De facto Religiosity, Transcending Borders, and Performing Diversity

by Robin Sacolick, UC Santa Cruz

They say it’s the journey, and to some extent, that is true of working on a dissertation. An academic department may or may not find a candidate’s topic interesting. However, when the candidate’s research involves interacting with people, other interested parties emerge. My work, which inquires into the Bay Area community who practice the traditional Mexican genre of music, song and dance called son jarocho, involves participation in performing, activism and group rituals. As I come to be personally involved, some of those subjected to my myopic researchers’ lens also come to be invested in the project. They care about accuracy in how they are portrayed, because they know the value of their activities. Other consumers of academic research may be found at conferences, of course, as well as within the more rare interdisciplinary studio, such as this one on Humanitarianism and Ethics. As an intercampus set of students and faculty representing multiple disciplines, our individual research topics vary greatly, at least on the surface. However, just a little deeper are shared concerns and common themes. The Studio has lent holographic dimension to my work by reflecting new facets of de facto religiosity, transcending borders, and performing diversity in son jarocho practice.

De Facto Religiosity. The genre comprises practices that involve regularly coming together (called convivencia in son jarocho parlance), group activities, humanitarian efforts, rituals called fandangos, and an ethic of respect for tradition. Yet they eschew dogmatism. Thus son jarocho praxis embodies a de facto religiosity without being religious. This becomes easier to recognize in light of the other Studio members’ projects. It is unexpectedly reflected in a colleague’s observance of victims of the Spanish Civil War who return over and again to witness exhumation of mass graves. Son jarocho participants’ humanitarian outreach efforts to support inner city neighborhood gardens, migrant workers, and children’s arts, reflect the community architectural projects studied by another Studio member. The immense cool projected by fandango dancers as they transcend suboptimal social conditions resembles some practices of gospel performers based in colonial resistance, studied by yet another member. Finally, a participating scholar’s study of the uptake of Tibetan Buddhist practices by groups of Native Americans reflects preservation of deep understandings of the order of things, as numerous son jarocho practitioners seek to do. Similarly, the two themes discussed below–transcendence of borders and performativity–evince aspects of de facto religiosity.

Transcending Borders. Son jarocho community practices have served to bridge borders within my ethnically and generationally mixed family, as well as between my family, larger Latin communities, and community artists of many ethnicities, generations, gender preferences, and national backgrounds. Other son jarocho practitioners speak of having had similar experiences. Border transcendence imbues the Studio format, which disregards the usual boundaries between disciplines–boundaries that may be construed, ultimately, to be artificial constructs in the way that Benedict Andersen explains national borders. Even more than the outside-the-box format, the actual content gleaned from other disciplines has enriched my musicological process. For example, it has been rewarding to work with a professor of Feminist Studies. The women of the son jarocho community generate a nexus of inquiry in my project, as they contribute much work, dedication and talent that help the community to cohere, even as they transcend historical borders separating gender roles. Related phenomena may be viewed in feminist terms, as well.

For instance, several issues surround a dynamic, within the community, of commoditization of son jarocho works by professional musicians, versus maintenance of ethical relations with the traditional practices. This might be interpreted epistemologically as capitalist-modernist versus traditionalist, or as worldly versus spiritual. A gendered analogy, though, reveals additional information. If making money as a musician is labeled as capitalist commodity fetishism, then it might be discarded (or embraced) according to the economic ideals of whoever considers the issue. However, by employing a gendered analogy, other possible interpretations emerge. If money-making with son jarocho is analogous to an individualistic, competitive ‘male’ muse (which women may equally ply) while non-profit participation in community fandangos, activism and humanitarian initiatives represent a nurturing, collective-good-driven ‘feminized’ impulse, then each exerts a significant role in both the community and the artistic expression. One might argue, of course, that the former muse is the feminized and the latter impulse the masculine, or bring in additional genders to deal with paradoxes; the point is that multiple gender approaches exist and coexist within broader society while economic systems are often sanctified or vilified as mutually exclusive and exclusively desirable. So by gendering contrasting muses in the son jarocho community, the benefits of each may be recognized.


