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Rancheros in Chicagoacán

Rancheros in Chicagoacán
Language and Identity in a Transnational Community

An ethnolinguistic portrait focusing on the language and identity of transnational ranchero Mexicans.

November 2006
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342 pages | 6 x 9 | 26 b&w photos, 4 maps, 4 figures, 2 tables |

Rancheros hold a distinct place in the culture and social hierarchy of Mexico, falling between the indigenous (Indian) rural Mexicans and the more educated city-dwelling Mexicans. In addition to making up an estimated twenty percent of the population of Mexico, rancheros may comprise the majority of Mexican immigrants to the United States. Although often mestizo (mixed race), rancheros generally identify as non-indigenous, and many identify primarily with the Spanish side of their heritage. They are active seekers of opportunity, and hence very mobile. Rancheros emphasize progress and a self-assertive individualism that contrasts starkly with the common portrayal of rural Mexicans as communal and publicly deferential to social superiors.

Marcia Farr studied, over the course of fifteen years, a transnational community of Mexican ranchero families living both in Chicago and in their village-of-origin in Michoacán, Mexico. For this ethnolinguistic portrait, she focuses on three culturally salient styles of speaking that characterize rancheros: franqueza (candid, frank speech); respeto (respectful speech); and relajo (humorous, disruptive language that allows artful verbal critique of the social order maintained through respeto). She studies the construction of local identity through a community's daily talk, and provides the first book-length examination of language and identity in transnational Mexicans.

In addition, Farr includes information on the history of rancheros in Mexico, available for the first time in English, as well as an analysis of the racial discourse of rancheros within the context of the history of race and ethnicity in Mexico and the United States. This work provides groundbreaking insight into the lives of rancheros, particularly as seen from their own perspectives.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Transcription Conventions
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Of Ranchos and Rancheros: The Historical Context
  • Chapter 3. The Spatial Context: San Juanico, Illinois, and Chicago, Michoacán
  • Chapter 4. The Social Context of La Familia: Work, Education, Religion, and Language
  • Chapter 5. Rethinking Mestizaje: Racial Discourse among Rancheros
  • Chapter 6. Franqueza and the Individualist Ideology of Progress
  • Chaper 7. Social Order among Rancheros: Equality and Reciprocity, Hierarchy and Respeto
  • Chapter 8. Relajo as (Framed) Disorder: The Carnivalesque in Talk
  • Chapter 9. Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • References
  • Index

Marcia Farr is Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture in the College of Education at Ohio State University and Professor Emerita of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.


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One says Mexico: one means, after all, one little town away South in the Republic: and in this little town, one rather crumbly adobe house built round two sides of a garden patio: and of this house, one spot on the deep, shady veranda facing inwards to the trees, where there are an onyx table and three rocking-chairs and one little wooden chair, a pot with carnations, and a person with a pen. We talk so grandly, in capital letters, about Morning in Mexico. All it amounts to is one little individual looking at a bit of sky and trees, then looking down at the page of his exercise book.

It is a pity we don't always remember this. When books come out with grand titles, like The Future of America, or The European Situation, it's a pity we don't immediately visualize a thin or a fat person, in a chair or in bed, dictating to a bob-haired stenographer or making little marks on paper with a fountain pen.
D. H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico

D. H. Lawrence's words caution against generalizing experiences or phenomena which in reality are always grounded in particular historical and social contexts. Lawrence himself may have become aware of such grounding, and the cultural variation that it implies, by living in Mexico and thereby coming to perceive a (not the) Mexican view of reality which differed substantially from that of the (particular) English world in which he had been socialized. I pointedly use the indefinite article "a" rather than the definite article "the" in modifying "Mexican view of reality," since what I have primarily learned over the dozen plus years of this ethnographic study is the truth of that now-classic phrase "There are many Mexicos." And if there are many Mexicos, then there are many (different) Mexicans.

Such cross-cultural experiences can be revelations: one begins to see that the very same behavior (e.g., a particular utterance) can hold entirely different meanings for different people or for different groups of people. In addition to developing a sense of cultural relativity, in which understandings of behavior shift from one "culture" to another, we can draw another meaning: because meaning is so tied to context, and because contexts vary across time and space, variation is at the heart of social life. That is, variation is at the core of groups that are often referred to as though they were relatively homogeneous and unchanging (e.g., national "cultures" such as French, German, or in this case Mexican, or ethnic "cultures" within the United States such as African American and Puerto Rican).

