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Transnational EncountersMusic and Performance at the U.S.-Mexico Border$

Alejandro L. Madrid

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199735921

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199735921.001.0001

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Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival

Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival

Chapter:
(p.207) 11 Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival
Source:
Transnational Encounters
Author(s):

Margaret E. Dorsey

Miguel Díaz-Barriga

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199735921.003.0011

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the performative power of the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival as a space that allows the construction and maintenance of patriotic networks of identification. The festival and its music remember the loss of Mexican-American lives to defend the U.S. Set against the current local political animosity prompted by the construction of the border wall in South Texas, this chapter takes Lázaro Lima's notion of necro-citizenship as an interpretative tool to argue that for borderland Mexican-Americans these acts, both dying and memorializing the dead through a specific type of Mexican-American music, perform them as valid U.S. citizens.

Keywords:   Conjunto, patriotic citizenship, border wall

On a hazy June morning in Corpus Christi, Texas, Margaret Dorsey received an e-mail from an old friend, conjunto music diva Linda Escobar,1 informing her that BNET Internet radio, the number one Tejano radio station, had slated Escobar for a live interview that afternoon. Escobar invited us to join her and film the interview. In a quiet neighborhood near the oil and gas refineries that define the city's skyline, we visited with Linda Escobar at the home of Internet DJ Manny Garcia, known to fans of BNET or “Jalapeño” radio as “El Picante.”

Garcia guided us through his home from an airy and recently renovated great room into a tiny room overflowing with digital equipment and jammed from floor to ceiling with signed celebrity photos, from those featuring the legendary TV host Domingo Peña to a glossy framed photo of Selena in one of her signature black bustiers. After his hour-long live interview with Escobar, the four of us moved to the great room, sat in his plush sofas, popped a few Bud Lights and chatted. In that conversation, Garcia responded to our questions about the meanings of conjunto/Tejano music:

Tejano is a story of an episode of your life or someone's life or a memory that still lingers, when you first started out as a kid. Say, for example, your parents as migrant workers, the struggle, in the fields, picking cotton, vegetables, whatever. They had to go where the work was. A lot of them migrated out of Texas to the northern-tier states, to California to Florida to continue the struggle of life. So, the music, again, goes back to the music that “Hey, I remember those (p.208) songs when I was growing up as a kid.” They bring back a lot of memories, good and bad memories. The loss of a loved one. And then good memories, “Hey, they were great times that we had.” Remember Grandpa and Grandma. My dad, my mom. The struggles that we had to go through. Tejano music, that's what it is. It brings back a story. It tells of true life stories, NOT of fables.

[Linda Escobar chimes in agreement.] It's all true.

Conjunto/Tejano scholarship and music articulate the relationship of music to the struggle of life, collective memories, and class identity.2 In this chapter, we explore an experience that has drawn little, if any, attention in the study of conjunto/Tejano music: participation in the military. Specifically, we will use the work of Linda Escobar to analyze Mexican-American perspectives on citizenship and patriotism.3 We focus on the annual “El Veterano” (“The Veteran”) Conjunto Festival that she began almost a decade ago. Escobar is both a popular conjunto musician and Tejano roots music activist with experience in the music industry for over forty years. Her first album, at age eight, went gold and sold over one million copies. She is an award-winning performer who has received numerous tributes from various conjunto/Tejano organizations: Female Vocalist of the Year (1987); Narciso Martinez Award for Conjunto Female Vocalist of the Year (2001); and Inductee and Board Member of the Tejano ROOTS Music Hall of Fame (2003, 2007). As recently as a few weeks before our conversation at Garcia's home, listeners rated her song “Amigo Freddy Fender” number one on KEDA AM radio, one of the top conjunto/Tejano stations.

Our analysis borrows from Escobar's music, life history, and performance events, with particular attention to the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival. Our aim is to trace the ways that Escobar's musical production expresses patriotism, and a particular expression of Mexican-American culture, through its circulation in the public sphere. We end the chapter by showing how the circulation of “El Veterano” mediates the meanings of patriotic citizenship as an expression of both cultural citizenship as defined by Renato Rosaldo,4 and necro-citizenship as Lázaro Lima takes the concept from Russ Castronovo.5 In short, we interpret this musical production as an expression of belonging to the United States that is articulated through Mexican-American cultural forms, thus the concept cultural citizenship. Furthermore, we argue that the festival's emphasis on sacrifice for the nation can be read in relation to wider practices of exclusion and death, hence the concept of necro-citizenship. Our wider aim is to show how this musical production mediates between these two forms of citizenship. Conjunto devotees’ understandings of this music as expressing life histories and life itself, as Manny Garcia's definition suggests, is a key element of this mediation.

We base this essay on ethnographic research conducted over the past ten years with Linda Escobar. Since 1998, Dorsey has attended Escobar's performances at dance halls and festivals across South Texas in addition to an annual music festival organized by Escobar, “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival. Escobar and Dorsey have talked at the events, before her performance and after her performance, including while traveling to and from the event itself. Since 2004, Dorsey has been creating (p.209) a digital archive of Escobar's oral history and of conjunto music more generally.6 The data this essay draws from includes concert paraphernalia, participant observation at events, conversations and filmed interviews with Escobar and Tejano music activists, material downloaded and printed from her Web site and MySpace, and e-mail correspondence with Escobar over the past ten years.

