This paper examines how Mexican immigrant custodians at a public California university claim space, make themselves visible, and assert their dignity through their music and sound. A Latino Cultural Citizenship framework is utilized to connect listening practices to a wider socio-cultural context. As one of the fastest growing media formats in the U.S., Spanish-language radio can be heard as both a symbol of a changing America and a contested site of cultural exchange where Latinos negotiate an audible presence. Through in-depth interviews and ethnographic data collection, respondents addressed how listening to Spanish-language radio impacted their work life and their sense of belonging in their local communities. Workers gave testimonies on navigating the “sonic color line” at work and home that policed their bodies and sounds.
At two in the morning Nancy arrives on the cold and foggy campus to start her custodial shift at a California university. While there are no people present there is no silence here: Air conditioners whizz, a door swings shut, elevators groan, steps echo in the halls. A ventilation system makes a sound best described as “mummzz.” The campus is various shades of dark: some interior corridors are only half lit. Peering out from a lighted office the exterior feels pitch-black. Walkways fade into the night. On the hour the campanile rings a hollow greeting to the passing night. Meanwhile, emanating from the dark a melancholic voice croons in a clear, emotionally-laden Spanish . . . . . . Quédate conmigo esta noche y compartamos juntos su magia negra en ella (Stay with me tonight and share with me the black magic of the night). Like tropical humidity the sound hangs in the air from a dilapidated radio posted at intersecting hallways. Rocío Durcal’s voice floats down the halls as Nancy glides alone through offices, conference rooms, and classrooms. Each night the music and labor renew the spirit and space.
LABOR AND MUSIC: BROWN COLLAR SOUNDS
The vignette above describes the sounds and feelings of a common sight: Mexican and Latinas/os working the late-night shift in, for example, restaurants, offices and universities with radios as their only company. Nancy’s presence, music, and labor symbolize larger cultural and demographic shifts altering what America looks like and sounds like. Latinos as a group are now the largest ethnic minority group in the nation and demographers predict that by 2050 one out of every three Americans will be of Latino descent.2 One area where this demographic shift is most evident is in the labor force. Research suggests that Latinos experience job segregation in low-wage service sectors and have become the backbone of industries such as construction and janitorial services. Scholar Lisa Catanzarite calls these positions “brown-collar jobs,” because Latinos are overrepresented in manual-labor sectors and face obstacles in moving into higher-wage positions or other industries.3 The increase in workers of Latin American descent can be said to be one factor in the rise of Mexican regional radio, as they represent an important audience for this product. However, radio scholar D. Inés Casillas also points to cultural and political reasons for the dramatic ascent of Spanish-language radio in the U.S., such as anti-immigrant policies. The mere presence of Latin American people did not guarantee a priori that popular practices would be carried over or have the same meanings. Beyond demographics, then, we must examine the racialized, gendered, classed and sexed milieu of the U.S—and also the transnational capital that has facilitated the process—that creates an impetus to carve out autonomous spaces and practices. Latinos contest their historical segregation and marginalization in the U.S.—a near permanent “foreign” status— in part, through affirming popular culture practices in which to speak Spanish, listen to corridos, and be from la Sierra, for example, es a todo dar. 4
To listen to Spanish-language radio is not ostensibly a subversive or political act. However, when considered from a Latino cultural citizenship framework, listening to the radio becomes one element in the struggle for space, rights, and dignity. This project to study why workers listen to music during work hours quickly became a project about working conditions, language, cultural maintenance, and the policing of sound. Although the university is a space ostensibly tolerant of cultural difference, it is nonetheless a contested public arena where battles over race, language, and culture are quite routine and often harmful to people of color. Who has access to public universities is itself a political battleground. The 1996 statewide ban on affirmative action policies in California led to a precipitous decline in the number of black and Latino undergraduates admitted to the highly selective University of California schools.5 Ironically, as the numbers of people of color diminished among the student and faculty ranks, the university is increasingly dependent on a diverse intersection of Latinos, blacks, immigrants and women to fill labor needs. Understanding the university as a contested space resignifies listening to Spanish-language music in the public spaces of the campus as a political act. More than a frivolous way to pass time, listening to the radio is also a site of potential cultural resistance and resilience: a source of presence in a highly “invisible” job, and at times a tool of political mobilization, as with the 2006 marches for pro-immigrant reform. This study explores how Mexican custodians at a Southern California university listen to the radio to accompany themselves in often solitary work, solidify their ethnic identity, and construct counter-narratives of citizenship through sonic practices. For all of the recent press on the rise of Mexican regional radio in the U.S., the listeners of this genre remain largely an abstract idea, or in the case of corporate radio, a faceless consumer—a rating, a market-share and target for advertisers.
SPANISH LANGUAGE RADIO IN LATINO AMERICA
In 2006, Billboard reported that Spanish-language radio ranked among the fastest growing media and already represented significant portions of major radio markets such as Los Angeles.6 Specifically, Mexican regional radio (which includes the genres of banda, ranchera and norteño among others), represents the largest share of Spanish-language radio stations in the U.S. due to the influx of Mexican immigrants and the “Mexicanization” of U.S. born Latinos.7 This trend is also occurring in the U.S. South. A recent study on the Hispancization of the U.S. South found that when the oldest radio station in the town of Dalton, Georgia switched from English to Spanish-language broadcasting, it set off a backlash in the local community, eventually leading to restoring the station to English-language programming and creating a new station for Mexican regional music.8
Hispanic Radio Today, an industry report on Spanish-language radio in the U.S. by Arbitron, the dominant radio market research firm in the U.S. (until Nielsen purchased the company in 2013), found that radio listenership among Hispanics is stronger than among other ethnic groups. The report also confirmed that Mexican regional music radio was the most listened-to format with the typical listener tuning in for an average of seven hours. In 2010, the firm reported that Mexican regional radio drew an estimated eleven million listeners weekly on three hundred stations across thirty-three states, the most from the sixteen Spanish-language formats identified. Arbitron’s data also corroborates the expansion of Mexican regional music east of the Mississippi, as migration patterns have shifted away from Southwestern states. Moreover, the 2010 report indicated that Latino listenership reaches its highest point during work hours and that 62 percent of listening occurred outside the home. One explanation for these findings may be that Latinos hold blue-collar jobs that allow them to continuously listen to the radio while at work, or at least have the radio playing. For example, in the present study the custodians had the ability to listen to music during their entire shift.
