to avoid the overwhelming crowds and distressing lights of Av. Francisco I. Madero. I reach the edge of la Alameda by crossing Bellas Artes and its respective encampment of tourists and urbanite philosophers. After the sun has waned and the dancing fountains are alas abandoned by children and families, la Alameda becomes as lonely and abandoned as it was before its pricey renovation. Only timid lovers and strangers are sprinkled throughout the park, enjoying the solitude of the vast public city space.

After a late evening chela on the parkside Café Denmedio and a brisk walk down the dimly illuminated and steadily diminishing bustle of Calle Lopez, past the exhausted butchers and the lingering smell and warmth of carnitas, guisados and tacos that provoke even the most loyal of vegetarians, I descend down the stairs of Metro Salto de Agua. There ends another night of sauntering down the streets of El Centro, chasing side eyed glances that peer through shadows and corners where fluorescent street lamps and OXXO signs meet timeworn cobble stone structures and faces.

Cursilerías bibliotecarias

The Chicanx Resource Center in East L.A. is like the Biblioteca Vasconcelos of the barrio; it’s both grand and epic and impeccably stocked with books on Mexican and Latin American History. Though it is quaint in size, I can walk and contemplate the books on all seven aisles and feel as if it is a complete and impressive collection of history, of the border, of the barrio and of the inspiration inflicted by all of these on the humyn spirit and our struggle to translate our struggles in order to transcend them. While I was walking down the aisles I was overcome by the urge to cry, to let my tears intertwine with the wonderful rivers of words and letters I saw form all around me. I was suddenly and quite fatally overcome by the realization that I, along with the thousands of authors here featured and their millions of readers, was witness to the grandeur of life and experience, and of the quest to capture life within the both hard and soft covers of books. I realize my current heartaches have been translated before and thousands of times over and that my struggle isn’t completely unique in the struggles among the children of borderlands. My solitude was not only shaken but I quickly rediscovered the beauty of writing, of the power transmitted by a collection of borderless voices, and the importance and beauty of a Chicanx Resource Center. It is a place where feelings and words converge, to wake us of our pain in solitude, our perturbing loneliness and our untranslatable experiences.

I swim amidst words that spell out meXicana encounters and bind together the profoundness of thought of chicanx poetisas like Gloria Anzaldúa. I swim among the waves of letters of borderlands and historias y nostalgias de las patrias. It has revived the feelings and saberes that my Mexico City querido is with my everywhere I travel and my pochoteca spirit has been reignited by the resilency that emanates from books and from these mahogany tables as if to remind me of the buoyancy of translated feelings. Resisting the urge to cry all over a hard copy of John Ross’s El Monstruo..¡Me siento viva!

Mexico City: Letters of Note

Be it through coincidence or the laws of attraction, I have found people who have been equally intrigued and entranced by Mexico City.  I have forged both old and new friendships with people who are tirelessly working on moving to Mexico City in the pursuit of creative confidence and love. Others, by way of good friends and professors, inquire as to what sort of opportunities  there are there, what experiences there are to unmask.  Be it for a weekend or a month, people are perpetually called to Mexico City.

It is precisely this intrigue, for those who have yet to know its essence and people, and love, for those of us who know it all too well, that I try to communicate when approached to describe sights, places, and experiences of note in D.F. The following is a bilingual and spanglish (sprinkled with chilango vernacular, which, with time and habit we all become fluent in) attempt at that – pieced together from various virtual and loving exchanges – “¿Qué locuras me recomiendas en el DF?”

Amigx, ¿por donde empezar? Es una ciudad intensa, loca y surreal.  Mexico City me ha enseñado mucho sobre la vida, como es imprevisible con extremos y matizes.  El punto, supongo y espero, es conocer a la ciudad más allá de lo que el departamento de turismo promueve – porque sí, los museos y el patrimonio cultural como el palacio de gobierno son hermosos y plasman los murales de Diego Rivera, Siqueiros, y Frida and other brilliant creators  – but to live the City es (re)conocer aquello infundido de la vida citadina y cotidiana, es conocer a la banda y lo sublime y bonito del barrio, lo desagradable, la desfachatez. Es conocer los mercados y tiangüis dfeños como Tepito y Mercado Sonora for synesthetic inspiration and stimulation and to feel the warmth and happiness of people. Es visitar alguna de las pulquerias que se encuentran en el Centro (el cual es muy hermoso y una de mis partes favoritas de la cuidad)  to rub elbows with dones and doñas, wise and inexperienced.

It’s searching and finding great music. Como Multiforo Alicia que tiene shows de rock, garage, y surf. Recuerdo, I remember, the times I’ve been lost in enjoyment of garage punk, surf, and cumbia beats  that have transported me to dance floors in Los Angeles and back again, a corporal nepantilism that induces dancing across the grey hues of borderlands, finding yourself right back in the heart of Mexico City, absorbing the energy and vivacity of damn good music.

