Popular culture as a site of meaning

I'm first generation Mexican American, so my parents both migrated to the United States from Mexico. They were very young when they migrated, but they ended up in west Texas. And so they met and got married, started a family. And so I was subsequently born there in west Texas.

And so I've played music all my life. My father was a musician, I come from a musical family, etc. So when I was living in Austin, Texas, just as a student, you know, undergraduate, I was also playing music and meeting people and kind of, you know, finding myself in these contexts of people engaged in music making. Among them, were a set of musicians that ended up playing a particular music that was part of my musical heritage from where my father's from. And once I encountered this group of people, this community, I first approached it as kind of a student of music. I was like, “Oh, I want to meet and learn and, etc”. And I did. So I was approaching things as a student as a musician. But then, in that context, given everything that was studying, given everything I just explained before, once I was in that sort of context, and situation, I began to realize like, “Oh, you know, this is largely an immigrant community, largely undocumented.” And this music and this type of performance is playing a much deeper role with respect to how people are imagining and thinking, and really lending meaning to their own migration and experience of migration.

I think it's crucial. I mean, I feel like oftentimes it is art and aesthetics that are those sort of aspects of daily life and cultural forms that that take on the most meaning for people right? At the everyday banal level, like what we listen to, or what moves us. Or even in a way that's, let's say tied to migration, and things that I've written about like how is this music and poetry a way that these particular migrants, Mexican migrants, lend meaning to their own migration. To even at the broader kind of level of popular culture where we cannot be in a position where we dismiss somehow, something like popular music as being not meaningful or insignificant, because it's in those arenas where a lot of the stuff gets played out at a much broader level that has, in terms of cultural forms, it has huge impacts, right. Like when when female women artists are making particular statements around politics or race or their bodies or gender in ways that really challenge let's say, kind of heteronormative or patriarchal sensibilities that are oppressive, that are, of course that has an impact on the culture more broadly right into the how to how then let's say young women or women more largely than think about themselves are. And the same thing goes with like, you know, Black artists or brown artists or any like who have like using music to do everything from make a social statement to write a protest song. Oftentimes, you know, it is within cultural forms, in this case, expressive culture, specifically music, aesthetics that, you know, these messages, these sorts of… that they are sites of performance. That, I guess in my mind, the way I always talk about is that music is not just some sort of sonorous phenomenon, it's a meaningful cultural discourse. And as a site of meaningful cultural discourse, it's one in which a lot of things get worked out, a lot of ideas emerge and get challenged or like, bubbled up to the surface, and we have to deal with them, we have to face them.

Yeah, and it's, oftentimes it's through art. And so as an artist, myself, a musician, myself, I take that so seriously, in the sense that that's why I have the perspective that I have on not just art more broadly, in music more broadly, but then also like things that I teach that deal with art and music.

Alex Chavez

Alex Chavez is the Nancy O’Neill Associate Professor of Anthropology, Fellow of the Institute for Latino Studies, and Fellow of the Initiative on Race and Resilience.