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The Mexican American Orquesta

The Mexican American Orquesta
Music, Culture, and the Dialectic of Conflict (title page only)
January 1999
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
364 pages | 6 1/16 x 9 1/4 | 25 b&w photos, 10 musical scores |

The Mexican American orquesta is neither a Mexican nor an American music. Relying on both the Mexican orquesta and the American dance band for repertorial and stylistic cues, it forges a synthesis of the two. The ensemble emerges historically as a powerful artistic vehicle for the expression of what Manuel Peña calls the "dialectic of conflict." Grounded in ethnic and class conflict, this dialectic compels the orquesta and its upwardly mobile advocates to waver between acculturation and ethnic resistance. The musical result: a complex mesh of cultural elements—Mexican and American, working- and middle-class, traditional and contemporary.

In this book, Manuel Peña traces the evolution of the orquesta in the Southwest from its beginnings in the nineteenth century through its pinnacle in the 1970s and its decline since the 1980s. Drawing on fifteen years of field research, he embeds the development of the orquesta within a historical-materialist matrix to achieve the optimal balance between description and interpretation. Rich in ethnographic detail and boldly analytical, his book is the first in-depth study of this important but neglected field of artistic culture.


Southwest Book Award
Border Regional Library Association

  • Acknowledgments
  • Prelude: Music, Culture, and Dialectical Interpretation
  • Exposition: Mexicans and Anglos in the Southwest: The Dialectic of Conflict
  • Part One: Origins
    • Chapter 1. Bailes and Fandangos: Music and Social Division in the Nineteenth Century
    • Chapter 2. The Dawning of a New Age: Musical Developments, 1910 to 1940
  • Part Two: The Mexican American Era
    • Chapter 3. Orquesta's Social Base: The Mexican American Generation
    • Chapter 4. The Formative Years of Orquesta: The Texas-Mexican Connection
    • Chapter 5. The Los Angeles Tradition: Triumph of the Anti-Ranchero
  • Part Three: The Chicano Era
    • Chapter 6. The Chicano Generation: Conflict, Contradiction, and Synthesis
    • Chapter 7. La Onda Chicana
    • Chapter 8. Ethnography: The Orquesta Tradition in Fresno
  • Coda: Music in the Post-Chicano Era
  • Notes
  • Selected Discography
  • References Cited
  • Index

Manuel Peña has taught anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin and music at California State University, Fresno.


To think everything historically, that is Marxism.
Pierre Vilar (1994: 41)

The seeds for the production of this book may have been sown by the early 1960s, when, as a fledgling orquesta musician, I first became aware of the musical differences that existed among the Mexicans of my native Rio Grande Valley. To be an aficionado of orquesta music, with its brassy trumpets and lambent saxophones, was to move in the better social circles of Mexican American society. Luis Arcaraz, Carlos Campos, and Pablo Beltrán Ruiz, "El Millonario," were the orchestral names local musicians invoked with a tone of reverence in their voices, though great respect was shown as well toward American bands such as those of Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington. Such names, Mexican and American alike, evoked glittering ballrooms filled with tuxedoes and gowns dancing gracefully to the strains of the bolero, danzón, cha cha cha, or the foxtrot. Indeed, playing with local orquestas like that of Oscar Guerra, I found myself in the midst of such elegant ambiences.

But there was another side to the musical culture of the "Magic Valley," as the Chamber of Commerce dubbed this fertile delta bordering on the northeastern corner of Mexico. In the seedy cantinas of Weslaco, Donna, Mercedes, and other Valley cities, a different music played, and a different clientele danced. Proletarians, hardened by arduous toil in the fields and in other menial jobs that barely sustained them, danced the polca and canción ranchera (country song) to the thumping beat of conjunto music—accordion and bajo sexto—celebrating with abandon their sense of liberation, however fleeting, from the daily grind awaiting them outside the walls of the cantina. Conjunto and its música ranchera (country music), so dear to these proletarians, had been in development for the better part of one hundred years (Peña 1985a), and, disparaged as it might be by orquesta musicians and their partisans, it was deeply entrenched in Valley culture, forming a dynamic opposite to the more sophisticated orquesta in an in-group dialectic that pitted Mexicanized proletarians against Americanized affluents.