Nielsen’s latest report on Hispanic radio listeners from July 2015: State of the Media: Audio Today found that since 2011 radio listenership among Hispanic audiences as a whole is up eleven percent to an all-time high of forty million weekly listeners. Hispanic consumers had the highest rate of radio participation, with 97 percent of the group listening to the radio, compared to an average of 91 percent for all other groups. From this group, Spanish-dominant listeners spent the most time listening to radio compared to all other groups. However, as the demographic of the Hispanic community shifts to more U.S.-born and bilingual consumers, the popularity of Mexican regional radio has decreased slightly, while bilingual Latin pop formats have increased. These reports are intended to underscore for investors and corporations the profitability of Latino audiences. In all of these glossy market numbers, it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that the significance of this market is not just the size or rate of growth, but the dynamic and engrossing audio culture that these radio stations build through Mexican and Latino music and programming that centers listeners’ experiences in the U.S.
LISTENING TO LATINO CULTURAL CITIZENSHIP
Research in the cultural study of music in Chicano/Latino communities has long posited the importance of music in everyday life. For historically marginalized communities silenced from dominant discourse, expressive culture like music serves an important cultural and political function. As a site of expression and social action, music functions as a community resource that addresses, for example: cultural oppression, nationalism, intra-ethnic differentiation, hybridity, immigrant experiences, patriarchy, and multi-ethnic alliances.9 Yet despite much excellent work on particular genres of Chicano/Latino music and their historical impact, scholarship has only recently turned to the importance of listening, as a culturally specific and historically situated process, in creating and sustaining Latino communities in the U.S. The process of listening, its significance and mechanisms remain understudied, especially as it relates to ethnic minorities but has recently become an emerging focus for scholars exploring the intersection of Latinx studies, feminist theory, and sound studies.10
At the forefront of these research is Chicana/Latina scholars outlining intersectional listening theories. As Ivan Ramos’ review of Licia Fiol-Matta’s The Great Woman Singer argues, this scholarship uses sound studies notions of listening to reframe established histories of Latina/o music, uncover new sites of research, and has “re-centered Latina/o and Latin American studies along the lines of the sonic.” Works such as Frances Aparicio’s Listening to Salsa, Deb Vargas’ Dissonant Divas, D. Inés Casillas’ Sounds of belonging and Alexandra T. Vasquez’s Listening in detail, among others, not only interrogate the gendered context of sound production but offer new tools for understanding our relationship to listening. The research is not just coming in the form of manuscripts. In August 2017 the leading sound studies academic blog Sounding Out! published a collection of articles on Chicana soundscapes by established and emerging scholars in the field. In the series introduction, Michelle Habel-Pallán describes the work as “Feminista Music Scholarship,” which “understands music production and listening as a collective site of engagement that sometimes produces and sometimes challenges social structures of race, class, gender, sexuality and nation. It is a method and practice that pushes on narrative frameworks that naturalize the absence of women of color and Chicanx subjects in music scholarship.” The series articles—by Yessica García-Hernández on paisa listeners, Wanda Alarcon on 80s flashback sounds in Chicana literature, Susan Sepulveda on Chicana punks in Hollywood, and Iris C. Viveros Avendaño on the decolonial potential of the fandango—serve as important models for intersectional approaches to music and listening and reinforce the importance of listening as a cultural practice. This project’s discussion of gender is indebted to this work and revitalizes older theories of cultural participation such as Latino cultural citizenship.
Latino cultural citizenship can be defined as various processes by which groups define themselves, build a community and organize for space and social rights.11 A central aspect of Latino cultural citizenship is the establishment of an autonomous social space from which marginalized or minoritized communities can think, imagine and organize. This approach emphasizes culture as a resource that has the potential to be both creative and political in nature. While music is listed in passing as a possible example of Latino cultural citizenship, there is a lack of scholarship directly documenting and theorizing how popular music activates or embodies this concept, nor is gender or sexuality a central theme of analysis. One important contribution is Horacio Roque Ramirez’s use of cultural citizenship in the context of queer Latinx dance clubs. Roque Ramirez argued that cultural citizenship’s focus on identity, space and rights is audibly present in the how queer Latinos in 1990s San Francisco used music and dance clubs to establish a transgressive space and identity on their own terms: “When they step off the commodified, exoticised ‘Latin’ space—where and when Latino and Latina identities and subjectivities are meant to add ‘flavor’ and ‘spice’ to otherwise bland consumer cultures—and create their own cultures for inclusion and belonging, Latina and Latino bodies achieve cultural citizenship.”12 Likewise, radio scholar D. Inés Casillas has argued that radio provides listeners a “familiar sanctuary” from which to actualize cultural citizenship.13
Linking Latino cultural citizenship to cultural practices around music listening foregrounds how popular music simultaneously activates an intertwined set of affective and concrete political realities. In this essay I highlight some musical and sonic topographies of Latino cultural citizenship. One recent event that highlights the cultural and political capabilities of sonic Latino cultural citizenship can be heard in the massive pro-immigrant marches mobilized in 2006 by Spanish-language radio. DJs galvanized their audiences to march for immigrant rights and protest draconian legislation under consideration in congress by tapping into the audiences’ working-class sensibilities. Moreover, DJs and community organizers emphasized sustained civic engagement under the motto: “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” Like the protestors of 2006, the radio listening practices of the custodians in this essay provide an entry into theorizing what Latino cultural citizenship sounds like by interrogating how sound cultures participate in the politics of everyday life and social movements.
Listening to the radio generates a shared sense of experience and feelings of community and belonging that cannot be taken for granted. As Appadurai suggests, in a globalized world of fluidity, instability and disjunction group identity is not a given, but rather “an inherently fragile social achievement.”14 Listening in to dedications, comedy routines and favorite songs, the custodians of this study commiserated and found an imagined community of Mexican immigrants on the air-waves. Building off of Jean-Luc Nancy’s theory of community as “being-in common,” Barry Shank cautions against reifying and essentialist notions of community and urges that community “should be understood as the productive, active, and unending process of creating being-in common.”15 For the custodians of this study, then, radio is one way that community is actively built and rebuilt through the different voices and interests searching for an audience on the radio. The resonance and clarity of collectively cherished songs and radio practices establishes flexible linkages to other listeners, other places and spaces. Listening in, workers heard other immigrants, or Latinos not as competition or strangers but as fellow paisanos in part due to being “united as members of an imagined world of taste and practice.”16 The following sections analyze the various aural dimensions of Latino cultural citizenship at play in one work environment.
