In the video for their 1998 song “Stolen at Gunpoint,” TJ punks Tijuana NO! and former Kid East Los rapper Frost tried to erase the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring an imaginary full-clip guerrilla war on the suits and uniforms who keep it there. Splicing together archival footage of the Mexican Revolution and the Chicano civil rights movement, the video showed Tijuana and Mex-L.A. uniting to take back the land annexed from Mexico by the U.S. in 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe- Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War by drawing a new line in the dirt. Overnight, northern Mexico became the U.S. Southwest and thousands of mexicanos woke up as second-class U.S. citizens.
Over the years, this border between countries has created a border between a people: the divide that separates mexicanos from Chicanos. Rubén Guevara calls this “The Great Pocho Wall” — real, puro Mexicans to the south, their gringofied, English-speaking pocho brethren to the north — and he’s spent most of his adult life as an activist, writer and pioneering Chicano rocker (Ruben and the Jets, Con Safos) trying to tear it down through quiet artistic revolution.
His latest attempt is the Mexamérica project, a TJ-L.A. musical summit (funded by the Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture) that, besides being proof that TJ and L.A. have more to do with each other than LAPD corpse searches in Baja trash dumps, has resulted in a not-for-sale CD and an upcoming L.A. concert (where you can snag the CD for free). The Mexamérica disc throws together members of L.A. Chicano bands (Los Illegals, Calavera, Quetzal, Aztlán Underground, Blues Experiment, Slowrider) and Mexican bands from Tijuana (Nona Delichas, Mexican Jumping Frijoles, Tijuana NO!, Mercado Negro, Fussible) — along with a tongue-twisting Mexico City cameo from Maldita Vecindad’s Roco, and poetic spray from Culture Clash’s Richard Montoya and tijuanero Gerardo Navarro — in a series of studio tag teams that rightfully deserve the “transfrontera” label that Guevara and project co-organizer Rubén Martínez have envisioned.
“There is a transfrontera nation being born,” Martínez writes in the CD’s liner notes, which also include cross-border musings from Chicana writer María Elena Fernández and veteran Tijuana music critic Octavio Hernández Díaz. “From Boyle Heights to Culver City/From Michoacán to Wisconsin/From the taquerías of Queens to/The raves of Guadalajara.”
The roots of the project stretch back to 1974, when Guevara, who was born in East L.A. and raised in a Mexican hamlet in ’40s Santa Monica, went down to Mexico feeling like family and came back a rejected orphan.
“I was treated as a foreigner,” recalls Guevara, whose family left Mexico for the U.S. as part of the great migration north after the Mexican Revolution. “Which was odd to me, because I always thought of myself as Mexican. I was raised that way as a kid. My language was Spanish first. And suddenly I thought, ‘Geez, I guess I’m not Mexican — but I’m not American either.’ It’s a cultural schism I’ve been trying to bridge ever since.”
Mexamérica is that schism’s explosive, bumpy soundtrack, being worked out by parties on both sides of the line. Fittingly, it begins with the sound of binational friendship: Roco, Tijuana NO!’s Luis Güereña and Aztlán Underground trading what’s-ups and hand-slaps before ripping into “Breaking Down the Borders,” a bilingual metal-rapathon over indigenous drums that calls cards on the usual suspects (the border patrol, Columbus) and waves the flags of peace, justice and, in Roco’s neo- pachuco parlance, una conciencia en comunidad.
The politicized agit-rocanrol that’s at the top of Mexamérica’s to-do list does get the occasional rest, though. Calavera and Frijoles drummer Alfonso Nakamura conspire on a Thorogood–meets–El Tri beer-bust garage hustle (“Como Has Cambiado Tia Juana”), and Fussible drops technofied banda and mariachi samples into Blues Experiment’s retro Eastside funk (“What They Do”). But it’s the trip-folk of “Tener o Ser,” a soaring violin-and-jarana-laced duet between Quetzal’s Martha Gonzalez and Nona Delichas’ Claudia Morfín (the album’s only mujer â moment), that, by choosing melodies over slogans, and by weaving voices between voices and languages between languages, most delivers on Mexamérica’s community-through-music promise.
Otherwise, there’s a slight dissonance to Mexamérica’s transnational couplings. Which makes perfect sense: L.A. and TJ are connected by the very same forces — culture, economics, migration — that divide them. So their merger into “another country that no single flag can repre- sent” (Martínez again) shouldn’t sound smooth. On Mexamérica, everything is appropriately just out of sync — a note, a tempo, a beat away from a seamless fit.
“I think something’s been started,” Guevara says. “I hope that when people see the actual manifestation of our work, it creates a deeper commitment to this kind of art, and to thinking about each other more. Then let’s just make more music together.”
Mexamérica bands play at Olvera Street (at Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and Alameda Street) on Saturday, October 21, at 6 p.m., following El Pueblo Historical Monument’s “Rediscovering Our History” conference. Admission is free.
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