Friday Five: “Chicano” Oldies

I realize I have an odd relationship to music. In general, most of the music I love comes from before or just after I was born. To put it another way, when most of the music I love was “new music” I was either not yet born or too young to form any memories of it.

I’m a historian, what can I say.

But part of my love of “oldies” (and by this I don’t mean just “old music” but, instead, the standard 50s and 60s music we associate with the early years of “Rock ‘n Roll”) is also cultural. I grew up in the greater Los Angeles area in a social world dominated by Chicano culture. This music played a big part in defining that culture.

The easy way to make sense of this is that I grew up in a social world where Chicano baby boomers were being nostalgic about their youth. Part of that is true. I think things like the Vietnam War and the more general loss of faith in the US political and economic system of the 70s also played a role in that nostalgia. So did the fact that they were grown up. But this music is bigger than that. It has even transcended the past in which it was first thought of as “old” as it continues to create an musical identity for Chicanos today.

Taken as a collection, it’s what Chicano culture sounds like, at least musically. It might be limited by region (Southern California) and time (late 20th century to now). It might be further shaped by whether folks are working class or not, and even by one’s connection to immigration (I don’t think it has penetrated into the immigrant communities that formed since the 80s).

Proof of this is the longevity of somebody like Art Laboe, the legendary DJ. He’s pretty much been on LA radio continuously since 1949. He was playing oldies music for a Chicano audience when those oldies were still “newies”! His dedication show (where listeners call in and dedicate songs to their loved ones) has been a standard part of Chicano LA (and beyond) for my entire life. The music he plays–oldies from doo-wop to R&B to soul–mostly fall into the “oldies” category, but there’s also newer stuff that sounds like the past. This is what I mean by one “Chicano oldies.”

So, though I’ve done this before, here’s a list of five more of my favorite Chicano oldies songs. My goal here is to choose the less obvious songs that don’t get a lot of play on standard “oldies” stations (or that didn’t, back when oldies stations played songs before 1980). What I think is most impressive about them is that even though they were mostly released more then a half century ago, these songs are well-known by subsequent generations of Chicanas and Chicanos who grew up in the greater LA region.

5. “Together” by Tierra (1980)

4. “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify (1966)

3. “Me and You” by Brenton Wood (1967)

2. “Baby, I’m For Real” by The Originals (1969)

1. “Sitting in the Park” by Billy Stewart (1965)

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WELCOME HOME: March 5 in downtown Pomona

Veteranos-MAR5

Friday Five: 1992

Life is filled with pivotal moments, periods of time that change us in fundamental ways. Most of us don’t have many, but the ones we do have are indelibly part of our story. I’d guess, for most of us again, those moments are far more frequent in our teens and twenties than at any other period of our life.

I turned 20 years old in 1992 and it was a year of pivotal moments for me. I read Marx for the first time and got seriously into Chicano history. The L.A. riots flipped my sense of the world upside down. I studied abroad in England in the fall, my first time needing a passport and my second time on an airplane. I got my first email account.

Here are just five of the songs that I associate with this period in my life. There are many more, but these are all from 1992 and all occupy a soft spot in my heart.

5. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” (Los Lobos)
Even though I had known Los Lobos for years, this song came from the first of their albums I ever bought, 1992’s Kiko. It’s a mystical album, folksie and spiritual, and the song is indicative of the whole. I was moved by the sound, the organ and the odd chords. It melded perfectly with where I was and who I was, with a nod to where I was from.

4. “Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang” (Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre)
It’s difficult to overestimate the significance of Dr. Dre’s debut solo album The Chronic. This song preceded the album’s December release by about a month. It was the first time I heard Snoop Doggy Dogg. All I can say is that it made an impact, seemingly with everyone.

3. “Galileo” (Indigo Girls)
I had friends who were Indigo Girls fans throughout my first two years of college. If not for the success of this song, the folk duo were the kind of sound I might never have encountered if not for college. This mainstream hit, however, made them unavoidable for my generation, and helped put them on regular play on my stereo.

2. “Tears in Heaven” (Eric Clapton)
I liked this song so much when I first heard it that I bought the soundtrack to the movie Rush, which is how the song–a love letter to Clapton’s son Connor, who died tragically at the age of 4–was first released. It was poignant and bittersweet. On January 16, 1992, Clapton performed it along with some of his classics and other songs as part of an acoustic “MTV Unplugged” concert. The concert would air later in March, result in a best-selling and Grammy-winning album later that summer, and signal the start of the next phase of Eric Clapton’s career. That acoustic version continues to be one of my favorite live performances of any song.

1. “That Feel” (Tom Waits)
Tom Waits was starting the third decade of his musical career when I discovered him. I never knew he existed before that and when he came to me it was like coming home. My first encounters with him where, simultaneously, a live 1974 recording (Nighthawks at the Diner) and 1992’s Bone Machine. This song, the final track to that album (which won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album, go figure…) is a duet with Keith Richards. It sounds about as beautiful as two drunk alley cats singing to themselves as they wallow in self-pity. It’s beautiful.