Patriotism in South Texas

Our interest in Mexican-American patriotic citizenship relates to our research on the construction of the U.S.-Mexican border “wall”—as border residents call it—in South Texas. Understanding border wall politics clarifies our conceptualizaion of the circulation of “El Veterano” as it mediates between cultural and necro-citizenship. Environmental groups, landowners, and government officials, including mayors of border towns, strongly opposed construction of the border wall in south Texas. Environmental groups opposed the wall because it would place large tracts of wildlife preserves, including land in the United States owned by the Nature Conservancy and Audubon, south of the wall. Landowners opposed the wall because it would bisect their properties, creating uncertainty about how they would access their land south of the wall. Border mayors rejected the wall because it would wind an eighteen-foot structure through parts of their cities including public parks. Nonetheless, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) erected the wall. (See figure 11.1)

Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival

Figure 11.1 Construction of the border wall at Hidalgo Pumphouse and World Birding Center. Photo courtesy of Margaret E. Dorsey, 2009.

(p.210) For many border residents, border wall construction signified yet another example of how policymakers do not view them as full citizens of the United States. National politicians’ frequent reference to South Texas as a war zone, and their legislation of security measures without consulting border residents fuels this perception. On April 28, 2008, U.S. Congressman Thomas Tancredo (Colorado) attended a congressional hearing about border wall construction hosted at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. At this meeting, Tancredo addressed Brownsville landowners, environmental activists, and other concerned citizens disturbed by the government's seizure of property and the construction of the border wall. For a while, the Congressman responded to citizen's statements against border wall construction with a series of counter-arguments, but at the end of the hearing. At one point in the meeting, Tancredo became exasperated and stated: “Too many people in this area do not think that borders matter.” He then criticized the audience's “multiculturalist attitude” and stated in a matter-of-fact manner: “If you do not want a fence between you and Mexico, we suggest that you build the fence around the northern part of your city.”7 In a single stroke, Tancredo transformed a rational public deliberating border policy into a threatened public. To the mostly Mexican-American audience, the reference to “multiculturalist attitudes” encompassed a wider critique of their biculturalism, a hallmark of cultural citizenship as we describe below. Finally, through his willingness—might we risk saying exuberance—to bisect Brownsville from the United States, Tancredo demonstrated the extent to which he is willing to apply a politics of exclusion: not only to Mexican immigrants but also Mexican-American citizens of the United States.

Opposition to the U.S.-Mexico border wall in South Texas, as our research shows, is widespread and centers not only on the practicalities of the wall (it will not deter undocumented immigration) but also the way it was constructed without consulting border residents. Here, we must take into account the post-9/11 moment in which Michael Chertoff of the Department of Homeland Security uses federal legislation (Secure Fence Act and Real I.D. Act) to waive international, federal, and state laws in order to rush construction of a border “wall” across the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Chertoff and the Bush administration hurried construction while ignoring the feedback of the very people whose everyday lives will be most effected by this monumental undertaking.8 Thus, when Mexican-Americans speak against a wall or criticize U.S. policy, they are not speaking from an “open border” perspective much less an anti-patriotic one.

In our interviews, border residents reacted to the Congressman's statements not so much with anger but with bewilderment. Attitudes of Rio Grande Valley residents about the border wall, obviously, are much more complex than “not caring about borders” and being “multiculturalist.” By wanting to place Brownsville on the south side of the wall, Congressman Tancredo implies that residents are anti-United States. Our research finds such assumptions false. It is true that many in South Texas are against the border wall. (p.211) The question is more complicated: how should we understand this opposition to the border wall? The results of a random telephone survey that we recently completed are telling. Out of 153 residents of Hidalgo County surveyed, 60 percent of the respondents were against the border wall. At the same time, those very same respondents favored increasing border security. Forty-five percent of respondents support virtual fencing (up from 16 percent support for the wall) and 37 percent thought that the number of border patrol agents in the area should be increased. Only 9 percent thought the number of border patrol agents should be decreased. These numbers show that the attitudes of border residents toward the border wall cannot be reduced to a lack of concern for border security. Such data makes us wonder, then, what does it mean that Tancredo—in the face of opposition—characterized the Brownsville, mainly Mexican-American, public as muliticultural, and for open borders, and then offered to build the wall north of the city?

Perhaps the most troubling irony of this era is that at the same moment when being marked as “Mexican” or speaking “Spanish” at best connects with not belonging to the United States it also indexes illegality, criminality, and terrorism. At that time, the Bush administration guided the United States into two wars. In both wars, Mexicanos died and risked their lives for the United States and continue to do so. Finally, at a time when armed forces’ recruiters often fail to meet their recruitment goals in most parts of the United States, South Texas–an area in which the vast majority of the population is of Mexican descent and bilingual—remains a region where recruiters consistently meet their target. How does this context speak to notions of “patriotism” and “citizenship” in the United States today?

In what follows, we theorize that just this sort of politics of exclusion forms the basis of necro-citizenship. In light of statements like Tancredo's, necro-citizenship, defined broadly as citizenship practices shaped by exclusion and the possibility of death, contextualizes the highly ritualized format of patriotism we observed at “El Veterano.” In other words, “El Veterano” both enacts the militarization of the border region and the sacrifices, including death, through which Mexican-Americans claim full citizenship in the United States. Thus, the concept of necro-citizenship describes three interrelated political and cultural practices:

  1. 1. The concept describes state practices that, rather than being primarily concerned with life and the overall health of its citizenry, seem more concerned with controlling exclusion and death.

  2. 2. The concept takes into account the deterritorialization of Mexicano/a and Mexican-American identity as essential to their construction as extra-nationals in the public sphere, thus making them targets of exclusion.

  3. 3. Mexican-Americans in South Texas continually reenact their sacrifice, and reenact it in poetic, embodied, and highly ritualized ways in order to validate and remind the nation of their status as citizens.

The “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival reenacts this sacrifice, through a Mexican-American cultural idiom, to make claims on being full citizens of the United (p.212) States. As such, the patriotic citizenship expressed in this festival mediates between articulations of necro-citizenship and, by expressing cultural difference in order to express belonging to the nation, cultural citizenship. Let us see how attendees, organizers, and participants at the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival articulate patriotic citizenship through necro- and cultural citizenship.

