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Music and Politics Meet in the Border Community of McAllen, Texas

It’s an uncommonly brisk evening in McAllen, a small city in Texas that sits just north of the Rio Grande and, beyond that, Mexico. In the backyard of a bar called Yerberia Cultura, a piñata in the shape of an anthropomorphized border wall is being brutalized by a young woman with a mop handle. The McAllen pop-punk band Fantástico!eggs her on with a customized cover of Khia’s notoriously raunchy hit “My Neck, My Back (Lick It)”: “Do it now, hit it good, hit that piñata just like you should!”

The scene takes place in the middle of March’s Dreams festival, a laid-back event where independent-minded local and out-of-town acts share a sprawling patio with a woman selling T-shirtsemblazoned with catchphrases like “Your History Books Are Puro Pedo”—that is, “Pure Farts”—and a food stand run by a mom who put her daughter through college with her flautas. The musical lineup at Dreams is inspired, and it likely wouldn’t happen anywhere else.

The three artists at the top of the bill have wildly different sounds and live shows, but there’s a common thread connecting them. As Helado Negro, Roberto Carlos Lange records deeply inward-gazing lullabies, protection spells, and guides to self-care dealing with the fear and anxiety of being brown; Xenia Rubinos balances sweet soul with smart bass riffs while exploring her own identity and the Latinx experience in white America; Downtown Boys pay spiritual homage to both Bruce Springsteen and Selena, making aggressively confrontational punk rock spiked with politically charged calls to action.

“Representation is super important on these lineups, especially for us down here,” says Dreams organizer and McAllen DIY mainstay Patrick Garcia. “To see these artists, to see their skin, and to see what they are.” Recently, many young bands in McAllen and the surrounding Rio Grande Valley have been emboldened by this kind of recognition, offering their own takes on the Latinx experience, from the prog-metal stylings of DeZorah, to the indie-pop snark of Pinky Swear, to the nimble-tongued raps of Caldo Frio. Despite a deck stacked against them by geography, postcolonialism, and modern politics, the music scene in the Valley is more than just healthy—it’s thriving.

Garcia points to Downtown Boys’ first McAllen show a couple of years ago as a flashpoint representative of already shifting attitudes. “People freaked out seeing a brown woman shouting ‘girls to the front,’” he says. “It was like, ‘Whoa, you’re loving us and telling us to take care of ourselves.’ It invigorated the community.”

The feeling is mutual. “You’re instantly contextualized—you can’t play here without knowing that you’re in McAllen,” says Downtown Boys vocalist Victoria Ruiz. “You’re able to see people who look like you, and they could be your cousin. It’s so hard to feel that context in a lot of other cities that we play.”

So as bands like Downtown Boys tour the country, or the world, they spread the gospel of McAllen as diehards like Garcia see it: A community and culture with more to offer than the two-dimensional narratives of crime and poverty that have proliferated on conservative outlets like Breitbart News, all the way up to the White House.

Downtown Boys at Dreams festival in McAllen, Texas. Piñata art by Josué Ramírez.

In the Rio Grande Valley, notions of heritage and pride often involve an undercurrent of assimilation that permeates everyday life. For a lot of families, achieving the American Dream means shedding much of the culture they left behind and adopting their new home’s language and ethos of white supremacy.

The assimilation may be driven by the innocuous intentions of a parent wanting a better life for their child, but it can foster a subconscious self-loathing that bands like Downtown Boys aim to obliterate as they chant brown pride anthems in Spanish, or when guitarist Joey DeFrancesco goes on a political rant onstage as Ruiz translates it into Spanish in real-time. The band’s arrival in the Valley seemed to dovetail with a burgeoning movement of young people in the scene looking to reconnect with these lost parts of their identity.

The traditional regional sounds of the Rio Grande Valley are loosely referred to as Conjunto, ranch music based around a Mexican 12-string acoustic bass guitar. It’s an ever-present part of life in the area, heard at quinceñeras, family barbecues, or even just in the street. Tejano music sprouted up after European immigrants—specifically from Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia—began to settle in south Texas in the mid 19th century, bringing with them their waltzes, polkas, and most importantly, accordions, which would become the style’s defining instrument.

