Thursday, September 4, 2014

Immigrant Music

It’s early evening, and I’m sitting in Puebla, Mexico drinking beers from a bucket filled with ice. Everyone is speaking in loud voices over the music. The breeze blows napkins off the table. This alley, paved with rough stones, has been blocked off and little restaurants are lined up next to and across from each other. I sit with a couple of friends and drift in and out of the conversation. I pay more attention to the breeze and the cloud of noise. Women walk by in loud shoes. The breeze presses their clothes against their bodies. When they sit down their faces are flush, red blood flowing below their brown skin, sweat shining in the angled light. I watch people’s lips move, arms in dramatic pantomimes. Their movements are immediate, even if their voices feel as far away as the sound of the traffic from the other street. I tip my beer then close my eyes for a second. From my experience, a Latin American city at dusk can envelop you completely in its atmosphere.

This is where my mind went when I heard “Un fin en Culiacán” by La Adictiva Banda San José Mesillas. The song creates an image of a weekend spent celebrating nothing other than being alive in this particular city. People dance, booze flows, cars are driven, women are bedded, hangovers are suffered, and pictures are posted, all to the brassy rhythm of the music. The song fixates, as most songs written by men do, on women as objects of sexual desire. But women also function in this song as symbols of municipal pride. Culiacán is good because beautiful women come from there, the song says. In the chorus, this relationship of women to the good takes on an almost endearing quality. “Boast to the world/Where I was born/Such fine women/Were born here.” In these words, the protagonist of the song basks in the light of the women who make the city fine. Without their fineness, he would have nothing to brag about. Women that aren’t beautiful, and therefore not worth desiring, do not count in the song’s Culiacán.

But I heard this song in the Bay Area. Specifically, I heard the song driving through my kids’ mom’s tony neighborhood in Berkeley. The truth is I didn’t even know where Culiacán is and had to look it up on a map. (It’s the capital of Sinaloa, a long, thin state on Mexico’s Pacific coast.) The song must appeal to not only people from Culiacán, and Sinaloa more broadly, but to all those people that miss home and enjoy a tuba bass line. All of those people that left home and came here, looking for a better way to provide for themselves materially. The ideological discourses of American nationalism suggest that people come here looking for a better life, but having grown up around immigrants this strikes me as not true for everyone. Many of the people I grew up with dreamed of going home but just with enough money in their pockets to live more comfortably when they got there. They didn’t come here looking for freedom or liberty or democracy. They came looking for a job that would pay them substantially more than they could get back home. They wanted better food, better homes, and more opportunities for their children. They didn’t care if they had to come here in the dark, through rivers and fences, and across deserts to do it.

I don’t see anything wrong with that. The great power of capital is its ability to move freely from place to place. The products of capital move from one area of the world to another in search of markets and competitive advantages. Investment capital itself also seeks to retain its freedom so that it may move from one industrial concern to another in pursuit of maximum profitability. Fixed capital, money trapped in physical things like factories, retail stores, and transportation, is the least mobile form of capital but it too, when conditions are right and it's desirous of cheap labor, can be transferred from one place to another. The profitability of capital depends on its unfettered movement. Why should people be denied the same freedom? Why should people not be allowed to move around in search of a place to better their chance at economic prosperity? In my mind, no one is illegal as long as capitalism creates the conditions in which the simple movement from one place to another, from Culiacán to the Bay Area for example, gives you the chance to better your material condition.

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