The Texas-Mexican Conjunto

[ Regional/Texas ]

The Texas-Mexican Conjunto

History of a Working-class Music

By Manuel H. Peña

A history of conjunto music and musicians.



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6 x 9 | 234 pp. | 0 illustrated

ISBN: 978-0-292-78080-4

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Music and Musicians: A Descriptive History
  • 1. Origins: Texas-Mexican Music Prior to 1930
  • 2. Los Músicos de Ayer: The Formative Years
  • 3. La Nueva Generación: Stylistic Consolidation (1948-1960)
  • 4. Post-1960 Conjunto: The Limits of a Tradition
  • Part II: The Evolution of a Style: Economic, Social, and Symbolic Dimensions
  • 5. La Gente Pobre: The Social Base of Conjunto Music
  • 6. Social and Symbolic Dimensions of Conjunto: From Ascendancy to Decline
  • Appendices
  • References
  • Selected Discography
  • Index

Social and Musical Developments in Texas-Mexican Society

This study aims not so much at a comprehensive history of Texas-Mexican conjunto music as an interpretive one. Consequently, while the historical scope is broad--covering the period from about 1860 to the present—the main focus is on the period from 1935 to 1960, especially the decade or so after World War II. This is the historical moment when conjunto emerged as an ensemble with a highly organized style and a strong base of social support that turned it into a powerful symbol among the Texas-Mexican working class. Within the interpretive framework, my intention is, briefly, twofold: to describe conjunto's stylistic evolution and to analyze the link between this evolution and the fundamental changes TexasMexican society entered into as a result of World War II.

Underlying my analysis and interpretation is the assumption that musical style, "like many other human things," to quote Alan Lomax, "is a pattern of learned behavior common to the people of a culture" (1968:3. As such, the methods I have employed emphasize the symbolic aspects of musical style, or, in the fashion of Clifford Geertz, attempt to lift style to the status of a cultural system. In this respect an important point needs to be raised: This study considers musical style only—to the exclusion of the linguistic content nowadays associated with conjunto music. It is undeniable that the musico-linguistic whole forms a special symbolic structure, but I believe that for analytical purposes musical style can be treated as a system in its own right, just as myth is sometimes considered separately from ritual. Or, to take a case closer to our objective here, folklorists have long studied the literary aspects of ballads as if they had an existence separable from their musical content. In any case, we should keep in mind that conjunto originated as instrumental music and, but for few exceptions, lyrics were not added until World War II—one significant accretion out of several that will be examined later.

Conceived as a discrete cultural system, musical style may be defined as a regularly occurring combination of sounds produced by vocal, instrumental, and/or other means, arranged into recognizable patterns and situated within specific social contexts, wherein the style will acquire varying degrees of symbolic significance. The last point is especially critical for a culture-sensitive conception of style, because only when we recognize the symbolic dimension can we account for normative rules of composition and performance as well as evaluative criteria. As these rules accrue upon a given style, they gain a determinative role in the acceptance or rejection of modifications that innovative artists may introduce. Moreover, within its social context a musical style can associate with and reinforce other "crucial behavior patterns upon which the continuity of a culture hangs" (Lomax, 1968:8). The notion of constancy is implied in this conception. As Schapiro noted: "By style is meant the constant form—and sometimes the constant elements, qualities and expression—in the art of an individual or group" (1953:287).

The elements of style coalesced around the accordion ensemble that Texas-Mexicans forged between 1928 and 1960 and that came to be known as norteño music generally, or conjunto music to the Texas-Mexicans. Tentative and emergent at first—especially before 1935—the ensemble and its musical style rapidly acquired a recognizable form after the war. By the 1950s, to borrow a phrase from Schapiro, a system of musical sounds had emerged with a "quality and a meaningful expression through which the personality of the artists and the broad outlook of the group [were] visible" (1953:287).