The present study interviewed Mexican immigrant custodians at a public university in Southern California who listen to Spanish-language radio while carrying out their nightly duties and observed their listening habits. This population was selected because of their high rates of listenership. As landscaper Juan Pablo remarked when asked about radio use among this group: “if you hear music you’ll find a custodian.” This study is based in 6 months of ethnographic observation and fifteen semi-structured interviews. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the author. Workers were accompanied during their work and break-time in various campus buildings to observe and document how the workers utilized music while working, under what conditions the listening happened, and what equipment they used. Keeping radio and music as the central focus, in the in-depth interviews listening to music was incorporated to trigger memories, develop rapport with respondents and contextualize their responses in the music they listen to. These methods provide in-depth descriptions and foster high levels of intimacy, and these in turn offer insight into the affective experiences of Latino listeners. Following Briggs, the interview approach rejected the notion of treating research participants as having an essential “truth” that must be extracted by the researcher. Instead, data collected in ethnographic contexts must be understood as co-constructed and temporally situated. In this project, music allowed not just a discussion of listener affect but generated moments of shared affective bonding between participants and researcher. Documenting the rich affective quality of the listening experience was most accessible through ethnographic methods. Following the approach of Frances Aparicio’s study of Latina Salsa listeners my goal was to assemble a medley of “significations, memories, desires, disagreements, affect, and pleasures—what Lawrence Grossberg has termed ‘affective economies.’”17 Despite the recognized shortcomings of attempting to textually represent affect or listening experiences this project takes seriously David Morely’s quip that ethnography is a more appropriate way of doing audience research than simply staying home and imagining what audiences might do.18
Although this research does not claim to be representative of the entire population of custodians or service workers on this particular campus, the participants in many ways do speak to the overall demographics of this population. A majority of workers interviewed were: female, middle-aged, working-class, bilingual but Spanish language dominant, and had emigrated from central Mexico. Ten of the fifteen participants were female, which is explained by the researcher’s social networks, but also indicative of the fact that females outnumbered males in the custodian position and many of the service sector jobs on campus. The university has not released official numbers on custodians specifically, but a 2010 report acknowledged that females held a majority of staff positions across the university. Workers’ ages ranged from thirty-two to fifty-nine years old with the average age being 47.26 years old. Based on publicly available information the average salary is $34,000 per year for custodians. This salary figure places them squarely in the working-class but when the cost of living in California is taken into account the label “working poor” is a more accurate description.19 Indeed, many workers reported working second jobs or substantial overtime to sustain their families. Complicating matters, the state budget crisis forced workers to take furloughs that translated into a 10% salary cut. Despite these challenges, and with limited options, the workers were career employees of the university. The average number of years on the job was 9.92 years. Despite many years of work experience, workers typically remained in the same position or had only nominal adjustments to their title or pay such as earning the title “senior custodian” after a certain number of service years. This reinforces Catanzarite’s aforementioned critique of brown-collar jobs that offer little upward mobility. These dynamics also play out in a gendered fashion: while many middle-managers were Latino males, few, if any, Latinas were supervisors.
The workers also shared a common immigration history. Most workers hailed from Mexico’s central regions which have traditionally been the source of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. The states of Michoacán and Jalisco accounted for eight of the participants (four per state) with other central Mexican states like Guanajuato, and Durango represented as well. Only two participants reported being from Southern Mexico: hailing from the states of Morelos and Oaxaca, respectively. This data indicates that the workers represent older waves of Mexican migrants that hail primarily from central and northern Mexico, while more recent migratory patterns pinpoint southern states as the new sending communities of Mexico.20 Based on self-reporting, the estimated average length of residency in the U.S. is twenty years for these workers.
LA PRECIOSA: HITS OF YESTERDAY, TODAY AND FOREVER
Of the various options in the Spanish-language radio format available in the local market the workers unanimously preferred the AM station calling itself La Preciosa (precious; the beautiful one; feminine). Catering to a middle-aged Spanish-speaking audience, La Preciosa plays a mix of Spanish-language genres that tend toward a romantic, melodic and slower paced variety of pop songs. Most of the music is Mexican in origin along with a few other Latin American pop hits. As such, a mix of pop, banda, love ballads and rancheras are commonly played so long as they adhere to the aforementioned criteria. In particular, workers were pleased that La Preciosa played older music from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, that is to say, the music they grew up with.
José Luis referred to the music played as “classic,” meaning older well-known pop music while others like Martha simply referred to the music as “música de la de antes” (music from the past). The workers cited this music as relaxing, romantic and tinged with nostalgia, as opposed to contemporary narcocorridos and American pop music, which they equally regarded as vulgar. An animated Martha explained the difference between today’s music and the music of yesteryear:
The one’s from the past were more healthy [clean, sane], more beautiful to listen to because today on La Preciosa they play the music of yesteryear and whatever they play that is music. But you switch it to El Moreno and all those others [stations] and oh my God! But what are we going to do? Not listen to music and become bitter?)
Described as healthier, better to listen to and as music actually unlike the Spanish-language radio stations that play narcocorridos (typically violent ballads about trafficking narcotics) which she cited as being offensive. Despite this, however, she refuses to stop listening to music, lest she become bitter from a lack of music in her life. La Preciosa, then, provides the inoffensive music she desires and reminds her of a supposedly more wholesome era.
In order to document the type of music played on the station, the style of the DJs and the rhythm or pace of the programming, the research team listened to La Preciosa during times the workers were likely listening and created detailed notes known as listening logs. Listening logs documented the type of music, advertisements and DJ interventions. Below is an excerpt of one log at approximately midnight:
11:27p: Station advertisement “Donde la musica del recuerdo vive”
(Where the music of the past lives)
Station promo lists José José, Vicente Fernandez and los Bukis as examples of artists they play
11:31p: a cumbia plays
11:34p: Marco Antonio Solis song plays
11:39p: DJ banter . . . gives shout out to various occupations (dishwashers, custodians)
11:52p: a trio bolero plays
11:55p: Promo for DJ “El Sabio” (The wise one) Luis
11:55p: Station tagline: “Los éxitos de ayer, hoy y siempre”
11:55p: romantic ballad
11:58p: mariachi song—love song sung by female voice
12:00a: tagline: “exitos de ayer hoy y siempre” (hits of yesterday, today and forever)
12:01a: 50s rock era style love-ballad
12:03a: love ballad—saxophone melody—Conjunto Primavera
12:06a: upbeat norteño song—Tigres del Norte love song
12:10a slow tempo tropical song by Alejandro Fernandez
12:13a Station tagline “musica inolvidable” (unforgettable music)
The approximately forty-five-minute log represents the type of music played during overnight hours, the lack of DJs at this time and the pacing of music and advertisements. As noted by the custodians, the music tended towards romantic ballads of various genres from different eras, from rock to boleros and banda. The DJ interrupts the music only once to give his regards to listeners he knows are likely working night jobs. He greets people working in restaurants and cleaning offices. A DJ does not come on again until “El Sabio’s” early morning show. Moreover, curiously, very few if any commercials aired during the late-night hours. Music flowed nearly without interruption. The constant stream of music was enjoyed by the workers who worked the night away with the soft sounds of Los Bukis as they focused on work. Not until 6:00 a.m. did they get the accompaniment of a DJ.