Ask a young person in the Valley today what they think of Conjuntoor Tejano music, though, and they’re unlikely to identify with it. But filmmakers Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza hope to recontextualize the Valley’s music history with their new documentary, As I Walk Through the Valley, which traces the area’s musical spirit across genres and generations.

Tejano was very punk in its attitude,” says Garza. He goes on to explain how the style was employed as Chicanos in the Valley fought against corruption and marched for human rights in the 1970s. That rebelliousness has fueled independent music in the Valley for decades, through the punk, metal, and hardcore scenes of the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s, but despondent and bored young people in the area are often caught in cultural limbo, unaware that previous generations of kids built their own DIY scenes, and they could, too.

“Part of why we’re doing this project, is that we’re cut off from our own local history and narratives,” Vela says of his film. “They’re not taught in school, certainly. Young people are trying to connect with these things, but there’s no unbroken tradition. We’re just trying to piecemeal it together and find some sense of roots, and where they’re cut off.”

The U.S. side of the Rio Grande—a border wall can be seen in the distance.

Through events like Dreams, Garcia and others are also doing their part to build bridges from the past to the present when it comes to both grassroots music and activism, often using one to propel the other. The McAllen music scene was recently forced to organize to protect its very existence after a white, developer-friendly politician sought to ban outdoor amplified music and all-ages shows in the city’s 17th Street Entertainment District—a ban that would have killed live music at the Yerberia Cultura and, by association, Dreams. A campaign spearheaded by Garcia and veteran local musician Andres Sanchez collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition to oppose the ordinance in a single day, ultimately forcing the city commission to back down and rescind it.

But other fights rage on. The same forces that keep people from traveling out of the Valley to see or play shows—poverty, geographical isolation, and the border patrol checkpoints on every road leading north and south—make it difficult to access healthcare services such as abortions, or to visit family or seek economic opportunity elsewhere. Some of the same kids screaming “She’s brown! She’s smart!” along with Victoria Ruiz at Dreams can be found escorting women to the sole clinic in the Valley that provides abortion services; some of the same people proclaiming that they’re “young, Latin, and proud” along with Roberto Lange at the Yerberia Cultura were also at an event earlier that day in nearby San Juan, Texas, where community leaders assembled by newly elected Rep. Vicente Gonzalez hosted a roundtable for Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi, directly speaking truth to power regarding issues of immigration, religious tolerance, and environmentalism.

Also in attendance at Dreams was Eduardo Canales of the South Texas Human Right Center. He works with law enforcement and local landowners to provide fresh water stations for the undocumented migrants seeking points north along the massive ranches and scrubland that divides the Valley from San Antonio. The bodies of those he can’t save—people that die from exposure or dehydration—he helps recover from private land in hopes of reuniting them with their families.

Few issues in South Texas are as charged, however, as access to affordable abortion services. After Texas passed a measure designed to result in the closure of the majority of abortion clinics in the state in 2013, the Whole Woman’s Health clinic on South Main Street in McAllen became the only remaining clinic providing services in the entire Valley—an area that covers almost 5,000 square miles and is home to more than 1.3 million people. Whole Woman’s Health argued the bill was unconstitutional, took their case to the Supreme Court, and won. But the damage was done—many of the clinics that closed have yet to reopen, and Texas’ assault on these clinics continues.

At the forefront of that fight in the Valley is South Texans for Reproductive Justice, an organization founded by activists Denni and Melissa Arjona that is committed to evolving the conversation around abortion to include factors of marginalization like poverty and citizenship status that disproportionately affect women of color. For the last few years, the Arjonas have organized a concert called Skank for Choice—featuring Denni’s band Los Skagaleros—to benefit La Frontera Fund, which helps provide practical support to Valley residents who are seeking abortions. Additionally, local Cathryn Torres, a staunch supporter of reproductive justice, produced a show called Justicia, promoting women in hardcore and benefitting La Frontera Fund.