This understanding of variation as central contrasts sharply with traditional views of culture, which have been critically examined in recent decades by anthropologists and other scholars. The critique of a now-outmoded concept of culture as a homogeneous, static, bounded—and apolitical—entity attempts to correct, among other things, the imposition of a perceived homogeneous culture onto entire groups, a way of thinking that stereotypes and marginalizes ethnic minorities within Western countries and non-Western peoples (Kuper 1999). By assuming variation to be at the heart of culture, as it is of language, however, we can salvage valuable aspects of the concept of culture without including aspects that essentialize entire populations. Sociolinguistic research that has amply documented the regional and social variation that inevitably accompanies language use (see, e.g., Eckert 2000; Labov 1972a, 1972b, 1994; Wolfram and Schilling-Estes 1998) serves as a model in this regard (Keesing 1974). The variation that is at the heart of language, then, is also at the heart of culture.

Alessandro Duranti (1997) reviews the debate over theories of culture. He argues that although culture as a notion has been and can still be used in colonialist ways, it is nevertheless a concept worth refining and using, in order to "help us understand similarities and differences in the ways in which people around the world constitute themselves in aggregates of various sorts" (Duranti 1997, 23). While being mindful of the ways in which ethnographic, and ethnolinguistic (Farr 2004, 2005), research can be misused, I agree with Duranti that it would be worse to ignore linguistic and cultural differences, which, in any case, are very real. Moreover, as Richard Bauman (1997) has argued, much of the critique of ethnography by James Clifford (1988) and others has not given sufficient attention to the ways in which the ethnographer, rather than dominating the ethnographic encounter, is effectively guided, even controlled, by those studied to achieve their own communicative goals. Viewing ethnographers as dominating, in fact, underestimates and denigrates the people ethnographers work with and attempt to understand. As I have explained in the Preface, writing this book has been a commitment and even an obligation for me, since a number of individuals from the families in this study, on different occasions, have urged me to do so. Inasmuch as Mexicans have been misunderstood, and stereotyped and marginalized, in the United States (Santa Ana 2002), I hope that this book can shed some light in dark corners.

I should note that, like the larger Mexican society, rancheros as a group and the social network in this study cannot be ascribed a single identity. Variation is everywhere. Although members of the network share orientations about the ways of speaking focused on here, they use these language styles in different ways for different purposes. This community, then, illustrates David Warren Sabean's proposed constraints on the concept of culture:

What is common in community is not shared values or common understanding so much as the fact that members of a community are engaged in the same argument, the same raisonnement, the same Rede, the same discourse, in which alternative strategies, misunderstandings, conflicting goals and values are threshed out. Insofar as the individuals in a community may all be caught up in different webs of connection to the outside, no one is bounded in his [or her] relations by the community, and boundedness is not helpful in describing what community is. What makes community is the discourse. (Sabean 1984, 29-30)

As I describe this transnational community, I attempt both to articulate identities expressed in speech and at the same time to show the variation, even tension, within the community over these identities. Differences abound from individual to individual, even though the ways in which these differences are communicated are shared. In terms of gender, for example, many women do not entirely accept male linguistic claims to authority; nor do younger men refrain from challenging older men. But the language practices in which these challenges are fashioned are part of the shared knowledge that makes this community a community.

What I write here should be understood, then, not as a reification of a particular Mexican subculture but as an attempt to build toward generalizations both inductively and cautiously, with a constant search for exceptions to these generalizations and for what these exceptions mean to various people. Moreover, this book represents my own understandings of this community, based on much shared time and interaction. This web of understandings is the result of a personal journey lasting more than a decade. Heeding Lawrence's advice, the reader should remember that I am one person sitting at her computer table, typing away (or sitting and thinking, and struggling, between typing spurts), in a small, pleasant study with a skylight and large windows looking out on lush greenery in Evanston, Illinois. I am writing about a specific group of families, especially the adult women in these families, from a particular village in Mexico, many of whom have lived or now live in Chicago. I especially direct this book to those people, whether researchers, educators, or community workers, who are in a position to benefit from this ethnolinguistic portrait and to use the insights they gain to serve Mexican-origin students and families better.

