Friday, January 20, 2006

A stretch of river VIII: Diesel fumes as madeleine; or, Blurred borders

It does not happen very often, but when it does, it's on our morning walk, when the air is the most humid, and it's always when crossing one of the bridges: Scruffy and I will come along a couple of minutes after a truck or bus has passed, I'll catch a whiff of its exhaust, still trapped in the damp air there, and I'm instantly reminded of the morning odor on Calle Mexico in Colonia Guadalupe1, the neighborhood I lived in 20 years ago (?!?!) in Durango, the capital of the Mexican state of the same name (the city is located in the south-central part of the state). All that's missing from that smell, here, is the smell from the tortilleria that was around the corner from my house that would commingle with the diesel.

Good old Proust:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. (from "Overture," Swann's Way)

This from a man who had such terrible respiratory troubles that he had to live in a cork-lined, fumigated room for much of his adult life. A whiff of diesel fumes might have done him in, denying me the opportunity to quote him here as a way of conveying the power of just those fumes to reawaken in me memories of a place.


It happened again, in a different way, this past Saturday morning when I listened to this story on NPR about the popularity of "musica duranguense" in this country, especially in Chicago. Music that is closely identified with a place, we know, provides a sort of condensed social archeology of that place, and the NPR story does a marvelous job of doing the excavation for those norteamericanos who have never even heard of the state, much less the city. Durango, rarely a destination but always on the way to someplace else (usually Mazatlan), is one of Mexico's fly-over states.

I looked online for well over half an hour for a detailed map of the city before finding the one I linked to. Though the search was frustrating, it also seems appropriate that this place is (still) difficult to locate, even in the blogosphere. Something the NPR story asks the listener to think about is, in effect, "Where is Durango?" (or, for that matter, "Where is Chicago?") That is, how does one draw cultural boundaries?

When I moved to Durango in May of 1985, two weeks after I graduated from college, one thing that immediately struck me was how many Duranguenos told me they had been to Chicago or had relatives who lived in Chicago. Not "the Valley" (the Brownsville and McAllen area of South Texas) or San Antonio or Houston or Los Angeles or any place needing migrant farm workers, the usual destinations for Mexican immigrants legal and otherwise. Chicago. It was almost as though every other destination was a fall-back option. Back then, I didn't enquire further--there was still the business of finding a job and wandering the city (read: I was simultaneously terrified by and reveling in my newly-acquired freedom as a college grad). It was not until hearing the NPR story that that strong link between Durango and Chicago got explained for me: over 100 years ago, after the big railroad-building boom in Mexico just before the Revolution of 1910, workers from Durango travelled to the Midwest, specifically to the Chicago area, to build railroads there. The workers and their families and THEIR families maintained those links, built not by railroads but by the work of establishing new lives, between the two places. "Durango, Illinios," indeed. And, for that matter, "Chicago, Durango."

Mexican music, too, is a sort of madeleine, as I learned when I lived in Durango and which the NPR story notes. I quickly realized that, much more so than in this country, the kind of popular music one listened to was a kind of class marker. But such distinctions would magically fall away when someone played a ranchera or a son. Everyone, regardless of age or class, knows those songs and, especially after a few drinks, would sing them as loud as possible. But such moments are not about drunken performance; instead, such music is very much part and parcel of lived, daily experience. It is the equivalent of our folk music, which, relatively speaking, almost no one remembers. In Mexico, the old songs aren't heard much on the radio, but they are much closer to the surface, and when the singing commences, the chill that comes is not from the beauty of the singing (which, to be frank, was often more like bellowing) but from the beauty of being in the presence of the expression of collectively-held memory.

One memory of mine about that Mexican distinction between performance and self-expression, and then I'll close this post, because after all this writing I realize I'm no closer now to answering the questions about boundaries than I was when I first posed them:

It is midnight on a Wednesday at Movieland Disco, strangely-named but, nevertheless, then THE popular place to go dancing in Durango. Wednesday is "Noche Mexicana," which means that all the music played was of Mexican or Latin American origin. A mariachi group has arrived, one larger than the one in this picture--the one that night had a couple more trumpet players and some violinists to boot. The singer has a mic; otherwise, it's an acoustic performance. I am enthralled by good mariachi bands,2 and this is an especially good one, the singer being in very good voice and none of the other players needing mics for their instruments. This is Performance, I am thinking: the club has hired these players, they'll play a few songs, then the DJ will spin records again. But they are not even through the first verse of the first song when something happens: the singer's mic suddenly goes dead. The thought flashes through my mind that he'll realize what has happened, signal the band to stop playing, and they'll try to fix it then start up again. Isn't that what Performers do? But instead, he keeps singing and the band keeps playing. His voice actually seems to grow in strength. The audience (easily a couple hundred people) immediately begins to cheer him on as though he's a matador, and he sings over all THAT. He has the biggest, broadest grin on his face as he's doing so; he throws his arms wide, as if to embrace not just the audience but the entirety of the moment, up to and including the mic failure. For that is what not just the song but the a priori assumptions of mariachi require him to do: to embody Triumph over Adversity. It is pure bravado, which, far from being about Performance, is at the very core of what mariachi is about. To have stopped singing would have meant that he failed not only the song but mariachi itself.

Dear dirty, dusty, diesel-fumed Durango. May the memory of your smell continue to bear unflinchingly for me the vast structure of recollection.
1Maps show so little, really. Durango is a city of half a million people whose tallest building is still the cathedral downtown. Colonia Guadalupe is a (very) dusty working-class neighborhood about a mile north of there, close to the train station and freight yard. I lived with a family who spoke almost no English. Ours was one of the better-off families on the street; we had one of two telephones on the block; one house next door to us literally had dirt floors and only one real door. Everyone in the colonia worked who was old enough to; to make extra money, some would cook and sell hamburgers on the street. I have never eaten better-tasting hamburgers. And I have never known a friendlier or safer neighborhood--which is why, whenever I traveled elsewhere in Mexico and told people where I lived, I was puzzled when they told me that Duranguenos were cold.

2A word of warning to you: if you and I are in the presence of a good mariachi band, I WILL sing very loud (if I know the words--and if I don't, I'll request a song that I DO know the words to) and WILL throw in a couple of gritos (the high-pitched ay-ay-ay's you hear during instrumental breaks), whether you're there or not. I just don't care. I do not need to have been drinking for this to happen, either. And as I write this, I realize that I have either sealed or wrecked whatever friendship I may have with Rene, who lives in Mexico City.

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Andrew Simone said...
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Andrew Simone said...

Honestly, that post made me grin vicariously. I really enjoyed the bit about the mariachi bands. I had never understood the music, I think I do a little better now.

Thanks for sharing the thoughts.

R. Sherman said...

Great Post.

René López Villamar said...

Todos los mexicanos gritamos y cantamos con el mariachi. Everyone here sings and screams with a mariachi band, good or bad, even if they don't like them. I'm not very fond of Mariachis, but when I find myself among Mariachis, which is somewhat often, I always sing along.

That was a great post. I hope one day we can sing along "La paloma" some day.