“El Veterano” Conjunto Festival

Iterations of “El veterano” and of the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival instantiate a way in which Mexican-Americans in South Texas express their patriotism. Escobar, fellow conjunto musicians, and attendees of this event demonstrate their loyalty to the United States by making the event “American.” Participants express this through traditional practices such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, showing reverence to the U.S. flag, and risking one's life for the United States. But, participants express it in a particular idiom; for instance, through prayers to La Virgen de Guadalupe and through conjunto music. Like Lawrence Taylor in his work on the Minutemen and citizenship, one can aptly label this action as a “performance of citizenship”; the attendees perform a version of “America.”9 The syncretism, moreover, seen between traditional symbols of the U.S. nation and Mexican-American culture can also be labeled an expression of “cultural citizenship.”10

On Veterans Day for the past nine years, Linda Escobar organizes, hosts, and directs the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival.11 She holds the event to honor military veterans and to perform conjunto music in memory of her deceased father, Eligio Escobar, a World War II veteran and respected conjunto musician. The event serves as a fundraiser for music education: money raised at “El Veterano” goes into scholarships for children with talent in conjunto music.12 For the first few years, the festival shifted locales in South Texas from Alice to Falfurrias to Corpus Christi. For five years, the committee set the location for “El Veterano” at the High Chaparral venue in Robstown, a rural South Texas town.13 The inaugural festival lasted three days with more recent events landing on Sunday and lasting twelve hours, from noon to midnight. The event opens with a military ceremony in which participants honor each branch of the military. Typically, a couple of youth performances start after the performance of the Patriots Band in the military ceremony. Conjunto bands play during the remainder of the festival.

Escobar invites an array of conjunto artists: children, new bands, and highly respected senior artists. Ranging from Mingo Saldívar y sus Cuatro Espadas, Roberto Pulido y Los Clásicos, Gilberto Pérez y sus Compadres, Rubén Vela y su Conjunto, Los Dos Gilbertos to the Veterans Band, the festival usually features between eight and sixteen bands—primarily conjunto—some of local prominence and others international stars, with musicians coming from as far as Japan to perform. The musicians donate their talent to the festival, and Linda Escobar emphasizes that these celebrities are highly supportive of this festival, generously donating their energy to perform. Between 200 and 500 people attend “El Veterano.” (See figure 11.2).

(p.213)

Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival

Figure 11.2 Veterans Band at the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival, 2008. Photo by Isabel Díaz-Barriga, used by permission.

Generally speaking, “El Veterano” attracts Mexican-American families, although the time of day and the featured band (who specifically comes to the event at a particular time), also influence the composition of the audience. The age of family members ranges from ten to eighty-five. You might find nuclear and extended families, couples, and a few clusters of single men and women. The single men tend to be veterans or are presently active in the military. Participants include a fairly even mix of men and women with slightly more men than women present.

Participants and musicians speak and code switch between English, Spanish, and the regional vernacular. Musicians sing the vast majority of the songs in Spanish. Between songs, performers will address the audience in Spanish and English. During these interludes, performers typically mention something concerning “honoring veterans and the men and women presently serving our country in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Most attendees wear typical attire for a South Texas pachanga. Many of the men dress in boots and jeans with a collared, cotton, button-down the front shirt; other apparel includes loose-fitting 1950s bowling-style shirts with collars that button down the front and are not tucked in. We noticed only a few of the hallmark red, blue, and gold American G.I. forum hats on the heads of older male veterans, from the Korean War and World War II. We also saw a couple of the younger participants dressed in active duty U.S. military uniforms. One of the more accomplished dancers stood out from the crowd in a dashing canary yellow zoot/pachuco suit that fit over a black T-shirt, paired with a matching black hat. The women's clothes ranged from comfortable dresses to (p.214) snappy yet casual shirts and pants. In general, other than a few exceptions, participants’ attire typified what one would find at a Sunday dance hall.

For an outsider, the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival might look like any other live music event. That the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival indexes South Texas’ pachanga14 tradition highlights that this event is more than just a party, more than a site for Budweiser to market its beer, and more than a glitzy simulacra of fun. Dorsey's previous work draws attention to the history of the pachanga in relation to Mexican-American's participation in the political sphere and its role in building political publics.15 Far from being a barbeque with music and dancing, the pachanga underscores a way Mexican-Americans gain entrance into the public sphere and retain it, from the post–World War II Mexican-American civil rights movement to grassroots-based district court campaigns in the twenty-first Century.

If you were to walk into the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival, it would look and feel much like the one Dorsey attended at a dance hall in Robstown in 2005. Robstown is a working-class, predominately Mexican-American rural town twenty miles west of the city of Corpus Christi.16 Dorsey found the High Chaparral Dance Hall close to the highway and easy to access from out of town. Dorsey pulled into and parked alongside a shiny black, Ford pickup truck. As soon as Dorsey opened her car door, the welcoming ump-pah of the conjunto music penetrated her surroundings. Once she entered the dance hall through the open door on the side, she immediately saw a table to her left monitored by “Aunt Celia”, who warmly greeted her. The woman seated beside Aunt Celia politely collected the eight-dollar admission fee while casually visiting with a couple of guys. As Aunt Celia tucked the eight dollars into the cash box, Dorsey noticed the bar and food along the opposite sidewall of the dance hall. Aunt Celia gestured toward a long, narrow folding table where twelve members of the Escobar clan sat. The table included a couple of elder Escobar men who fought in World War II. Mr. Ramiro Escobar, from the World War II generation, introduced Dorsey to his primo (cousin) who survived Iwo Jima. While Dorsey chatted with these veterans, Linda Escobar walked on stage and introduced her young female protégé, Cristina, who plays with her.