McAllen’s lone remaining abortion clinic is often quite literally a battleground, with anti-choice activists maintaining a constant presence in the public spaces surrounding the building and posting massive signs within every possible sightline for patients arriving for appointments. The facility was closed when I visited, but a handful of protesters were still posted up out front, praying their rosaries.

It’s gotten so intense that in addition to a security guard, there is a literal wall in front of its doors, limiting the points of access to the facility. When the anti-choicers—typically led by leaders in the Roman Catholic community—mobilize on the clinic, the South Texans for Reproductive Justice puts together counter-actions to protect patients and employees of the clinic, often forming a human barrier.

Protestors stand outside of the Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, even when the clinic is closed.

If there’s one organization that represents the intersectionality of the Valley’s progressive front, it’s the LGBTQ advocacy group Aquí Estamos, which has strong ties to the music scene and various activist organizations—and few members of Aquí Estamos embody this spirit better than Alexis Bay.

Bay, who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, is one of the few people I meet in the valley who is not Chicano; their family immigrated from Cuba through South Florida, and moved to the Valley when they were just 3 years old. They spend their days working at a nature center in one of the few preserved plots of wildlife in the area, teaching people about its old growth forests that predate colonialism; the Valley’s positioning as a migration highway makes it one of the premier birding destinations in America. Bay is also involved in the fight for reproductive justice and volunteered to assist South and Central American refugees. “There’s no separating these things, they’re very interwoven,” Bay says of the various organizations and causes they are a part of. “The Valley is a very beautiful quilt in that sense.”

Part of that quilt can seem contradictory, and one unavoidable intersection is the role of Roman Catholicism in the culture of the Valley: Members of Aquí Estamos often find themselves volunteering with members of the church at the Humanitarian Respite Center, only to find themselves on opposite sides of the picket line in the fight for reproductive justice. And beyond the awkwardness of working with someone who might hate you for your orientation or thoughts on abortion, there’s also the struggle of Catholicism’s looming role in identity, even for those in the Valley who aren’t religious.

“Even if you’re not Catholic, on some level, you’re still probably culturally Catholic—there’s still some imagery that invokes emotion or comfort,” says Bay. “If you go to other parts of the country, they’re more than happy to be like, ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,’ [but here] you still meet Latinx folks that may have a rosary. It still means something to them.”

And though progressive activists of all stripes are making advances in the Valley, that’s not to say that Brown Pride has completely taken over: There are still Mexican-American Trump supporters in the area, perpetuating false narratives about themselves.

“It’s so strange,” Patrick Garcia admits. “It’s not that I can’t blame them, but when I look at it, I understand they’re in a system of poverty, and to them, success is wealth, and wealth is being offered via this candidate via the rhetoric of false freedom, so they’re going to lean towards that.”

Trump piñatas at a shop in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, just across the border.

But even if the wall has some supporters in the Valley, of all the activist fronts in the region, the fight for the dignity and human rights of undocumented immigrants seems to have the most solidarity: You can find Catholics, atheists, musicians, grandmas, and grandchildren among the ranks of those advocating for the cause. And it’s likely because many people don’t have to look back too far to find their connection to Mexico or points south, or have a friend, relative, or neighbor without papers. The ham-fisted narratives about drug-smuggling violent criminal immigrants are hard to swallow when you know plenty of normal, hard-working people whose only difference from you is a piece of paper.

For an undocumented musician, it’s especially heartbreaking; even as the Valley’s profile grows and the opportunities for local musicians expand beyond South Texas, without papers, the risk of being detained at a checkpoint is often too great to be able to take part.

Jesus Reazola is 31 years old and stands some six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a hulking frame that belies a soft-spoken nature. His friends call him Chuy, a common Mexican nickname for Jesus. He plays drums in the band Monstruo Bohemio and raps in a group called Caldo Frio with drummer Carmen Castillo. Castillo’s family hails from Reynosa, Mexico, McAllen’s sister city on the other side of the border, and they crossed when she was barely a year old; she’s since acquired legal resident status. Reazola has not.

