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"Aquí La Justicia Sale Sobrando": Lila Downs and Transfrontera Music

In order to transform the male-dominated Mexican cultural legacies present in Chicano nationalism, Chicanas not only have had to re-write themselves into the "movement script," but Chicanas had to participate in a Chicana-Mexicana connectivity through recuperation and transformation of Mexican female symbols and icons.
Sarah Ramirez

Issue #61, September 2002

Do You Hear as You Listen?

In order to transform the male-dominated Mexican cultural legacies present in Chicano nationalism, Chicanas not only have had to re-write themselves into the "movement script," but as Angie Chabram-Dernersesian reminds us, Chicanas had to participate in a Chicana-Mexicana connectivity through recuperation and transformation of Mexican female symbols and icons. Chicanas have also turned to Mexican feminist movements for guidance and followed separate but parallel courses. Similarly, contemporary Mexican feminists critically selected from cross-cultural feminist positions as part of a politics of connectivity. These transnational feminist exchanges, specifically Chicana-Mexicana connectivities, travel along different networks.

Identifying a position from which it is possible to explore cultural productions of Mexicana and Chicana connective politics, Sonia Saldívar-Hull speaks of a transfrontera feminism, an oppositional feminist consciousness to which Chicanas bring, "material geopolitical issues that redirect feminist discourse." In redirecting feminist discourse, Saldívar Hull affirms that border feminism deconstructs geopolitical boundaries by re-conceptualizing feminist method and theory. Breaking with traditional hegemonic concepts of feminism, border feminism validates alternative nontraditional spaces as sites for feminist empowerment. In her examination of Sandra Cisneros' Women Hollering Creek, Saldívar-Hull speaks specifically to Mexican popular feminism and Chicana transfrontera feminist practices exchanged across the border. Saldívar-Hull recognizes that Cisneros' text "changes the subject of dominant, patriarchal discourse and lets readers imagine how transfrontera feminist and Mexican feminismo popular can converge in other spaces and under other circumstance to produce socially nuanced global Chicana Mexicana coalitions."

Mexican singer Lila Downs presents a clear example of transnational feminist politics and identity. Her musical repertoire draws from a variety of musical styles ranging from traditional Mexican songs, indigenous poetry, jazz, to the folk/protest songs of Woody Guthrie. Her work exemplifies what can be seen in a community that crosses generations, national borders, and cultures.

Born in Oaxaca to an Anglo-American father and a Mixtec Indian mother, Downs grew up living in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca and Minneapolis, Minnesota as well as in Southern California. Her songs in Spanish, English, Mixteco, Mayan, Nahuatl, and Zapotec reflect these transnational, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual influences. Borrowing from José Saldívar, Downs' lyrical and musical repertoire is framed by her "gender and dissident ethnographic consciousness."

Lila Downs' musical creations and performances are motivated by a series of aesthetic and political considerations. Her music expresses a defiant, contestatory, at times critical stance towards both the United States and Mexico. Through this music, she attempts to voice issues of gender and ethnicity as they relate to national identity, transnational economies, and power. Specifically, her music critiques relations of power, homogenizing notions of mestizaje, and gendered ethnic niches in which women become exploitable pools of labor. Her album Trazos, a non-commercial 1999 release, presents two excellent examples of Lila Downs' performance and transnational politics. Both "La Niña" and "Sale Sobrando" are Downs' original works that have recently been re-released in her latest album "Border." Their dance-able cumbia rhythm demonstrates the way in which her musical "entertainment" conveys didactic and political messages.

Se hará algún día?

In "La Niña" Downs sings directly to Rosa María, a dark-haired girl with a sad face, who toils without end or escape in the maquiladora border factories. Similar to the messages conveyed in Amparo Ochoa's "La Mujer," Downs sings about the young girl's life slipping away in the drudgery of her labor. However, in this case, labor is not associated with domestic housework; rather, Downs directly associates the drudgery of labor with the maquiladora factories. Not only does this young girl realize that her job is taking its toll on her, she also realizes that all her efforts, dreams, and desires are becoming distant memories. More than simply addressing the exploitation of women in these gendered labor niches, "La Niña" calls attention to the exploitation of child labor. The hopelessness and lack of escape traps the young girl in a never-ending cycle of exploitation. Not even religiosity or faith are able to help the young girl; after all, it is the young girl's patron saint that rests while she works all day.