In front of the Escobar table, Dorsey noticed a column of twelve similar tables that opened up to the dance floor. Two more columns of tables flanked the right and left of theirs. These tables, also opened to the dance floor, which was peppered with approximately sixteen dancers. Organizers erected the stage at the front of the dance hall with a large, red, white and blue U.S. flag as the only backdrop. On stage, the vocalist wore a U.S. flag shirt. To the right of the stage hung a banner announcing “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival also adorned with a U.S. flag icon. Dorsey returned to the Escobar table and visited with the family, who characterized the food as delicious and mostly prepared by Aunty Polly—in essence, food not to be missed. Without too much prodding, Dorsey walked over to the bar and barbeque table and bought a plate. (The event's flyer explained that the food proceeds would benefit the “El Veterano” Scholarship Fund.) Her barbeque plate included Spanish rice, charro beans, and beef brisket barbeque complimented by (p.215) slices of ultrasoft white bread, onions, jalapeños and pickles. For an additional dollar, Dorsey could have purchased a piece of white cake.The warm, festive atmosphere welcomes participants to enjoy the event in a variety of ways. Couples of various ages danced.17 After a little dancing, others ate some barbeque. Some sipped beer at the table and chatted. Others took a break and visited the “veterans memorial” nearby the dance hall entrance.

Mr. Raul Escobar, who at age seventeen became a flame-thrower in the U.S. military, guided Dorsey to the memorial. He showed her photos and newspaper articles about his service and poems he wrote during World War II. He explained his wife's thoughtfulness during this tragic time: she wrote him a “Dear John” letter to enable him to fight free of the fear of leaving his family behind in the event of death. (See figure 11.3) The veteran's memorial reminded Dorsey of a home altar–church reliquary hybrid. Organizers transformed a simple brown folding table into a memorial zone, featuring veterans’ memorabilia from various U.S.-led wars and military excursions similar to the material Mr. Raul Escobar showed Dorsey: large, posed photos of young men dressed in military clothes, photos of the men at military sites, correspondence to loved ones. When ready, participants can visit the memorial table and solemnly remember the ways in which U.S. military engagements effected their lives: relatives killed in distant lands; a brother's smile lost in Vietnam; a sister's soul left in Iraq.

For many, the memorial table also invited discourse. It provided an opening to talk about times of war and how it affected the survivors: veterans of foreign wars

Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival

Figure 11.3 Veteran's memorial table. Photo by Isabel Díaz-Barriga, 2008, used by permission.

(p.216) as well as their family and friends. Our present wars, the loss of loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan and those still there, loomed large as participants stood by this memorial table and looked over to it as they discussed the ways in which past wars disrupted and permanently transformed their lives and families. Both the veterans memorial table and music listened to at the conjunto festival offered avenues to contemplate war, more generally, and Mexican-Americans’ blood sacrifice to the United States and its particular contours, more specifically.

At this music event, Mexican-Americans appropriate symbols of the U.S. nation (e.g., U.S. flag icons, the American eagle featured on the cover of the event booklet) in a distinct vernacular. We want to argue, though, that here we witness more than a Mexican-American appropriation of U.S. patriotic discourse. This employment also makes visible and defines what patriotism is in the United States in relation to their experience. As the veterans’ memorial table highlights, a base of patriotic citizenship is blood sacrifice to the United States. Another includes remembering that sacrifice and re-remembering it annually—if not more often—and in a highly ritualized form (the conjunto festival and pachanga). Patriotism to the United States is a struggle and lived experience reanimated and celebrated by the community—not just elderly men—but families. Young and old, men, women, and children gather to celebrate their patriotism and belonging to the United States in Spanish and in English. This event does not erase that the participants are of Mexican descent and their verbal artistry in Spanish; it uses such vehicles to celebrate, encode, and circulate their contribution to the United States.

In his ethnographic work on the Minutemen “guarding” the U.S.-Mexican border, Taylor highlights that patriotic-military language, as their name “Minutemen” suggests, is a key framing device. Many members align their service in the Minutemen with their military experience fighting for the United States. They view their present work guarding the border as reminiscent of the halcyon days of their youth spent protecting the nation. Today, these U.S. military veterans in their 60s and 70s tote guns, use military speak, and protect the U.S.-Mexican border from what they call “Spanish people.”18 When one recalls how commentators such as Pat Buchanan and activists such as the Minuteman elect to outline citizenship and patriotism in the United States (essentialized cultural substance manifest in Mexican-not Canadian-border guarding), one witnesses seemingly contrary discourses of citizenship coming into play at “El Veterano.”19 Envision the Patriots Band playing at the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival (not “the Veteran” in English but “El Veterano” in Spanish, not marching down Main Street but playing at a conjunto event, a distinctly hybrid Mexican-American cultural form), and witness this alignment.

Cultural Circulations: From a Pistol to a Mauser in His Hand

In considering how “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival instantiates a way in which Mexican-Americans in South Texas express patriotism, we must also consider its wider cultural circulations into the public sphere. We theorize citizenship not (p.217) simply as a static value system but rather as a discursive construct that circulates through culture. The application of the notion of culture as circulation derives from theoretical work by Aparicio and Jáquez, Corona and Madrid, Dorsey, Urban, and Ginsburg, Abu-Lughod and Larkin that explores the movement of culture refracted through social practice, including how social actors rearticulate cultural forms.20 As such, this conceptualization hooks into projects of “musical migration” and appropriation by spotlighting performance events—in including event organizers and attendees—as they transform systems of signification.21 This overall theoretical framework enables us to view perspectives on citizenship as an intersection of cultural practices that derive from many sources including music events such as “El Veterano.”