Carmen Castillo and Jesus “Chuy” Reazola of the McAllen rap duo Caldo Frio.

Over tacos at his favorite restaurant in McAllen, Reazola tells me how his family fled from intense cartel violence in Monterrey, Mexico in the summer of 1998 when he was 11, just old enough to remember the journey into the U.S. While Reazola was still living in Monterrey, his mother would make frequent trips into the U.S. to work. (Before drug cartels monopolized the smuggling routes across the border, freelance coyotes—human smugglers that knew the safest routes to cross undetected—could get you across for a reasonable fee.) She told him how, while crossing the Rio Grande, she was swept up in a current and just narrowly escaped drowning, exhausting herself fighting the river’s strong current. “Don’t fight the river, it’s too strong,” she said. “Just float.” When they crossed as a family in 1998, the advice became a mantra: “Flota con el Rio.”

Years later, when Reazola was 26 and living in the U.S., he found himself at a party when a fight broke out, drawing the attention of law enforcement. He says that he was trying to break it up, but it didn’t matter—he was rounded up and taken to jail, and when his undocumented status was discovered, he was deported to Mexico, where he hadn’t lived since he was a child. Like a lot of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S., staying in Mexico wasn’t really an option for him; his life, job, friends, and much of his family were in the States.

But as the U.S. ramped up its war on drugs, and the smuggling routes became too valuable for the cartels to ignore, the independent coyotes were given a choice: Start working for the cartels, or else. Many chose to flee. People looking to cross without papers faced a similar dilemma: If they were discovered crossing without paying the cartel, they too faced reprisals. Unable to afford the few hundred dollars to pay the cartel, Reazola chose to risk his life crossing with a former coyote, who had fled to the U.S. rather than work for a cartel, crawling for hours to avoid detection. “I was in Mexico for less than 24 hours,” Reazola says. “Me and my friend crossed back as soon as we touched down in Mexico. We didn’t even eat that day.”

When they arrived at the Rio Grande crossing, his mother’s words came rushing back to him the moment he stepped into the water—wisdom that likely saved his life. The throughline of those experiences—Reazola mother’s perilous crossing, the family’s flight from Monterrey, and his mad dash back into the U.S. as an adult—became the basis for “Flota con el Rio,” the sixth track on Caldo Frio’s latest album, Aca en el Sur (Here in the South). It’s a bouncy rap song colored with strings and a somber acoustic guitar riff, peppered by Reazola’s rapid-fire flow; he speaks English well, but he raps in Spanish, his f

“Flota con el Rio”

Caldo Frio

Via 

When Reazola first told me his story, I struggled with the responsibility of putting him at risk by sharing it publicly. But like many other undocumented immigrants in the U.S., he understands that in order to change policy, you must first change hearts and minds. Undocumented immigrants often struggle for the most basic dignity, for the right to move freely, to be recognized as human. Near the border, this results in a peculiar kind of detention—not in a camp or locked-down facility, but within the hundred-mile floodplain that makes up the Rio Grande Valley. With checkpoints all around, the risk of being deported is too great to justify even small trips—for an artist like Reazola, the idea of even traveling to Austin remains in the realm of fantasy. There can be no tour, no SXSW showcase, no exploration of the country he risked his life to reach.

Most of the people I speak with in the Rio Grande Valley are exhausted by the rhetoric of border politics and by national media presuming to speak for them. Some are even taking the issue into their own hands with Neta, an independent news source for, by, and of Valley residents, a place for their voices and stories to be heard, on their own terms. For musical diehards like Garcia, Vela, and Garza, the dream is for the music of the Valley to be recognized for its rich past, present, and future; for the South Texans for Reproductive Justice, the dream is for all people to have equal access to healthcare; for Reazola, the dream is merely to take his art beyond the confines of the low-lying scrublands that he now calls home. All of these are American Dreams, each one worth fighting for.

 

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