Every year, the Modern Language Association (MLA) asks its various committees and forums to propose new panels for its annual convention. These panels generally allow for committees to collaborate and, in so doing, invite new thinking and research in literary and cultural studies. In early 2019, two MLA committees, the Executive Committee for Chicana/o Literature and the Executive Committee for Sound Studies, collectively sent out a CFP for a conference session titled “Super Sonic Chicanidades.” We invited papers, essays and book presentations that theorized Chicana/o sound, soundtracks, sound-tracking, etc. in music, literature, film and other expressions of popular culture.
The genesis for this call for papers and its theme was influenced by works including Deb Vargas’s Dissonant Divas, Dolores Inés Casillas’s Sounds of Belonging, Michelle Habell-Pallan’s American Sabor, Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line, Josh Kun’s Audiotopia, Karen Tongson’s Relocations, and Marlen Rios-Hernandez’s essay “If La Llorona was a Punk Rocker.” It was also inspired by seemingly quotidian sounds such as Adolfo Guzmán-López’s brilliant radio sign-off on National Public Radio’s affiliate station KPCC. In his sign-off, Guzmán-López code-switches from perfect English in his radio reports to a perfect Spanish pronunciation of his name that is so notable among Southern California KPCC listeners that it was incorporated into an episode of The Simpsons in 20141.
These scholars, reporters, and community members all explicitly and implicitly ask, as Kun does in Audiotopia: What do we hear when we “hear America singing”?2 Additionally, many of these scholars note that various sounds, but especially music, often create a culturally, regionally, and/or nationally specific sonic topos. Kun argues that songs, in particular, “can be understood as audiotopias…[and, because] music functions like a possible utopia for the listener, that music is experienced not only as sound that goes into our ears and vibrates through our bones but [also] as a space that we can enter into, encounter, move around in, inhabit, be safe in, learn from.” (2). Thus, these scholars and community members invite us to ask: What are the sounds in and of my community? Using this question as a broader framework, in our call for papers, we asked the more specific question: What are the sounds in and of the Latina/o and Chicana/o communities?
Obviously, there is no singular, all-encompassing answer, and we did not expect one. Indeed, we expected—and received—responses that reflected the complexity and messiness that naturally arises from imagining a Latina/o and Chicana/o community. Our call was an invitation to address this complex question and to consider the various relationships between our imagined communities3 and their soundscapes.
Even now, as I reflect on our initial call for papers and the 2020 MLA conference, I realize how much of our communities and their soundscapes have changed just since we began conceptualizing the session. When we sent out the call for papers, the sounds of the East Los Angeles barrio where I grew up formed a personal backdrop and foundation for it. I was shaped by the sounds of my Boyle Heights neighborhood: the señora yelling for her kid to come inside; the paletero/a ringing the bells that hang from the cart’s handle to announce that he’s coming down your street or that she is posted on the corner; the ice cream truck as it rolls by playing its soundtrack of circus tunes—or, worse, the instrumental of “If you’re happy and you know it”—over and over again. At night, there is the street-side car honk that beckons friends out to the curb and then the invitations for a quick ride or a night on the town; the music that comes from the backyard party or BBQ; the Los Angeles Police Department helicopter cruising overhead; the freeway sounds; the “oldies” or hip hop or ranchera music loudly playing from the car where the homeboys and homegirls are hanging out and drinking in the apartment complex’s parking lot. This is the topography of sound in my community and a small part of the impulse to issue our call for papers.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, given the reductions in atmospheric emissions and noise levels from people quarantining at home, the soundscapes have changed. One of the most pressing and immediate impacts with regard to the changing soundscape has been on mariachis who normally serenade people in local restaurants such as La Parilla, or who make themselves available for hire for celebrations like Mother’s Day, or for an early morning rendition of LasMañanitas for birthdays. Ruben Vives recently reported that many mariachis have been evicted and that some are living in old airport shuttles converted into mobile homes4 as a result of not being able to play at these social gatherings. Brittny Mejía also notes that the quinceañera, “part debutante’s ball, part coming-of-age ritual with religious overtones,” is another Latina/o family celebration to fall victim to the coronavirus.5 What this means is that the soundscapes of many different neighborhoods, often understood as a taken-for-granted soundtrack of neighborhood life, are also markers of the vibrancy of neighborhood economies and the lives these economies support. When the economies are disrupted, the sounds are too.
The COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly be so impactful that historians, cultural critics, pundits and others will think of this moment in “pre-” and “post-” terms. Nearly the entire country is under stay-at-home orders. Thus, it feels strange to remember and imagine the streets of downtown Seattle bustling and bursting full of people as they were during the MLA conference in January 2020. That moment seems so long ago and so far away. As I reflect on that moment, however, the MLA 2020 “Super-Sonic Chicanidades” panel and its panelists contributed to a significant discussion on the relationships between sound, community, and soundscapes that have taken on new meanings and contexts in the current crisis.
As noted above, recent scholarship smartly theorizes and triangulates the relationships among race, sound, and audience,6 and some argues for how Spanish-language radio constructs a transnational spatial and aural home for Latinas/os in the U.S.7 Other scholars add that Chicana musicians and singers are simply not heard or not remembered because of heteronormative selective listening practices and because of a construction of a heteronormative cultural history of Chicana/o music8. So “Super Sonic Chicanidades” brought together four scholars who critically reassess the functions of sounds and how they create resonance and/or dissonance in and between the Latina/o community and the general American listening public. They focused on the uses of sound in mainstream news media, on soundtracks for film, and on popular music. Overall, each panelist argued for how these media create an imagined audio-spatial community upon which identity and belonging are continuously constructed and contested alongside political and other forms of citizenship.
In “The Sound of Crossing Borders and Black Holes in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” Spencer Herrera argued that the use of “futuristic” sci-fi sounds in the 2005 film directed by Tommy Lee Jones exemplifies the process of psychologically, culturally, and physically crossing the border. In closely listening to and analyzing the scene of Melquiades’s last burial, in Coahuila, México, Herrera noted a significant change and use of a “super-sonic” soundtrack during the sequence in which Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones, stops at a restaurant to get some food. Herrera said that there is a television playing the film Santo el Enmascarado de Plata vs la invasión de los marcianos (directed by Alfredo B. Crevenna, 1967) in the background. The television set and the film are not the cinematic focus of the scene but become part of the construction of a mise-en-scène that creates greater significance in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and in the relationships between Mexicans and Americans like Pete and Melquiades. Herrera added that the Santo film’s score is eerily similar to the recently recorded sound of two black holes colliding. He noted that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) recorded such a collision and that scientists were surprised to learn that, for the first time ever, one larger binary black hole (BBH) system “coalesced” with a smaller BBH system. The evidence of this “coalescence” was the production, these scientists claimed, of “higher harmonics” (see https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20200420). Herrera, then, citing Janna Levin’s research on gravitational waves in her recent book Black Hole Blues (2016) and cross-referencing the recorded sound of the two black holes colliding with the soundtrack of the Santo film, concluded that the “harmony” of these sonic elements underscore how border crossing in the film simultaneously symbolizes an interstellar crashing of “cosmic cultural matter” and not simply a traversing of geopolitical places.
Moreover, Herrera argued that the relationships between the BBH systems, the metaphorical and symbolic constructions of Mexican immigrants as “aliens” in various media, compared with the bond between Pete Perkins and Melquiades Estrada, mimic the scientific collision and produce another version of their own border “harmonics.” Yet, like the coalescing of the two black hole masses recorded by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), one black hole (the United States) will consume the other (Mexico) in order to produce its own harmony. Overall, Herrera concluded that the various scenes with televisions playing film sequences and clips from a soap opera form a meta-commentary on the relationship between Mexico and the United States, its shared border, and the people of both nations which suggests that one way to achieve this “harmony” is for one binary black hole to collide with the other and to create a new symbolic black hole.
Eliza Rodríguez y Gibson, in her presentation, “‘Sing Your Life’: Morrissey Fans, Cover Bands, and Other Chicana/o/x Appropriations,” examined the multiple sites where a borderlands sonic imaginary is articulated, including at “Morrisseyoke” (a monthly event in which fans gather to sing songs by Morrissey and The Smiths); during concerts and in song lyrics by The Sweet and Tender Hooligans (whose lead singer, Jose Maldonado, is known as the “Mexican Morrissey”); in Mariachi Manchester’s translations of Morrissey/Smiths songs into Mariachi form; and, during performances by Girl in a Coma (a Chicana indie rock band from San Antonio, Texas).
Rodriguez y Gibson began by describing what she called “disidentificatory movidas” via “appropriation from below” that she claimed were at work in more recent Chicana/o cultural practices and politics. She added:
Inspired by Deborah Vargas’s notion of a sonic imaginary, I am particularly interested in the publics created by these feelings of musical pleasure, and how a feeling of community is shaped by sound. I want to think about what belonging to a community feels like: I want to think about belonging as an affect that is embodied, and brought about by an aesthetic experience—in this case, the sensory experience and perception of musical pleasure. The body is central to the production of such an imaginary: the psychic and semiotic landscape (of community) is written by the many pleasures of music onto the palimpsest of meaning we call “the body” for short. In other words, musical pleasure is made legible in/on/through the body and its sensory perception—an Aesthetic Experience. The pleasures of production and consumption form the ground for this particular sonic imaginary among Chicana/o/x fans of Morrissey and the Smiths9.