I witnessed the musical and social disparities but could not then understand the ideological dynamics involved nor the contradictions present. Why were orquesta musicians, disdainful as they were of conjunto music, so adept themselves at playing ranchera music? Why did Mexican American socialites display such exhilaration when Oscar Guerra's orquesta played an occasional polca ranchera, in the style of that master of lo ranchero, Beto Villa? For that matter, why did Beto Villa, easily the most popular orquesta in the Hispanic Southwest during the 1940s and '50s, exploit música ranchera so freely, when he was just as capable of performing its opposite—what people used to refer to as música jaitona, or "hightone" music?

I gave much thought to these seeming contradictions in the intervening years, witnessing the same interplay between ranchero and jaitón when I moved to my adopted city of Fresno, California, where I continued my career as a weekend orquesta musician. In Fresno, I saw Beto Garcia y sus GGs, the orquesta with which I played for over twelve years, undergo a subtle transformation from ranchero to jaitón, and I noticed the subsequent change in clientele—from a predominantly working-class audience to a decidedly more affluent one. Meanwhile, orquesta music was evolving, and I was taken aback when I first heard on the radio what I now see as the culmination of the orquesta tradition in the Southwest—Little Joe y la Familia playing the landmark song "Las nubes" (The clouds). I instinctively realized that something unique had taken place: "Las nubes" was a breathtaking fusion of both ranchero and jaitón, Mexican and American styles. I headed for the nearest shop, bought the record I had just heard, and pleaded with Beto García to let me copy the arrangement for the GGs.

"Las nubes" became a virtual emblem of a "Chicano" musical aesthetic; indeed, the style it represented, known as La Onda Chicana, attained deep and widespread support among the members of my generation, or what is now known as the "Chicano Generation." But it was only later that I came to understand the importance of La Onda and the whole orquesta tradition, and to articulate what had been, in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but a dim awareness of what conjunto and orquesta signified in the complex cultural system of the Mexican Americans. I expressed my thoughts on the former in a previous work, The Texas-Mexican Conjunto (Peña 1985a). After several years of further research and reflection—and having witnessed the orquesta's peak and decline—I now offer this interpretive history of the orquesta, thus completing the diptych "in the form of a pair" I had envisioned some years ago on these two ensembles (Peña 1985b).

It is by now a truism that we are all ideologically constrained by the social position we happen to occupy—more specifically, our class position—which sets limits on the "values" we embrace and the discourse we engage in. Few, it seems, can transcend such ideological constraints. Born into the harsh world of Mexican American proletarians, I experienced the life of that world in all its economic violence, and I imbibed all of its cultural values: its glorification of machismo; a certain cynicism toward wealth and power; a romantic attachment to lo mexicano, especially lo ranchero; and, in the absence of an effective political voice, its recourse to the gritos por abajo—our muffled rage at what the gringo patrones (bosses) did to squeeze every ounce of exploitation they could from our overworked bodies.

But, like many of our contemporaries, we were proud Mexicans, stubbornly believing we could overcome an unfair fate and someday claw our way out of misery. A few of us did. At considerable family sacrifice, I transcended the world that gave me birth. Through my association with orquesta musicians, I overlaid my rough proletarian grain with a smoother veneer of middle-class gloss. I even made it to the university, and as a student, first of literature and music and later of anthropology, I absorbed the culture of the academy—especially Marxist culture, for which I developed a strong affinity. I embraced its tenets, in particular its notion of class struggle and the dialectic, which I have reworked to fit my own idiosyncrasies.

It is especially the latter aspect of Marxism—the notion of a materialist dialectic—that informs the writing in the present instance. Ever the romantic, perhaps, I am animated by the ultimately optimistic conception of humanity conveyed by a dialectical approach. Despite its unrelenting critique of capitalism, the Marxist dialectic sees it as a necessary stage in the progression of humanity from an existence driven by the force of blind necessity to one in which a true "realm of freedom" is finally carved out. More than that, this progression is not explainable as a random phenomenon; rather, it consists in the logical, though for the most part unconscious, movement of the human collectivity through a series of maturational stages, each defined by its own productive arrangements, and each inexorably driven by internal contradictions toward its own dissolution. But the movement is always "forward" in the sense that the realm of necessity is continually being pushed back (though hardly eradicated!) by an ever-improving technology and the expanding social consciousness that each stage of social evolution introduces, as we humans instinctively drive toward the Utopia perhaps awaiting us in some "Star Trek" future.

