Los Corridos de Jimmy Santiago Baca: Community in the Refrain

The corrido is a popular genre in nineteenth and twentieth century Mexican literature and social practice. Used in the oral and printed transmission of information, education, and, at times, subversive politics, corridos often take the form of narrative song, ballad, and/or poem and deal with oppression, history, and the day-to-day of rural life. Many academic studies of the history and form of the corrido — e.g. Vicente T. Mendoza, Américo Paredes, and Merle E. Simmons — treat it as a genealogical object. Whether that genealogy can be effectively traced —  that is, whether there is a broken or unbroken step-by-step development from Spanish romance ballads to Mexican corridos through the resemblance of formal attributes  — is a topic of debate, but missing from this conversation are Chicana/o appropriations and deployments of this form, whether in the Chicano nationalism of the 1960s and 70s, or the postmodern and post-nationalist chicanisma/o of the 80s and 90s. A result is the impression that the corrido is, post-1930,  static or, even, dead.

However, this pays little attention to, for example, Gloria Anzaldúa’s simultaneous citation and interrogation of traditional Mexican corridos as well as her production of new corridos that incorporate the questions of gender, sexuality, racial exclusion, the nonhuman, etc., common in post-1960s/70s chicanisma/o. Another citation and reworking of the corrido appears in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s semi-autobiographical poetic narrative Martín & Meditations on the South Valley:

On Walter street

telephones ring in red-stone apartments

while across Broadway

under Guadelupe bridge

box-car gypsies and Mejicanos swig Tokay.

Corridos–

chairs splintering on kitchen floors–

arguing voices in dark porches–

doors angrily slammed–

Seagrams bottles shatter on the street–

I fell

into Sanjo, into my own brown body,

not knowing how to swim

as tongues lashed white spray warning

of storms to come,

I prayed. (5)

Here, “Corridos” stands between the many goings-on of Baca’s/Martín’s Sanjo barrio. The barrio, hegemonically construed in opposition to the suburb as a socially and politically ‘dead’ and ‘desolate’ space, is reconfigured by Baca as teeming with corridoscorridos that are both human and more-than-human performances: ringing telephones, red-stone apartments, box-car gypsies and Mejicanos, chairs splintering on kitchen floors, voices in dark porches, doors slamming, shattered Seagrams bottles, and so on.

In his essay, “Noise and Communication in Juan Rulfo,” Michael S. Jordan brings attention to how the communicative dimensions of El llano en llamas and Pedro Páramo are “rendered impossible by incessant background noise or obscured by murmurs which defy comprehension…[D]ialogues seem to wither away in the very act of enunciation” (115). Drawing on Michel Serres theorization of noise in Hermes and Parasite, Jordan concludes that “the inability of the characters in these narratives  to communicate with each other parallels the social disintegration which characterizes [Rulfo’s] literary world. Utterances abound in these texts, yet the vast majority of them fail as communicative exchanges” (117). On this account, Rulfo is like Serres a theorist of noise, drawing attention to the clamor of being which emerges in the breakdown of and is the condition of possibility for “the human.”

A similar argument might be made about Baca’s clamoring corridos but I want to suggest a nuance:

How many days of my life

I have spent fixing up

rusty broken things,

charging up old batteries, wiring pieces of odds and ends together!

Ah, those lovely bricks

and sticks I found in fields

and took home with me

to make flower boxes!

The old cars I’ve worked on

endlessly giving them tune-ups,

changing tires, tracing

electrical shorts,

cursing when I’ve been stranded

between Laguna pueblo and Burque,

It’s the process of making-do,

of the life I’ve lived between

breakdowns and break-ups, that has made life

worth living.

I could not bear a life

with everything perfect. (59-60)

It’s that line, “the process of making-do,” that fascinates me. It’s important to note that the ‘teeming’ of corridos in the first excerpt and ‘process’ in the second, is not the romanticization of vibrancy and process which characterizes much of the new materialist imaginaries. But neither is it a disavowal, or displacement, of those contradictions and toxicities in favor of the romanticized and unitary Chicano identity evoked in, for example, the Plan Espirtual de Aztlán. Alcoholism, intraracial gang and domestic violence, racism, the prison-industrial-complex, waste, deprivation, and disinheritance: these are all a part of the material-cultural Sanjo into which Baca’s/Martin’s “brown body” falls. This fall, however, is not a condemnation, at least not in the sense of an overdetermined telos. But neither should we be too quick to look for redemption.

In her essay, “Love, Hunger, and Grace: Loss and Belonging in the Poetry of Lorna Dee Cervantes and Joy Harjo,” Eliza Rodriguez y Gibson looks to Harjo and Cervantes for a poetic-epistemic practice that engages with historical loss beyond “nationalist impulses that try to restructure a presence in history creating an authentic sense of belonging” (107), here referring to Chicano nationalism’s imagining of Aztlán and its attendant figure of the indigenous mother. Cervantes and Harjo, she argues, instead create

a poetics that embraces loss and the grief that comes from identifying with the survivors of genocide and the dispossessed. What is past is not merely past, but immanent in everyday experience. Loss itself becomes a presence that enables both poets to imagine a community that does not demand an authentic origin. The present cultural moment that both Cervantes and Harjo find themselves in makes it impossible to access a pristine, unbroken, authentic indigenous and national past. The markers of ethnic identification are always and already compromised by post-contact/post-conquest mixing of cultural traditions. (107, my emphasis)

 Martín begins with Baca’s/Martin’s return to Pinos Wells, “an abandoned pueblo” (3) in Torrance County, New Mexico. The return is already affected by the machinations of fordist economics and politics and the resulting abandonment of small desert towns outside or off-route of commercial centers and major highways, i.e. the American “ghost town.” Further, this return initiates a flashback, of which the first excerpt was a part; again, neither a romantic nostalgia nor a return to the Same, but displaced return in return.

