Alex E. Chávez is the Nancy O’Neill Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, where he is also a faculty fellow of the Institute for Latino Studies. He studies the political efficacy of Latina/o/x expressive culture, with an emphasis on sound, language, aurality, and racialized personhood. He is the author of Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño, winner of the Alan Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology in 2018. In that book, he explores how we can reframe borders and reimagine cultural connections through the Mexican music and poetic tradition of huapango arribeño. In our discussion, he told me about how finding these connections and attempting to trace these musical and experiential complexities has brought more nuance to the study of undocumented Mexican migrants.
Allison Chu: In the beginning of the introduction to your book, Sounds of Crossing, you talk about borders that go beyond just geographical or physical borders—so cultural, social, institutional borders. Could you talk a little about how your project began?
Alex Chávez: I came to enter this world of music-making, huapango arribeño specifically, as a musician first. I was living and playing music in Austin, Texas, as an undergraduate student. When I learned that there were musicians playing huapango arribeño in Texas and Mississippi, and other places, I realized that the geography of huapango arribeño is not just physical, but also cultural. In my mind, I had always located it in that particular region of north-central Mexico, where that music comes from, because I have this connection to it as assumed heritage. To find out that there were musicians there in Austin and other places beyond north-central Mexico, was a big surprise. I wanted to go and try and find out who these musicians were, where they were, learn from them, and that’s how the project began. I became fascinated not just by the playing and the learning, but also with respect to how people were congregating as undocumented migrants, a particularly vulnerable population. What’s happening here when the music brings people together, and how is this music a vehicle for telling and speaking to those sites and moments of congregation?
AC: I’d love to ask you about your conception of borders in your project. How do you conceptualize or map these sites of culture?
Alex Chávez: The book is informed by a Borderlands perspective, which to give some background, is in conversation with a border studies approach. The latter understands and focuses on the border as a concrete physical place: what does that mean geographically, what does that mean geo-politically, what does that mean when it comes to issues around boundaries, nation-states, citizenship, sovereignty? There’s a materiality to these considerations. A borderlands perspective very much understands, acknowledges, and interrogates this materiality, while at the same time acknowledges the dimensions of cultural and social borders. Gloria Anzaldúa, a queer feminist scholar, talks about said dimensions with specific attention to gender, sexuality, and race as embodied experiences. She famously says that a border is a physical divide, whereas a borderland is the “emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” So in borderland studies, it’s about coupling the materiality of borders with the immateriality of social, cultural, allegorical divides. Both are in a dialectical relationship.
We can’t understand the U.S.-Mexico border as we know it today without asking how that border came into existence. It is the result of an imperial war in the 19th century of American aggression into what was Mexican territory, an expansionist move westward undergirded by the racial logics of Manifest Destiny. So, when we think through the lens of borderland studies, it’s about coupling the allegorical—arguments about race—with the materiality of a war that produces the southern boundary as we know it.
I think about those issues as lived experiences by tracing the movements of migrants themselves—that means, the materiality, the physical movements of bodies, of transgressing national boundaries. I also trace the lived racialized experiences of migrants and how they’re all bound up with institutional racism rooted in white supremacy and notions of racial fitness with respect to the desirability of migrant groups and their integration into American society.
Now, migrants often can’t typically be out in the street demonstrating and voicing their politics, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t have the capacity to give voice to their experiences, which in the contemporary political landscape is framed through the lens of the white American racial project. In this frame, migrants are cast as illegal. That’s one way of framing their experiences, but another emerges from listening to how migrants speak about themselves and their experiences of connectivity between places back in Mexico and places in the United States. For many of them, both places are/were home.
The book is populated by these stories, and for me, in line with a borderland studies approach, I continuously thought about the immaterial and the material, and the refiguring or reimagining of geographies. How is it that a place seemingly far away can be invoked in the present, and how is it that in those moments places suddenly fold together and become tethered through music and poetics? How is it that migrants themselves—in their own journeys and transgressions of the border—give voice to those very journeys?
AC: Clearly from your work you believe that culture can be mapped to reframe strictly geographical mappings. So how do you do this when these networks are so complicated?
Alex Chávez: Maybe thinking of things in that literal way edges toward a sense of cultural ecology. What I attempted to do was trace people’s stories and connections through performance. The book does not present music as something linear that begins here and travels there; instead, it always is going back and forth in a sense. Of course, to think of the atlas as a metaphor, you can map out where people exist, but to me it was about the movement in between places—the mobility between places is where the stories are; it tells us how people lend meaning to their migration and how they tether places together. And yes, it was messy, because the temporality and spatiality of how people imagine their lives across locations is not neat, and nor should we expect that they would be! Frankly, if we think of our own lives and our own experiences, they’re never neat either! There are multiple movements and multiple chapters that we go through and circle back to. This complexity is important to take stock of, to account for and to explain as best as we can. Even though the book gives you only glimpses of it, at least we can account for the complexity.
I think anthropology often renders people’s experiences singular and flattened; it’s part of the discipline’s history. As a result, we reduce a community’s experiences to being one-dimensional. Denying them that complexity is also a denial of humanity. These are “Mexican migrants”: Are they just laborers? Are they just migrants? Are they just border-crossers? No, they’re all those things and much more, and these stories give us insight into those complexities and trauma as well. In my writing, I try to let go of these conventions of neat representations to restore the transgressive meanings of movement and motion through borders.
AC: Let me ask you a more reflective question. How has your research changed your view on the impulse to map neatly or cleanly, or to represent a group of people so singularly or reductively?
Alex Chávez: I think I always had my reservations, because within the tradition of North American anthropology, ethnic Mexicans have long been an object of study. Scholars like José Limón have interrogated that phenomenon of Mexicans as objects of anthropological inquiry, and the reductive ways they’ve been rendered. When you see that as a part of the intellectual legacy of this discipline, that you have been an object, it creates some tensions between your understanding of the discipline as a whole and its models for understanding cultural experience. From a sociological perspective, migrants are continually portrayed as abstractions. Examples include the “migrant threat,” or more specifically, the “bad hombre,” the rapist, the “anchor baby.” Even good anthropology work on migration still re-enacts this type of abstracting because they are often ethnographies of the state. Both approaches were objectifying, whether it’s from the tradition of anthropology where ethnic Mexicans have been objects of study in cultural models of anthropology, or from the concept of migrants, particularly Mexican migrants, who are sociologically abstracted as an object of fear to justify our punitive approaches to governing the undocumented. Both perspectives lack the specificity, and they motivate me to tell the story differently.