Meanwhile, our expressive culture very much articulates the contemporaneous state of material development at any given stage of social evolution: animism for the Bororo, commodity fetishism for the Americans. In the historical juncture that produced the cultural activity described in this work, economic imperatives, driven by the logic of an expanding capitalist system, clashed with (prematurely) Utopian notions of a society of free and equal citizens, giving rise to a dialectic of conflict that suffused the expressive culture of the Mexican Americans. In some instances, that culture represents an unmediated response to the clash of material and ideological forces, as in the case of the corrido, or ballad, which often pits one noble Mexican hero against an army of Anglo lawmen. In other instances, such as that of the orquesta, the cultural message is highly mediated, filtered by the thick layers of ideology masking the politically unconscious content that ultimately gives orquesta its aesthetic grace and symbolic power.

However articulated, the dialectical thrust, like time, is irreversible: the economic and ideological structures regnant today cannot be replaced by yesterday's. Unlike time, however, these structures are subject to retrogressive "warps" that can momentarily arrest or even set back the process of social evolution while contradictions are resolved and new social arrangements await their implementation. Such is the context in which the orquesta emerged, flourished, and declined—a context marked by conflict, followed by mediation, then contradiction, then followed again by a new cycle of conflict, mediation, and contradiction, until the social and material forces that spawned the orquesta evolved beyond its capacity to articulate their ideological content. In short, orquesta was the product of a particular moment in what I refer to throughout this work as the "dialectic of conflict" that governs Anglo-Mexican relations in the American Southwest. Responding to economically driven realities encumbered by race and class, and the ideological articulation of these, the orquesta delivered its symbolic load, only to be replaced in the end by other artistic vehicles more suited to the changing material and ideological circumstances of their social base.

It is my hope that this book on the Mexican American orquesta will complement the previous one on the conjunto (Peña 1985a), and that, in combination, they will enrich what at first glance appear to be artistic forms of incidental cultural significance, and portray them for what they in fact are: powerful (if dialectically opposed) artistic expressions embedded in the deepest fibers of Mexican American social life. At the same time, the dialectical interpretation offered here diverges from the more static "us-versus-them" approach, which my friend Alex Saragoza (1987) has correctly faulted for its simplistic treatment of Anglo-Mexican relations in the Southwest. Much as we Chicanos may find satisfaction in demonizing the Anglo—and there is plenty of justification for that—the historical record reveals enough nuance in the interethnic relationship to confirm a dialectical dynamic, especially for the twentieth century.

Finally, for conjunto purists who might dismiss orquesta as the bastardized expression of a misplaced ethnic identity, I would remind them of its great power to synthesize disparate cultural experiences and make of them a unique bicultural—that is to say, Mexican American—expression. In this sense, the Mexican American orquesta is truly an organic artistic form, one that sprang from the richest humus of cultural soil to give full aesthetic bloom to the complex material and ideological forces cross-fertilizing Mexican American society during a critical period of its evolution.

On Dialectical Interpretation

Before proceeding further, a few additional comments are in order on the critical theory that both informs and motivates this study of the orquesta. I have turned to the Marxian-Hegelian metatheory of the dialectic or, more precisely, the Marxian concept of dialectical materialism because I see it as the best tool to obtain a synthesizing interpretation of music, culture, and what I refer to as the dialectic of conflict. In most Marxist writing, however, this dialectic is couched in highly abstruse and metaphysical terms. I have tried to give it a more empirical grounding in an effort to demonstrate its articulation in and through lived historical events. My preference for a dialectical interpretation stems from a conviction that the sociohistorical forces driving the development of the orquesta are not the result of random occurrences. Rather, they follow a logical pattern of social evolution flowing from the equally logical development of capitalism in the Southwest.

As conceptualized by Marx and others (e.g., Habermas 1975; Jameson 1981; Lukács 1971), the capitalist system, as a particular mode of production, is fundamentally structured by the antagonism between the dominant owner classes and the subordinate laboring classes. Structural antagonism gives rise occasionally to overt class conflict, but it mostly simmers as latent class struggle (Habermas 1970), or what Fredric Jameson (1981) has called "the political unconscious." Most important, the systemic pressure to maintain and legitimate class disparity generates a host of antinomies, unconscious for the most part, but expressible in terms of contradictions between the professed ideals ("theories") and the actual practices of the antagonist classes (Habermas 1975). Given those contradictions—for example, the reality of class domination vis-à-vis the belief in equality for all individuals (what Balibar has called "equaliberty" [1994: xii])—the built-in antinomies continually invade consciousness, where they come to a crisis and are "resolved" (or mediated) through the ideological adjustment of sociocultural patterns (e.g., normalization of the shortened workday; the workers' right to paid "vacation time"). The new patterns are eventually overcome by the systemic antinomies, creating new contradictions and new attempts at resolution. This cycle of conflict and its "resolution" (or, in more Hegelian terms, the movement from antithesis to mediation to synthesis) constitutes the empirical expression of the dialectic.