Overall, Rodríguez y Gibson argued that listening to these performances of Morrissey and Girl in a Coma together allows the audience to hear other relationships the Chicana/o and Latina/o community has with mainstream mass media and with each other. Rodriguez y Gibson claims that these other possibilities are central to the well-being and sustenance of positive affective relationships that sustain larger political movements in the community, despite obvious contradictions such as “Morrissey’s increasingly vocal racist, xenophobic claims and public support of the fascist party Britain First.”10 She writes: “The strategies of identification with the common experience of alienation and subsequent disidentification that transform those powerful forms that we are drawn to (even though they hurt us or at the very least do not include us) are central to these articulations of a Chicana/o sonic imaginary that take shape through musical fandom and performance. The feelings of musical pleasure in the consumption of these creative forms creates a feeling of expansiveness, a feeling of affiliation, and a feeling of possibility necessary to sustaining ourselves in the face of contemporary forms of national violence.”11
In “ ‘I think I hear the bells ringing in the square’: Sounding East L.A. in Mazzy Star’s ‘California,’” Wanda Alarcón claimed that the sounds of ringing bells in Mazzy Star’s song “California” create the spectral haunting of the history of the twenty-one missions that connect present-day California to its violent colonial past. She suggested that the ringing of the church bells can also transform a landmark into a “soundmark” and vice versa. Alarcón noted that R. Murray Schafer describes this phenomenon of sound recognition as “a community of sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community.” Although she did not make it explicit in her presentation, she hinted at the bells alongside the highways in California that literally mark “El Camino Real” (The King’s Highway)—the route taken by Junipero Serra and the Spanish colonizers as they set up the mission system in the state. Alarcón then pointed out how “Lourdes Turrent’s concept of ‘autoridad sonora’ also describes how music and power are implicated historically in the ordering of colonial life in Mexico City through the ringing of the bells of the Catedral Metropolitana.”12 Thus, intrigued by the possibility of listening to and for a sonic topography and collective response, Alarcón said that she began to listen to music about California while listening specifically for East Los Angeles and Aztlán. She found both, she told the audience at our panel, in Mazzy Star’s song “California.”
Mazzy Star, Alarcón said, is an influential California-based band whose work spans the early 1990s to the present. They released their latest EP in 2018, and their music is often described as “dream pop” and “psychedelic” but is also folk-based. “Fade Into You” and “She’s My Baby” are their most well-known songs. Alarcón added that Hope Sandoval, the band’s enigmatic and elusive lead singer, is a Mexican American who grew up in East Los Angeles. Sandoval’s first musical collaboration, before Mazzy Star, was with her best friend, Sylvia Gomez. In 1986, they formed a folk band called “Going Home.” These biographical details are important, Alarcón claimed, because they help listeners uncover the clues to the band’s resonance with Chicanas/os from East Los Angeles and create the sonic topos of Aztlán in the song “California.” Alarcón argued that the song brings to life a sonic map that describes an important site for Chicana/o representation in popular culture. She noted that for Chicana/o listeners, the barest of audible clues to mappable, yet underrepresented sites, such as East Los Angeles’s churches and plazas, are creatively uncovered and amplified in the song’s background. The various sounds and sonic responses, Alarcón suggested, comprise this collective “sounding of East Los Angeles and Aztlán” when they are heard by Chicanas/os in the practice of carefully listening to the song.
Alarcón argued that the initial song lyrics present California as a “distant” place that the singer/narrator seems to pass over and look upon with immense nostalgia. Alarcón added: “It is so far that [the song] really only imagines the journey, it’s not actually going to California but rather keeps its distance. It’s a wish to go back, to return to California;”13 however, Alarcón also claimed that the song ends with a commitment to return to California—to the singer/narrator’s homeland. The song, Alarcón writes, ends with the lines:
I think I hear the whisper of my old/own best friend
I think I hear the bells ringing in the square
Thus, Alarcón added, what gives “California” the song and the place more definition is that both are grounded by the people who inhabit the place and space (of the song). She writes: “The first line [of this verse] gives the listener a brief biographical detail—and fans of the band might fill in this reference with Sylvia Gomez as the ‘old best friend.’ The second line gives us a map—a landscape recognizable as California, dotted with the images of churches and squares—and the California Mission system known to anyone who attended public schools in California.”14 In short, Alarcón suggested that the act of collective listening and selective hearing produces an imagined community—in this case, a community in and of East Los Angeles and Aztlán.
