My Curiosity Runnin’ Wild: Meandering through Mexico, Music, Literature, and Film

Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio with no particular place to go.
— Chuck Berry

A few blocks north of the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City sits Plaza Garibaldi. During colonial times, the square was called Plaza Santa Cecilia to honor the patron saint of musicians. In 1920, the postrevolutionary government of Álvaro Obregón rechristened it to commemorate the heroism of Giuseppe Garibaldi II, the Australian grandson of the famous Italian general, who emigrated to Mexico in 1911, joined the upstart rebellion in Chihuahua, accompanied Francisco I. Madero in his triumphal entry into Mexico City, and then immediately set sail for other battlefields. Five years later, Juan Hernández Ibarra opened a pulquería called El Salón Tenampa on the north side of the newly renamed plaza. Not wanting to abandon the flavors and sounds of his native Jalisco, Hernández served up traditional dishes like tortas ahogadas and birria and hired mariachis to grace the establishment with some musical entertainment.

Over the years, movie stars, musicians, artists, and public officials made their way to the flashing neon sign declaring the cantina to be a small piece of Jalisco. José Alfredo Jiménez, the dipsomaniac genius behind Mexico’s best musical tearjerkers, was a regular customer and even penned the sentimental song “Mi Tenampa” which heartthrob Pedro Infante would later perform decked out in full charro gallantry in his film Gitana tenías que ser (1953). Mariano Moreno, better known to fans as Cantinflas, filmed a drunken ranchera song at the bar for his film El potrero (1950). Later, in El mariachi desconocido (1953), Germán Valdés (aka Tin-Tan) busks for change outside until he finally manages to sneak in for a swing dance number. Other musicians and movie stars made the local haunt their home. Even the norteño superstar Cornelio Reyna wrote “Me sacaron del Tenampa” about being chased from the bar by mariachis because he was doing their work for free. Nowadays passersby and tourists can enjoy the roving bands of troubadours interpreting classic tunes from the folkloric repertoire on any given day at any given hour.

I visited Garibaldi on my first trip to Mexico City in 2002. At the time, I was a newly minted graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin and was blissfully unaware of its history, so my stay was brief. I stopped by, walked around the plaza, looked at the statues of famous musicians, listened to a ranchera song or two, and continued on. From there, I walked north along Eje Central Lázaro Cárdenas to Metro Garibaldi, the northernmost stop for the subway line that runs south from the center of town to Iztapalapa. As I headed downstairs into the station, I found myself immersed in an altogether different musical experience. I will admit that, somewhat naively, I expected to hear songs by Cuco Sánchez, Agustín Lara, and Vicente Fernández. But that was all on the surface. Down below, buried deep within the heart of Mexico City, I found rock and roll. There were goth kids decked out in black leather, vendors hawking pirated compilation CDs of everything from classic doo-wop to the staples of rock en español, and people of all shapes and sizes listening to mp3 players. Radios in food stands blared Top 40 pop songs and the pulsing backbeat of old rock and roll standards from Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and Creedence Clearwater Revival issued from overhead speakers. It was surreal. This was not the Mexico that I thought I knew.

(Music, of course, is not the only thing buried just below street level. Every couple of years, archaeologists make new discoveries of the ancient Tenochtitlán that Spanish conquerors destroyed in their religious and military excitement. The site just behind the Metropolitan Cathedral has, since the early part of the twentieth century, been a site of prehispanic discovery. As recently as June 2017, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a major Aztec temple and ceremonial ball court. [1] And in December 2021, archaeologists discovered an altar site dating back to the 16th century right near Plaza Garibaldi. [2] Just as Carlos Fuentes suggests in the short story “Chac Mool” about a statue unearthed by an unwitting and tragically witless collector of tchotchkes that turns out to be the pre-Columbian god of rain and thunder, unexpected histories always scrabble to the surface.)

Discovering this subterranean current of rock music, precisely beneath the epicenter of mariachi music, made me wonder what other received notions about culture had been shaping my understanding of Mexico. I had grown up in San Antonio, the bicultural city where according to one of the many colorful characters in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011) “the Tex meets the Mex,” but I had never really been to Mexico. Sure, we had made a handful of trips to down I-35 to Nuevo Laredo. But that was it. Even so, I was raised on a steady diet of carne guisada breakfast tacos and crunchy taco combo plates. The Alamo was right down the street from my dad’s office, so I was always “remembering” it. Spanish was everywhere. Many of my school friends and teachers were tejanos who codeswitched all the time. Radio stations played Selena’s cumbias and Flaco Jiménez’s conjunto music. But with all that, and with the border sitting only a couple of hours from my front door, Mexico still felt like a textual abstraction. Yet now I stood in one of the largest metropolises in the world and it wasn’t what, in my naïve imagination, I had expected. There wasn’t a sombrero or sarape to be seen by anyone except those hoping to rake in some tourist dollars. Instead, there was rock. And I loved it.