As we trace the development of modern conjunto music from its inception in embryonic form with the appearance of Narciso Martínez's first commercial recording in 1935 to its full-blown stylization in the hands of such artists as El Conjunto Bernal in the late 1950s, two specific questions challenge us. The first is, formally, a musicological one: How did conjunto evolve stylistically—that is, how can we describe musically both the stable and changing elements that gave shape to the style? Linked to this question, but involving the interplay between music and society, is the second one: Given that the accordion and at least one other instrument that lends a recognizable form to conjunto music have been extant on both sides of the Texas-Mexican border for the better part of a century, why did this distinctive, durable, and highly cherished style of music not reach fruition until the post-World War II years? Or, to state the question in a different manner, what social and cultural variables were present during the years surrounding the war that made it possible for conjunto music to establish itself as a culturally sanctioned artistic expression?

As I briefly indicated earlier, then, it is a two-fold purpose that serves as the organizing principle for this study on the emergence of conjunto music. On the one hand, even a cursory listening of commercial recordings produced during the period from 1928 to 1960 reveals marked changes between 1928 and 1948—and even more drastic ones thereafter. The technical articulation of the main instrument, the accordion, had changed decidedly by the early 1950s. Additionally, beginning with the two staple instruments from early on—the accordion and bajo sexto—the ensemble's makeup was eventually transformed, first by the inclusion of the contrabass, or tololoche, and afterward by the adoption of the standard dance-band drum set in the early 1950s. Still another alteration was wrought in the mid-1950s, when the tololoche was replaced by the electric bass. To document the evolution that took place, I propose to examine selected samples of the most popular recorded music as it developed, especially between 1935 and 1960, into a well-defined style that has since remained virtually unchanged.

On the other hand, the analysis proposed above, formal as it is in its intent, serves but a corollary aim in this study. It will be undertaken only to illustrate how a musical style was evolving during the period in question. More compelling for the purposes I have outlined is an interpretation of the relationship that ought to exist, if our theories are valid, between the developments at the level of musical discourse and those at the level of social discourse, as Mantle Hood (1971) has advocated. Clearly, as this study will hopefully demonstrate, the rapid crystallization of conjunto music did not take place by mere chance, or in a socioesthetic "art-for-art's-sake" vacuum. On the contrary, profound and well-documented changes were taking place simultaneously within Texas-Mexican society of the post-World War II years.

And, as we shall see, these changes coincided and interacted with the musical innovations I will describe, just as they coincided with shifts in language usage, folklore, dress, and such social diacritics as educational and occupational mobility. All of these contributed to a deepening intraethnic conflict that had been set in motion by disparate rates of urbanization, social mobility, and cultural assimilation at the different socioeconomic levels of tejano society. But this is merely to say that in the case of conjunto music stylistic developments went hand in hand with the complex movements taking place at the infrastructural base of Texas-Mexican society. Or, to paraphrase Hymes's statement on language and social life (1972), conjunto music and musicians were expressing the multiple relations that exist between musical means and social meaning.

In fact, a basic assumption that guided the initial research was my early impression (since my days as an orquesta musician, actually) that, at one level at least, the musical preferences espoused by conjunto and orquesta musicians—orquesta, or orquesta tejana, being conjunto music's rival style among tejanos—betrayed a certain esthetic cleavage attributable to the social status of their respective clientele. To put it in the simple words of Narciso Martínez, an early and famous exponent of conjunto music, "Conjunto era pa' la gente pobre, la gente de rancho; la orquesta era pa' high society" ("Conjunto was for poor people, rural people; orquesta was for high society"). In such succinct language can the socially defined functions of conjunto and orquesta be summed up. In such clear language also may be discerned the tension between conjunto's proletarian, Mexicanized, and originally rural folk base on the one hand and orquesta's urban, middle-class, and necessarily more Americanized base on the other. It was, in short, a tension born of incipient class differences.

Nonetheless, the cleavage was not quite that clear cut. Orquesta and conjunto were actually symbolic expressions (with distinct esthetic horizons, to be sure) that were forged amidst an intimate, now hostile, now cooperative relationship that existed between two increasingly divergent classes in tejano society, classes not so readily distinguishable until the postwar period, when socioeconomic differences began to materialize more fully. These classes were the traditional proletarians (at first mainly agricultural, later unskilled or semiskilled and urban) vis-à-vis an expanding middle class that included white-collar workers, mid- and low-level managers, petit bourgeoisie, and professionals.