The next sections analyze how La Preciosa established a sense of confidence, intimacy, and cultural familiarity in an alienating space through music, sound, and language. La Preciosa signals Spanish-language music and Mexican cultural values as important to the workers’ work lives, but this is also symbolic of how their music and culture finds footing in the larger cultural milieu. These sonic affective energies become the building blocks of Latino cultural citizenship.
SPANISH-LANGUAGE RADIO AND SOUNDSCAPE OF WORK
Latino cultural citizenship’s premise that feeling at ease or safe in space is critical to full participation in a community can take on various acoustic dimensions. Exercising mastery over the acoustic environment and building a sense of identity and belonging through music is one understudied way marginalized communities gain footholds in contested spaces.
Maintenance and custodial employees typically are scheduled to work after the normal eight-to-five business hours of the university administration. With some exceptions, such as landscapers and housekeepers in the dorms, many campus workers labor during non-business hours, either early in the morning or late at night. Indeed, this is most evident in the case of custodian shifts that may begin at 4:00 p.m. or as late as 2:00 a.m. Working irregular hours, custodians often toil on campus alone and must deal not only with physical and social isolation but also with a soundscape often described as eerie or unsettling. Custodian José Luis Sánchez noted that his graveyard shift time meant that he worked alone often without seeing other coworkers for months at a time. Working at the same time across campus in the main administrative building, Diego García said that his radio fights “soledad” (loneliness). The absence of coworkers or other people in his workspace affected how the physical environment was experienced. The lack of human activity and voices brings into relief an assortment of non-human noises—from A/Cs, elevators, plumbing, to unknown noises—that coupled with the time of night and the isolation elevated the acoustic environment to the forefront of the work experience.
If a key component of Latino cultural citizenship is the establishment of a “safe” or autonomous space, the workers’ acoustic experience highlights how sound and music can quickly alter, claim and occupy space. For the custodians, then, listening to their radios represents a central aspect of creating and sustaining their own space. Through their radios, workers practiced what DeNora calls a musical “care of self” with music operating as a vehicle to attain preferred emotional states and energy levels.21 Furthermore, in his study of autoworkers Watson found that, “The turning of the working day into an enjoyable activity becomes more of a necessary event as the loneliness and hardship of constant and rapid production becomes more oppressive.”22 The autoworkers organized breaks, contests, and free time to sleep or joke around through sabotage of the work lines that effectively circumvented the dehumanizing demands of management. However, most custodians worked alone and did not have co-workers with whom to joke around, commiserate or exchange reassurance. Ángeles, for example, only socialized with fellow workers during her lunch break. Thus, in the absence of other people making her work enjoyable, listening to Spanish-language radio was a critical channel to connect with other people, a source of pleasure, and a companion in a desolate space.
When Ángeles was asked why she listened to the radio while she worked, her opening response suggested she felt more comfortable in her lonely workspace with music:
([I feel] more at ease and it distracts me. For that reason I listen to music because when I don’t listen to music I am just . . . I am working but I am anxious because I am fearful—because one can hear footsteps, noises and sometimes it sounds like doors are being opened, doors being closed. Well what could it be if there are no students?
Ángeles’ comment about the need for distraction gives a new twist to Theodor Adorno’s now classic treatise on the narcotizing effects of popular music that he labeled “regressive listening.” Where Adorno heard the enslavement of the working-class through products consumed in times of leisure, Ángeles hears pleasure, relaxation, and the humanization of an alienated work condition. Moreover, while Adorno lamented the political acquiescence of distracted or uncritical listening, Ángeles’ interview responses suggest she assembles from bits of songs, DJ banter, monologues, and listener call-ins, an often critical view of the living and working conditions of Mexican immigrants. But most immediately, Ángeles asserts that the “distraction” of listening helps her feel at ease in her work space.
Listening to the radio, then, enables listeners to regain acoustic and affective control over a potentially unsettling environment. In turn, feeling safe and comfortable in a space established the conditions for listening practices that laid claim to their work space. Michael Bull’s research on the ability of Walkmans and iPods to aesthetically “colonize” urban spaces seems to apply as well in the case of custodians listening to radio while they work: “Through the power of sound the world becomes intimate, known, and possessed.”23 The dark, empty hallways of the campus become intimate listening spaces, familiarized through music; it became “their” space. During fieldwork, it was observed that nearly all the custodians employed radios while they worked and those that did not indicated that they simply listened to what coworkers played on their radios, thus music, and Spanish language radio in particular, was a ubiquitous element of the workspace.
The workers preferred listening to music on the radio over CDs and personal music players with headphones (e.g. iPods) because of the convenience it offered and it seemed safer. Unanimously, the workers rejected the use of headphones for listening to music because they felt it was uncomfortable, potentially unsafe, and distracting. Ángeles preferred the convenience of a radio and added that she felt unsafe in her work environment if she was unable to actively listen to her surroundings:
Q: And do you use iPods?
A: No. Do you know why? I don’t hear people walking around and what if they appear suddenly and scare me and it seems inconvenient for me. It’s better that the radio is there [points to radio on the floor] and that I hear the DJ or the music.)
The use of personal music devices such as iPods or mobile phones creates a “sound bubble” that, while valuable to Bull’s white upwardly-mobile sample, the custodians viewed as unsafe and inappropriate for their purposes. The potential to miss important sound cues in the environment dissuaded the workers from utilizing headphones to listen to music. This statement was reiterated several times by female workers who felt vulnerable wearing headphones. This statement also underscores the difference in affective experience of the workspace while listening to headphones. The workers refused the “private” space of headphones in which the listener is removed from their surroundings, a situation that could be potentially dangerous or at least further isolating. The voice of the DJ, commercial breaks, and station promos accompanied the solitary workers and connected them to a wider audience of laborers across the city.
Another factor that undoubtedly contributed to the workers’ preference of stereo-radios over headphone devices is the cost and technical complexity of such devices. To be able to have an iPod or stream music implies the ability to access and use a computer. The radios that the workers had in their custodian closets were purposefully low-end and easy to operate. Essentially regarded as a “work tool,” most stereos were quite old, often held together with tape, or receiving signals on makeshift antennas made from coat hangers. Because multiple staff members have access to the custodians’ work spaces, there was a belief that a more rundown radio lessened the risk of theft. To be sure, many of the radios observed fit this bill: small, inexpensive clock-radios or worn-down cd/radio players brought from home. Radios functioned as the most effective listening method because the workers did not have to constantly monitor or manage the music.