At this point, Alarcón also suggested that the “bells ringing” sonically and geographically mark the church plaza as the center of Mexican and Chicana/o social life in places like California but especially in Los Angeles. More importantly, she argued, the colonial history of the church and its bells carry a double valence: one that indicates the ordering of colonial life and the violent subjugation of California Indians, and the other in which the bells operate as a warning or an announcement of someone’s death. Alarcón concluded that all of the ambivalence about California in the song “California” is related to Chicanas/os’ own ambivalence toward the church and its colonial history once they begin to reaffirm their indigenous identities through the framework of Aztlán. This ambivalence, Alarcón argued, therefore activates the concept of Aztlán as the “‘non-place’ of being in the song—of being in flight, in longing, and wishing from the perspective of an aerial view”—that might never allow the singer/narrator to land. Thus, Alarcón concluded, Mazzy Star’s “California” creates a space for imagining and listening to Aztlán in the “liminal space of possibility” but not the certainty of setting foot on solid ground in or around East L.A., California, or Aztlán.
In “Listening to the State: The Role of Audio in Immigration Rights Campaigns,” Dolores Inés Casillas argued that the June 8, 2018 eight-minute audio clip of ten Central American children in federal detention forces listeners to confront the reality that family separations are state-sponsored acts of violence against children and families. In an impactful presentation, she noted: “The state-sponsored or incentivized separation of children, as we know, has a long-detailed history in the U.S. stemming from Indian boarding schools, slavery, Chinese paper-sons, and contemporary instances of illegal international adoptions, the disproportionate children of color in foster care, and the incarceration of parents of color and so forth.” In the audio, the familial separations are highlighted and heard in the children’s breathless sobs and their pleas to nearby agents to help them find their families. She writes that this audio clip “generated public support for immigrants by rhetorically casting them as families; attaching immigrant rights as familial rights—the right to belong together.”15 Casillas said, for example, that this clip was played twice on the House congressional floor, in the White House Press Room, and on loop outside the home of Kirstjen Nielsen, then director of the Department of Homeland Security, and used as an instrument of political and social protests.
Casillas began her presentation by pointing to the pervasive visual representations of Central American and other immigrants making their way through Mexico and up to the U.S. border. She asked the audience to recall the aerial shots of refugees at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border fence trying to present themselves to American Border Patrol agents to request asylum; and, finally, Casillas reminded us of the white tents that were set up as a detention center along the U.S.-Mexico border. Then, she added another poignant image: the audiowave image of the eight-minute recording of children asking for help; children asking for a chance to call their parents; children refusing to eat until they can talk to someone they love. It seems ironic that, for a panel on sound, someone would refuse to play sound. But in this case, Dolores Inés Casillas made the brilliant choice to provide a QR code so that the audience could choose “how and when to listen to the clip” rather than risk trauma by listening to the pain and suffering of these children16. In fact, Casillas pointed to the controversy surrounding the reporting practices of ProPublica, the media source responsible for the leaked audio, with regard to the death of a 16-year-old boy named Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez who died in Immigration custody. She noted that ProPublica worked with and obtained permission from Hernandez Vasquez’s family to publicize the video of his death despite the criticism of ProPublica as benefitting from “fetishizing trauma.” Casillas writes: “The video was considered visual ‘proof’ that immigrants weren’t dying of influenza but of neglect while in custody,” and adds: “Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez was the sixth child to die in the custody of ICE” (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).17 After this, Casillas returned to her own treatment of the eight-minute sound recording of the children in detention.
Casillas’s analysis of the audio clip importantly detailed its implications and ramifications. She argued that the audio of these children and their suffering was used as an instrument of protest against state violence and state agents of this violence. But she added that the audio also unintentionally works to “emotionally disarm state players” and agitate listeners to action. Casillas pointed to the work of Julie Beth Napolin on the labor carried out by Black women in narrating the death of Black people on social media at the hands of the police. She quoted Napolin in noting that Philando Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, said that her hope in recording his death via Facebook Live was that “the recording would have already been seen by a public and archived by live stream; her voice would still testify within it.”18 As a result, Casillas suggested that the audio of these children in detention likewise operates as a sonic archive and a testament to the suffering of people of color in general but of immigrant children in particular.