Cultural material concerning “El Veterano” circulates across various media before, during, and after the event affecting meanings in the process. Actors use e-mail to organize, publicize, and share memories of the event. Escobar and the “El Veterano” Committee use e-mail to organize volunteer networks and to send publicity fliers. During and after the event, participants circulate photos taken at “El Veterano” on digital cameras, cell phones, and blackberries through their phones or later through e-mail. Conjunto artists and their fans transmit their performances from “El Veterano” on YouTube.22 Readers who prefer more traditional and less interactive media can learn about the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival in the regional newspaper, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, where respected Tejano music columnist Juan Tejeda frequently mentions the festival around Veterans Day. The colorful and sizeable “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival Program provides residents and participants an additional way to learn about and remember the “El Veterano” festival, Mexican-American veterans, their war dead, war veterans who are and were Mexican-American political activists, as well as Mexican-Americans presently serving in the military. The free program runs about the size of a sheet of notebook paper (8x11 inches) and is approximately thirty-pages long. From the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival program left on the coffee table to e-mail listservs and cell phone photos from the event itself, cultural material remembering the event circulates locally and globally using conjunto music and appropriating patriotic discourse in acts that bring and bind together senders and receivers around a celebration of Mexican-American veterans and war dead.

It is worth considering how these cultural circulations, and their role in the construction of a South Texas Mexican-American public, have become intertwined with patriotic discourses. While it is beyond the scope of the essay to describe fully this historical process, we can productively engage this topic through a consideration of Américo Paredes groundbreaking work on border music. Paredes, like Eligio Escobar, served in World War II as part of the occupation force in Japan.23 On returning to the United States, Paredes completed his bachelor's, master's, and doctorate as well as published his well-known account of the folklore and music that surrounded the conflicts between border residents and their own version of an occupying force, the Texas Rangers. The University of Texas at Austin Press published With His Pistol in His Hand in 1958.

(p.218)

Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival

Figure 11.4 Poster for the 10th Annual “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival, November, 9, 2008. © Linda Escobar, used by permission.

During World War II, Eligio Escobar continued playing conjunto music for friends and family. He returned from Japan to the United States to work as a truck driver for a oil company. After becoming partially paralyzed in a truck-driving accident, Escobar focused his attention on music and recorded “El Veterano” in the early 1960s. Out of 250 recordings, many consider “El Veterano” to be Eligio Escobar's most famous.24 Throughout his professional music career, Escobar played this song to benefit organizations such as the American G.I. Forum, a veteran's association of which he and his brothers were members.25

While scholars have written extensively about how With His Pistol in His Hand serves as a masculine poetics and a stinging and necessary critique of Anglo racism, few focus on Paredes's criticisms of the violence wrought by World War II. In writing about the changes that have taken place in South Texas since World War II, Paredes states:

On the Texas bank physical changes also were taking place. New people had settled in most of the country; grapefruit orchards and truck farms replaced the chaparral. Still, on the Texas side cultural isolation remained. But with the (p.219) advent of World War II greater numbers of north-bank Borderers began to think of themselves seriously as Americans. Like the unreconstructed Southerner—whom he resembled in some respects—the Border Mexican was surprised to find that the Peoples of Europe and the Pacific thought of him as just another American.26

Most readers interpret Paredes's characterization of post–World War II border residents as a call for them to maintain their border culture. Paredes aims his critique not only at these cultural changes but also at the ways border residents lionize World War II veterans. He does so with a sharp sense of irony. Consider the following depiction of a World War II hero from the border:

Brownsville's World War II hero was a Border Mexican. Armed with the modern equivalent of the Ranger's Colt, a machine gun, he displayed such Spanish-Indian cruelty toward the German army that he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. And all good Texans in Brownsville received him on his homecoming with festivities and parades. His deeds were not celebrated in corridos; legends were not made about him. For he was not the hero of the Border folk but of the American people.27

For Paredes, the border culture that created corridos exemplified a patriarchal democracy where social relations were based on respect and social hierarchy was fluid. Paredes celebrates the corrido hero Gregorio Cortez not for his use of violence, but for his cunning as a horseman and his tenacity in front of violence wrought by the Texas Rangers, or rinches. Paredes's unwillingness to celebrate the violence of World War II follows from the critiques of racism and Ranger violence and terror that form the body of With His Pistol in His Hand. For some, it will seem unfortunate that border residents did not heed his call since border residents esteem veterans, particularly those from World War II. However, Paredes's writing in the 1950's could not anticipate that twenty-first century conjunto festivals named after a corrido titled “El veterano” would indeed celebrate military service.28

Eligio Escobar, contrary to Paredes's expectations, went on to write and perform music (including corridos) about the experiences of Mexican-American veterans. Like Paredes, though, Escobar glorifies neither violence nor the heroics of conquering an enemy. Consider one of Escobar's most memorable songs simply titled “El veterano” (“The Veteran”):