But emerging class differences among tejanos were complicated by a powerful ethnic boundary that had long stood between Mexicans and Anglo-Americans throughout the Southwest. Originally the two groups had been in competition for the same ecological niche, but in time the Anglos had gained the ascendancy, and thereafter ethnic relations based on "complementary differentiation" (Bateson 1972)—of Anglo domination/Chicano subordination—had obtained. Within this state of affairs Anglos controlled the means of production generally, while tejanos were relegated almost exclusively to a dependent economic status as proletarian workers (Montejano 1979; Barrera 1979; M. García 1981). Under this arrangement it is not surprising that economic inequality should so closely parallel the ethnic cleavage between the two groups. When Chicanos began to experience some upward socioeconomic movement during and after World War II, ethnic inequality intervened, excluding them from any but the most minimal "structural" assimilation of the "primary-contact" type, into American society (see Appendix A; cf. Gordon 1964). It was into this milieu of persistent ethnic segregation but increasing intraethnic class differentiation that conjunto and orquesta were cast.

What I am proposing is that the years surrounding World War II—roughly from the post-Depression economic recovery to the Korean War—marked an important turning point in the history of tejanos. At this time a wholesale shift occurred from rural to urban patterns of residency, from agricultural to nonagricultural occupations, and from a relatively homogeneous, preindustrial folk group to a community with increasingly divergent class interests. In Chapter 5, I will present a more detailed profile of the changes I am introducing here—changes that I contend were crucial for the development of conjunto music (as well as orquesta). For the moment I want only to note that the period I am discussing, particularly the postwar decade, marked a threshold in the lives of tejanos that changed their society in irrevocable ways.

Kenneth Boulding has described "thresholds" where certain social conditions can "profoundly change the subsequent parameters of a social system" (Schermerhorn 1974:3). These conditions may be slow in building ("continuous processes"), or they may burst forth suddenly ("discontinuous processes" or "one-shot" events), but the summary effect of these processes is to precipitate turning points that present a society with new alternatives. In many ways the period I am discussing here constituted such a threshold for TexasMexicans. The years during and immediately after the war, in particular, opened up many new and heretofore largely inaccessible opportunities for participation in American economic activity. Of course, tejanos moved quickly to take advantage, so that this participation did contribute measurably to their occupational upgrading (and, hence, to class differentiation; see Chapter 5). However, by moving into new socioeconomic fields they exposed themselves to new sets of social relations that inescapably shut off time-tested cultural strategies. Unforeseen social tensions resulted due to cultural dislocation: The transition from rural to urban modes of life, from Mexican to American cultural environments, and lastly, from proletarian to middle-class status was not easy.

To what degree these changes affected artistic expression is of course a major concern of this study, and I shall devote much space to such a discussion. At this point we can tentatively propose, however, that changes at the infrastructural base had their repercussions at the symbolic, expressive level and, more specifically, at the level of musical activity. In this respect we may borrow a phrase from Ackerman on style formation: If the creative impulse from which new styles spring may be thought of as a "class of related solutions to a problem—or responses to a problem," e.g., as a "protection against chaos" (Ackerman 1962:228), we may suggest that the kind of challenge posed by the events surrounding World War II demanded solutions to a number of unprecedented problems. In fact, it was not until this time that intensified participation in American life—fraught, as it was, with new kinds of social and economic promises and uncertainties—precipitated a cultural crisis for tejanos, one which they attempted to solve in various ways. Symbolic expression offered one solution, and, as we shall see, stylistic developments in conjunto music (as well as orquesta) suggest themselves as a specific example.

Actually, some stylistic elaboration did characterize at least some of the music of the pre-World War II era, particularly in vocal, folk song performance. By the 1920s (and probably much earlier, we may suspect) a distinctive style of duet singing was common, as evidenced by the recordings of the time. As was true with much Texas-Mexican music, this style was no doubt derived from Mexico, where duet singing, in primera y segunda (first and second voices, usually in parallel thirds), was an old tradition. In any case, by the early 1930s the duet style had become by far the most prevalent, at least in the semi-commercial market that existed among tejanos. Among the most popular were those of Gaytán y Cantú and Rocha y Martínez (see Folklyric Records, Texas-Mexican Border Music, vol. 6). Duets such as these had large followings throughout the Southwest. Stylistically, a nasal, strongly quavering voice quality was the norm, with background accompaniment normally provided by guitars, although sometimes other instruments were enlisted—for example, mandolins, bajos sextos, and even a violin or two.