Ultimately, Casillas concluded that the re/circulation of the eight-minute clip transformed the public conversation and advocacy surrounding immigration precisely because of sound’s affective nature and its ability to transcend space. This audio clip’s use as an instrument of protesting state violence contends that sound has the ability to emotionally affect and disarm state agents and plays a role as part of an ongoing archive of state violence against immigrants. Then, in perhaps the most surprising turn in her presentation, Casillas suggested that it was the Border Patrol agent who leaked the audio clip as an act of compassion for these children.19 In short, Casillas’s insightful essay presentation managed to evoke the intellectual curiosities of her audience, be sensitive to their emotional well-being, and humanize and engender compassion for state agents who are complicit in structural violence against immigrant children and their families.
As one might imagine, our panel and its theme challenged the traditional boundaries of a language and literature association conference. But the histories of Chicana/o, Latina/o, and other racial/ethnic literary and cultural studies are such that historical exclusions from the academy and its institutions now demand a radical inclusion and a foregrounding of the voices of these folks. Obviously, the demand for inclusion has always carried with it the risk of assimilation into the dominant body and its politics. Nonetheless, smaller spaces like those provided by various language and literature forums, such as the Chicana/o Literature Forum, the Latina/o Literature Forum, and the Sound Studies Forum allow for spaces and places of intellectual and political interventions in these “traditional” institutions. This panel and these panelists reminded me of this important work. It was my distinct privilege to be able to have a conversation with them at the 2020 Modern Language Association convention in Seattle.
Spencer Herrera (panelist) is associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Languages and Linguistics at New Mexico State University. He received his Ph.D. in 2007 in Spanish & Portuguese at the University of New Mexico and has a minor in Film from their department of Media Arts. Spencer has co-edited a recent volume titled Querencia: Essays on the New Mexico Homeland (University of New Mexico Press, 2020) and co-edited Sagrado: A Photopoetics across the Chicano Homeland (University of New Mexico Press, 2013).
Eliza Rodríguez y Gibson (panelist) is associate professor and chair of the department of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles). She received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2002 in the department of English. She has since co-authored various manuscripts, including Humor and Latina/o Camp in Ugly Betty: Funny Looking (Lexington Books 2015) and The Un/Making of Latina/o Citizenship: Culture, Politics, and Aesthetics (Palgrave, 2014).
Wanda Alarcón (panelist) is assistant professor in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona. She received her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies with a designated emphasis on Women, Gender, and Sexuality from University of California Berkeley in 2016. She is a decolonial feminist scholar whose research examines ways of listening related to gender and race through the politicized concept of “noise.” In particular, she writes about Chicana/o and Latinx soundscapes and decolonial feminist listening practices. She has published essays on queer performance, testimonio, and Chicana/o music and literature in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latina/o Literature, the Journal of Latinos in Education, and SoundingOut!
Dolores Inés Casillas (panelist) is associate professor in the department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. Inés received her Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 2006. She has published and co-authored various books, including Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-language Radio and Public Advocacy (New York University Press, 2014), the Routledge Companion for Latina/o Media (Routledge Press, 2016), and Feelin’ It: Language, Race, and Affect in Latinx Youth Learning (Routledge Press, 2018).
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez, “‘The Simpsons inspires KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez to ask, ‘What’s in a name?’.” (2014).
Josh Kun is referencing Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” from Leaves of Grass (1860) and Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” (1926). See his introduction to Audiotopia (2005).
I am borrowing from Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities (1983, 2016).
Ruben Vives, “Living in an Airport Shuttle, a musician’s coronavirus lament: ‘I don’t know how I am going to survive this,’” Los Angeles Times, 18 April 2020.
Brittny Mejia, “The quinceañera is a youthful casualty of the coronavirus.” Los Angeles Times, 27 March 2020.
Stoever, Jennifer. The Sonic Color Line, 2016.
Casillas, Dolores Inés. Sounds of Belonging, 2014.
Vargas, Deborah. Dissonant Divas in Chicana Music, 2012.
Rodríguez y Gibson, Eliza. “‘Sing Your Life’: Morrissey Fans, Cover Bands, and Other Chicana/o/x Appropriations.” MLA Conference, 2020.
Ibid. pp. 2.
Ibid. pp. 6
Alarcón, Wanda. “‘I think I hear the bells ringing in the square.’” MLA Conference, 2020.
Ibid. pp. 6.
Casillas, Dolores Inés. “Listening to the State.” MLA Conference, 2020. pp. 2.
Ibid. pp. 1.
Ibid. pp. 4.
Ibid. pp. 3.