Revealing a counterculture to modernity, the song fluctuates between what Paul Gilroy calls the politics of transfiguration and the politics of fulfillment. Whereas the politics of fulfillment alludes to the idea that a future society will be able to realize the social and political promise that present society left unaccomplished, the politics of transfiguration "reveals the internal problems in the concept of modernity." The politics of transfiguration creates a counter-culture to modernity through its invocation of utopia that demands "the formation of a community of needs and solidarity."

This evocation of the utopian vision is evident in the repetition of the phrase "Será algún día." The utopian vision requires that someday the maquiladoras will be a memory of the past, that there will be equality, and that those who have benefited from the exploitation of maquiladora labor will apologize. Downs calls for this young girl to be equal to the rest and also envisions that some day the young girl will reap the benefit of her own labor. However, at the same time that the song evokes this utopian image, the lyrics also demand a critique of unequal relations of power and exploitation of labor by referring to maquiladora disappearances. In calling for the disappeared to receive justice, Downs specifically refers to the unexplained disappearances, brutal beatings, and deaths of hundreds of young Mexican women at U.S. border maquiladoras. Ironically the song's vision of utopia coexists alongside the real consequences that borders have on the daily lives of real people.

The performance opens up another possibility in this tension between reality and utopia. As the song ends, the fluctuations in her voice as well as the serious tone conveyed through its repetition contribute to an interpretive ambiguity. Is Downs singing "Será algún día" or "Se hará algún día" (It will be some day), or is she questioning the very same utopian image by askingSerá algún día?" orSe hará algún día?" (Will it be some day?). This performative ambiguity resonates with what Gilroy notes as the tensions between both the politics of transfiguration and politics of fulfillment that are "closely associated in the vernacular ... [and] reflect[s] the idea of doubleness" often regarded as the "constitutive experience of the modern world."

Derechos Humanos, Sale Sobrando

"Sale Sobrando" also vocalizes a counterculture to modernity. Dense with messages, tropes of mexicanismos, cultural and national symbols, Downs critiques multiple contradictions and forms of oppression as well as repression. Lila Downs' aesthetic performance evokes emotion through song and is important to consider. She alters the sound of her voice at critical points and vocalizes nonverbal sounds to convey her message. As a result, her musical performance becomes another opaque vehicle participating in the politics of transfiguration. Downs conflates power relations, especially those inherent in modernity, with progress, transnational relations, and the contradictions within Mexican national identity and demands their critical attention.

The song begins with the Mexican foundation narrative "Los hombres barbados Vinieron por barco Y todos dijeron "mi Dios ha llegado."" Disputing the "discovery" of Ameríca, the song documents the encounter between the indigenous population and Spanish explorers in which the Spanish explorers were "welcomed" into Mexico. Beginning with these images, the first lines of the song bear a striking parallel to Gabino Palomares' song "Maldicíon de Malinche" which also deals with similar themes, but does so in a way that continues a masculinist legacy that blames Mexico's problem and crisis of identity on Malinche's legacy. Downs, however, takes a different approach to Mexico's identity "crisis." She directly aims her critique on modernization and modernity's homogenization of national identities. Specifically Downs' critique revisits the notions of the Mexican intellectual elite, who shortly after the Mexican Revolution began to conceptualize the Mestizo as the embodiment of a universal cosmic race that fused all races in Mexico into the Mexicano. They maintained that the Mestizo represented natural progression and the future of mankind. Mexican nationalism forged its national identity "myth" through the concept of mestizaje. Downs' desire to expose the contradictions of Mexican nationalism becomes further evident in the line: "Mexicanos al grito de guerra," the first line of the Mexican national hymn.