In the evenings, late nights, and early mornings, Spanish-language radio “colonized” or occupied the offices, halls and grounds of the university campus. However, the music did not simply sit over the space. Instead, it actively transformed how the space was experienced and engaged. The radios not only introduced the Spanish language as temporarily dominant, but listening to Mexican Spanish became the primary mode of communication. While working alone, the radio listening experience and various forms of engagement with it: from dancing, to singing, to tuning it out, became ways of interacting with the Spanish language and the culture it represents. Disconnected from coworkers, from family living on the other side of the border, and lacking a sense of belonging in Anglo American society, these workers heard acoustic traces of the Mexico they left behind but also of an ever-emerging América within America. Thinking and feeling through memories of loved ones, dreams of yesteryear, and hopes for the future were activated through listening. As Kelman’s work on Yiddish radio has demonstrated, listening to a language can be as important as speaking when it is wielded as a means to participate in ethnic culture or “discipline” immigrant listeners.24
Listening to Spanish-language music became part of the work culture, even for those not familiar with the music or the language. Juan Pablo emphasized this point when he commented that his Anglo coworker John listened to Spanish-language radio along with everyone else despite not being fluent in the language. Moreover, many Latino and non-Latino students, staff and faculty were aware of and enjoyed hearing the custodians’ music. The music became an audible presence of a language, culture, and people. Establishing Spanish-language radio and the Spanish language as “natural” to the space built a sense of belonging through sonic registers. Moreover, their sense of belonging at the university echoed into the local community. Sonically, Latino cultural citizenship resembles the Doppler effect of sound waves that emanate from a source and expand outwardly establishing a sense of space and place. The workers’ Spanish-language radio emanated from stark corners of the university and resounded into wider local and national contexts.
SONIC NARRATIVES OF DIGNITY
Scholars of Latino cultural citizenship have argued that an active citizenship is built from a strong sense of belonging to a community and the larger nation. Researchers have found that Chicano/Latino communities can feel marginalized and silenced by dominant conceptions of community and nationhood. One seminal study in Latino cultural citizenship by Renato Rosaldo and William Flores found participants felt falta de respeto (lack of respect), humillación (humiliation), and a lack of dignidad (dignity) tested their sense of belonging to the U.S. Here again, sound culture is valuable in underscoring how cultural practices may establish and maintain a sense of dignity in the face of systemic violence against Latino communities.
Listening to the radio was an enjoyable activity for the custodians as they hurried to finish their daily work duties, but it was also significant to a broader sense of self and belonging. Their listening experiences informed intersectional identities as gendered, low status workers at the university and as Mexican immigrants in the U.S. Feeling an unequal sense of obligation to not bother anyone with their music and recognizing their low-status in the hierarchy of the university, the custodians’ radio listening practices coalesced into a sonic citizenship meant to navigate what Jennifer Stoever has labeled “the sonic color line,” racialized forms of sound perception and reception that reinforce racial inequality and limit access to sound technology.25 Moreover, Stoever uses the concept of “the listening ear” to describe how white hegemonic conceptions of sound are marked as natural “while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant, dangerous, and yes, even illegal.”26 Below, I examine listening strategies custodians used to build a sense of dignity and belonging for themselves, their culture, and sound.
One of the major themes that emerged from the interview process was a workers’ narrative that asserted a claim for dignity through their listening practices—or sonic citizenship. I employ the term sonic citizenship to refer to the use of sonic elements such as the voice, music, and sound technology in conjunction with other forms of performative aesthetics to assert and reframe citizenship on their own terms. I draw from Marci R. McMahon’s notion of sonic cultural citizenship as “a mediated agency where Latinxs have the power to (re)sound citizenship and unhinge it from colonial, visual constructions of citizenship rooted in ethno-racial formations.”27 On the surface, the custodians’ narrative often appeared a simple attempt at being polite or compliant in a public work setting, but weighed against their acknowledged low status as custodians and immigrants, it indicates a deeper significance. Listened to closely, the narrative resists stereotypes of Mexicans as loud and indecorous and reframes how the workers are seen and heard. Moreover, the existence and emphasis on a sonic self-narrative among the custodians underscores how listening practices represent another arena of social contestation and inequality, which may be a locus of resistance under certain conditions.
Sociological studies have long established that working-class jobs often carry stigma and degradation. In The Hidden Injuries of Class, Sennet and Cobb documented the “injured dignity” of white male workers. More recent work on racial and ethnic minorities in the fast food industry has likewise found that these workers face contempt over the types of jobs they hold. As working-class racially-indexed immigrants doing low-status and stigmatized work, the custodians faced similar indignities, and they protected their sense of self-worth by developing affirming counter-narratives of listening. Echoing recent research by Estrada and Hondagneu-Sotelo on Latino children who work as street vendors, the custodians inverted negative stereotypes about “Mexicanness” by instead espousing the virtues of their hard work and moral character.28 Marginalized from the “debate” about immigration and the growing Latino presence in the U.S., the workers’ oppositional point of view comprised a counterpublic, a subaltern communication network that circulates oppositional discourses.29 The resilient narratives the workers constructed through music choices and practices challenged prevailing stereotypes of Latinos and Mexicans that often function through sound: as lazy, uncultured, and unscrupulous. Indeed, their claims to a dignified sonic citizenship can be read or listened to as a response to recent public discourse that portrays Latinos as disrespectful of American laws, customs and values. For instance, the slur “illegal” lobbed at Latinos insinuates both an allegedly criminal act and a pathological failure to immigrate “the right way.”30 As Stoever reminds us, Latino “illegality” is also codified through language and accents that give racist nativism “reasonable suspicion.”
Historically, Latino communities’ lack of integration into the American mainstream has been explained as an inability or unwillingness to assimilate into American life. One mark of this incompatibility is a supposed failure to consume or engage popular culture “properly” as an audience. Curtis Marez’s research on the presence of ethnic Mexicans in Hollywood’s formative years suggests Latinos have long been heard as undesirable citizens for failing to be a “good audience,” or in other words, for not listening the right way. Marez argues that early Hollywood’s relocation to suburban soundstages and the insistence on screening features in dark, quiet theaters was developed in response to popular Mexican variety shows that combined theatre, live, music films and comedy for “unruly” crowds.31 The immigrant and working-class sensibilities of the Mexican variety shows undermined Hollywood’s aspiration to white middle-class respectability.
In choosing to play music in liminal spaces and times, the custodians of this study refused to be silenced or disciplined by discourses that still suggest that Mexican music, and the people that play that music, are a nuisance. Instead, through normalizing their listening habits and presence, the workers attempted to reclaim citizenship. Ultimately, for the workers, being a conscientious listener demonstrated self-discipline and good citizenship, but also opened up space for their music and culture. Workers were asked whether or not any rules or regulations existed regarding the use of radios but only one worker mentioned receiving instructions from a supervisor; all other workers claimed that no formal rules had been established. In the absence of an official policy, the custodians developed their own code of listening that sought to strategically use their radios to normalize and accustom others to their listening practices.