The verbal portrait of Mexicans presented in this book has evolved out of much shared time and lived experience with one social network of families in Chicagoacán—that is, in the transnational spaces in which they live, both in Chicago and in their rancho (hamlet) in Michoacán, Mexico. The historical trajectory of these families as rancheros (people from rural ranchos) is part of what has been called la sociedad ranchera (ranchero society), which developed in postconquest Mexico (see Chapter 2). Ranchero societies, formed of lower-status Spaniards who mixed with Indians and Africans, emerged on the moving frontiers of a colonizing state (first Spain and then Mexico). As such, these rancheros and rancheras share some characteristics (e.g., a stance of toughness and independence) with United States frontiersmen and frontierswomen (think western cowboy/rancher); in other ways, of course, these two identities are quite distinct from each other.

The portrait of rancheros and rancheras that I provide in this book focuses primarily on the adults in this network (sometimes referred to as the Mexican generation), those twenty-five and older. Given the importance of gender for organizing interpersonal relations in ranchero societies, it emphasizes the viewpoints of women, because I am female and follow local rules for interaction that restrict my closest relationships to women. Most ethnographies written by men are similarly restricted (i.e., they actually are based on primarily male perspectives), although they often do not acknowledge that, so this ethnography is no more limited than others. Because this book focuses primarily on adults, it necessarily deemphasizes, although it does not entirely omit, the perspectives of those second- and third-generation youths (the so-called American generations) who are being schooled at least partially in Chicago. The issues around identity and language that are central to these succeeding generations I leave for a future study. First, I want to provide a deeper understanding of who their parents are, where they have come from in Mexico, and what ideologies and cultural practices are intertwined with their ways of using language. Many of these cultural and linguistic practices are being continued into the second generation and beyond; others are being modified and changed as succeeding generations confront new cultural contexts, a new language, and changing (usually improving) material conditions.

Overview of the Study

Since 1989 I have carried out a long-term ethnographic study of one social network of Mexican families, first in Chicago and then in their village of origin in Michoacán, Mexico. A social network—a unit of analysis developed within anthropology and put to use in the study of naturally occurring language (Milroy 1987)—is a group of individuals who are in close interaction on a frequent basis. Here it refers to a group of families organized around nine siblings (now grandparents) who began to migrate to Chicago in 1964 from their village of origin in northwestern Michoacán, a state in western Mexico (see Chapter 3). These families constitute part of what has been called a transnational community (Schiller et al. 1992), which lives on both sides of a nation-state border and maintains social, economic, political, and emotional ties that extend across that border (in this case between Mexico and the United States).

I would add another aspect to this definition, however: the discourse of people on both sides of the border is filled with references to those on the other side, a concrete indication that this is indeed a single transnational community. Moreover, this discourse is replete with indexical references to both physical settings, the rancho and its microregion and Chicago. For example, a young woman in the network told me about the arrival in Chicago of another young woman from the rancho. When I tried to place this recently arrived young woman in my memory, my friend coaxed me with, "You know, she lives right across from Teyo." Then I knew who she was; her house is situated at one end of the rancho across the main (unpaved) road from one of several "Teyos" (a nickname for Esther) in this social network. I could then respond, "Oh, yeah, we went to Los Bukis [a musical group] together." My young friend had no need to specify which Teyo or which physical setting, which I easily inferred from shared knowledge of network members and their homes both in Chicago and in Michoacán.

Having been fortunate enough to be welcomed into this network within weeks of beginning the study, I was repeatedly urged by both men and women to visit the rancho from which they had emigrated. Over the last decade I have stayed in the rancho (a rural hamlet of about four hundred people) numerous times for periods of several weeks to months, beginning with a month in January 1991 and including a year, 1995-1996, spent in the region as a Fulbright Scholar at El Colegio de Michoacán. All this lived experience has personally transformed me (Mexicanizing me to a surprising extent); but, more importantly, it has enabled me to understand better who these families are, where they have come from, and their place within the larger Mexican and U.S. societies. Although Mexicans are often generalized into stereotypes in the United States, I have learned that rancheros (including the families that I now know so well) are a very important subgroup of the larger Mexican society, constituting perhaps 20 percent of the Mexican population and many Mexican migrants to the United States (Barragán 1997). Even a brief visit to Chicago's Mexican neighborhoods reveals that rancheros, identifiable through clothing and musical styles, certainly constitute large numbers of Mexicans in Chicago and probably other major U.S. cities.

