The Dialogue of Poets
By Belinda Acosta
APRIL 20, 1998: Imagine a place where poets were noble, and the nobility were poets. A place where the wise were visually depicted with flowers blooming from their mouths, climbing to the heavens in eloquent scrolls. A place where the Dialogue of Poets was a state event, convened to gather regional poets so they could share songs and poetry for no other reason than to celebrate the act of creating poetry. To imagine this is to know some of what is Aztlan. "Aztlan," translated from an ancient Aztec language, Nahuatl, is believed to be the original homeland of the Aztecs, situated somewhere in what today would be considered the American Southwest. Thousands of years later, it was this same Aztlan (or the concept thereof) that proved an important organizing concept for the Chicano Movement of the Seventies. Ignited by the farm labor movement led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, this Mexican-American movement of empowerment reached from urban barrios to college campuses across the U.S. Young, urban activists, Chicanos, expanded the movement to address social injustices and began to recover a history concealed by exclusion. Connections with the struggles of the native peoples of North America perked new ideas about racial and ethnic identity. It was a time full of epiphanies. The Chicano Movement was to young Mexican-Americans what the Civil Rights Movement was to African-Americans.
A vital element of the Chicano Movement, otherwise known as el movimiento or movimiento chicano, was its call to Chicano artists to create work reaffirming their cultural identity. Chicano writers, musicians, actors, and visual artists began to synthesize cultural art forms with a new, political consciousness. Visual artists looked to the Mexican Muralists for inspiration to create large, edgy scenes of barrio life, reflections of indigenous culture, or images of Mexican and Mexican-American heroes. Flor y Canto (flower and song) festivals gathered poets and writers from the Mexican-American community to share their work with each other. Teatros took social protest plays to the streets and to the fields. This explosion in cultural production is now known as the Chicano Renaissance.
In was during this renaissance, in 1977, that Juan Tejeda and José Flores Peregrino were both students at the University of Texas in Austin. As poets and musicians, they were members of Chicano Artistas Serviendo Aztlan (CASA), a collective of Chicano artists from on and off campus. Tejeda led a group of Chicano musicians who played mostly Latin jazz, and Peregrino would sit in occasionally when a conjunto sound was needed.
"I'd go to where they were playing to listen or dance, and then he'd call me up and we'd do a conjunto song," recalls Peregrino.
After a few more performances Tejeda and Peregrino joined forces with other musicians to form Conjunto Aztlan. Twenty-two years later, the group has finally put down tracks for their debut, Conjunto Aztlan. While longtime fans and soon-to-be fans will be pleased with the new CD, one can't help but ask: "¡Hijole! What took so long?"
"This group has always been performance-oriented," says Peregrino. "Just like a lot of folk groups or other movimiento groups, we placed more emphasis on performing and never really emphasized putting things in writing - keeping it in the oral tradition. We've always been satisfied with performing, writing songs, the energy of being out there live. I don't think anyone in the grupo at any time has been real gung-ho on, 'We got to record, we got to record.' But we've been doing this for 22-some years. As Lennon and McCartney said, we're not going to be able to be doing this when we're in our seventies - although, we might. It was time to get it down and record this bit of musical history."
In Spanish, "conjunto" translates into ensemble or group, yet it also refers to a specific Tejano musical genre whose principal instruments are the button accordion and the 12-string bajo sexto. True to form, Conjunto Aztlan uses these instruments, adding electric bass, drums, and other percussive instruments. While traditional conjunto music is their fare - polkas, valses, cumbias, boleros, and canciones rancheras - the various forms have been crafted to include indigenous rhythms and elements of salsa, rockabilly, and even reggae and zydeco. It's a potent mix, and not a bad one for a genre of music often dismissed within the Latino community as working class, "cantina trash" or "borracho" (drunk) music. Thanks to the Chicano Renaissance, however, it gained a new, intracultural appreciation.
"Conjunto was sort of 'rehabbed,' if you will, by the Chicano Movement in a romantic, nationalist thrust tied to discovering our roots," explains Manuel Peña, a former UT professor and scholar of Mexican-American music. "You have to remember that this was a time when any sort of behavior that smacked of middle-classism was scorned. Working class expressions were considered to be solidly Chicano (and) conjunto became a shibboleth for the movement."
In the last 20 years, attention by the Smithsonian Institute and the National Endowment of the Arts legitimized conjunto music, and when the NEA Folk Arts Program named Tejano conjunto artist Narciso Martinez one of its "national treasures" in 1983 - bestowing the same honor on Valerio Longoria as well - conjunto finally shed its cantina trash label. Today, conjunto is recognized as a North American art form along with the blues, zydeco, and Cajun music.
"No matter what your (class) status, the conjunto has become a symbol of Mexican-American heritage," says Peña.
As young Chicano songwriters, Peregrino and Tejeda, along with Chicano musicians across the nation, began to write music and lyrics that shaped what is now called "movimiento music," conjunto music with politically and socially charged lyrics. Other artists include Daniel Valdez and Agustin Lira, and groups like Flor de Pueblo, Los Alacránes Mojados, and Romel Fuentes y los Pingüinos. (It was Fuentes who wrote the Chicano anthem, "Soy Chicano": "Chicano, soy Chicano! I am brown and I'm proud.") In fact, many of Peregrino and Tejeda's earliest compositions appear on the new Conjunto Aztlan CD, some of them pre-dating the group itself. Other selections are by movimiento songwriters Jaime Gomez, Eduardo Robledo, Luis Valdez, and Agustin Lira. Two songs are from Teatro los Malqueridos.