The time of day and who was present largely shaped how the workers listened and how loud they could listen to music during daytime hours when staff, faculty, and students shared the same space. For the evening workers that entered at four o’clock in the afternoon, this meant waiting until the office staff cleared out of the buildings. Conversely, the graveyard shift crew limited their radio use at seven in the morning, which was the time office workers began to arrive on campus. Many custodians claimed that gauging when and how to listen led to positive reactions to their music from staff and students. In other words, they socialized those around them to appreciate their music. Some custodians felt their use of music respected others, contrasting their own radio use with less respectful listening practices. Juan Pablo offered the following sonic parable to explain his moral code for listening to music in public:
Many use loud music to gratify themselves. They say—and this is true—that one time there was a man with his grandson on a farm right? And then a noise is heard. And then the old man says to the boy are you hearing that? What could it be granddad? He says. It’s a cart he says. Do you know what a cart is? To bring horses. And it’s empty he said. And the boy just stares at him, how do you know that it’s coming empty? The old man says it’s because carts are like people, the emptier they are the more noise they make. Yes, it’s true an empty cart makes more noise. That’s how people are. There are people that feel so empty that they raise the volume on the radio. That is to say they don’t even know how to enjoy their music. And it’s true so I say if I have the opportunity when we are home and socializing and all that well of course I put music on but not to indulge myself but so everyone can hear right? But if it’s for oneself in the car, then hear it for you. That’s my point of view.
Juan Pablo’s metaphor of the noisy horse cart demonstrated a familiarity with Mexican folk wisdom that informed an awareness of the politics of playing music in contested public spaces in U.S. cities. Discursively, Juan Pablo frames a vague sonic “other” as a foil to his views. For Juan Pablo, booming sound systems display “empty” manners, unlike his own sonic practices. He frames his listening as dignified, responsible, and civil, representing an extension of his cultural citizenship. While his comments may seem aligned with the notion of the dominant listening ear, we must understand Juan Pablo’s response as astutely aware of how sound politics mark people like him as outside the norm. The line of questioning may have activated a defense of his sonic presence that speaks to how sound politics and cultural citizenship are intertwined in complicated ways.
The ethos of custodian listening was also informed by the music they listened to. The music played by the preferred radio station, La Preciosa, was described as romantic, classic, suave, and subtle. The dignified persona they sought to build matched their music and reinforced their values. In describing their music choices, many custodians cited modern narcocorridos as a counterpoint: the loud, brash, corridos with explicit language and suggestive themes did not mesh with the narrative of dignified listening, at least not in the workspace. Perhaps the workers wanted to present themselves as not easily seduced by “vulgar” culture. We should also hear this as a recognition by the custodians that the corrido, as symbol, at times operates as a weaponized sonic stereotype about Mexican immigrants listening to unsophisticated music at offensive volumes in inopportune settings.
Moreover, radio stations like La Preciosa represent a more “acceptable” form of Mexicanness, one that is romantic, chivalrous and restrained. Mexican corrido radio stations, on the other hand, symbolized a brasher Mexicanness that reveled in excess and difference, with corrido singers that deliberately sounded inebriated, over squeaky accordions and “unusual” time signatures. The custodians understood their musical choices, even within Mexican music, as markers of class, race, age, and citizenship.
Custodian listening practices revealed a concern over exuding a dignified and discerning image of the self and one’s community. As Arjun Appadurai has aptly pointed out, one of the most powerful effects of mass media is its ability to stimulate the imagination through the circulation of images and narratives. The cultural products of mass media “tend to be image-centered, narrative based accounts of strips of reality, and what they offer to those who experience and transform them is a series of elements . . . out of which scripts can be formed of imagined lives, their own as well as others.”32 The use of the older, “romantic” music of La Preciosa to build narratives of cultural citizenship suggests that “strips” of sound can also be used to learn, script, and build an imagined self and community of listeners. The feelings, associations and tempos of the music played on La Preciosa activated the aural imagination.
At times these sonic scripts are explicitly didactic, as when La Preciosa’s radio personalities delivered moral parables the station calls reflexiones (reflections). The reflexiones usually emphasize traditional Latino values such as familismo. Reflexiones and favorite songs operate as sonic “strips of reality” used by the workers to build a sense of identity and values, and develop affirming narratives, self-images and strategies for listening to the radio at work. Many workers felt they learned about life through listening to reflexiones and call-in discussions. Yessica Garcia-Hernandez calls this process “sonic pedagogies,” affective and corporeal fan-to-fan relationships where shared understandings and knowledge of a given text or artists are exchanged, and where listeners learn about themselves and others through the media they consume.
The sonic strips also helped workers imagine different ways to listen and maintain their access to Spanish-language radio in their workspace. Whether it was devising how to best set up their radio to be able to hear it from any point on their assigned floor, or how to negotiate the sonic color line on campus, the workers sought to maintain and enhance their listening. Part of this drive can be explained by how the acceptance and normalization of their listening can be heard as a proxy for the acceptance of the workers themselves. Feeling their music, language and presence validated through the acceptance of their radio listening habits increased workers’ sense of dignity and belonging.
As low-status members of the campus community, many custodians were aware that the power differential imposed a social obligation around sound that was not mutual. In other words, faculty, staff and students never had to worry about whether they bothered the workers. Illustrative of this effect, Ofelia, a housekeeper in the dorms, worked near students throughout her shift and took extra care to listen to her radio without bothering anyone. She noted that while she must be careful not play music too early in the morning because students are sleeping, students hardly consider her when playing loud music in the dormitories. Although college dormitories are known spaces of loud music, this privilege is not extended to Ofelia. Underlying her comments is a desire for a sense of dignity and respect from others that live and work in the same space:
When we regularly have students here we really can’t listen to music; only when the building is empty. If it’s empty we can listen to music. What I do when students are here during the school year is I listen to music softly in the bathroom at a volume only I can hear and like that I also feel faster scrubbing the bathroom, right?
Ofelia’s comment about not being able to listen to music suggested that management established rules about listening to the radio. However, Ofelia, claimed to not know of any official policy but responded with “no nos dejan” (they don’t allow us). She also suggested that perhaps some people disliked Mexican music. However, Ofelia explained that she looked for ways to listen to her music and be accommodating of other tastes:
Okay, when there are young people that I know speak both languages [Spanish and English] well good I put my Spanish music a while and I tell them feel free to change it. It’s my radio but you can borrow it. You can change it to whatever station you like. So that you too—not just because I only listen to Mexican music does everyone else have to listen to Mexican music. In other words, to each their own.