Lo ranchero (all that is ranchero), what it means to be ranchero and ranchera, and what particular cultural and language practices distinguish this group are more fully discussed in succeeding chapters. Here I want to emphasize how a tendency to generalize, both in the general public and in the academic literature on Mexico, has by and large left these rancheros out of the picture. With this book I hope to amend the picture with an ethnographic portrait of one social network of families, a portrait that is grounded in their own speech. That is, the cultural analysis presented here is based on analyses of language practices among these families, in the hope that a careful consideration of their own discourse will provide deeper insights into their identities, values, attitudes, and beliefs—ultimately, into their distinctiveness as a particular group of rancheros and rancheras.

After a year or so of fieldwork, primarily within the homes of these families in Chicago, I became increasingly uncomfortable with extant academic studies of Mexicans. Having searched the ethnographic literature, especially concentrating on studies based in Michoacán, I was disconcerted. Certainly the people I was coming to know were Mexican, but they did not entirely fit the descriptions of Mexicans provided by anthropologists and linguists publishing either in the United States or in Mexico. Fortunately, my search ultimately led me to work by an eminent Mexican historian (González 1974) and to recently published work by a Mexican ethnographer (Barragán 1990b). Eureka! In the work of these scholars the people I knew were accurately described. I was, in fact, astonished by the similarities between Esteban Barragán's study and my own fieldwork experiences.

Among Mexicans, ranchero (or the female version ranchera) is a polyvalent term, with both positive and negative connotations. Neutrally it usually refers to those who work their own land (often relatively small plots) in small rural communities (ranchos). In some Chicago-area Mexican communities, the abbreviated term 'chero is used derisively to index the lack of modernity and sophistication of recent rural migrants (Cintron 1997). In urban Mexico, rancheros, as rural Mexican "hillbillies," also are stereotyped as backward (not "modern"), uncouth, uncultured, and uneducated. Bradley Levinson (2001, 178-179) reports that secondary school youths in a Michoacán town denigrate young ranchero men who come into the town from the hills, with their big hats, boots, and rough macho ways, although it is interesting that the students show some ambivalence in their disdain (would they themselves be considered somewhat ranchero by the elite of larger cities?). Claudio Lomnitz-Adler (1992, 196) notes this kind of condescension even toward relatively wealthy rancheros in the Huasteca region of Mexico, whom the nearby urban elite in San Luis Potosí ridicule "for 'not wearing socks' and not knowing how to read." Reflecting this widespread attitude, urban upper-class Mexican mothers chide their daughters, ¡No seas ranchera! (Don't be so backward!—i.e., lacking in social skills).

Yet there is also an extensive tradition in Mexico which valorizes lo ranchero as "the real Mexican" (and male) identity. Just as cowboys have been idealized in the United States, Mexican rancheros have been used, especially in films, to promote postrevolutionary nationalism by creating "an idealized, romanticized, and imaginary Mexico that illuminated the movie screens of Latin America" (Berg 1992, 15). In the popular imagination in Mexico, during the golden age of Mexican cinema from the mid-1930s through the mid-1950s, rancheros (as charros or elegantly outfitted Mexican cowboys) were valorized in the popular comedia ranchera (ranch comedy) film genre as epitomizing mexicanidad (Mexicanness) in an idealized agrarian society. Such films and popular music during this time featured, among others, Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante, two well-known ranchero idols, representing men of honor. Ranchero images are also evoked when Vicente Fernández and Lola Beltrán croon heartfelt ranchero ballads, and when mariachi bands in form-fitting highly decorative suits and wide sombreros play "GuadalaJARA! GuadalaJARA!" as a central icon of la música ranchera. These representations fill the airwaves in Chicago on Spanish-language radio stations and are part of various community events such as jaripeos (rodeos), at one of which the late Pedro Infante's son, Armando, made an appearance.