In Patricia L. Price’s Dry Place: Landscapes of Belonging and Exclusion, she argues that while ‘the West’ “utilizes a specific geographic referent [i.e. the Southwest deserts], it is an incredibly difficult place to pin down: the West is an immanently displaced region” (56). The same might be said about the literatures — Anglo, Hispano, and Native — emerging from and/or meditating upon the Southwest regions, where cultural, historical, material, linguistic, ethnic, and geographic displacements are engaged and thought through in a multitude of ways. Displacement is the abstract trope; narrative and poetic practice is the concrete working out of that trope.

To return to corridos, we may now turn from the question ‘what is a corrido?’ to ‘what does/can a corrido do?’ Anzaldúa:

Corridos first became widely used along the South Texas/Mexican border during the early conflict between Chicanos and Anglos. The corridos are usually about Mexican heroes who do valiant deeds against the Anglo oppressors. Pancho Villa’s song, “La cucaracha,” is the most famous one…Older Chicanos remember Lydia Mendoza, one of the great border corrido singers who was called la Gloria de Tejas. Her “El tango negro,” sung during the Great Depression, made her a singer of the people. The everpresent corridos narrated one hundred years of border history, bringing news of events as well as entertaining. These folk musicians and folk songs are our chief cultural mythmakers, and they made our hard lives seem bearable. (61, my emphasis)

Fittingly, Anzaldúa’s focus on the musical quality of and reprieve offered by the corrido pairs nicely with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the ‘refrain’ in A Thousand Plateaus. I cite the three movements of the refrain at length:

[1] A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginnings of order in chaos and is in danger of breaking apart at any moment…

[2] Now we are at home. But home does not preexist: it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space. Many, very diverse, components have a part in this, landmarks and marks of all kinds…used for organizing a space, not for the momentary determination of a center. The forces of chaos are kept outside as much as possible, and the interior space protects the germinal forces of a task to fulfill or a deed to do…A child hums to summon the strength for the schoolwork she has to hand in. A housewife sings to herself, or listens to the radio, as she marshals the antichaos forces of her work…

[3] Finally, one opens the crack, opens it all the way, lets some one in, calls someone, or else goes out onself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but it another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended on its own to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune. (311)

Orientating center, construction of a space, opening onto the future; each moment of the refrain is a precarious one, neither ever totalized nor insured, but a moment to catch one’s breath, to live in the unlivable. Rodriguez y Gibson mobilizes the conceptual nodes of love and hunger in Cervantes’ work and grace in Harjo’s as ways of engaging loss and of surviving grief. She writes,

Love and hunger as epistemic strategies challenge our understanding of subjectivity by shifting our attention from libido as a primary drive, to hunger as a means of establishing the subject. Harjo develops a poetics of grace that creates a rich sense of historical and spatial interconnection [enabling] the formation of both tribal and cultural lines [and] the formation of both pan-tribal and third-world feminist alliances[. But] it is also an aesthetic point of reference — historical pain can produce art that sustains and feeds a people. (107)

Where Rulfo theorizes the ontological clamor of being, Baca, Harjo, and Cervantes theorize the ethical task of the corrido, the poem, prayer, “fixing up / rusty broken things” (Baca), feeding (Cervantes), of being found “with coffee and pancakes in a truck stop along Highway 80” (Harjo): an immanent construction of community in “the process of making-do” without the guardrails of identity, nostalgia, or authenticity — or, if such guard rails are to be used, only conditionally and responsibly. Corridos: the concrescence of peoples, chairs, culinary traditions,  sounds and smells, “changing tires, chasing / electrical shorts,” histories of imperial expansion and resistance; an activity “to prevent the interior forces of the earth from being submerged, to enable them to resist, or even to take something from chaos across the filter or sieve of the space” the corrido constructs (D|G 311). Baca:

I became a friend of the old women
who hung out by the bars
on Central,
Broadway,
Isleta,
and Barcelona,
blue tear drops tattooed on their cheeks,
initials of ex-lovers on their hands,
women drawn out from the dark piss-stinking rooms
they lived in,
by the powerful force of the moon,
whose yellow teeth tore the alfalfa out of their hearts,
and left them stubbled,
parched grounds old goats of Tecatos and winos
nibbled.
All my life the constant sound of someone’s bootheels
trail behind me — thin, hard,
sharp sounds scraping frozen ground,
like a shovel digging a grave.
It’s my guardian, following me through the broken branches
of the bosque, to the door
of the Good Shepherd Home on south 2nd. street,
for a hot meal. (21)

 

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