“Hasta que el pueblo las canta
Las coplas coplas no son
Y cuando las canta el pueblo
Ya nadie sabe el autor
Procura tu que tus coplas
Vayan al pueblo a parar
Que al volcar el corazón
En el alma popular
Lo que se pierde de gloria
Se gana de eternidad”
The conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards and their “imports” of African slaves into the region shifted the overall material culture of Mexico. The colonial reality led to the mixtures of cultures known as mestizaje that is deeply rooted in Latin American history. Through this meztizaje, the traditions of various indigenous tribes have been regionally preserved and changed by the introduction of new cultures in those particular geographic locations. Son Jarocho is among these syncretic traditions still being practiced in Southern Veracruz, Mexico. The syncretism of Son Jarocho has yet to end. The music has migrated all the way from Veracruz to California, Illinois and New York. The music’s diffusion to the U.S. and its methods of learning have, however, presented questions for me of its possible misappropriation or regeneration in the shift from the context outside the fandangos in Southern Veracuz and into the urban landscape of Los Angeles.
I learned Son Jarocho when I lived in Davis. My friend Salvador who had taken many trips to Veracruz informed us well on the traditions of each song and the gatherings called Fandangos to the best of his ability. He described to me that “anything can happen in a fandango!” I have found that this is true; a fandango to me is a space much like a ceremony. It has definite conventions but I like to think of them as “agreements.” The first song played in a fandango is called Siqui Sirí. No one that I’ve talked to has been able to tell me what the word “Siqui Sirí” means, nonetheless, the purpose of the song is to begin the fandango by asking permission to begin. This is very much the Indigenous influence of Son Jarocho that informs us on how to begin ceremony. We always ask the relatives of this earth, the elements, the other jaraneros so that we may remain humble and remember our traditions –the Indigenous, African and Spanish-Moorish traditions.
The Instruments themselves serve their function in the fandango, the jaranas are largely used a percussive string instrument with the strumming and is what most musicians play in a fandango. The requinto is a kind of leader within the fandango because it marks the melody and starts each song traditionally. I found a good description of the two instruments in a book called Latin American Music that I think help visualize how these instruments look and their functions:
The most widespread typical instrumentation centers on […] a jarana (shallow-bodied guitar with eight strings in five courses), and a requinto (“guitarra de son,” a four-stringed, narrow-bodied guitar, plucked with a 7.5-centimeter plectrum fashioned from cow horn or a plastic comb). […] The jarana player employs a variety of patterns (maniqueos) to strum a rhythmic-chordal accompaniment appropriate to the metere, tempo, and character of the particular son. The requinto player (requintero) supplies an additional, largely improvisatory, melodic line […]” (Sheeshy 157)
The versada or the lyricism of the songs are largely of public dominion –no one can really say that verso is mine because as it is sung it becomes the property of everyone. Aperson in a fandango might remember the versos “con las que siente afinidad; si son ajenas, cuanta siempre con la libertad de cambiarlas a su convenencia.” That is to say that, if one has an affinity to the verso one sings it and has the liberty to also change it (Arredondo 10). The typical form of lyricism is the Spanish style octasílabas, literally translating to “eight syllabals” that used in each line. More advanced form of versada is the decimal, which is a ten-line verso with a rhyme scheme of A-B-B-A A-C C-D-D-C. This style of poetry was popular in Spain and diffused throughout the Americas during the 17 and 18 centuries (Sanabria xi). The zapateado is the percussive steps usually on a wooden platform called a tarima, which the musicians usually gather around. Jarochos consider the tarima, the heart of the son because no typical drum exists in son Jarocho. The percussion is conducted in the steps of the zapateado, and also in the strum of the jarana. There are many more instruments to describe but the ones explained are typically the one’s most widely used or at the least the basic ones.
Syncretism, in the case of any colonial paradigm and certainly in Colonial Mexico, is not “the combination of two or more different traditions” but developed under cultural coercion into accepting the dominant colonizing culture (Stewart 55). In being forced, colonized peoples creatively preserved their traditions in the guise of a newly formed tradition appealing to the dominant culture. The fandango is a sacred space in which indigenous and African cosmologies and communal gatherings are joined through Spanish musical and lyrical conventions. Fandangos are simply put musicians, dancers and singers oriented the tradition of creating a community of expression thus developing a musicianship inherently based on sacred traditions. In a conversation with Liche Oseguera, a Jaranero, requintero, leonero and composer of Son Jarocho music, and several LA jaraneros (that soon turned into an informal interview because of all the questions we had for him), Liche shared with us how he was raised in the tradition of huapangos wherein families gather in a given house and were family celebrations. He relayed to us the importance of the music for him, informing us that the music is cultural inheritance that he received from his family to share and preserve the traditions whose songs have deep spiritual significance that one must pay attention to.
However, in the ports of Veracruz, another dynamic exists within son Jarocho. When I went to Veracruz, Mexico 4 years ago, I remember a sociologist, whose name I forgot, read a paper to us in a defensive tone, explaining to us that the Marisqueros, the people who play Son Jarocho in the ports or in restaurants for money, do so out of necessity. She described that many of them are hurt that there is a definitive line that divides the two different groups of people: the jaraneros and the marisqueros. I remember her reading that one of the Marisqueros told her “no es chile pero arde” which translates to “it isn’t chili but it burns.” Participants of this seminar, also in a defensive tone, informed her that we are not to divorce ourselves from our politics, and that we understand the roots of this commercialization of the traditions is in the permeated capitalism that is centrally located in the ports.