Some scholars critique this use of rancheros as reflective of a "powerful conservative tendency in the society" in its promotion of traditional Catholic values and a hierarchical agrarian social order (Mora 1982, 47; see also Berg 1992; de la Vega Alfaro 1995), suggesting that this conservatism was a reaction against modernizing, progressive moves on the part of the revolutionary government. Certainly these films portray an idealized hierarchical social order based on rural aristocratic control, with their charro heroes, socially below the hacendados (hacienda owners) but above the rural masses, exhibiting admirable (masculine) moral qualities that end up saving the day and winning the beautiful but humble (and powerless) woman. The representations in this idealized world nonetheless greatly appeal to many contemporary, real-life rancheros because they symbolize the values, demeanor, and status that they hold dear.

In spite of very specific ranchero identities within the larger Mexican society, however, U.S. representations of Mexicans in popular culture and media (e.g., newspaper articles) continue to generalize and essentialize them as monolithic Others (Santa Ana 2002). A few of these representations positively present Mexicans as "hardworking," although this is often linked to "submissive." Others, often generalized to all "Hispanics," characterize them negatively, linking them to the inner city, crime, welfare, "broken" families, gangs, and illiteracy—a far cry from the film world of Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete that valorizes a stable agrarian social order maintained by men of honor.

Neither extreme, of course, accurately represents contemporary real-life rancheros. This book intends to provide just such a real-life portrait based on a particular group of contemporary ranchero Mexicans, the transnational spaces they inhabit, and the language practices which both constitute and express their identities, as constructed by themselves, not by outside media. It is the strength of ethnography, of course, to gather multiple "insider" perspectives and to collate these perspectives into meaningful interpretations of cultural practice. Given the importance of such populations in understanding globalization processes in which many people are on the move worldwide, as well as the importance of this subgroup of Mexicans both in Mexico and in the United States, I hope that this description will contribute to discussions of a variety of social issues, including migration, ethnicity, and gender. In particular, however, because of the increasing numbers of Mexican-origin students in classrooms across the United States, and because language is so central to education, I hope that the detailed treatment here of ranchero and ranchera identities as constructed by their own language practices will be useful to discussions involving educational and other policy issues.

Rationale of the Study

This ethnographic project originally was undertaken to develop understandings of the communicative competence (Hymes 1972) of Mexican-origin students: how language is used in culturally appropriate ways within Mexican families. These students, like others from nondominant U.S. cultures, frequently use communicative styles that differ from those favored by formal educational institutions (see Heath 1983). That is, their communicative competence consists of a repertoire of complex verbal styles that have cultural and linguistic value in themselves and yet differ from the academic register of English favored in U.S. schools and universities. This register is characterized by explicitness and objectivity, and it is typified in composition instruction; that is, it is largely what we teach when we teach expository writing in the United States (Farr 1993). Composition classes, of course, are notorious for being gatekeeping mechanisms within colleges and universities. Not performing well in this register of language can handicap an individual in terms of future aspirations, educational achievement, time, money, and self-esteem.

Yet we have very little understanding of the discourse styles that are natural to many U.S. populations for whom such academic English is unfamiliar. Such an understanding provides a crucial foundation for improving language and literacy instruction to an increasingly diverse population. In order to teach academic language genres, we should understand what students already know—what styles of discourse they already have learned through socialization in their homes and communities, and how these discourse styles, in both form and function, may complement or differ from those required for success in educational institutions. Equally important as differences themselves are the social meanings of the differences, especially as they impact identity. That is, students may have trouble with differences in styles of discourse not only because they might be initially unfamiliar but because adopting them might signify a change in identity (Lindquist 1999).

Mexican professors with whom I have worked have commented on the highly developed oral skills of many Mexican students (they can eloquently echar rollo: generate a long oral discourse on a topic), adding that these same students have difficulty learning to write clear and concise academic Spanish. Such highly developed oral language abilities are indicative of the high value placed on them in Mexican society, as well as the emphasis on oral performance in Mexican schools (Levinson 2001; Rockwell 1991). All students, of course, are faced with new ways of using language in schools and universities, either in Mexico or in the United States. In the United States, however, Spanish-speaking students not only must confront new academic language genres and their associated identities but, in addition, must learn them in a new language, English. Moreover, while academic English and academic Spanish certainly share characteristics, they are also distinct in some ways (Spicer-Escalante 2005).