I’m at CSU San Bernardino today

I’m happy to be visiting the students at California State University San Bernardino on Tuesday, November 3, to talk about history and movements.

CSUSB-Nov15

If you’re a part of that community I hope to see you later today!

Immigrants are #MoreThanALabel

About a week ago, I was asked to participate in the #MoreThanALabel campaign, an effort by the MSW Program at Simmons College to promote positive immigrant-related discourse in the United States.

It’s not mystery that this is something dear to my heart, both intellectually and personally. It’s what I care about as a professor, through work that focuses on the history of Latin American-descent migrants and their descendants. It’s what I care about as a Chicano, as the member of a family and larger community that is both immigrant and native-born. And it’s what I care about as a person, as a human being who sees the unnecessary suffering of people as they make terribly difficult decisions to migrate and, ultimately, take up the struggle of creating lives in new often hostile places.

For those in the United States who care about immigrants––especially those who are part of the majority (white, native-born) society––there is work to be done.  If we really care about doing something to combat the labels and stigmas that affect the lives of immigrants in our country, we have to start by looking in the mirror.

We need to check our fears and assumptions. We need to open ourselves to learning about the diversity of immigrant experiences.  We need to promote the creation of new immigration systems that are designed to meet 21st century challenges.  And we need to forcefully and affirmatively commit ourselves to the social value of humanism.

Being a humanist in the 21st century means learning about the world. It means grappling with the complexity of things like capitalism and neoliberalism, systems that link much of us together in ways that are powerful and, often, invisible to our understanding. It means being empathic, extending ourselves to understand the lives, the desires, the struggles of others, even when those are nearly impossible to fully understand.

It also means changing how we think about the nation that is the United States.

There is no a person in the United States today who is not benefiting from the work of immigrants.  Not one of us will go the day without eating something that is planted, picked, packed, or processed by a Spanish-speaking migrant.  And that’s just one, life-giving form of work.  The work immigrants is so diverse that it relates to each of our lives in countless different ways, each day.  The common link of all this labor is simple: The United States does not survive without immigrant labor.

That is a good starting point, but its not a very humanistic one.  We’re not going to combat the racism and xenophobia making immigrant lives so difficult by shouting “We need them for cheap labor so we can benefit from them!”

What we need to do is to learn about these relationships between our own lives and the lives of immigrants.  We need to think about the ethics and morality that come with them. Is it right to benefit from the suffering of others?  Is it right to support a system that labels some “acceptable” and others “illegal”?  And finally we need to find a way to humanistically “flip” the power imbalance that makes migration such an oppressive system in our present.

We do that by accepting that global migrants deserve the same inalienable rights as do all other human beings in the world.  We do that by making sure our political systems nurture and protect those rights.

And we do it by living our own, individual and personal lives in ways that show it.

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“The People and the Police: Oakland” (1974)

This documentary originally aired in 1974. It was produced by KRON as part of their “Assignment Four” series. It’s narrated by Paul Ryan and was written, produced, and directed by Ira Eisenberg.

No work, so I can work

The Claremont Colleges kick off another academic year today, but you can’t take any of my classes. That’s because I’m on sabbatical for the fall and spring semesters.

This is the second sabbatical I’ve been lucky enough to have during my career, the last one being six years ago. That doesn’t seem all that long ago and then I remember Bush was still president. The election of Barack Obama, the death of Michael Jackson, and our collective awareness of the “Great Recession” were all part of my year of research and writing. So was buying our first house, and my two kids (there were only two then) turning 3 and 1.

Back then I was still working on my first book, which became Latinos at the Golden Gate. I had much of it researched, and most of it written, but it was still really underdeveloped and kind of all over the place. My sabbatical not only made it a better book; I’m not sure I would have ever had the time to bring it all together and get it published if not for that year. (And now that first book will be coming out in paperback in the spring!)

It already feels like I have a lot going on, almost as much as I normally would at the start of a typical academic year. The big exception is that all of it is related to one, overarching project: Mexican Americans and the Vietnam War. That’s the topic of my second book, which is now officially in progress. I’m also partnering with a local arts center in Pomona on a public history project that’s also related to Latinos and the military, only with a focus on the Pomona Valley. That’s a two-year project that will involve a lot of interviews and culminate in a museum exhibit in 2017.

After a wonderful “family” summer filled with trips to Big Sur, Yosemite, Comic Con, and Palm Springs, I’m primed and ready to get a lot done during this sabbatical year. I’ve been reading a lot these past few months as well as doing a bit of archival work. The months ahead will involve a lot more primary research––both archival and oral interviews––but my primary goal is to write as much of book #2 as I can.

I feel privileged to work at a place where support for faculty research is real and meaningful. I also feel lucky to be in the position to write this book at this moment.

In the months ahead I might start making use of this space to write a little more informally about my work. In the meantime, I wish all my colleagues a productive and fruitful academic year 2015-16!

Nam