Performance and Social Memory

Sean Cook

"Betwixt and Between:Lydia Mendoza-La Alondra de la Frontera"


I borrow the title of this essay, "Betwixt and Between," from Victor Turner's "Variations on a Theme of Liminality." In this seminal work, he writes of the importance in all societies (although his analysis centers on the "traditions" of so-called "preindustrial societies") of the journey from one status to another, and terms these "rites of passage" "liminal." "Those undergoing [a liminal journey]-call them 'liminaries'-are betwixt-and-and-between established states of politico-jural structure" (37, original emphasis). Scholars have, in the more than twenty-five years since Turner's essay was published, pointed to a pervasive, Western bias in his work that clouds both the analysis and the conclusions. Diana Taylor in the chapter "PerFORWhat Studies?" from her latest, as yet, unpublished book, Acts of Transfer, quotes Turner's attempt to pre-empt "a perceived accusation of eurocentrism": "'[t]he fact that a social drama […] closely corresponds to Aristotle's description of tragedy in the Poetics, in that it is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude…having a beginning, a middle, and an end, is not, I repeat, because I have tried inappropriately to impose an 'etic' Western model of stage action upon the conduct of an African village society, but because there is an interdependent, perhaps dialectic relationship between social dramas and genres of cultural performance in all societies.'" Taylor nonetheless contends, "Turner's assumptions about events structured with a recognizable beginning middle and end may have less to do with the 'supposedly "spontaneous"' events than with his analytical lens" (Taylor). Following this academic model, then, I would like to preserve the concept of liminality, while at the same time removing it from Turner's Aristotelian (read "Western-centric") context. Doing this we come to an interesting question-is it possible to be born into a liminal state (i.e., a beginning that is already in-between; a beginning that has already begun; a birth, therefore, with no "beginning") and to remain there indefinitely (i.e., with no "end")? In this essay, I will position the singer/musician Lydia Mendoza in such a state, and will argue that it has enabled and determined both the building of her audience, and the means by which she connects with that audience.
I would argue that most, if not all, Mexican-Americans living along the border that divides the two countries have been living in the liminal state described above for over one-hundred-fifty years. On February 2, 1848 representatives from the US and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. On May 30 of the same year, the treaty was "entered into force." Because this treaty officially lowered the border, large communities of people who had heretofore been living in Mexico, and therefore, considered themselves Mexicans, suddenly found themselves residing in the United States. This issue is addressed in Article IX of the treaty as follows:
The Mexicans who, in the territories aforesaid [territories previously belonging to Mexico], shall not preserve the character of citizens of the Mexican Republic, conformably with what is stipulated in the preceding article, shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States and be admitted at the proper time (to be judged by the Congress of the United States) [emphasis mine] to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States according to the principles of the Constitution; (Griswold del Castillo 1990, 190)