Language, then, is of central importance in education in myriad ways. As Courtney Cazden (1988) notes, education not only involves the teaching of language but occurs through language. Crucial to such teaching is a receptiveness and sensitivity to the discourse styles and identities that students bring with them to the classroom. Although sociolinguistic studies have analyzed the verbal styles favored by some U.S. groups (see Farr and Ball 1999 for a review), little research has focused on language use among Mexican-origin groups, in spite of the fact that Mexicans are one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population. Hispanics/Latinos now constitute 26 percent of the population in the city of Chicago and 17 percent of the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area; Mexicans alone constitute 18.3 percent of Chicago's total population and 12.7 percent of the Chicago MSA (Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission 2005). In addition to the scarcity of research in this area, most of what exists (e.g., Briggs 1988; Elías-Olivares 1979; Galindo 1992; Galindo and Gonzales 1999) has been carried out in the Southwest. Little research has illuminated the language capabilities of Mexican-origin people in the Midwest. The Midwest, after all, is different from the Southwest for Mexican populations, in that its history does not include conquest and colonization of Mexican territory. Moreover, Chicago's heavily immigrant history and ambiance provides a somewhat more tolerant milieu for attitudes toward immigrants in general and toward non-English languages in particular (see Farr 2004, 2005). Chicago, then, is an important site for broadening our understandings of language use among Mexican-origin populations.

Research has begun to provide these understandings. A number of publications have focused on literacy practices among the families of this study (Farr 1994a, 1994c, 2000; Farr and Guerra 1995; Guerra and Farr 2002). Other publications have focused on oral genres, especially what is called echando relajo (see Chapter 8 and Farr 1994b, 1998). Juan Guerra (1998) analyzes both oral genres and literacy practices, especially "self-fashioning" in oral narratives and the writing of letters and autobiographies. Finally, the present study focuses entirely on oral discourse styles and how they construct a ranchero identity. Three "ways of speaking" (Hymes 1974b) in particular construct various facets of this identity. These three ways of speaking emerged as significant during the course of my fieldwork; they both complement and contradict each other. Each way of speaking constructs an aspect of ranchero personhood, and together they provide a fuller verbal portrait of rancheros than is provided by any one of them alone. Before giving an overview of these three verbal styles and their place in ranchero culture, I describe below the theoretical frameworks and methods that I have used in this study to gather, select, and analyze these oral language practices.

An Ethnography of Language

Dell Hymes's original conceptualization of the ethnography of communication (1974a) stimulated the ethnography of literacy (Street 1984, 1993; Szwed 1981). Much work in the ethnography of literacy tradition has been advanced by social concerns regarding inequities in education and literacy. Unfortunately, important though such studies are, they increasingly ignore the relevance of oral language practices. Understandings of literacy are deepened and enriched by attention to oral practices among populations learning or using literacy (Farr 1993), especially as these practices are so central to identity construction. Although Shirley Brice Heath's (1983) seminal research relies heavily on oral language practices to illuminate educational and literacy issues, much subsequent work has not been as grounded in a deep understanding of language as the base from which both literacy and identity spring. Ruth Finnegan (1988) and Brian Street (1984), however, use ethnographic evidence to critique the assumed "special" attributes and effects of literacy (that supposedly detach it from orality) posited by Jack Goody (1968, 1977), Walter J. Ong (1982), and David Olson (1977, 1994). More recently, James Collins and Richard Blot (2003) use both ethnographic and historical evidence to undermine the dichotomous thinking that divides orality and literacy in the first place.

This study takes a holistic ethnographic approach to the study of language and its constitutive role in social and cultural life; that is, it divides neither orality from literacy nor language (oral or written) from its social context. The larger project of which this study is a part was conceptualized to include both orality and literacy. Although particular publications have focused either on literacy practices (Farr 1994a, 1994c, 2000) or on oral traditions (Farr 1994b, 1998), both modes of using language are perceived in relation to each other and in relation to the social contexts which they partially constitute.

