Collections: Margaret Ellen Dorsey - The EVIA Digital Archive Project

Linda Escobar and Tejano Conjunto Music in South Texas (2006)

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Tejano conjunto vocalist Linda Escobar. Image © Linda Escobar.

This collection draws attention to the life and work of a female conjunto performer, Linda Escobar and documents elements of conjunto music. Scholars (Corona, Dorsey, Limón, Madrid, Peña, Paredes, Ragland, San, Miguel, Tejeda) have written and talked about Tejano conjunto as a working class sound, a marker of Mexican American identity, as a generic type of music, and as a form of cultural hybridity. This collection highlights Tejano conjunto as mode to understand processes of cultural hybridity that marks many Mexican American experiences in Texas and Mexico. As Rio Grande Valley native Gloria Anzaldúa famously explained and theorized, in the mestizaje experience of gente de la frontera, Mexican Americans encounter linguistic, racial and sexual boundaries and feel like they belong neither here nor there, neither in Texas nor in Mexico. While Anzaldúa ties these transnational encounters to the border region’s history of conquest, at the same time she posits that this experience can also be one of boundary crossing. Traversing beyond binaries can be a space or moment where individuals and communities create new imaginaries and pathways for the future.

Participants watching these EVIA recordings witness these complex experiences that move between moments of emancipation and tragedy. Listen, for instance, to Escobar talk of her desire to make it as country-western star. This lack of belonging, whether it be a woman in a male dominated industry and/or a Mexican American in an Anglo dominated environment creates space for novel configurations of identity, language, and music. Conjunto music's clearest sonic marker, the accordion, testifies to this practice of cultural hybridity and innovation. Mexican Americans adapted the accordion and dance music from German, Czech and Slovak Americans and made it their own, inventing a music that was--at the time these interviews where recorded more popular in South Texas--more popular than its Central European counterparts. The conjunto music in this collection allows viewers to observe that mixing: viewers see the brilliant accordionist Mingo Saldivar translate Johnny Cash's country western music (see "Folsom Prison Blues" ) into conjunto or hear Linda Escobar and Flaco Jiménez sing a country western song in English.

In the ethnographer's opinion, the landscapes for the production and reception of conjunto music has changed vastly over the past half century (1956-2006). The Lower Rio Grande Valley, as an instance, transformed from a series of rural hamlets into one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the United States--for over a decade at the turn of the twenty first century. In addition, the region shifted from one dominated by Anglos to one in which almost all of the elected office holders have Spanish surnames and where innumerable numbers of Mexican Americans wield power. What began as a music primarily performed by rural working class people, shifted into a music also performed, danced and listened to by urban professionals. Urban professionals (with roots as migrant farmworkers), for instance, fly in from the Northwest Coast of the United States with their children to attend Tejano conjunto festivals. Conjunto music also takes on a transnational presence. Female Japanese performers on youtube sing from Linda Escobar's repertoire, even mimicking Escobar's gestures. Flaco Jiménez continually performs across the globe. Conjunto music today, essentially, has evolved beyond being bicultural or bilingual: it is transnational. While this collection features performances by Japanese conjunto players, it is worth noting that groups from other countries have and do perform at conjunto festivals, including groups from Spain and France. At the same time, conjunto continues to be a marker of past and present Mexican American experiences and appears to be shifting along with these experiences by creating new syntheses as witnessed in this collection.

This collection can productively be divided into three units. The first unit, Event 1, features what many consider to be a highly important Tejano Conjunto event: the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center’s 25th Silver Anniversary Tejano Conjunto Festival, where Dorsey filmed the performances of Linda Escobar and other legendary musicians playing some of their most iconic conjunto songs. The second unit, Events 2-3, contains an open-ended conversation with Tejano conjunto musician Linda Escobar about her life history. Escobar is an award-winning performer, having received numerous tributes from various conjunto/Tejano organizations: Female Vocalist of the Year (1987); Narciso Martinez Award for Conjunto Female Vocalist of the Year (2001); and Inductee and Board Member of the Tejano ROOTS Music Hall of Fame (2003, 2007). The third unit, Event 4, draws attention to a defining feature of conjunto music, the dancers. In Event 4, the ethnographer interviews, Ram and Stefanie Escobar, a couple who love to dance to conjunto music.

Event 1, in addition to recording Escobar y Su Conjunto (Sam Falcon, Adán de la Rosa III, J.R. Longoria, and Joaquin Chavez) performing numerous types of songs (corrido, ranchera, cumbia, vals, polka) within the conjunto repertoire, features Escobar harmonizing with her twelve-year old protégé, Cristina Casillas. Also included is beautiful footage of Casillas in a solo performance in which she plays the accordion. Before Casillas takes the stage, Dorsey filmed Escobar explaining to the audience the importance of girls learning accordion in the Tejano roots tradition. This footage is significant because men and boys dominate the Conjunto Tejano music scene, and it is rare to see women performing within this genre and even rarer to see a girl performing, particularly at such a prestigious event. This recording captures both.