In the late 1930s female duets appeared, among which the first and most popular was Las Hermanas Padilla. No doubt their appearance was hastened by the existence at that time of similar "sister" duets in the United States. Las Hermanas Padilla, in particular, were especially influenced by such developments. And, since companies that recorded American popular music were the same ones that recorded Mexican music, the introduction of such duets into Mexican music found ready acceptance—if not initial impetus—among recording interests. Female duets became a permanent part of Mexican popular music both in the United States and Mexico, successfully competing with their male counterparts for public acclaim. Like American versions, most Mexican female performers (save, perhaps, for more traditional folk singers like Carmen Moreno and the legendary Lydia Mendoza) leaned toward a "cleaner," more polished style of singing, as opposed to the male duets, which were by and large more nasal and raspy. The lead part usually featured a mezzo-soprano range, with clear vibrato tones. Lastly, a few male-female duets made their appearance in the 1930s, but these seemed not to have had the success of their unisex counterparts. Included among these were Chicho y Margarita, the latter none other than one of the Padilla sisters.

Toward the late 1930s a mariachi-like ensemble, probably originating from the Jalisco area, began to gain some currency among tejanos, providing the musical backdrop for a number of duet recordings. Particularly active was a group known as Los Costeños, which accompanied many of the singers on the various labels, including Decca, Bluebird, Okeh, Vocalion, and others that were then exploiting what must have been an increasingly lucrative ethnic market.' None of the duets or other types of ensembles featured the accordion, at that time scarcely beginning to make its impact on commercial recordings.

In addition to the singing duets there had existed in Texas, since the nineteenth century, at least, an assortment of instrumental ensembles that apparently were utilized primarily to provide music for dancing occasions. I shall discuss these more fully in Chapter 1, but they consisted for the most part of ad hoc instrumentations, improvised for the occasion and at various times featuring exclusively string instruments (violins, guitars, mandolins, etc.), wind instruments (clarinets, trumpets, etc.), and sometimes even combinations of the two types. A special type of string orquesta (apparently not used for dancing), which had its origin in Mexico in the late nineteenth century, was to be found in Texas by the 1920s. This was the so-called orquesta típica, whose name was indicative of the obvious attempt on the part of Mexicans on both sides of the border to revitalize in a romantic spirit what was believed to be "typical," or folk Mexican music, including huapangos, aires nacionales (national airs), canciones rancheras (ranch songs), and the like. In their efforts to capture the "essence" of "typical" Mexican music, orquestas típicas even adopted charro-style costumes for added authenticity.

Yet, despite the proliferation of ensembles, the accordion alone survived all of the earlier and sundry musical groups. These succumbed apparently to unavoidable changes wrought chiefly by World War 11.6 Indeed, there is good reason to advance the hypothesis at this time that conjunto music's supersedure over these earlier groups, as well as its rapid movement toward a common stylistic expression and its concurrent entrenchment in the Texas-Mexican working-class consciousness, is tied precisely to (1) that group's response to the challenge posed against traditional Mexican culture by a growing and increasingly influential class of upwardly mobile people who espoused the American ideology of assimilation (cf. McLemore 1980); and (2) the former's tacit recognition not only of its ethnic-isolation, but its existence as an economic class "for itself." This recognition carried with it an incipient understanding on the part of the proletarian workers of their position vis-à-vis not only the Americans (who were all perceived as ricos), but the more affluent tejanos as well. Conjunto music was thus part of a wider response; it was a cultural solution to a social problem.