In the Southwest, the dialectic takes on an enhanced form: overt ethnic conflict converges with latent class struggle to augment but also complicate the basic contradictions of capitalism. I call this enhanced form the dialectic of conflict. Conceived in such terms, the course of ethnic-class relations in the Southwest conforms to the logic of the dialectical cycle that keeps the global capitalist system in perpetual motion. Here, too, renegotiated sociocultural arrangements are inevitably undermined by tensions and contradictions, as long as the productive relations remain predicated on unequal access to material wealth and power. Finally, in its peculiar manifestation in the Southwest, that is, in its conflation of ethnic-racial and class disparities, this dialectic and its cycle periodically introduce new forms of interethnic communication, so that the relationship between Anglo and Mexican necessarily changes over time. Qualitatively, the conflict present in the 1990s differs from that of, say, the years 1910-1919.

A dialectical approach to the anthropological study of culture may seem outmoded in this era of "late capitalism" and its "postmodernist" moment, especially since post- and anti-Marxist paradigms have come to predominate, in particular the postmodernist/poststructuralist one. The discipline of anthropology itself is increasingly influenced by the tide of postmodernist (and poststructuralist) thought (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Kottack 1992). To delve into the ongoing debate between Marxism and postmodernism is well beyond the scope of these comments (but see Agger 1992; Kellner 1994; La Cappra 1983); however, the influence of postmodernism on contemporary cultural analysis is undeniable. A contrastive sketch of the two positions may clarify my preference for Marxism.

Fredric Jameson has summed up the challenge that postmodernism poses for key elements of Marxist theory, such as that of class-as-historical-subject: "We no longer believe in political or historical teleologies, or in great 'actors' and 'subjects' of history—the nation-state, the proletariat, the party, the West, etc." (1984: xii). The notion of human agents involved in class struggle, which is crucial for Marxist thought, is rejected by postmodernists, for whom class struggle has been eclipsed by such postulates as the "end of ideology" and contestation (D. Bell 1960; Lyotard 1984), the triumph of the political economy of the sign (Baudrillard 1975; 1981), and the dispersion of power and domination by "apparatuses" and "machines" (Grossberg 1992). Their senses dulled by the "hyperreality" of massive commodification, their social selves dissolved "into a host of ... contradictory codes and interfering messages" (Jameson 1984: xviii), the subaltern classes (or masses, since real classes have now been problematized [Balibar 1994]) are rendered powerless—captives of a world beyond ideology, beyond struggle, beyond contradiction.

Not only have classes as active agents been effaced, but so has the very notion of autonomous, stable subjects. We are, all of us, contingent egos, constantly dissolved and reconstituted on the slippery terrain of our shifting social identities. Fragmented, as well, is social history, which is marked by breaks and discontinuities, rather than some grand logic of cultural progression. "Grand narratives," or totalizing theories of history, are therefore inapplicable; they fail to account for the "decentered" and fragmented fabric of life in the postmodern world. In an extension of the Frankfurt School's theory of "one-dimensional" society (Marcuse 1964), in which "the crushing forces of capitalism, state socialism, sexism, [and] racism" (Agger 1992: 10) foreclose the possibility of challenge against a hegemonic system (see also Habermas 1970; Horkheimer and Adorno 1972), postmodernist theorists deny even the prerequisite for a counterhegemony: an integrated human agent capable of rational action. Human agency is reduced to "an incoherent welter of sub- and trans-individual drives and desires," buffeted, as it is, by the "fragmentary, heterogeneous and plural character of reality" (Callinicos 1989: 2). In short, "the individual is an illusion" (Horkheimer and Adorno 1993/; 41).