Conjunto Aztlan has gone through several formations and dormant periods, yet several elements are constant: "the use of the button accordion, tight, two- and three-part harmonies, and original songs with politically, culturally, and socially conscious lyrics in English and Spanish," according to the Conjunto Aztlan liner notes. Current members include Peregrino on bajo sexto, vocals, and guitar; Tejeda on button accordion and vocals; Clemencia Zapata, drums, vocals, timbales; Daniel Mendoza, congas, bongos, and percussion; and Armando Tejeda on bass, 12-string guitar, and guitar.
Zapata joined the conjunto soon after she moved to Austin in 1985. She is also director and timbalera for the Austin-based salsa group, Sazón, and co-owner of Sazón Sound Productions. Mendoza is a "charter" member of the conjunto, having played on and off with the group since its beginnings. He is also a principal member of Sazón and co-owner of Sazón Sound Productions. Armando Tejeda is the newest member of Conjunto Aztlan, joining less than two years ago. Though he is by far the youngest in the band - he's an undergraduate at the University of Texas at San Antonio - Tejada has played with various groups including Santiago Jimenez, Jr's and Valerio Longoria's. Peregrino teaches English and creative writing at Austin Community College and is jefe of the only traditional Aztec conchero dance group in Texas, Xinachtli.
Though it's been reconstituted over the years, this configuration of Conjunto Aztlan may be the tightest. At a recent South Austin rehearsal - a central meeting point for the Tejedas of San Antonio and the rest of the Austin-based conjunto - it was evident that the voltage between the musicians is high. Standing in a circle to play and listen to each other, tension filled the space. It's a good tension, the tension that comes from tight cues which invigorate the music. Seasoned members Tejeda, Peregrino, and Mendoza work together like parts of a timepiece, but Zapata and Armando click right in with taut precision.
Yet while get-down, danceable conjunto is well in evidence this afternoon, and even better represented on the CD, that is not the sum of the group or the album. From the first note to the last, Conjunto Aztlan is a tribute to the movimiento chicano. Opening with the spoken poem, "Ika Tlen Niyazki," which pays homage to Chicanos' indigenous roots and to the spirit of Aztlan, Conjunto Aztlan is anchored by songs like "Los Birds Pa'l South," "El Picket Sign," and the stirring "Hijos del Sol," a paean to struggling farm workers. Reggae rhythms and playful Spanglish make for a humorous, street-swaggering version of Teatro Los Malqueridos' hit, "Chuco Chicano": "Some of the rucas dey don't look my way, porque yo soy chuco chicano. Dey get freakeadas wit de words I say, porque yo soy chuco chicano."
"Everything on the CD has been lived," says Zapata about the album during a rehearsal break. "A good part of it has been lived by all of us here, or our families."
Conjunto Aztlan and movimiento music has its fans, but it's not something that receives a lot of airplay. Even on Tejano stations, movimiento music receives little attention. Why then would a group of "old-time" Chicano activists want to invest $10,000 of their own money to produce a CD?
"The timing is right," says Tejeda, who when not playing, organizes one of the largest conjunto festivals in the country, the Tejano Conjunto Festival in San Antonio (May 12-17). "It's like the Chicano Movement is coming back - the push for affirmative action, the push for bilingual education, immigrant bashing, all these issues are here again. It's like we're in a time warp. Those issues are relevant now."
It could be said that movimiento music is the North American version of "nueva cancion," a style of socially conscious music from Latin America that has gained world-wide acclaim.
"Yes, Conjunto Aztlan's music could be considered in the same tradition," says Peña. "In terms of literary merits, it's there. Call it 'nueva cancion' with a Tejano twist."
Mercedes Sosa, Victor Hara, and Carlos Vives are but a few of nueva cancion's prominent artists. When Mercedes Sosa played UT's Bass Concert Hall in 1992, the house was sold out. Like movimiento music, nueva cancion takes culturally rich musical forms and infuses them with politically conscious lyrics. Why, then, hasn't movimiento music had the same widespread appeal in the States?
"[We're] not far enough away to be enchanting," Peregrino suggests. "Enchanting is always coupled with being far away. We do the 'nueva cancion' about here. Our music celebrates our chucos, talks about campesinos, police brutality in the barrio. In the U.S., we talk about starving children in Africa and Afghanistan and yet the highest level of child abuse is right here in this country through child labor in the fields."
Still, the Conjunto Aztlan is optimistic about their first release if only because, as Peregrino points out, the powerhouses of nueva cancion do not receive much air play either. "It's all almost underground, so how do they sell?" he asks. "When do you hear this music? Somehow, people find out. Sometimes you visit someone and you hear a CD. You might begin to look for and listen to that kind of music because the regular stations don't play them. People get hungry for it and seek them out. That's where we fall, I think."
All efforts will be made to gain airtime and distribute the Conjunto Aztlan CD in mainstream markets, but if you don't find it at the usual places, or hear it on your radio station, look for it in the Other Austin, the Austin not depicted in Austin Stories or in breezy commercials for local TV stations. Look for it somewhere in Aztlan.
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