Providing added tension for the working class's sense of threat to its traditional values were the inexorable changes set in motion by the process of urbanization. This urbanization, which accelerated greatly between 1930 and 1950, begot a host of conflicts. Some of these were related to the emergence of the new middle class, which made little effort to conceal its disdain for the lifestyles of the more traditional working class. But the conflict was augmented by the equally inexorable process of cultural assimilation, a phenomenon that, as Richard Garcia has pointed out, "could be delayed, even modified, but not aborted" (1978:41). We may propose, then, that these interrelated developments—urbanization, class differentiation, and cultural assimilation—were the three crucial variables in the polarization of Texas-Mexican society and in the emergence of conjunto music. Socioeconomic differentiation and the ideology of cultural assimilation, in particular, formed the contrastive elements in tejano society that set off conjunto music from more middle-class and more Americanized symbolic expressions such as orquesta music.

Moreover, all the above factors, when linked to the always precarious existence of the tejano working class, deepened the latent divisions already found in Texas-Mexican society even before its wholesale contact with American society in the twentieth century. These divisions and their attendant intraethnic conflict had ramifications at various levels of symbolic expression—for example, in the verbal art forms of agringado joking so lucidly analyzed by José Limón (1978). The conflict was further aggravated by the working class's sense that agringado segments of tejano society were at one and the same time betraying their ethnic heritage while becoming snobbishly "high class. 118 In this jockeying for strategic cultural position conjunto functioned as a kind of banner for the folktradition orientation of the proletarians. Hence, the music's immense popularity and strong association with that group and its subsequent label, "la música de la gente pobre" (the music of the poor people).

Meanwhile, modern orquesta, which had its predecessors in the ad hoc wind ensembles of the pre-1930s period, began in the 1930s to acquire its own distinctive character. In the hands of such noted leaders as Beto Villa and Balde González, orquesta came of age among tejanos beginning in the 1940s. Furthermore, aspiring to be more "sophisticated," it turned to both the instrumentation and the repertory of American dance bands of the Glenn Miller-Tommy Dorsey type, not failing, however, to keep abreast of developments in greater Mexican orquesta music. The latter orquestas were influenced, too, by currents in American dance band music; however, they generally maintained closer ties to Afro-Hispanic music, particularly through their steadfast adherence to the Mexican version of the bolero and the danzón. At the same time, orquesta tejana began to be increasingly associated with an upwardly mobile segment of Texas-Mexican society—at least in the decade or so after the war. And, while it maintained an intricate relationship with conjunto, it nevertheless was considered, as Narciso Martinez put it, "música pa' high society" (music for high society). In short, I would propose another hypothesis at this point: If conjunto music represented a proletarian response to social change, orquesta represented a similar response on the part of a growing middle class.

Thus, in its style orquesta tejana was a creation of and for the new "high society." It attempted to satisfy the esthetic preferences of this emergent group. However, the correspondence between orquesta and the middle class was never as strong as that between conjunto and the more traditional working class. It is true that upwardly mobile tejanos were highly conscious of their self-ascribed class difference—their status as gente de rote social (people of genteel breeding), as opposed to la gente raspa (the lowest people; scum). Yet in many instances their objective position within the American political economy as workers rather than the true middle class (see Chapter 4), as well as their inability to break down the ethnic barrier, held them hostage within the broader social network of a generalized, ethnic tejano culture. Hence, the reason for orquesta's uneasy relationship with conjunto.

Neither an American dance band nor quite a Mexican orquesta of the various types that existed then (e.g., those of Luis Arcaraz and Carlos Campos), orquesta tejana from the early days of Beto Villa tended always to look over its shoulder, as it were, to see what conjunto music was about. It is true, as I have pointed out, that orquesta music has traditionally been viewed by tejanos as music of a higher, more modern, or "sophisticated" order than conjunto. It has also been considered—accurately, as a cursory listening will reveal—more Americanized. As Carlos González, a veteran orquesta musician explained, "la música de orquesta siempre ha sido mas sophisticated ... El conjunto yo to considero como música vemácula" ("Orquesta music has always been more sophisticated ... I consider conjunto a vernacular [i.e., native, folk] music") (personal interview, May 8, 1980).