Making ones own instrument is meditative. These Bay Area residents traveled to Veracruz to make theirs.

A related ethical problematic, which is acutely scrutinized within the discipline of cultural musicology, arises when considering the commoditization of son jarocho: cultural appropriation. This concept has been defined in different ways, but it is important to many. If compositions that are ancient, traditional, and public domain are performed for profit, are there certain people who have a greater right to do so? Are they the natives of the region that originally produced the works, or the most senior in a local scene? Are they the most accomplished musical technicians? Are they Latino? Are they male? There are potentially as many different perspectives on this as there are participants within the community. The bottom line is that at times, despite best intentions, border transcendence also amounts to transgression. The analogy to third wave feminist theory is easy to imagine.

Nevertheless, older-wave feminist themes apply as well. Focus on individual women as leaders and organizers in the son jarocho community is difficult to avoid, as their efforts are indeed critical, standing out because they transcend historical gender role boundaries. Even more difficult, however, is to tease out the motivations and history surrounding this shift; for these women continue to coexist–to convivir–and to learn profoundly from seminal community members who grew up when different notions of proper gender behaviors in traditional son inhered. My intervention proposes that the need for community within the prevailing political and social climate has catalyzed such participation, and, to some extent, a feminized muse; and that the analogy between the fandango tradition and de facto religiosity provides infrastructure for this muse.


Fandango participants’ faces reflect meditative and euphoric states.

Performativity. A third theme in my work that has been exercised through participation in the Studio is son jarocho and fandango as performances of both diversity and life.

“Performing life” refers, in one way, to improvisational interchanges of lyrics and licks between artists in all kinds of performances. These interchanges mimic life processes. In the fandango, moreover, life is performed more directly, as genuine community issues emerge and resolve. For example, participants sometimes confront disillusionments when beautiful and transcendent experiences of community emerge from a background that is ultimately, inexorably, mundane and human. Egos may struggle with any variety of issues from inconvenient flirtations, to newcomers failing to conform to basic courtesies, to longtime participants going through life’s hurdles. The longer contour of fandango, as a regular ritual community practice of music and dance, provides a non-verbal forum to process such issues without direct manipulation of them. When one comes to see ones work through the eyes of others in an interdisciplinary studio environment, a similar kind of processing takes place.

“Performing diversity” signifies, among other things, the awareness among most son jarocho participants that the genre was created by the jarocho people of Veracruz, who were born of more than three constituent ethnicities (Mesoamerican, African and Spanish) hundreds of years ago. Consistent with the pan-ethnic diversity of the Bay, today’s participants comprise many ethnicities. Moreover, as noted above, practice of the genre today in the Bay Area involves a diversity of gender roles that, even thirty years ago, would have been unusual. For some, the community and its practices yield spaces in which issues surrounding complex identity definition may be, at least partially, resolved. Non-traditional or multi-ethnic families may find means of solidarity through involvement with son jarocho activities. More aspects of performing diversity include interplays of adherence to jarocho norms and flouting them; and of performing birth ethnicities and forming communitas with those of different origins. Identity formation and acceptance into the community unfolds through an informal sequence of learning the norms, practicing repertoire and sharing life experiences, much as takes place (at a vastly accelerated pace) in an interdisciplinary studio.


Impromptu fandango in San Francisco to support collecting clothing for child refugees.

These themes and others are expanded through ethnographic documentation of the community members’ experiences in my dissertation, which is nearing completion. With gratitude, I encourage others to find inter- and extra-disciplinary avenues such as the Studio through which to share their academic work. Genuine dimensions of perspective may accrue, while new sets of individuals receive the opportunity to benefit from specialized research they would not otherwise encounter.



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