  • “Veterano,” soy señores
  • De la guerra más terrible, fui guerrero
  • Soy mexicano de raza
  • Por la mano del destino, nacido en el extranjero
  • Me llamaron al servicio
  • Como macho es mi deber, dije: “Presente”
  • (p.220)
  • Por buena, por mala suerte
  • Me toco la infantería de esos que van en el frente
  • Después del entrenamiento
  • Me mandaron en un barco
  • ¡Ay! ir a jugarme la vida
  • Al otro lado del charco
  • Yo en mi vida, había rezado
  • Pero allá aprendí a rezar mil oraciones
  • Bajo la lluvia de acero
  • Balas de ametralladoras, y bombas de mil aviones
  • No he podido comprender
  • Como pude yo volver, quizás por suerte
  • O es que mi Dios es muy grande
  • Mi Virgen Guadalupana me protegió de la muerte
  • ¡Ay! Que vida tan amarga
  • La que un soldado se pasa.
  • ¡Ay! Sin ninguna esperanza
  • De regresar a su casa
  • En los campos de batalla
  • Se mostró su valentía, ser mexicano
  • Para que el mundo lo sepa
  • Que no se afrenta de nada el que tiene sangre azteca
  • Ya me despido señores
  • Con mi “mauser” en mis manos
  • Ya (aaa) aquí se acaban cantando
  • Los versos del veterano
  • “The veteran” is who I am, gentlemen
  • Of the most terrible war, I was a fighter
  • I am of Mexican descent [“raza”]
  • By destiny's hand, I was born abroad
  • I was called to military service
  • Like a “man,” I should be brave [“macho”]. I said: “Present.”
  • For good or bad luck,
  • I was placed in the front line infantry
  • After training [boot camp],
  • They sent me off in a boat
  • (p.221)
  • To gamble my life
  • On the other side of the ocean.29
  • In my life I have prayed,
  • But over there I learned to pray a thousand prayers.
  • Underneath the rain of steal
  • Bullets of machine guns and bombs from a thousand airplanes.
  • I have never understood
  • How I was able to return, probably by luck
  • Or, that my God is so grand
  • My Virgin of Guadalupe protected me from death
  • Oh! What a bitter life
  • That happens to a soldier.
  • Oh! Without any hope
  • Of return [to his] home.
  • On the battlefield,
  • [Proud] To be Mexican [American], I demonstrated my valiantness
  • So that the world would know
  • That we, of Aztec blood, are not afraid to face anything
  • I say goodbye now gentleman
  • With my “Mauser” in my hands
  • And here I finish singing
  • The verses of the veteran.

Like Paredes, in “El veterano” Escobar does not lionize war. Notice in line 2, for example, Escobar does not label the war itself as “great” but as “the most terrible war” (“la guerra más terrible”). Escobar focuses on the randomness of death (see lines 11, 18) and reflects on the bitter life of a soldier (stanza 6).

We interpret “El veterano” as a corrido. For readers and scholars who disagree, however, we can all agree that “El veterano” clearly encompasses many of a corrido's signifiers. The song itself contains a structured pattern of end rhyme, starting with the opening stanza's abcb pattern. We transcribed the song into a four-line quatrain structure with eight stanzas that include a classic corrido introduction (Veterano, soy señores) and farewell (ya me despido señores). The song utilizes everyday language and claims only a handful of literary or cultural references, in this case La Virgen de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) and Aztec culture. These are hallmarks of a classic corrido structure as outlined by Paredes in With His Pistol in His Hand.

Escobar perhaps consciously makes this reference by ending his corrido that he is fighting “Con mi ‘mauser’ en mis manos” (“With my ‘Mauser’ in my hands”). The Mauser reference might seem surprising since it is a German pistol used by (p.222) German soldiers in World War II. In corridos, however, the Mauser has antecedents. First introduced into Mexico by the dictator Porfirio Díaz, many fighters used it during the 1910–1920 Mexican Revolution. A number of revolutionary war corridos, in fact, mention the Mauser. Escobar's reference to the Mauser thus serves as a point of reference to earlier corridos about the hardships and violence of war.

Eligio Escobar, a man of Américo Paredes generation, used his music to shift the meanings of participation in World War II into a South Texas landscape. As Paredes highlights, this generation saw itself as American. At the same time, the meanings of both being American and border culture were in flux. Through community-based political activism, including the formation of the American G.I. Forum in South Texas, Mexican-American World War II veterans organized to claim their rights as U.S. citizens. The music of many of these G.I.'s, as represented by Eligio Escobar's song “El veterano,” did not represent the “Americanized” version of the border.

Some fifty years after its composition, this song serves as the centerpiece of the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival. Escobar's daughter Linda Escobar performs this song in honor of her father and all veterans.30 It celebrates Mexican-American veterans and circulates through records, performances at dance halls, and now on the Internet. As Eligio Escobar's daughter, Linda, explains:

My father's sentiments are expressed in his recorded composition of “El veterano.” The song is about a Mexican-American who is drafted and trained as an infantryman and he is shipped to the warfront.

“I never prayed before, but there I said a thousand prayers,” he sings.

He returns home, and thanks La Virgen de Guadalupe for his safe return. It is a song full of valor and pride in being a veteran.31

For Linda Escobar, references to Mexican-American culture and the valor of veterans flow together naturally as a central aspect of South Texas culture.

Concluding Reflections on Cultural and Necro-Citizenship

For participants and for many South Texans more generally, these discourses of Mexican-American identity and military service do not appear contrary. For them, this manifestation of U.S. patriotism makes sense. To an outsider, even a well-intentioned liberal one, the format of this effervescence of patriotic citizenship might appear contrary: people celebrating U.S. patriotism in Spanish? Loud music and sacred memorial housed in the same space? In Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights, William Flores and Rina Benmayor argue that expressions of cultural difference are often about creating a safe space.32 These expressions are examples of what the authors term cultural citizenship: (p.223)

Cultural citizenship can be thought of as a broad range of activities of everyday life through which Latinos and other groups claim space in society and eventually claim rights. Although it involves difference, it is not as if Latinos seek out such difference. Rather, the motivation is simply to create space where the people feel ‘‘safe’’ and ‘‘at home,’’ where they feel a sense of belonging and membership. Typically, claimed space is not perceived by Latinos as ‘‘different.’’ The difference is perceived by the dominant society, which finds such space ‘‘foreign’’ and even threatening.33

Indeed, with its celebration of U.S. military service, conjunto music, and Spanish language, the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival is a prime example of this integration of difference and belonging strengthening the social fabric.

The discourse circulating in the context of the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival celebrates belonging to the U.S. in a particular dialect that is valid to Mexican-Americans in South Texas. Musicians and residents celebrate U.S. military veterans and Veterans Day in a specifically hybrid Mexican-American way. They account for their dead and experiences of sacrifice to the United States through conjunto music, in English and Spanish. The song “El Veterano”—whose performance is a focal point—speaks to almost every military person's experience of war. At the same time, performers voice this “every serviceperson” experience through symbolic language highly meaningful to Mexican-Americans.