Importantly, this is not the original version of this Article. The Usonian Government changed the portion that I have highlighted. It originally read, "and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States" (Griswold del Castillo 1990, 179, emphasis mine). The subtlety of the change actually increases its importance. Why did the US feel it necessary to change the wording here? Looking at the modification somewhat journalistically, two of the major W's are slightly (but crucially) altered-the "when" and the "who." The responsibility of instigating the status change is taken away from the inanimate constitutional principles (where it might accidentally occur by default), and placed in the human hands of Congress (where it certainly will not). Simultaneously, the temporal frame is changed from one of urgent immediacy ("as soon as possible"), to one of ambiguous delicacy ("the proper time"). Suddenly, those who sit content in hegemonic entrenchment are judging the "appropriate" moment to share their power with the figurative Other. I would posit that, not surprisingly, the "proper" moment has not yet arrived. The ambiguity in the alteration of Article IX created a gap-a liminal space. The affected communities became neither Mexicans nor "Americans." By granting control of this gap to the Usonians in power, the treaty virtually guarantees that it will never be closed, but instead policed and maintained.
I am aware that placing these communities in the "liminal," opens the possibility of misinterpretation. I wish, therefore, to make explicitly clear that my goal here is not to position the Mexican-American subject as "marginalized." I agree with Yolanda Broyles-González when she writes, "Peoples of color (and other communities in poverty) are often cast in analytical terminologies that signal powerlessness and an overriding dependency relationship vis-à-vis capitalism, which 'disenfranchises,' 'marginalizes,' 'subjugates,' 'dominates,' 'exploits,' and otherwise 'victimizes.' Thus terminologies tacitly replicate the ideology and momentum of capitalist imperatives" (2001, 184). She goes on to assert the need for "other fields, types, and relationships of power" and in an effort to meet this need, introduces the concept she terms "self-power." I would posit that this "self-power," which Broyles-González states "mediate[s], invert[s], or deflect[s] realms of negative social power," is made possible by liminality. There is a certain powerful invisibility afforded by the liminal. Again, I know that in the age of visibility politics, this is a dangerous statement, however, as Peggy Phelan wittily asserts, "A much more nuanced relationship to the power of visibility needs to be pursued than the Left currently engages…If representational visibility equals power, then almost-naked young white women should be running Western culture" (1993, 7, 10). I believe it is important here to define the parameters "visibility" as it is being used here. Visibility has been semantically co-opted by the hegemony and now often refers to the degree to which one is perceived by those in power. One does not cease to exist if one becomes "invisible" in this sense; one does not lose the power of agency. In fact, I would argue one's agency is to some degree augmented. This is not to say that invisibility is entirely a blessing. It carries with it inevitable hardship and discrimination, however, it also grants the ability to live and act between categories of conventional discourse, and to identify and act collectively with other "invisibles." This is self-power. It does not come "down" from the hegemony, and it is not formulated in opposition to the hegemony. It is separate; it is of the self; it is invisible.
Lydia Mendoza, a musician and singer whose name has become synonymous with "Tex-Mex" music to the extent that she is widely known as "La Alondra de la Frontera," is paradigmatic of the self-power created to some degree in hegemonic "invisibility." She is neither Mexican nor "American." Born in southern Texas in 1916, she is a part of the liminal community created by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Lydia Mendoza describes her early childhood as follows, "Before coming to the United States for good, we were always going back and forth. We'd spend a year in Texas and then a year in Monterrey [Mexico], because papa worked on the railroad…Sometimes they would assign him for a season here or there." This traveling meant that Mendoza's family literally spanned the border; of her six brothers and sisters, three were born in the United States and three were born in Mexico (Broyles-González 2001, 5).
On the one hand, this liminal identity meant that Mendoza's life and career were by no means easy. There was no "national" community to which she belonged. As Chris Strachwitz asserts in his introduction to the collection of Mendoza family narratives that he edited, "Mexicans, like Europeans, look down at their countrymen and women who have left for the United States as culturally deprived…Mexicans call emigrants pochos and accuse them of forgetting their culture and language. The same prejudices are extended to the Music of the North" (Strachwitz and Nicolopus 1993, xiii). Mendoza was faced with different prejudices, but of similar intensity, in the United States. Signs in hotels and restaurants that read "No dogs or Mexicans allowed" were not uncommon (Strachwitz and Nicolopus 1993, 267). As she describes it, "There was so much discrimination against Mexicans. Mexicans couldn't enter restaurants…If they were Mexicans, they were not allowed. If it wasn't a Mexican place, they could not enter that place. They couldn't go in and buy something because they would not be served" (Broylez-González 2001, 14). Mendoza tells a story of running out of gas while traveling with her family. They stopped at the only gas station for miles, but no matter how much they knocked and her Papá yelled, "We're out of gas, brother," the employees refused to even acknowledge their presence (Broyles-González 2001, 15). They were invisibile.
Importantly, though, the discourse of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo performatively created a large group of people who were facing similar prejudice. Shared invisibility creates a feeling of community that paradoxically enacts visibility. I believe Lydia Mendoza acted (and to some degree, still acts) as a point of visible identification for what Broyles-González calls an "auditory community…that often superceded the 'imagined community' of nation-states" (2001, 182). Although she does not give direct reference, it is likely that the "imagined community" Broylez-González writes of here is the brainchild of Benedict Anderson. In his book, Imagined Communities, he proposes the prominence of print culture in the early formation of the nation state (1991, 36-45). It is profitable to examine the differences and similarities between Mendoza's "auditory community" and those that Anderson proposes. Although Anderson acknowledges that today many nations share languages, he frames their nascent stage as follows,

Speakers of the huge variety of Frenches, Englishes, or Spanishes, who might find it difficult or even impossible to understand one another in conversation, became capable of comprehending one another via print and paper. In the process, they gradually became aware of the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people in their particular language-field, and at the same time that only those hundreds of thousands, or millions, so belonged. These fellow readers, to whom they were connected through print, formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community (1991, 43, emphasis mine).