Ofelia’s idea to lend students her radio is a creative way to ensure music becomes regularized in her workspace. If students actively control the radio, management is less likely to ban it. Moreover, Ofelia’s awareness of the linguistic makeup of the students (“young people that speak both languages”) suggests an attempt to create musical or sonic alliances with Spanish-speaking students and hinted at potential ethnic/racial tension over music.
Although Ofelia noted never being overtly discriminated against, her commentary underscored her perception of the power dynamics of the workspace. While dormitories are notorious for noise grievances, Ofelia perceived that her ethnicity, her gender, and lack of authority made her feel the need to be unseen and unheard in an otherwise loud space. Yet, instead of accepting this treatment, Ofelia attempted to build a common base of respect through her radio. By allowing students to use her radio, she is establishing trust and respect from the students. In doing so she positions herself as an active occupant of the space, not simply a silent service worker, negotiating cultural citizenship through her sonic presence.
Sonic narratives of dignity and citizenship suggest that sound culture can be an integral part of Latino cultural citizenship even as the above examples demonstrate how race, class, immigration status, and language intersect in complicated ways across listening contexts. The custodians’ apparent self-policing may at some level illustrate Foucault’s notion of “disciplinary power” becoming internalized in the face of pervasive discourse that portrays Mexican listeners as noisy, disruptive and inconsiderate. Historically, many immigrant and ethnic communities have been silenced or muted from mainstream acceptance and marked as unintelligible noise to the American body (ear) politic.33 Nancy Morales documents how contemporary Latino communities resist being silenced. Morales details the musical interventions of Los Jornaleros Del Norte at ICE detention centers, the collaborative narrative project VozMob, and the storytelling of Radio Ambulante. Whatever their position on appropriate decibel levels for listening in public, all custodians resisted the silencing of their radios and their communities.
Where Ofelia employed non-confrontational strategies, some workers defended their music and sense of place more directly. Moments of reported confrontation further demonstrate how claims for respect are linked to attempts to claim actual physical space or a momentary “home” within the university setting and beyond. Sound’s physical properties of quickly traveling across space and capturing the space that contains it mirrors how the custodians, enclosed by various social structures, zipped across halls and temporarily held full control of the university environment.
“COMO EN MI CASA”: SONICALLY CLAIMING SPACE AND FEELING AT “HOME”
Overall, Latino cultural citizenship documents how people find ways to build communities and establish a sense of “home” or belonging, sometimes against all odds. The custodian interviews highlight various ways of understanding or processing what a sense of belonging feels like through music and sound. Moreover, as an active network, Spanish-language radio listeners often literally find a home through their listenership. Although we often think of radio as a passive medium, in many communities, radio also functions as an acoustic marketplace for goods and services or serving as a community bulletin board. La Preciosa and other local Spanish-language stations often feature announcements for local events, job openings, housing leads and public service announcements in addition to targeted advertisements. Given recent research that finds foreign-born, low-income Latinos are least likely among other Latinos and other ethnic groups to have internet access at home, the radio figuratively and literally helps immigrants find home. Through their radios, custodians also blur the line between home and work, between ownership of a space and compliant employees.
Although 70 percent of radio listening happens outside of the home, listening to music in modern life is often characterized as a personal activity that occurs during leisure time, perhaps on headphones or in the privacy of a car.34 Evidence of this norm surfaced as social anxiety over the use of personal music devices such as the Walkman in public spaces. Blurring the line between private and public space, as Shuhei Hosokawa has explained, Walkman users were described as impolite and disconnected from social life. In both cases, listening to the radio or walkman happened off-the-clock.
Work, then, represents a public setting where “private” activities like listening to a baseball game or a radio show are off typically off limits. By bringing the radio into the workplace and listening to it in a conspicuous manner, the custodians displayed their private tastes, habits, and preferences in public and further blurred the line between the consumer space of the home and the productive arena of work. Furthermore, the Mexican custodians do not listen to inoffensive “easy listening” stations. Instead, the Mexican rhythms and sounds of La Preciosa sound jarring or “noisy” to many monolingual ears. The depiction of mariachi music in many Hollywood films as irritating trumpet blasts should suffice to make this point. To the dominant ear, the music sounds out of place, foreign, and incompatible. Mariachi music as “sonic stereotype” becomes a vicious synecdoche for the workers themselves. The racialized contempt of Mexican regional music is also perpetuated by some Latinos, typically along class lines.
Ángeles remarked that her “familia de la high” (upper class family) looked down upon her music as symbol of poor, unsophisticated, immigrants from Mexico. Marta remarked that people walking by probably hear her music and say “mira esa mexicanota” (look at that uber Mexican).
Stoever and other sound studies scholars have argued sound practices and attitudes also represent a set of social relations. An isomorphic relationship exists between the “unintelligible noise” of the custodians’ radios and the “noise” that the workers’ lives and presences represent to the larger social order. However, the listening practices of custodians are not only a response to hegemonic forces. There is also a horizontal communication at play that occurs via listening (simultaneously informed and engaged with the sonic color line) that can be just as critical. When Marta says that others may see/hear her as undeniably Mexican she is also communicating her cultural and aesthetic politics to fellow workers.
In this respect, the radio made the workers more visible/audible to others and each other in a work position that typically renders them invisible and mute, even if this “visibility” at times made them targets of hostility. Despite the knowledge that their music held negative associations for some people, the workers proudly claimed their workspace through Mexican regional music. The workers sonically established their presence and sense of belonging, “Me siento como en mi casa,” Marta said. Music and sound occupies the university space they clean on their behalf, even if only temporarily. In many cities the American public has come to accept Spanish-language radio as the sound of labor.35 Acoustically, Mexican music and Spanish-speaking voices disrupt the English-language dominance of the campus halls, classrooms and offices. In essence, at night the campus shifts from white to Mexican—it looks and sounds “Mexican.”36 At daybreak the campus reverts back, but the music and the people leave phantom traces, or what the Chicano art exhibition Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement calls a “phantom culture,” unperceived by mainstream America. The night/day division on campus was normalized, establishing routines and a sense of ownership. The intensity of the feelings varied among the workers. In some cases, it was just a happy sensation that made their workload feel easier, but in other cases it led to direct confrontations.
In one of the late-night interviews, campus custodian José Luis recounted a late-night confrontation over his music. José Luis was a tall, wiry man with neatly-swept gray hair, who appeared to be in his 50s. Listening to the explanation of research and its purpose, José Luis looked torn. The introduction by fellow custodian Nancy seemed to create a social obligation to participate in the research, yet he was reluctant to be audio recorded. “What if my supervisors find out that I am talking to you instead of working?” he asked. To appease José Luis, the interview was not audio recorded and his reticent stance was overcome by asking what methodologist Michael Q. Patton calls the one-shot question, a quick and pointed question that cuts to the heart of the issue for respondents uninterested in speaking with researchers: “What does the radio mean to you?” What appeared to be a futile interview attempt turned around as José Luis gradually opened up about radio’s importance to his work life. Although José Luis initially remarked that the radio was merely a way to pass the time and that he did not pay much attention to the songs or what station he listened to, as the conversation gained momentum, the experiences he described spoke to a different reality.