This postmodernist view of the world, spearheaded by French intellectuals since the 1960s (but adumbrated by the Frankfurt School), has had an increasing impact on anthropological thought in the United States. To be sure, its most extreme postulates—the effacement of the subject and human agency, for example—have met with some resistance, perhaps because these constitute the very core of fieldwork among real people. But other staples of postmodernism—the contingency of the self and the crisis in representation—are very much problematized among postmodernist ethnographers (e.g., Clifford and Marcus 1986). In fact, however, some aspects of the postmodernist critique of positivist empiricism have had a salutary effect on anthropology—the challenge to representation, for example, the notion that an ethnographer can unproblematically portray the social life of cultural beings far removed from his own world of experience (see Paredes 1977). "Reflexivity," anthropology's contribution to postmodernism, has effectively put to rest the notion that an ethnographer utilizes some kind of theoretical alchemy to transmute social analysis into objective science. Ethnography, as we now know, is as much "true fiction" as it is scientific description (Clifford 1986); "writing culture" involves the politics and poetics of the ethnographer as much as it does the social reality she sets out to describe.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the reflexive preoccupation with the act of writing culture, postmodernist ethnography faces the same crisis as its counterparts in other fields of cultural study, namely, its reluctance (or inability) to historicize, to draw the bold strokes required in the analysis of epic struggles that pit races, classes, and genders against each other. For me, the postmodernist obsession with "endless difference" (Nicholson 1990: 8) and its microcosmic particularism (what Stuart Hall called the "gospel of absolute diversity" [1988: 5z]) can miss the global action, the universal struggles of subaltern groups to wrest a realm of freedom out of oppression—struggles inescapably grounded in long-playing cycles of history and the grand rècits inscribed in their grooves. By denying the power of such metanarratives, postmodernist theory disconnects expressive culture from its historical-materialist wellsprings; it strips it of its power to articulate the global struggles carried on in the trenches of racial, gender, and class struggle.

Thus, in sliding toward the postmodernist mode, we ethnographers may unwittingly throw out the contextualized baby with the nowcontaminated bath water of grand theory. In our haste to apply the antiseptic balm of postmodernist particularity, we may deny ourselves the powerful tonic of universal theories, such as Marxism and radical feminism, which dare to grapple with the totalizing effects of class and gender oppression. And, while anthropologists seem loathe to strip their subjects (objects?) of a redemptive agency, in at least some instances they are wavering between the emancipatory thrust of a properly humanist (i.e., Marxist) stance and the nihilistic tone of the most extreme postmodernist voices.

In my interpretation of the orquesta I have stood fast to a Marxian position, first, because the evidence I will lay out strongly suggests that its genesis is linked to the highly active and purposeful struggle of a real community to impose its will on history. Second, the emergence of orquesta was grounded in a context rich in class and ethnic struggle and contradiction (the dialectic of conflict), and, third, the history in which the orquesta is embedded is itself a chapter in a narrative writ large over the course of capitalist development on the American continent. Thus, if the postmodernist turn in "late capitalism" (Jameson 1984) has affected Mexican Americans, it is only during what I refer to here as the post-Chicano era (see the Coda), and then in the drift toward a cultural and political fragmentation that inevitably followed the demise of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and '70s, with its strongly synthesizing thrust (see Chapter 6). Yet, out of this fragmentation has risen a geographically limited but highly potent musical form, banda, which, despite its commoditized encumbrances, has already proven that at least the potential exists for strongly focused ethnic/working-class expressions to emerge, even in this postmodernist age.

In generating a dialectical interpretation of the orquesta, I have found it useful to "periodize" the sociohistorical setting in which it develops. To this end I have partially adopted the generational scheme worked out by Rodolfo Alvarez (1973) and Mario García (1989). Alvarez, in particular, divides the course of Mexican social history in the Southwest into four more or less discrete historical blocs: the "Creation Generation," the "Migrant Generation," the "Mexican American Generation," and the "Chicano Generation." Each of these blocs encounters its own unique problems within the social system as it evolves in the American Southwest. Taking my cue from the implicit recognition of periodic stages in the generational approach to Mexican American history, I have superimposed a dialectical framework over the last two stages, in particular, as these respond to the dialectical cycle that governs the various generations in their relationship to the dominant Anglos. In sum, the dialectic of conflict commences immediately after the triumph of the United States over Mexico in the Mexican American War of 1846-1848, when the Southwest became part of the United States. Thereafter relations between the two groups conform to a dialectical motion, wherein the cycle of conflict and mediation repeats itself (always, of course, in dynamic and transformative ways).

Finally, while the interpretation that informs this historical ethnography has a dialectical bent, it is nevertheless grounded within the empirical field where musical action is generated—at least as this ethnographer has observed it. The empiricist orientation no doubt veers the description in a "linear" and "realist" direction that might appear contrary to the "reflexive" or "experimental" turn espoused by postmodernist ethnographers (the "stream-of-consciousness" effect), for whom writing about culture becomes a compromise between politics and poetics, a statement as much about self as about the "Other."" Yet, in many ways, this account of the orquesta represents just such a reflexive compromise, one forged out of the multiplicity of voices heard throughout the text. Of course, in the end it is my voice that transposes the basic themes and creates the final cultural score. But those themes were there to begin with; my task has simply been to orchestrate them.