This "visible invisibility" can be contrasted to the "invisible visibility" I have posited for Mendoza's listeners. Those in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century, fledgling print communities described by Anderson cannot literally see each other due to large sprawling populations, low population densities (relative to those of the twentieth century), and lack of rapid transit. However, they find in print a sudden visibility and self-awareness from which they gain a sense of community. The inverse process is true of the liminal border population under examination here. They are visible to themselves due to trains and cars, a more globally-aware modern consciousness, and a geographically concentrated community (relative to the European national communities on which Anderson focuses in the section above). They are rendered invisible by those in power and a sense of community is founded on this invisibility.
I would argue that Lydia Mendoza maintains her status as a point of identification for this community by becoming the (in)visible embodiment of their constant (without beginning or end) sense of liminality. One important aspect of this embodying is her concomitant ability to bridge what Diana Taylor terms the "archive" and the "repertoire." These terms impose a binary on what Paul Connerton, in his book How Societies Remember, calls "acts of transfer." The "archive" is comprised of "documents, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, all those items supposedly resistant to change." The "repertoire," on the other hand, holds "'embodied' memory-performances, gestures, orature, movement, dance, singing-in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, non-reproducible knowledge" (Taylor).
Although Mendoza obviously wasn't opposed to its supplementation (as her expansive canon attests), she does not place a great deal of value on the archive. Unlike many artists who depend on their studio albums to fund their careers through royalties, and who may spend months or years preparing for a single recording, Mendoza seems to view the recording studio as simply one more venue for live performance. She tells one story about going to a studio to collect some money owed her. As she was leaving, a record executive that she knew well stopped her and said, "'No, Lydia, before you go…let's record two little songs.'" This request came completely unexpectedly, however her reply was, "'Of course…let's do it…'" (Strachwitz and Nicolopulos 1993, 296). Mendoza's attitude toward royalties is also telling: "Because of the experiences that I've had with smaller Texas recording companies, I usually prefer to record for a set price in advance and not worry about royalties" (Strachwitz and Nicolopulos 1993, 300). Because of early experiences in which companies promised future profit dividends, and ended up giving her nothing, she doesn't trust any relationship with the archive enough to be reliant upon it, as many musicians are. By requesting a one-time sum for her work in the studio, she is, in effect, transforming the studio session into a live performance event, and therefore placing the act somewhere between the "archive" and the "repertoire." Finally, her casual, irreverent relationship to the "permanent" record (pun intentional) of her work is evident in the fact that she does not have a collection of her albums. She says, "My daughter Nora is the one that has all of them [the records]. As soon as I get a record [shipment], Nora says, 'This one's for me. I'm taking it home, because I know if I don't take it, you'll be left with nothing.'…I wasn't one of those neat or careful people who'd save those records…No, I just didn't save them and so the years went by" (Broyles-González 2001, 49). By neglecting to keep her records, Mendoza refuses to place her past musical accomplishment solely in the archive. She prefers instead to keep it simultaneously "embodied" in the repertoire: "many musicians write their songs down in a book because they don't know them by heart. They set up their music stand and have to look at the words when they sing. Not me. I keep them all up here [points to her head]" (Broyles-González 2001, 48).
Mendoza's music has always existed between the repertoire and the archive. Before she had learned to play an instrument, when she was a very young girl living in Monterrey, Mexico, she would collect the song lyrics that used to come in gum wrappers (an archival "act of transfer"). However, she was unable to sing the songs until one day a group of traveling musicians stopped into a store in her town to ask the shopkeeper, a man Lydia had known all of her life, if they could play. She talked her friend into allowing the group to perform outside his store, so that she could learn the melodies to her gum-wrapper songs (Broyles-González 2001, 18). It was through both her attendance of this live event and her collection of lyrics that she was able to produce her music. It is largely through such bridging that Lydia Mendoza has become such an important point of identification for her audience. The liminal community that comprises Mendoza's listenership is all too aware of the societal myth that "the "archive" somehow resists change, corruptibility, and political manipulation" (Taylor). Their invisible status means that within the archive, they are continuously subject to omission, misrepresentation, and outright abuse. A paradigmatic example is, of course, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. However, the mistrust fostered by such prejudice notwithstanding, this population also feels an affinity to the archive, as is evidenced by their avid collecting of Mendoza's records.
Unlike most musicians, who must upon their death succumb completely to archival representation or become obsolete, Mendoza says, "I will die singing" (Broyles-González 2001, 88). With this rather poetic declaration, she creates a new space where death is not a finite marker, but becomes stretched out indefinitely into song. She thus rejects the ultimate human dichotomy: life and death; and assures us that she will, true to form, occupy some liminal area "betwixt and between" such discursive distinctions. In so doing, she can continue, sans end, to act as a point of identification for her fellow invisible-visibles.
WORKS CITED


Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined communities. London: Verso.
Auslander, Philip. 1999. Liveness: Performance in a mediatized culture. London, New York: Routledge.
Austin, J.L. 1962. How to do things with words. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Broyles-González, Yolanda. 2001. Lydia Mendoza's life in music/La historia de Lydia Mendoza. New York: Oxford University Press.
Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of "sex". New York: Routledge.
Connerton, Paul. 1989. How societies remember. Cambidge: Cambridge University Press.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard. 1990. The treaty of Guadalupe: A legacy of conflict. Norman, London: University of Oklahoma Press.
Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked: The politics of performance. London, New York: Routledge.
Strachwitz Chris, and James Nicolopulos, comps. 1993. Lydia Mendoza: A family autobiography. Houston: Arte Público Press.
Taylor, Diana. n.d. Acts of transfer. Unpublished work-in-progress.
Turner, Victor. 1977. Variations on a theme of liminality. In Secular ritual, ed. Sally F. Moore and Barbara G. Myerhoff. Assen: VanGorcum.