I remember feeling an affinity to the music that people were defending is rooted in tradition as opposed to commercialization. As I reflect now, four years later, I realize that the context in which I learned and play Son Jarocho has not been in the ports or in the ranchos but was in the university in Davis and now in LA. My family is not from Veracruz, they are from Michoacán and Jalisco in Western Central Mexico. I have since then reflected on whether or not Jaraneros from California or specifically in LA are positioned as being of tradition or are we a type of marisqueros? What is it mean to play this music? Why did I care to learn? How would I be of tradition here in LA? These are the questions that inform my search to try to explain what it means to not just play this music here in LA but create a community of Jaraneros in LA rooted in parallel traditions that speak to our identity as uprooted people on this side of the frontera. I then realized that the question for us Chicanos is a complicated question of what we lack in our cultural context to search for identity and that may answer why we even picked up a jarana or get on the tarima:
Chicanos searched for mediums through which their cultural identity could be reaffirmed, promoted and preserved. Everywhere Chicano Campus organizations emerged that in some way reached back into the Mexican cultural heritage to take back what had been denied by the hegemonic forces in the U.S. – such as language, history and expressive forms of culture. Out of this fervor arose teatros, muralists, musicians and literature which became important symbols of “Mexicanness” (Najera).
Growing up semi-aware of being uprooted from Mexico, I attempted to reconcile my own identity and found two options: either succumbing to assimilation into perhaps the only culture we know or find mediums through which we can express our identity. Son Jarocho has become that medium for us Chicanos in LA because we become connected to our mother country when we physically strum, sing or dance and we build a community of people also oriented in that search and satisfaction of cultura. In the conversation with Liche, I asked him what he thinks about Chicanos who probably have no ties to Veracruz learning Son Jarocho. I was hesitant to hear his answer having seen how we conduct our fandangos and perhaps also our group dynamics but his answer was a confirmation to me. He said that if we are to learn that music to learn it well, to respect the traditions humbly and then he told us to define ourselves and our identity within this music.
It was hard at first to re-think how to still continue being part of tradition and at the same time create or generate music that is still speaking to my identity or reality as a Chicana. Then I considered the son buscapies. The name busca-pies translates into looking-for-feet but has the connotation of the devil, who is said to look for feet at night “te va jalar patas el diablo” my mom used to say if we left our feet bare at night. The versos in this song always strike me as versos that keep you on your toes and remind you of the evils of the world so that one takes care of oneself or family or community. Arcadio Hidalgo, a trovador, campesino and a soldier who fought in the Mexican revolution had described in the later years of his life describes laudero (maker of wooden instruments), Gilberto Gutierrez dancing on the tarima to buscapies with a woman when he realized that Gutierrez had “un pie de crisitano y una pata de gallo” (a Christian foot and a rooster’s foot). It was at that moment that he and others began to sing “versos a lo divino” to scare the devil away (Arredondo 129). Recently I had heard a recorded song of buscapies by a group called Soneros de Tesochoacan that was consistently about the economic change taking place in Mexico. One line in the song hit home for me: Ahora sí me voy pa’l norte, haber si como si quiera (Now I will go north to see if at least I can eat).
I spoke to some of the jaraneros after Liche was picked up so that he can go to bay area to sell some instruments and give workshops. I was a bit disheartened by the feeling that maybe we weren’t consciously of tradition because we still must define our own as Chicanos. Then in thinking of the son buscapies it was clear to me that the structure is there for each song in the use of syllables, the word is the message. It is then up to us to listen carefully and not just read versos from a book that sound nice but interpret our own meaning to our reality in the city or in just being uprooted from the mother country. We can sing in metaphors that already exist or we can create our own. We don’t necessarily need to create something new altogether but instead have a real analysis of our struggles as Chicanos and be able to connect that struggle with the jaraneros of Veracruz through the versada.
“Ya me voy de retiradas
Solo puedo asegurar
Que pronto he de regresar
Compartiendo mi versada
Es mas tengo la illusion
Que somos de tradicion
Que se escucha en mi tierra
Como tan lejos en la sierra
Dandole vida al son.”
Arredondo, Victor A. La Versada de Arcadio Hidalgo. Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana: 1981
Najera Ramirez, Olga. “Social and Political Dimensions of Folklorico Dance: The Binational Dialectic of Residual and Emergent Culture.” Western Folklore, 48.1 (Jan 1989) 15-32
Oseguera, Liche. Personal Interview. 11 April 2008. Santa Barbara.
Sanabria, Alfonso and Irisaida Méndez. La Decima esta en tus Manos: Manual para la Composición de la Décima Espinela. Salinas: Fundación Leopoldo Sanabria, 2000.
Sheeshy, Daniel E. “Mexico” The Garland Handbook of Latin American Music. Eds. Dale A. Olsen and Daniel Sheeshy. 148-73. New York: Garland, 2000.
Stewart, Charles. “Syncretism and Its Synonyms: Reflections on Cultural Mixture.” Diacritics, 29.3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 40-62.
[Written in 2008]