If you’re from Texas, or the American Southwest for that matter, and a fan of its music, your ears surely perked up when the popular National Public Radio program Fresh Air focused an episode on the accordion. Many would say that the “squeeze box” is the region’s sound, and thus its most original contribution to America’s musical heritage. Yet that’s not what Fresh Air’s host had heard or knew anything about. Instead, she’d thought the instrument was about as exciting as the 1950s TV show with Lawrence Welk — which was for an already dated, slow waltz crowd in the years it was being produced. She considered accordions, therefore, corny and annoying, valuable only, maybe, for bar mitzvahs. But times changed, her ears were re-tuned, and with her show’s guest, we were to learn that the accordion was a surprisingly not dull instrument, loved in Cajun, avant garde, folk, indie pop, even something called klezmer, and that its sound’s reach was not just Eastern Europe, but Argentina, Madagascar and especially in a new French Musette “explosion.”
Out in the boonies of America’s West, where these national shows are well-heard, there lives a loud, boisterous tradition of music that dates from the turn of the last century that goes by the name “conjunto.” It is true that it belongs to a native people of the West, a peoples whose history can be traced back at least two centuries to what is American soil — born and raised within the geographical and historical boundaries of the United States — and this music, which at its big stage center is the accordion, has been its magnetic draw. Not only in the legendary sound of South Texas’s Narciso Martínez, or San Antonio’s Don Santiago Jiménez, but especially through his two sons, Santiago Jr., and Leonardo, better known as “skinny”: Flaco Jiménez’s fame, in particular, is so grand and wide that in 2015 he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award for his accordion virtuosity and preeminence. And it was the Mexican American music — not South American, African, or European — that didn’t get a mention on Fresh Air’s one-hour episode.
Really there is nothing surprising or new about most of the country being unaware of the culture and community of MexAmerica. On the other hand, it is such a strange form of ignorance — let me hyphenate to adjust the connotation, make it ignore-ance — that one might want to call it utterly fascinating in that unique quality. It requires omitting consciousness that so much of the western landmass of continental United States has rivers, valleys, mountain ranges, states, cities, streets and people with Spanish-language names. Over the years (and by years I mean at least 50) historians and scholars are inclined to attribute that unawareness to an “invisibility” of the community.
But the implication of this becomes that it must be something of a quaint, natural character inside the MexAm people, and not the effect of poverty or consequence of a lack of political power. I’d suggest that it’s more a visual degeneration in the center of the dominant culture’s eyes. No faces, only hands serving enchilada plates and then busing away what’s left of the spicy yum yum. Beds are made after a fun vacation day, floors swept and waxed for the bright, bustling morning in the office, lawns mowed and edged, healthy veggies are in the grocery store: People are not seen, neighborhoods go unknown, songs unheard, deaths not mourned… no cries of birth, sighs of first love, screams of sports joy; no bandages for knees, catechisms for church, homework for teacher, pink socks or baseballs or first cars or skateboards or bad boyfriends or off to war or diplomas or retirement dinners or college or family potlucks or ’buelita turned 99. And though I believe most of the ignorance about MexAms is not conscious or willful, it is equally true that enough is, be it forced by racist politicians in Arizona, or an ongoing blow of American history that began with President James K. Polk’s want of the land by any means necessary.
Even now, too many media stories that do attach are about immigration from the border, inferring that the entire community is recent and, worse, invasive — which, ironically, would be more appropriately descriptive of the Anglo migration from the South in Texas and the Midwest in California. More ironic — bizarre? — is how much it loves, besides the food, everything about the region’s Mexican culture, art and architecture, yet is shocked that these “other” people live here. “Invisible” is not the best word, that is certain. The culture is everywhere, is highly accepted, as mainstream American as the taco has become. But just as the Spanish rejected the corn tortilla of the conquered indios, the essence of the MexAm culture is regarded as too “lesser” to be taken seriously.
Accustomed as its own nation is to treating Mexican Americans as negligible or dismissible, times are changing as demographics do. It is said that this century will be about the power of the Latino. Latino? Take away the 66 percent of this population, the MexAm proportion, that one so hidden away in its western homeland, and what national power then? With the other third divided into several single percentage groups, MexAms ought to receive a landslide of attention. Yet, already and again, the raw facts haven’t created any gain, let alone advantage. Money and political pull are on the East Coast, and the national media’s stories are about those who are there; Puerto Ricans, Cubans and Dominicans are more the voice of The Latino, following the last century’s big city paradigm of Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants. MexAms don’t fly from New York to Mexico City, Los Angeles to Chihuahua. Instead, they are home in a poor city like El Paso or Ysleta or Eagle Pass, McAllen, San Antonio, Santa Ana, Riverside, Fresno, Chula Vista, Tucson, Nogales, Albuquerque, Denver, or Boyle Heights, El Monte, La Puente, Lynwood, South Gate. Though everybody’s house has family allá, most have never been farther across — across, meaning the “other side,” Mexico — than Matamoros, Juárez or Tijuana to look for cheaper prescription drugs or dentistry.
And so it goes with literature. The “national” scene knows the very least about Mexican American literature, historically or currently. Though it may not always be as clear as an Arizona school board banning material for ambitious, college-bound young Mexican American students who notice their culture’s absence in their curriculum, the offense, sadly, is the same, only larger in scale, when written voices and stories are passively ignored by all school districts, even when their student body is predominantly of Mexican American descent. Or even more: Why aren’t we going past wanting to educate MexAm children, in their own neighborhoods, to have ordinary pride in who they are and where they’ve come from, and asking how long all of our country can ignore a huge American region and heritage? How can it not want to understand or appreciate its people beyond enchilada or child-care talents, but as craftsmen, business owners, artisans and artists, thinkers, as purposeful voters, as the country’s future leaders? Too much to say as friends? As those who work alongside so many and have children who are in the same classes as their own? Is it possible to ignore and dismiss, to undervalue, an entire people without consequence? How should we educate all our own to each other?