In this book I analyze three common ways of speaking in order to achieve a deeper understanding of various aspects of ranchero identity. As Guerra (1998) notes, informal conversation (echando plática) has a central place in these families' lives. Societies vary in the importance they give to talk, and Mexican cultures are known for being highly verbal and for creatively using a wide variety of expressive genres (Herrera-Sobek 1990, 1993; Limón 1992, 1994; López 1995; Paredes 1993). These families revel in talk. Those who excel in weaving oral language genres such as jokes, proverbs (Domínguez Barajas 2002, 2005), and humorous narratives into their conversation are esteemed and respected by their relatives and friends: skill in language is skill in life. I had the good fortune to be included in many communicative events over the years in which such performances emerged spontaneously. Out of the many which occurred, I have selected, presented, and analyzed representative examples throughout this book.


Over the course of a decade or so, I collected an abundant variety of data for this study's components on history, fieldwork, sociolinguistic interviews, and language use. Regional and familial history was documented by Teresa Fernández Aceves and myself. This history synthesizes archival data collected in Mexico, published sources, oral history interviews of local people, and life history interviews of older persons in the rancho.

The fieldwork component consists of my own participant-observation. This means, of course, that I not only observed but participated actively in this social network (can you imagine people putting up with a researcher for so many years who did not?), interacting with a wide variety of friends and kin. Because of the long-term nature of my involvement, which is both personal and research-related, some children grew up seeing me "around." This long-term personal involvement enabled the building of confianza (trust), so that I was allowed to tape-record conversations for many years. With the Spencer Foundation funding of the project I was able to hire a number of young women from these families to assist me in my research. They taped when I was not present (both in Chicago and in Mexico), helped with transcription of the tapes, interviewed people on occasion, explained things to me when I was uncertain of my own interpretations (or affirmed them when I had intuitively understood things as they did), and drew a large map of the rancho from memory for the wall of my research office in Chicago. In that sense, this has been a very collaborative project.

My participant-observation resulted in extensive field notes as well as some "head notes": those events and comments that the researcher remembers vividly but somehow did not write down. My copious field notes over a decade or so were first written in WordPerfect then transported into Ethnograph, a database management program formulated especially for ethnographic studies. In Ethnograph, I coded my field notes with thematic labels (gender, reading, morality, etc.) then worked with a research assistant, Elías Domínguez Barajas, to refine them and organize them into hierarchical (parent-child) groupings of related themes. The process of grouping themes not only allowed another pair of culturally aware eyes on my field notes but also illuminated thematic connections not otherwise obvious to either of us. The resulting map of codes permitted me to run searches of particular themes or combinations of themes, identifying and pulling out relevant stretches of my field notes, which I used in developing analyses and writing chapters.

Both my participant-observation and the audiotaping of oral language data (for the sociolinguistic interview and language use components) took place within families on their own turf, whether in Mexico or in Chicago. Informal sociolinguistic interviews were carried out by Lucía Elías-Olivares and Juan Guerra, with whom I collaborated during the early phases of the larger project. These interviews were conducted with the adults in the network, in pairs, and included ten modules on oral and written language practices and histories, language attitudes, schooling experiences and attitudes toward education, mass media usage and preferences, and marketing practices. All these interviews, almost entirely in Spanish, were transcribed and then used on relevant occasions in analysis. Although I have made heavy use of these interviews for particular publications (e.g., Farr 1993), in this book I rely more on my field notes and on the second audiotaped data set that constituted the language use component of the project.

A corpus of 130 ninety-minute audiotapes of naturally occurring conversation was accumulated for the language use component of the project simply by turning on the tape recorder in the kitchen or other area of the home in which we gathered and talked. These tapes were indexed for content and laboriously transcribed (see the Acknowledgments) over a ten-year period. After transcription, all 130 tapes were examined for instances of conversations which illustrated identified themes (akin to the coded themes that developed out of an analysis of my field notes). Templates containing these instances could then be pulled from the larger data set to facilitate analysis of particular themes. This subset of transcriptions provided the instances of recorded oral language analyzed throughout this book and, along with my field notes, constitutes the primary data relied on for this study. In the next section I describe the primary conceptual frameworks that I used to analyze this oral language.