Although to some, violence directed toward native populations in Mexico and the violence inflicted on immigrants in the US seem like separate issues, Downs brings them together. She links them through the intricate web of exploitation inherent in modernity, progress, and transnational global capitalism. "Sale Sobrando" juxtaposes a series of commentaries, some which document actual events. The lines "En Chiapas mujeres y niños rezan/ machetes y balas con sangre bañar" evoke the Actéal, Chiapas murders of December 22, 1997. With many in church sanctuary, 45 Tzotziles people were killed — 21 of them women and 14 children; 25 more were injured and 5 were "disappeared." When Downs sings, "La migra y el border patrol/te agarran, y luego te dan su bendicíon," she highlights the United States' contradictory immigrant policy and its connection to an economy based on the exploitation of workers who cross the borders, are not welcomed, yet endure violent repression. "Bendicíon" has a double meaning; it is a physical act of blessing, but in this case it sarcastically refers to the beatings utilized by the border patrol. Downs use of "bendicíon" also bears witness and evokes historically violent forms of religious conversion, the complicity of religious institutions' non-intervention on the behalf of social justice, and, finally, critiques the way in which the perpetrators of violence are absolved of their crimes. After all, aren't they the guardians of the border, above all laws, sins, and trespasses? Through these examples, "Sale Sobrando" addresses how inequalities, produced through structures of power, resurface in other contact zones. In other words, Downs articulates how communal identities, as well as unequal power relations, are also (inter)national.

Countering what some perceive as stable mixed Mexican identities, Downs' experiences and examples present images that deconstruct the stability of this image. She reveals the problematic ways in which mestizaje simplistically seeks to eliminate traces of difference. While everyone: Indian, black, white, and mestizo form the Mexican nation, not everyone is an equal part of it. She conveys this internalized rejection of difference in her lyrics: "cuando mires no te va gustar, tu cara es morena y quieres ser guera y bien que te comes tu taco y memela," These lyrics dramatize what Inés Hernández-Ávila calls the "internalized racism of Indian hating that frames the mestiza consciousness and manifests itself with a shame and rage at being Indian," a situation Downs has had to personally overcome. The sarcastic mocking laugh that follows these lyrics serves to emphasize the ironic contradictions between the idealized concept of mestizaje and the unequal reality. Although mestizaje is seen as a way to fracture or fuse binaries, "Sale Sobrando" does not applaud mestizaje. Rather, it challenges the concept of mestizaje. In a firm tone, Downs scolds the mestizo who is made to answer to his complicity in this process of homogenizing erasures. "Mestizo haz de ser por tus vicios" is followed by a painful wail. These nonverbal sounds are strategically placed in the text to amplify her critique and message.

"Sale Sobrando" closes with calling into question notions of justice. While tourists and foreigners, privileged in easily crossing the border, are able to go to Mexico, she sees their efforts as in vain. "What do they worry for — human rights?" Downs asks. She responds, "Justice here is good for nothing." Justice, as she has sung, only applies to certain individuals who conform to the nationalist rhetoric of mestizaje.

Downs' music invites, or perhaps challenges transnational feminist politics, to consider reaching out to broader female masses and to include the rights of indigenous women. Connective feminist politics, in this case, is intimately tied to a common gender struggle, but it is also a struggle against internalized racism and the erasure of indigenous populations in Mexico. Her music and performance is not limited by the binaries of national borders or identities suggesting that the "contact zone" is more than a geo-political location, it is also the site where ideological and psychological battles of cultural contact and conflict are waged. The music of Lila Downs, in the words of Ran Saldívar, "documents a transnational people whose lives form the space of a new 'contact zone,' one for which the notion of a singular political, social, or cultural identity may no longer suffice."

With regards to these transnational movements, it is important to note that over the last three years, Downs has increasingly received national and international recognition, appearing in venues such as the Sacred Music Festival, World's Fair in Lisbon, Mexican Fine Arts Center, and the World Music Festival in Chicago. Her international appeal may, as George Lipsitz argues, allow for a peculiarity of place that would otherwise remain hidden; the appeal of her international music has the ability to "make local and national knowledge more important rather less."

This knowledge can, as Michelle Habell-Pallán argues with regard to the international appeal in the music of El Vez, "contribute to a new understanding of community — one that responds to an exploitative transnationalism — and the possibility of an international political agency and musical sensibility of social subjects that, because of their unique histories and social predicaments, do not possess the luxury of ethnic or national absolutism."

Sarah Ramirez is a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University.

Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Ramirez. All rights reserved.