Shortly after that first trip to Mexico City, my wife and I went to visit her family in Utah. I reconnected with one of my former professors, Dr. Russell Cluff, who was working on a music project at the time. His idea was to set a number of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s sonnets to bolero music. He invited me over to his house to work on some of the chord arrangements and to jam on a couple of songs. While we were trying to figure out whether a minor or minor seventh chord worked better for an arrangement of “Este que ves,” I mentioned offhand that I wanted to find a way to connect my literary studies with my love of music. Russ said that would be easy: start with José Agustín.

I mulled it over on the flight back to Austin and, upon landing, headed straight to the magnificent Benson Latin American collection. I pulled everything of Agustín’s off the shelves, including his Cuentos completes (2001), published by Joaquín Mortiz with an introduction by Luis Humberto Crosthwaite. And since I was in the stacks, I pulled everything Crosthwaite had ever written, too, include Idos de la mente (2001), his novel about two norteño musicians who bear a striking resemblance to Paul McCartney and John Lennon. This was exactly what I had been looking for. Almost immediately, I started work on an essay about the musical and literary connections between the two authors, which eventually became my first published article. Then I realized that I really liked this idea and could probably write a book about it. Nothing big: three or four authors. Totally doable.

Over the next couple of years, I scoured bibliographies and bookshops looking for rock literature. Conversations with friends at conferences gave me more leads. I was sitting in the backseat of a taxi heading to a Chinese restaurant in downtown Washington DC when José Ramón Ruisánchez suggested that I look up a novel called Polvos de la urbe (1987) by Víctor Roura. A few months later, Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez and I were walking across the campus at UT El Paso when he told me to hunt down Metro pop (1994) by a kid from Tijuana named Fran Ilich and some chronicles by Roberto Castillo Udiarte. Oswaldo Zavala pointed me towards Juan Villoro’s Tiempo transcurrido (1985). Ignacio Sánchez Prado told me to look through the Tierra Adentro collection at the Educal bookstores in Mexico City, which turned into a treasure trove of recent fiction and poetry. After I described my initial ideas for a book project on rock literature to Emily Hind, she asked why I hadn’t included any women in the project and told me that I should read Orfa Alarcón’s Perra brava (2010) and Jessy Bulbo’s Rock Doll (2015). For a while, it seemed like I had figured out what the project would look like. Then someone asked me if I had seen any of Mexico’s rock movies. And the search began again.

That question led me to a whole new area of research. I hadn’t been trained as a film scholar, but that didn’t matter. I was willing to learn. I started hunting down grainy copies of early rock films online, bootleg copies of Super 8 documentaries at El Tianguis del Chopo—Mexico City’s countercultural bazaar—, and footage for a swords-and-sandals prog rock opera. And then, as luck would have it, a new crop of young Mexican directors began cranking out films like Fernando Kalife’s Seven Days (2005), Gerardo Naranjo’s Voy a explotar (2008), Samuel Kishi’s Somos Mari Pepa (2013), Alonso Ruizpalacios’ Güeros (2014), and more. Working on these films eventually put me in contact with a brilliant young scholar named Olivia Cosentino, who pitched a book project about commercial cinema in Mexico and asked if I would be her coeditor. I accepted and, over the course of five years, got a first-class education in wrestling movies, Chili Westerns, family film, animation, horror, racial melodramas, musicals, and political movies. The book we coedited, The Lost Cinema of Mexico, came out with the University of Florida Press last month.

If this blog post has felt a little meandering, it’s because this whole line of inquiry and how I arrived at it is a little meandering. A momentary epiphany walking down some stairs into a metro station sparked a curiosity about connecting an interest in music with my work as a literature scholar that led to great conversations with scores of friends who pointed me to books and movies that eventually became the subject of my teaching and writing for more than a decade. The original little book idea that encompassed three or four writers is now approaching encyclopedic proportions with more than 50 films, 30 novels, 20 short story collections, 20 nonfiction books of chronicles, 5 poetry collections, and a handful of plays. At some point I will finish it. But just when I think I have found everything I need to find, some novelty pops up on my radar or appears in my mailbox. There’s always something to discover, new places to go, new books to read, new rabbit holes to follow. And each new development puts me contact with people whose knowledge and expertise give me more to think about, more to work on. This is why I love the humanities: I don’t know if there is an end destination, but the journey is so much fun.

This article was written by Dr. Brian Price, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.

 

[1] See also “Ancient Aztec Temple, ball court found in Mexico City” at https://phys.org/news/2017-06-ancient-aztec-temple-ball-court.html.

[2] See also “Aztec altar with human ashes uncovered in Mexico City” at  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-59489046.

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