In Event 1, the ethnographer also recorded the Japanese conjunto band, Conjunto J (Noriyoshi "Honorio" Imamura and Kelichi "Spock" Tanaka), playing with Linda Escobar y Su Conjunto. From what Dorsey has observed, Conjnto J seems to be the only Japanese conjunto band that plays in Texas festivals. This footage of Japanese musicians playing with Tejanos is unique. This collection might be the first to record Conjunto J in action. Of particular note in this event is a scene in which a member of Conjunto J, "Honorio," plays Kenji Katsube’s accordion. Katsube and Imamura have a long tradition of playing in Tejano roots festivals with Escobar. Around 1997, Katsube and Escobar met and fell in love, and as a consequence Katsube left Japan--including his wife and adult daughter--to live in Texas, closer to Escobar. After living in Texas for about two years, doctors diagnosed Katsube with cancer, and he died shortly thereafter. Escobar wrote her first song, “El Corrido de Kenji” (Corrido to Kenji) in remembrance of Katsube.

This collection features Conjunto J and Linda Escobar y Su Conjunto playing homage to Katsube in that performance as well as Escobar telling Katsube's story, explaining how he transformed her and her music. The corrido narrates the story of their love affair and Katsube's untimely death. At the festival, Dorsey filmed Escobar singing this song. Escobar brackets the song with brief comments about Katsube. Having a filmed version of this song is particularly important because Escobar punctuates the Katsube ballad with gestures speaking an idiom of love and tragedy.

Another noteworthy moment of the performance includes Linda Escobar y Su Conjunto playing their hit song at that time titled, “Mi Cantina” (My Cantina). “Mi Cantina” (My Cantina) is a rare and important song within the conjunto repertoire in that it is a song narrated from a woman’s perspective that expresses an alternative vision of Mexican-American male sociality. (Interestingly, a man named Eddie Perez wrote the song specifically for Escobar to perform.) In the life history interview (Events 2-3), Escobar tells the genesis story of “Mi Cantina” (My Cantina) and in Event 4, Ram and Stefanie Escobar talk about the image of the cantina in relation to conjunto music and gender.

This documented version of “Mi Cantina” (My Cantina) is particularly significant because it includes Escobar’s framing of the song--as a key counter statement for women--both before and after its performance. Viewers additionally glimpse the audience’s call and response to Escobar’s commentary and the song itself. Viewers simultaneously see men shaking their cowboy hats in disapproval and vocal responses of support from women.

The final moment from Linda Escobar y Su Conjunto’s performance that the ethnographer would like to draw your attention to is that of "Mi Despidida" (My Departure). Eligio Escobar, Linda Escobar’s father, and Lolo Cavazos (song writer, conjunto vocalist and accordionist) co-wrote "Mi Despidida" (My Departure) in the 1960's. Given the many Mexican-Americans directly and actively affiliated with the military today, Linda Escobar’s performance of "Mi Despidida" (My Departure) carries a particular efficacy. The video recording also captures Escobar dedicating the song to those on active duty in the military and prays for their safekeeping.

Overall, this collection provides a resource for what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated arena and contextualizes the songs performed at the festival (e.g., conditions of production, explanation of lyrics, perspective of dancers). At the same time this collection draws attention to conjunto Tejano musics' transnational circulations. Both the interview and Escobar's performance at the festival are highly significant because many scholars have studied and documented Tejano conjunto music but few have focused on women and their transnational ties. In addition to this feminist perspective, this collection takes into account the cosmopolitan sensibilities of conjunto music artists, fans and dancers placing attention on the future horizons of conjunto.

This collection is peer reviewed and available online in the EVIA Project Archive.

Image © Miguel Diaz-Barriga

Margaret Ellen Dorsey works at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) as an Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology. In addition, she is the founding Curator of the Border Studies Archive (BSA) at UTPA, which houses six collections on border life and culture. Dorsey earned a dual Ph.D. in Anthropology and Communication & Culture with an outside minor in Ethnomusicology and Folklore from Indiana University.

Dorsey’s research focuses on border security, expressive culture and politics. With two grants from the Cultural Anthropology Division of the National Science Foundation (2008-2010), Dorsey began her present project in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas with Miguel Díaz-Barriga studying the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) construction of the border fence and local responses to it. Dorsey and Díaz-Barriga employ extended ethnography, visual anthropology as well as a cultural circulation model as methods and theoretical tools to document how residents' articulations of citizenship, patriotism and borders stand in relation to national policy makers' security agenda. Based on this research, Dorsey and Díaz-Barriga published a series of articles and have a book under contract titled, Militarization on the Edge.

In Pachangas: Borderlands Music, U.S. Politics and Transnational Marketing, Dorsey draws attention to the creation of Mexicana/o publics through cultural circulation, more specifically that of music in relation to “pachangas:” live-music events (political barbecues) with a distinct history of political resistance for Mexican Americans along the Texas-Mexican border, which marketers transformed to sell products. My perspective on these transnational processes contributes to studies of expressive culture in the borderlands by drawing attention to the ways in which the circulation of various forms of media constitutes distinct public spheres.

Dorsey’s EVIA Digital Archive publication focuses on conjunto music (border music usually sung in Spanish to a polka beat), more specifically the life of Mexican American musician Linda Escobar. This collection includes her oral history, the Tejano Conjunto Festíval in San Antonio, and an interview with conjunto dancers. Dorsey’s video archive documents the linguistic play inherent in her music as it relates to issues of language, ethnic, gender and class stratification as well as broader issues relating to her unique position as a successful woman in a male-dominated arena. Dorsey integrated material from this digital archive into a solicited chapter for Alejandro Madrid’s award-winning edited volume, Transnational Encounters: Music and Performance at the U.S.-Mexico Border.

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