Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968

By Anthony Macías. Durham: Duke University Press, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0822343394, $89.95; paper: ISBN 978-0822343226, $24.95. 408 pages.

Review by Darius V. Echeverría, Rutgers University

During the late nineteenth century and running through the Great Depression, xenophobic ideas and practices began to exert greater force throughout America. People were defined ever more sharply on the basis of their nationality, language, religion, and phenotype. They were incrementally limited in their legal status, voting privileges, and the jobs they could obtain. Indeed, degrading images of legally vulnerable groups such as African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and various Latino/a subgroups, especially Mexican Americans, became part of popular culture in the songs people sang, in the products people bought, and the illustrations they saw in books, magazines, and media imagery. Thus, many Americans remained outside of meaningful mainstream culture, thereby relegated to second-class citizenship and the underbelly of the U.S. economy. Indeed, Mexican Americans found themselves in the anomalous position of living in a land of plenty to which they were denied access. A small but influential handful, however, notably from the “Mexican American generation,” rejected second-class citizenship, thereby “transform[ing] Los Angeles and enrich[ing] American culture” (2). In this spirit, the author’s thoroughly researched book makes an important contribution in providing an overview of how Mexican Americans throughout Los Angeles embraced cultural pride to counter patterns of prejudice. In doing so, Mexican Americans drew on popular music, dance, language, and a style that was both Mexican and American to reevaluate their worth in a society that only accepted upward mobility through “whiteness.” This hybrid of “Mexican” and “American” ethos peppered with African American popular cultural traditions fostered a subculture whose arrangement was unique, and whose amalgamation was distinctive from either “Mexican” or “American” cultures. Equipped with this empowering “mojo” that was predicated more on a bicultural identity rather than Mexican nationalism, Mexican Americans challenged the standard for measuring acceptability and cultural worth. This was accomplished by not only separating from Anglo American identity, but through creating ethnic Mexican diverse modes of celebratory expressions. Inevitably Mexican American Angelenos developed a unique social acclimatization experience because of their day-to-day encounters with racializing prejudice. These experiences compelled many to find refuge in music, running the gamut from jazz, to rhythm and blues, to rock and roll. The book is carefully organized into five chapters supported by a tightly woven introduction and conclusion. With the exception of chapter five, which in part serves as a synthesizing section, the material is arranged in chronological order. Chapter one is crucial to the overall work because it demonstrates that Mexican Americans not only appreciated traditional music, but were just like any other American music lovers, enjoying swing music and dancing the jitterbug. Chapter two is valuable for several reasons, but none more important than exploring how 1940s African American cultural expressions influenced evolving Mexican American music, dance, and urban life. Chapter three builds on chapter two by providing a greater understanding of how indirect and direct cultural forces among and between Chicanos/as and African Americans changed forever how each respective community dealt with an unfriendly urban world. Engaging with and exchanging ideas among a range of communities in dance halls, ballrooms, and auditoriums encouraged a growing respect for differences. In particular, pockets of Mexican American and African American communities overlooked their workforce rivalry in an effort to build a bridge toward tolerance and understanding. Notwithstanding, Mexican Americans, like Asian Indians and African Americans during this period, recognized that rejecting non-white culture while associating with Anglo identity was advantageous for securing better job opportunities. Although Macías provides a cursory discussion of this daily reality, greater depth and inclusion of other comparable communities would have given sections of the work more force and variety. Nevertheless, chapter three also introduces actors that affected the trajectory of the marriage between seemingly distinct musical cultural domains. This dynamic helped shape and guide the aforementioned communities’ political ideology, identity maturation, organizational support, and socio-economic outlook. Chapter four delves deeper into Mexican American musical tastes and tunes throughout the rock and roll era. The final chapter illustrates the widespread acceptability and increasing aptitude of Chicano music subgenres while underscoring its importance in challenging institutions that discouraged and devalued Mexican American thought, culture, and heritage. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Mexican American Mojo is how Macías skillfully blends the oral testimony of key artists to the larger framework of urban culture. These rich interviews add clarity and continuity to scholarship on music and movements. Focusing on specific localities, events, and high schools, Macías, a California university professor, cogently reveals how Chicanos/as established strong bonds of community solidarity and companionship in order to confront anti-Mexican sentiment. In turn, scores of Mexican Americans summoned the courage to break through Eastside Los Angeles, and by extension, the Jim Crow geography of much of the American southwest. As a result, acculturation and assimilation rates among Mexican Americans increased. The author appreciates this point, so a thoughtful conversation with the former is expressed throughout which demonstrates that assimilation was a complex process fueled by countervailing factors such as popular music and fashion trends. Similar to claiming cultural citizenship, Mexican Americans made their mark on U.S. popular culture by appropriating big band swing music, jitterbug dancing, and many more public forums of expressions. The circumstances of poor health, inordinate dropout rates, hard work for low wages, high unemployment, police brutality, societal stereotyping, ethnic Mexican deportation drives, urban renewal, political exclusion, anti-miscegenation policies, and real estate redlining created an unstable social position for Mexican Americans, inspiring many to redefine themselves in order to break the cycle their parents experienced. As noted, the author raises numerous intersections between African Americans, Latinos/as, and Japanese Americans. One hopes that more scholarship in Chicano/a Studies will explore the patterns of competition and cohesion among Mexican Americans and other groups. By challenging some assumptions of the roles played by Mexican Americans in cultural maintenance, this case study builds not only on popular culture scholarship, but helps put civil rights struggles in proper interracial context. In scope and significance, this work is a model for a community’s popular culture history.