Discourse, Performance, and Ideology

Joel Sherzer (1983, 295), quoting Franz Boas (1911), points out that "language patterns are unconscious and provide access to unconscious cultural patterning otherwise inaccessible to researchers." Some aspects of social and cultural life cannot be understood simply by asking people about them, as Charles Briggs (1986) has shown, although this is how most social science (including most anthropology) proceeds. Sherzer (1983, 296) shows how discourse—which he defines as language use, oral or written, brief (like a greeting) or lengthy (like a novel or oral narrative)—is "the nexus, the actual and concrete expression of the language-culture-society relationship." Thus through microlevel discourse analysis researchers can illuminate larger social and cultural processes. John Lucy (1993, 24), citing Boas (1911), notes the unconscious quality of discourse relative to other cultural practices, making discourse analysis a productive source for grounding ethnographic interpretation. Discourse, in fact, constructs social reality. Both culture and language are created, re-created, and changed through language use. Furthermore, particular kinds of discourse are especially fertile sites for this:

. . . it is especially in verbally artistic discourse such as poetry, magic, verbal dueling, and political rhetoric that the potentials and resources provided by grammar, as well as cultural meanings and symbols, are exploited to the fullest and the essence of language-culture relationships becomes salient. (Sherzer 1983, 296)

This study, then, looks at especially aesthetic instances of discourse, some of which involve speech play, but all of which are performative (Bauman 1984 [1977]; Hymes 1981; Sherzer 2002; Tannen 1989). Special empirically discoverable qualities make performative discourse stand out from surrounding "everyday" discourse (Bauman 1984 [1977]):

  • beginnings of performances (e.g., jokes, stories) are signaled by the reframing of ordinary language (e.g., with a code-switch or unusual intonation);
  • poetic devices (notably parallelism and repetition with variation) intensify the importance of the form of the language, beyond its communicative value;
  • someone takes responsibility for performing, knowing that it will be evaluated with shared standards;
  • participants who become "audience" reorient to the performer (e.g., bodies and faces turn toward the performer, other talking ceases).

Verbal performance can occur in formal, scheduled, public events (in which primarily males perform in most cultures), or it can emerge spontaneously in everyday conversation (a frequent province of female performers). All instances of discourse in this book occurred in private settings in people's homes or vehicles, either in Chicago or in Mexico (or traveling from one to the other).

Performance makes particular "pieces" of language stand out from "ordinary" language as "text"; that is, it entextualizes them (Briggs and Bauman 1992; Silverstein and Urban 1996). Such texts are highly noticeable, which facilitates reflexivity and critique on the part of participants:

. . . performances move the use of heterogeneous stylistic resources, context-sensitive meanings, and conflicting ideologies into a reflexive arena where they can be examined critically. . . . Performance . . . provides a frame that invites critical reflection on communicative processes. (Bauman and Briggs 1990, 60)

Performances of verbal art are not just interesting aesthetically but are particularly salient sites for the creation, re-creation, and transformation of language, culture, and society. Joking in particular, in its microlevel creation of carnivalesque disorder (i.e., fiesta or carnival at the level of language), allows people to turn the existing social order upside down, at least for the moment (see Chapter 8). Such "play frames . . . provide settings in which speech and society can be questioned and transformed" (Bauman and Briggs 1990, 63) and thus have ramifications for reconfiguring social relations.

Recently developed conceptualizations of language ideology (Kroskrity 2000; Schieffelin et al. 1998) link beliefs about language to broader sociocultural and political processes. Thus particular styles of using language, including verbal performances, are the expected way to speak in specific contexts and simultaneously to construct oneself as a culturally valued person. As Kathryn Woolard (1998, 3) has noted, language ideologies are never just about language but are also about "the very notion of the person and the social group, as well as such fundamental social institutions as religious ritual, child socialization, gender relations, the nation-state, schooling, and law." Language ideologies, then, mediate between "social structures and forms of talk" (Kroskrity 2000, 21). As people use language in conventional ways, they simultaneously organize relations among people and define "us," as opposed to "them," in terms of specific moral, aesthetic, epistemological, and other qualities. The rancheros who are the focus of this book distinguish themselves from other groups, primarily Indian Mexicans, with language ideologies constructed in particular ways of speaking or styles of language use (Hymes 1974b). In Chapters 5 through 8 I analyze verbal performances that occurred in informal conversation in both Chicago and Mexico; these verbal performances represent particular language styles, and language ideologies, that construct ranchero identities vis-à-vis their Others.


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