The concept of cultural citizenship with its focus on difference and belonging, however, cannot fully account for the ways in which South Texans express citizenship through service, sacrifice, and death. To describe this construction of citizenship, we employ the term “necro-citizenship” through which we broadly refer both to the construction of citizenship in a war or militarized zone and the privileging of sacrifice and death as the highest mark of citizenship. Within the national imaginary, South Texas with its large number of military bases and border security politics is often conceived as a militarized zone. In this context, through events such as “El Veterano,” Mexican-Americans strive to assert their presence in the United States as full citizens by demonstrating their willingness to die for one's country.

As described by Lázaro Lima in The Latino Body: Crisis Identities in American Literary and Cultural Memory, necro-citizenship recognizes the significance of the dead body and the disappearance of specific bodies in ordering the U.S. national imaginary. Lima states: “The survival of the body as a historical and material entity is directly related to its gender, ethnicity, and class, and although it follows that almost every ‘body’ has a story to tell, not all bodies matter equally to everyone.”34 Necro-citizenship places the Latino body in the symbolic center of this battleground of meaning. The concept calls for Latinos to remember history, remember elided narratives “through the aesthetic play of the corporeal.”35 Like Eligio Escobar's hit song, “El veterano,” necro-citizenship refuses to let the Mexican-American war veteran's experience be forgotten: according to Lima, it provides “a testimonial-like accounting of a place in time in need of what I have called, following Toni Morrison, narrative re-memory: a counterhistorical (p.224) re-presentation of past events in need of national reevaluations.”36 Recall Raul Escobar taking me to the veteran's memorial table and then describing his experience of loss and death.

Such articulations of necro-citizenship profile specific contours linked to Mexican-Americans’ experience; one of the most prominent is death. Not just risking one's life seems necessary to make Mexican-Americans valid U.S. citizens, but continually remembering and reminding the public of that act seems central to constituting Mexican-Americans as valid U.S. citizens. Thus, to remind the U.S. nation that they are valid citizens, Mexican-Americans in South Texas continually reenact that sacrifice, and reenact it in poetic, embodied, and highly ritualized ways.

The Mexican-American patriotism that manifests at the annual “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival in South Texas is made meaningful and circulated through music that is not jingoistic like that promulgated by the right wing. It is not Buchanan's essentialized notion of patriotic citizenship. Rather, patriotic citizenship as manifest on the ground in South Texas embeds cultural and necro-citizenship. It does not forget history: it articulates history and propels aesthetically embodied memory suffused with meaning at the grassroots level.

The cultural circulations of the song “El veterano” and the “El Veterano” event itself thus creates a platform for patriotic citizenship that both expresses cultural citizenship, i.e., belonging through difference, and the politics of necro-citizenship, belonging in a militarized society through expressions of sacrifice and death. The song mediates between these extremes at once celebrating the strength and resilience of Mexican and Mexican-American culture while decrying the hardships of military service. The “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival contextualizes these hardships into a wider recognition of the importance of military service to the construction of the nation and a remembrance for those who have given their lives. Music and events, such as the “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival, mediate between these meanings of patriotic citizenship both reproducing the vitality of Mexican-American cultural forms and normalizing militarization and military engagement within them.

We use the concept of mediation to emphasize the tensions in citizenship practices that this music and its circulations represent. In order to illustrate this point, let us return to Manny Garcia's definition of conjunto/Tejano music with which we started this article. After Garcia defined this music, Dorsey asked him the following question:

MD: Do you think making a distinction between Tejano and conjunto music is important?

MG: No, it's not … It's all the same … It all tells the same story. You can listen to any music you want, but it all tells you the same story: it's life struggles. It's about the journey of life.

Garcia then narrated his own story—a Vietnam veteran who arrived in Corpus with only the clothes on his back, sleeping out of his car parked beneath an (p.225) underpass. He explained how from one job and with persistence he has the beautiful home and happiness that make up his present life. A feature of Garcia's definition that surprised us was not that he defined conjunto/Tejano music in relation to struggle in the fields, to hard work, to poverty, but what he did not do. The instrumentation, the lyrical style, rhyme scheme: they are not what define this music. Often, when scholars approach U.S.-Mexico border music, they begin to define it through its instruments; for example, the bajo sexto and accordion mark the conjunto along with the polka beat. However, Garcia, someone with a clear investment in the music, does not start there. Actually, he goes a step further; he tells us that the differences between Tejano and conjunto are not important. What is important is that the music tells “good and bad life stories” and “the journey of life.” He emphasizes that the music keeps the body moving—picking, dancing, thinking, and struggling. As such, the cultural circulations of “El Veterano” represent this constant engagement with lived experience as it is transformed, at least momentarily, into a commentary on cultural belonging, death, and citizenship.

Notes:

(1.) We want to thank Linda Escobar for consistently supporting this project over the past ten years and Cristina Beltrán for reading an early draft of this chapter.

(2.) See Manuel Peña, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto: History of a Working-Class Music (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985).

(3.) The “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival is not the only site where a convergence between patriotic citizenship and conjunto music exists. In an article on the annual Narciso Martinez Cultural Arts Center 16 Septiembre Conjunto Festival, held at Veteran's Pavilion, a local reporter described the U.S. patriotism expressed in the event, Bruce Lee Smith. “Gritos and Music: Downtown San Benito Site for Annual Conjunto Festival,” The Monitor, September 15, 2000.

(4.) Renato Rosaldo, “Cultural Citizenship, Inequality, and Multiculturalism,” in Race, Identity, and Citizenship. A Reader, eds. Rodolfo D. Torres, Louis F. Mirón, and Jonathan Xavier Inda (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999), 253–261.