Pursue your energy and hunger for the City but also be tranquil and confident,  súbete a los taxis, a los peseros y por supuesto sin falla – no te vayas sin subirte al – metro.  Goza de la comida rica and quintessentially urban; come tacos de al pastor si se te apetece o las quesadillas de huitlacoche, flor de calabaza y las frutas y vegetables y garnachas domingueras.  Y pues total, relájate, déjate llevar por el caos ordenado y el orden caotico de la ciudad. Y paséate y goza. The notion of enjoyment and relaxation is somehow very distinct in Mexico City. Stand still and watch the meticulous order of chaos unfold in spirals and roundabouts before your eyes; the mini buses, gold and red taxis, and thousands of swarming pedestrians who harmoniously coexist and rhumba to the rhythm of car horns and street side hustlers’ hollers. It is a sort of sustenance and source of strength to experiment in the freedom of abandonment and chaos. Enduring life in a city of nine million extremophiles, denizens that live in conditions most living creatures would consider inhospitable.

Y charla con lxs chilangxs y no chilangxs.  Charla recostada en las islas de la UNAM, en las bancas del Parque Alameda, por la calle de Donceles (por si también te gustaría encontrar un buen libro) o charla con amigos viejos o nuevos en algún café en el Centro.  Únete a una marcha (que siempre, siempre los hay..avanzando por las venas de la ciudad).  Y respira profundamente aquel aire toxico y contempla el cielo gris y olas de hormigón desde arriba en el mirador de la torre latinoamericana o a la gente que te rodea sentadx en la plancha del zócalo. As I write this, siento que lo extraño, pero estas palabras que voy redactando me alegran – un amor innegable.

Mexico City: Pochoteca Perspectives

I want to share a short piece I wrote up back in 2012, during my second stay in Mexico City, for the community paper Brooklyn and Boyle. I was born in Los Angeles but made my way to Mexico City through two different study abroad programs via UC Santa Cruz.

I studied in la UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in 2011 and I also conducted a field research project on the youth student movement #YoSoy132 in 2012.

It has absolutely been a love affair in every sense of the cliché: the deep connection and transmission of new knowledges and awareness, the learning and un-learning, the joy, the thrill, and the heartbreak.

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And to the happiness and (mostly) playful ridicule of my communities, I will perpetually write, sing, and dance odes to el Dfectuoso:

Where does a child of the Boyle Heights experience – Chicana-but-not-really, more Mexican than ‘American’, better-not-call-me Pocha – daughter of Mexican migrants fit into the cultural and social scheme of things in Mexico City?

What I have learned through living a total of nine months in el Dfectuoso is that I don’t fit into any one category and etiqueta because, really, no one does, not in Mexico City or in Boyle Heights.

Growing up in a community with a large Mexican migrant population and listening to my parent’s stories of their childhood in Durango, I grew up surrounded with this sense of uprootedness, displacement and yearning. I yearned to return to Mexico. I wasn’t born within its geographical border but I had always felt Mexico’s presence ever since I could remember. Listening to Los Tigres del Norte at backyard family parties, the bi-monthly conversations with family in Durango, looking into the mirror and seeing a reflection of frizzy curly hair and dark brown skin – I knew that the realities I felt and confronted everyday were informed by this strange and mysterious entity that was simultaneously very present and far away.

When I researched study abroad programs as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz I knew I wanted to study abroad in Latin America. As a Latin American and Latina/o studies and Politics major I wanted to learn and study completely immersed within a Spanish-speaking cultural and social space. In this search for authenticity, I decided to study in Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) to learn about Mexico in Mexico from Mexicans.

When I arrived to Mexico City, my senses were bombarded with noise, smell, and pollution. The sights and smells were dizzying and overpowering. In an effort to adjust myself mentally and corporally, during the first weeks I would travel in a pack of fellow exchange students attempting to normalize what surrounded me. I was warned by friends who had experienced life in El Dfectuoso to never speak English in public, especially not in open-air mercados like Tepito (to do such a thing was an invitation to be swindled by proprietors in any puesto) to always be alert when riding el Metro and to keep watch of wallets, cell phones and backpacks – the list of tips, warnings and advice was endless.

During these first months I remember yearning acceptance, to walk down the halls of UNAM’S Facultad de Filosofía y Letras and be seen as a student, a Mexican student. For the most part, because of my appearance I blended into the crowd splendidly, but as soon as I opened my mouth to order tacos, to give the taxi driver directions or to participate in a class discussion I knew que me echaba de cabeza, I would suddenly reveal my true self: a non-chilanga, an extranjera, a pocha. My strange way of speaking would solicit questions and inquiry: “¿De donde eres? ¿Del norte de México? Ah, eres de California..¡Chicana geruhl!”

I recall experiencing profound confusion and sadness. I wanted acceptance but I wanted to be who I was fully, speak Spanglish when it came naturally, to be myself while being conscious of the social borders and spaces people navigated daily. Living in Mexico for six months I learned that people navigate and struggle with social, cultural, racial and economic codes and barriers like people do in the U.S.. Racism and classism is very present in the national subconscious and is seen plastered throughout the city in advertisements, nightlife social dynamics, street side encounters, and public transportation systems.

Eventually I began to understand that Mexicans, just like anyone other community, aren’t homogenous. I came to understand more and more through daily encounters and conversations with friends and classmates that the romanticized charro and adelita do not exist, but that there are millions of unique, interesting, and complex souls that make up and inhabit the urban sprawl known as Mexico City.

It was then that I understood that when I came to live in chilangolandia, my presence added pochoteca flavor – providing my perspective into class discussions on migration and neoliberalism, sharing my experiences and struggles and slowly building those bridges between communities severed by national borders and cultural misunderstandings.