When asked if anyone had ever complained about his music, José Luis said yes. Getting visibly aggravated, he explained that a young woman (he never specified if it was a student, professor or staff) who worked in a science lab came in late during his shift and asked him to turn off his music. He said he refused and told her that this was his time, since he was in this space every night and she was not. Fully immersed in retelling the incident at this point, he argued that the woman had little right to tell him what to do, as at night the space technically becomes his domain. He claimed that she “intruded” into his space despite it being “her” lab. The young woman glared at him but said “you are right” and left him alone. José Luis explicitly vocalized a sense of ownership of the workspace, and the ability to listen to “his” music was central to this claim on the space. Even in the face of a person who might have more authority in the lab space, José Luis defended his music and presence.
While there is no way to verify the accuracy of the story, historian Alessandro Portelli reminds us that in collecting worker interviews/testimonies, what workers are attempting to communicate about themselves through their personal anecdotes is as or more important than the veracity of every detail. In much the same way that the garbage men Portelli interviewed all claimed they brazenly confronted their boss, José Luis characterizes himself in the account as someone who stands up for himself and does not let others walk all over them because of his job or ethnicity. Moreover, the animated manner in which José Luis told the story also underscores the performative value of these narratives. He was enjoying his account of the story because of how it made him feel about himself.
However, José Luis’ claim to space should be further scrutinized along the gender axis. Early in the interview he described himself as a “macho” that is not afraid of the lonely nighttime landscape. This hyper-masculine sense of self perhaps was triggered when a woman challenged his presence. If, as Casillas has argued, Latino immigrant mens’ sense of masculinity may deflate because the type of work they do is considered feminine in Latino culture, the female lab worker may have been a locus point for a generalized feeling of emasculation. Defending his use of the radio could be read/heard as guarding his masculine authority and control of the space. As sound scholar Garret Keizer notes, claiming the right to be noisy is an assertion of masculine power that usually comes at the expense of silencing others.37 However, this is further complicated by the implied race of the woman. Although he never explicitly mentioned it, José Luis suggested that she was white. In the unequal field of intersecting social identities, who asserts more authority and privilege in this situation: a young white woman who works in the lab (possibly as a low wage worker as well) or an immigrant Latino who inhabits the space on a nightly basis? Though it’s impossible to separate the race, class, and gender dynamics at play in this confrontation, it is revealing that music brings these differences to a tipping point. It’s clear that racial/ethnic tension, masculine entitlement, class position, and a desire to claim space factored into the disagreement between José Luis and the female lab worker.
Confrontations over or about music also sometimes spilled over into public areas of the city such as parks, street corners, and shopping malls; and semi-private spaces like bars and backyards. When Juan Pablo was asked if he ever felt discriminated against because of the music he listened to, he said that in general he had not been discriminated against but did recall one peculiar incident:
Look, these are difficult subjects because well, how can I speak to this? Well, I play billiards. I play in tournaments, you know pool. There was once a case like this: We were playing a tournament at a bar and in that bar by chance the majority of the music was Latino. And los gabachos [Anglos] well they hardly play their music so we are putting on Vicente Fernandez and you know and “Volver, Volver” comes on and a cabron over there begins to yell a grito [he yells] . . . after a while a gabacho gets up, disconnects the jukebox and runs away!
Though Juan Pablo tried to down-play the situation as less than discrimination, the act of unplugging the juke box speaks to what scholars have recently called racial microaggressions.38 Ostensibly, the presence and music of the Mexican men at the bar upset a patron enough to take matters into his own hands. The jukebox saboteur may have felt that the Mexican men “took over” the space through their music, and feeling displaced and powerless, retaliated against the sonic proxy of a Vicente Fernández recording.
No other worker reported racial abuse because of the music they listened to. In fact, the workers reported little to no experience with racial discrimination. Universally, workers described no such issues at work. However, given that all interviews took place at their job site, they may have been reluctant to discuss such details. Perhaps not surprising, when the questions about discrimination were directed at life outside of campus or about stress faced as a Mexican immigrant in the U.S., the custodians had more to say. Music came up here again, not as a source of conflict but as sonic refuge from precisely the type of racial microaggressions described by Juan Pablo.
Diego García typified this discussion on how music affects a wider social experience. When asked, “what does music mean to you?” He said “música es una terapia” (music is therapy). He claimed it was therapy from stress. When he was asked if he feels stress as a Mexican immigrant he said yes. While he noted he was of legalized immigration status, he explained not feeling superior to those that are undocumented and claimed he helped out many fellow immigrants regardless of legal status. He also said having “papers” does not protect you from discrimination and other types of abuses. Diego admitted being the target of racial slurs such as “wetback,” though never at work. Diego’s contrasting experience at work and in the local community underscores an unfortunate reality of many Mexican immigrants: they are welcomed for their labor but not as citizens. At work, Diego feels comfortable and like he belongs, whereas in the Habermassian public sphere, which is markedly white, middle-class, heterosexual, and male, he is rejected. Music as a way to process this conflict echo Josh Kun’s theory of an audiotopia: an imaginary sonic space opened up by music at sites of difference.39 The custodians’ presence, labor and listening are a crossroads of difference as Mexican immigrant laborers in an American university, public listeners of radio in the semi-private space of work, and listeners of Spanish-language radio in an English-language dominant institution.
With radios as “acoustic allies,” they navigate and survive the challenging, and sometimes demeaning, conditions of their work and the difficult circumstances of their lives as working-class Latina/o immigrants.40 Radio resounds as companion, bodyguard, educator, confidant, energizer, and entertainment. But more importantly, their radios and music allowed the custodians to claim space and dignity for themselves as workers, as Mexican immigrants, as citizens, and consumers, by refusing to be treated as faceless and silent labor. The custodians of this study achieved this end through different means. Some sought to strategically integrate their music into the established soundscapes of students and staff, while others blasted their music overnight without apology. In a recent post for Sounding Out! Casillas argues that defiantly raising the “volume allows Mexicans and Chicanas/os to publicly flaunt their brown identities under the increasingly watchful gaze of a post-9/11 state, during a record-deportation Obama era, and when Latinos have officially outnumbered whites in the Golden (now brown) state of California. Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.”41 Their public listening practices forces those that share the same space to confront the presence, language and taste of the people they depend on every day.