(5.) Lázaro Lima, The Latino Body: Crisis Identities in American Literary and Cultural Memory (New York: New York University, 2007), 66–67; Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2003), 11–40; and Russ Castronovo, Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 43.

(6.) Margaret E. Dorsey, “Linda Escobar and Tejano Conjunto Music in South Texas,” Ethnographic Video for Instruction and Analysis Digital Archive, http://www.eviada.org/collection.cfm?mc=7&ctID=45 (accessed March 10, 2010).

(7.) A video of Tancredo's comments at the University of Texas at Brownsville can be found on YouTube at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FiQWc4wK2l8 (accessed March 10, 2010).

(8.) For articles covering the issue, see Melissa McEver, “Environmental Groups Sign on to Border Lawsuit,” The Monitor, June 2, 2008; and Christopher Sherman, “Company Sought to Build Fence: Congress Hopes to Have 670 Miles of Fencing in Place By the End of the Year,” The Monitor, June 3, 2008.

(9.) Lawrence Taylor, “The Minutemen: Re-Enacting the Frontier and the Birth of the Nation,” in Wildness and Sensation: Anthropology of Sinister and Sensuous Realms, ed. Rob Van Ginkel and Alex Strating, Antwerpen (Belgium: Het Spinhuis, 2007), 90.

(10.) See Rosaldo, “Cultural Citizenship, Inequality, and Multiculturalism.”

(11.) Quote from flyer for the 7th Annual “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival, November 11, 2005.

(12.) The “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival Committee, thus far, has given twenty-seven scholarships.

(13.) On the first years, “El Veterano” occurred on Memorial Day weekend, lasting three days. Because Linda Escobar found running a three-day event exhausting, she shifted the festival to a single-day event. She changed the date to Veterans Day in part due to the name “El Veterano” and also in part because May is a busy festival time for conjunto/Tejano musicians. On years that Veterans Day, November 11, lands on a weekday, the festival happens on a Sunday bracketing Veterans Day.

(14.) In Spanish pachanga generally refers to a party. In South Texas the word pachanga has a very specific cultural and political meaning that centers on barbecues and informal events that have wider political significance, such as political campaigning. See Margaret E. Dorsey, Pachangas: Borderlands Music, United States Politics and Transnational Marketing (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).

(15.) See, Margaret E. Dorsey, “The Role of Music in Materializing Politics,” Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Vol. 27, No. 2 (2004), 61–94; and Dorsey, Pachangas.

(16.) The 2000 U.S. Census documents 93 percent of the Robstown's population as Hispanic, with a median income of $22,000, and 32 percent of its population living below the poverty line.

(17.) “Couples dancing,” at this festival and at many conjunto festivals that I attended over the years, signifies more than just a husband and wife or heterosexual pairing. You will also see mothers and daughters dancing, women dancing together, a man or woman dancing with a young child, and children dancing together. I, however, have not observed men dancing together.

(18.) Taylor, “The Minutemen,” 98.

(19.) A video of Buchanan's comments about the Minutemen can be found in the following link: http://buchanan.org/blog/video-are-minutemen-vigilantes-pat-buchanan-debates-juan-hernandez-718 (accessed March 12, 2010).

(20.) See Frances, R. Aparicio and Cándida F. Jáquez, eds., Musical Migrations Volume 1: Transnationalism and Cultural Hybridity in Latin/o America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Ignacio Corona and Alejandro L. Madrid, eds., Postnational Musical Identities. Cultural Production, Distribution, and Consumption in a Globalized Scenario (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007); Dorsey, Pachangas; Faye D. Ginsburg, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin, eds., Media Worlds: Anthropology on a New Terrain (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002); and Greg Urban, Metaculture: How Culture Moves Through the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2001).

(21.) See Aparicio, and Jáquez, “Introduction,” in Musical Migrations Volume 1, 1–10; Steven Feld, “Pygmy Pop: A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis,” Yearbook for Traditional Music, No. 28 (1996), 1–35; and Alejandro L. Madrid, Nor-tec Rifa! Electronic Dance Music from Tijuana to the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 87–113.

(22.) For example, a video of Boni Mauricio and his son jamming at the 9th Annual “El Veterano” Conjunto Festival (2007) can be found on YouTube at the following link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXAk7W-N5So (accessed March 11, 2010).

(23.) For an analysis of Paredes's World War II experience, including interview materials where Paredes describes his experiences in Japan see, Ramón Saldívar, The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

(24.) Thomas H. Kreneck, “Escobar, Eligio Roque,” The Handbook of Texas Online, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/EE/fesaj.html (accessed March 11, 2010).

(26.) Américo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand. A Border Ballad and its Hero (Austin: University of Texas, Press, 1958), 106.

(27.) Ibid., 107.

(28.) Indeed, the post–WWII Chicano music scene was complex. For example, Anthony Macías describes the musical borrowing between Chicanos and African-American after WWII in Los Angeles. See Anthony Macías, Mexican-American Mojo. Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935–1968 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

(29.) In the song Escobar uses “charco” which means puddle of water. According to Linda Escobar, her father Eligio Escobar selected “charco” instead of the more semantically accurate “el mar” (the ocean) for poetic reasons.

(30.) Eligio Escobar recorded over 250 songs in Spanish and English and toured extensively in the United States and Mexico. Songs aired on Spanish-language radio were his most popular.

(31.) Quote extracted from 3rd Annual El Veterano Conjunto Jam Festival booklet, May 20, 2001.

(32.) William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor, “Introduction,” in Latino Cultural Citizenship: Claiming Identity, Space, and Rights, edited by William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor (Boston: Beacon, 1998).

(33.) Ibid., 15.

(34.) Lima, The Latino Body, 140.

(35.) Ibid., 132.

(36.) Ibid., 166.