In reality, however, most orquestas have, in varying degrees, attempted to negotiate a middle ground between a Mexicanltejano and an American mode of performance, both in style and in repertory. Beto Villa, the acknowledged "father" of modern orquesta tejana, perhaps better than anyone else in the early days successfully mediated between American and Mexican dance band and conjunto styles. One has only to compare an early recording of "Rosita Vals," which, interestingly enough, he recorded with Narciso Martínez, with a later one of "Adiós Muchachos" (a tango converted into a foxtrot!) to realize the dramatic shifts in Villa's music. "Beto Villa traía de todo," said one music promoter; "lo que le ayudaba era que podia tocar ranchero y 'high class' " ("Beto Villa had everything; what helped him was that he could play both ranchero and 'high class' ").

The concept of lo ranchero, as it exists in the consciousness of the Texas-Mexicans, merits a few comments. To understand the significance of the concept we must first be aware that it is a component of a larger ideology of romantic nationalism that is rooted in Mexican thought on both sides of the border. This ideology has been nurtured for a very long time (see Lafaye 1976), but its most recent manifestations can be traced to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the intense nationalism it spawned (Franco 1970:84). Romantic nationalism in Mexico has exerted a unifying influence by appealing to the glory of the nation's "unique" heritage. As components of this nationalism, the concept of lo ranchero and the symbols that cluster around it—of which música ranchera is one—have contributed to the ideology by ennobling the existence of hacienda and rural life in general, portraying this existence as idyllic. Since the 1930s the principal vehicles for this portrayal have been film and music, often used in combination. In sum, among Mexicans lo ranchero evokes the ideal combination of qualities that Mexicans ascribe to themselves, qualities that are embodied in the twin symbols of the charro and the campesino. These are: manliness, self-sufficiency, candor, simplicity, sincerity, and patriotism, or mexicanismo.

Among tejanos this mexicanismo is fundamentally conveyed by musica ranchera. The music is, in fact, a powerful symbol for the concept of lo ranchero. I would go so far as to classify música ranchera as a "summarizing" symbol (Ortner 1973) of the kind that "speak primarily to attitudes, to a crystallization of commitment..." by way of its "drawing-together, intensifying, catalyzing impact upon the respondent" (Ortner 1973:1342). Thus, in its interstylistic dimensions the music condenses a wide range of moods, attitudes, and values into one musical moment. People respond, instinctively, to a ranchero sound, whether it be interpreted for them by a conjunto, an orquesta, or a mariachi. And inevitably, by virtue of its symbolic association, it gives rise to vaguely articulated feelings of mexicanismo—momentary recreations of a simpler and romanticized folk heritage, tempered nonetheless by the realization that it is an ineffable existence, lost forever like the elusive lover of most ranchera song lyrics.

Attached to this deeply entrenched, affect-laden concept in the Texas-Mexican musical consciousness—even among the upwardly mobile urbanites—the ranchero sound has always been striven for by all but the most Americanized orquestas. In the words of one orquesta musician: "I think it has to do with our heritage ... It [lo ranchero] goes back to our ancestors and the type of music they liked and we listened to when we were little." It is hardly necessary to add that among tejanos conjunto music, the unrivaled symbol of lo ranchero, captures the contact with "our ancestors" as no other music can. That fact was, of course, never lost on profit-conscious orquestas.

Yet, as Turner observed about "root metaphors" (a concept equivalent to "summarizing" symbol), they can be misleading (Turner 1974:27). In the case of lo ranchero, its sentimental value has long evoked a negative opposite. For if it awakens, even to this day, illusions of an unspoiled existence shorn of the complications of modern life, these illusions are quickly dispelled by the tejano's struggle for social and economic acceptance in modern American life. Thus, the attitude toward el rancho can easily shift from nostalgia to disdain: Today, as in the past, an arrancherado individual (usually a campesino, not the dashing charro) is someone without roce social; he is low-class, coarse, backward, and too Mexicanized to fit in with the more culturally assimilated tejano's notion of progress and adaptability to the demands of American society. The feeling of despair and rejection of the clumsiness of el mexicano arrancherado in the face of American cultural and technological demands is captured in the well-worn expression, "Mexico, recoge a to gente." An appeal is made in the refrain for Mexico to come and reclaim its wayward children, who are making fools of themselves (and us!) by their inappropriate responses to the more sophisticated American cultural and social atmosphere.

