Mexican American Mojo
Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968
Duke University Press: 408 pp., $24.95
The World of Lucha Libre
Secrets, Revelations and Mexican National Identity
Duke University Press: 288 pp., $22.95 paper
Seeing non-Mexicans partake in my mother culture makes me alternately smile and wince. Culture, of course, is fluid by definition, but there's something about Mexican pastimes that, when made safe for American audiences, too often lose a semblance of authenticity and transform into modern-day versions of Amos 'n' Andy. It's great that lucha libre, the Mexican style of wrestling best known for its masked fighters and acrobatic moves, is mainstream enough to get the Hollywood treatment in a recent Jack Black film, but the way Los Angeles hipsters rave about the wildly popular Lucha VaVoom series of lucha libre/burlesque events reminds me of American servicemen talking about seedy south-of-the-border bars. I laughed at comedian Mo Rocca's 2008 presidential primary season homage to Barack Obama in which he reworked the lyrics to the Mexican standard "La Bamba," but I wondered whether his band's enthusiastic use of maracas and Rocca's ending shrieks were to keep rhythm or just to enhance the spectacle of gringos appropriating the one Mexican song anglos know.
Maybe I think too much. But one of the great secrets of Mexican culture is how so much of it is imbued with sociopolitical meaning ("La Bamba," for instance, is a centuries-old song of Afro-Mexican origin that masks its message of liberty with nonsense lyrics), so coming across Americanized takes ripped from their original meaning is disconcerting at best, pandering at worst. It's great that non-Mexicans enjoy lucha libre and "La Bamba" without shame, but it's at the expense of true beauty most of the time.
Anthony Macías' "Mexican American Mojo: Popular Music, Dance, and Urban Culture in Los Angeles, 1935-1968" discusses the most-known version of "La Bamba": Pacoima native Ritchie Valens' sizzling rock 'n' roll take. But, tellingly, Valens initially didn't want to record the song because he felt "it would demean his culture" and was "afraid it would be exploiting his ethnic music." That Valens eventually did -- and did so wonderfully -- supports Macías' thesis that Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, despite the assertion of so many Know Nothings, can and do easily transition through the metropolis to create, enjoy and reinvent their two cultures into something new.
"Mexican American Mojo" is ambitious, seeking to detail the transformation of Los Angeles and its waves of Mexican Americans through the prism of music, culture and the interaction of L.A.'s segregated classes. Macías crams his book with riches of information -- dates, names, long-gone establishments like Venice's Aragon Ballroom and the Trianon -- but its writing unfortunately becomes rote after a while. It's as if the UC Riverside professor decided to sacrifice style in favor of information; that might work for a tome suited for an academic audience, but for a topic that's so accessible, it's unfortunate that Macías didn't spend more time working on his prose.
The author breaks up reams of trivia with interviews of musicians and people who lived through the era, adding their voices to the history of Los Angeles and showing that the city's oldest yet most-misunderstood ethnic group really just wanted to party -- and did, despite societal expectations of what Mexicans could and couldn't enjoy. "Mexican Americans adopted mass culture to satisfy their need for music and dance, tailoring both mainstream and anti-establishment forms to speak to their specific situations," he writes.
Yet after digesting this book, I still felt something lacking. Though "Mexican American Mojo" does a great job of proving its point, Macías ends at 1968, just when the Chicano movement took hold and a new generation emerged along with its music. He clips his thesis just as it's about to truly take off. (For a better accounting of what followed, I recommend "Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles," "Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock 'n' Roll from Southern California" and "An Oral History of DJ Culture from East Los Angeles.") As it is, "Mexican American Mojo" can very well be Los Angeles' version of Robert Caro's "The Power Broker" -- a volume everyone should own but few will ever read.
If Macías' writing style is that of the by-the-numbers historian, Heather Levi's entertaining "The World of Lucha Libre: Secrets, Revelations and Mexican National Identity" assumes the role of engaged anthropologist. Levi takes the novice into the world of lucha libre, veering between explaining the basics (moves, traditions, the difference between rudos and técnicos -- bad and good guys, respectively) and recounting a thorough history of the sport, touching on major fighters, developments and its frequent intersections with Mexican politics and identity.
The author knows her lucha libre: The introduction takes readers to the 1988 Mexican presidential election, during which survivors of the devastating 1986 Mexico City earthquake thumbed their noses at politicians and backed a luchador named Superbarrio, who had spent the previous two years railing against bureaucratic ineptness and enthralling the poor with his activism and ringside derring-do. Levi doesn't snort at the idea of a politicized wrestler, which is what many pundits did to Jesse Ventura during his run for Minnesota governor in the 1990s. "The success of figures like Superbarrio lay in the capacity of lucha libre to invoke a series of connections between sometimes contradictory domains: rural and urban, tradition and modernity, ritual and parody, machismo and feminism, politics and spectacle," she writes. And in that tight sentence, Levi nails the appeal lucha libre has had among working-class Mexicans for decades. The various intersections she describes -- class, sexuality, gender, xenophobia -- are frequently lost on American audiences but make the sport so enjoyable.
At times, "The World of Lucha Libre" reads as if Levi strung together various term papers on the subject (no book should ever use the tired rhetorical device, "In this chapter, I will explain," yet she does this a couple of times). And Levi is occasionally highfalutin, quoting Barthes and Octavio Paz to justify arguments.
Those are quibbles, however: This book entertains, informs and breezes by, although Levi ends on a depressing note, pointing out that lucha libre itself is becoming trendy in Mexico -- thus losing much of the sociopolitical layers that made it so popular and potent.
"It seems to me that its capture as a tool of commerce empties its use as political counter-theater," Levi worries. "What meaning is it to have when it is consumed by the Mexican middle class (whether as mexicanidad or as kitsch)? How does it change as a signifying practice when it travels to the United States to be consumed as yet more Mexican kitsch and then is shipped back to Mexico as Spanish-language versions of 'Mucha Lucha' and 'Nacho Libre'?"
It's a question you should ask yourself next time you eat at a taco truck, don a lucha libre mask or put on a sombrero come Cinco de Mayo.
Arellano is a staff writer with OC Weekly and the author of "Orange County: A Personal History."