That fact was not lost on orquestas, either. Thus, for many orquestas—even those of the 1960s "second generation," brought up not on Glenn Miller but on Bill Haley and Fats Domino—"mexicano wasn't in," as one informant admitted. "Todos nosotros," he continued, "including the Royal jesters [from San Antonio], cantábamos puras piezas americanas ... hasta que Manny Guerra se metió con los Sunglows, y [entonces ya] tocábamos inglés y español" ("All of us, including the Royal Jesters, sang only American songs ... until Manny Guerra got in with the Sunglows, and [then] we played English and Spanish"). In the 1940s and 1950s, too, lo mexicano was strongly rivalled by American music. (Recall also that many Mexican songs of the time were absorbed into American popular music, e.g., "Bésame Mucho"). One of the most outstanding examples of what we might call musical codeswitching was the popular Balde González, singer and leader of an orquesta that played as much American as Mexican music. Even the latter he often Americanized by fitting the Spanish lyrics to foxtrot rhythms. In this respect González was not at all atypical.

Nonetheless, orquesta was never able to extricate itself from its links with conjunto. Always straddling the boundary between an urbanized, American dance band music and the Texas-Mexican conjunto folk tradition, orquesta constantly equivocated. In fact, the ambivalence of orquesta and its partisans—their condescending yet sensitive attitude toward developments in the field of conjunto music—clearly reflected the ambiguous stance of the middle class from which the music originally sprang. Like their music, the upwardly mobile tejanos of the postwar period never quite succeeded in dissociating themselves from their ethnic, .if not their working class roots.

Thus, perhaps, the reason for the eventual "rancheroization" (and proletarianization) of orquesta—its drift, beginning in the late 1950s (in the person of the orquesta musician Isidro López), toward an unmistakable convergence with conjunto music. Leaning ever toward a ranchero sound more aligned symbolically and stylistically with conjunto music, all but the most Americanized orquestas were in due time appropriated by elements of tejano society closer in outlook to the less culturally assimilated, more hard-core partisans of conjunto music.

A full and adequate treatment of orquesta music deserves its own study. Since that style of music will play but a contrapuntal part in the analysis and interpretation of conjunto, perhaps its relation to the latter can be summed up at this early juncture by quoting the words of Delia Gutierrez, a veteran orquesta musician:

... they [orquestas tejanas] did play some of the arrangements of the big orchestras (like) Les Brown, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington. A lot of people used el tema de (the theme of) Glenn Miller. But también tenían como los conjuntos (they also had like conjunto) and all that. You had to give people a little bit of both to keep them happy. If you would play pura pieza americana (only American pieces) and all that, then something was missing. That's why you had to come up with polkas and boleros (personal interview, July 7, 1979).

In this way, then, orquestas could negotiate the contradiction between upward mobility and cultural assimilation on the one hand and ethnic allegiance on the other: American music satisfied the demands of the former, las polkas the latter, with the bolero capturing both the Mexicanness and the sophistication of orquesta music's clientele.

I mentioned earlier that cultural assimilation was inevitable for Mexicans in Texas. That is true, but this assimilation did not take place without a good deal of reinterpretation and syncretism. That is, we must understand that in facing the reality of their economic absorption and social domination in American life the Mexicans in Texas have been under considerable pressure to adapt—economically, culturally, and psychologically—to the conditions that life imposes on them. These conditions, often uncompromising, have forced Texas-Mexicans to yield to the stronger power, but not without resistance, not without a determined effort to counter American cultural hegemony by striving to maintain some of their antecedent symbols—or creating new ones as they reinterpreted newly introduced American cultural elements into more familiar symbolic structures. As a countercultural symbol forged by proletarian artists, conjunto falls under the former category; as a symbol of the middle class's doubly contradictory position vis-à-vis the working class and a formidable ethnic boundary, orquesta falls under the latter category.


By Manuel H. Peña

"This book does a magnificent job of tracing the history of conjunto music and musicians, and does much more.... Peña presents a highly convincing explanation for conjunto music as an act of working-class self-affirmation and opposition to the upwardly aspirant middle class with its self-consciously Americanized orquesta music.... Fascinating and well-researched."

—American Anthropologist