De que parte?

My grandfather’s letter to his carnal, 1946

When I was in elementary school (Hillcrest Elementary in Monterey Park) I was often asked the question: “What are you?” Sometimes I would act coy and answer “What do you mean?” but I knew what they meant. Then they’d ask “What’s your nationality?” and I’d say “American” but I knew that wasn’t the answer they wanted. Then they said “No, your parents.” And I’d say “They’re American too.” After being surprised by that answer they would finally ask “Aren’t you Mexican?” And I’d answer “Yes” but thinking to myself : Of course, I’m Mexican. The whole school is filled with Mexican and Chicano kids with the odd Cuban or Central American kid thrown in. The rest of the students were Asian and I’m sure they weren’t asked such questions.

Then I would get asked the question that I’d been really trying to avoid in the first place “What state of Mexico is your family from?” There is no Mexican that has not been asked this question, I even ask it to other Mexicans myself. I’ve always felt awkward answering though because my family has been here for a few generations and I have no real ties to any state in Mexico. I have no grandparents to visit, no Mexican cousins, no houses to visit during the holidays and yet I had to give an answer. I would reply “My mother’s family from Sonora and my father’s family from Michoacan.” Then there’d be this “Oh” as if my response said everything they could possibly want to know about me. In Mexican culture the state you are from is a big deal and there are enough cultural variations in each state for this assessment to be real.

For instance, I’ve always had a slight prejudice against people from Guadalajara, Mexico. Perhaps it’s been because most of the folks I’ve met from Guadalajara here in Los Angeles tend to have more money and also more European heritage which I think makes them slightly snobby. Lately too, as I’ve been doing research on my family genealogy and history, I’ve really come to identify with the states of my maternal great grandparents: Sonora, Durango and Chihuahua. So perhaps, that’s influenced my preference for the northern states.

My paternal grandfather’s family has always been a bit of a black hole. The story passed down to me was my paternal grandfather was deported soon after my father was born and not allowed back into the US. My grandmother told me she was in love with my grandfather but her parents objected to their relationship and kept them apart. They weren’t married when my father was born. She told me my paternal grandfather would send letters but my grandmother’s father threw them away and eventually the tenuous lines of communication faded away.

After asking my dad a million times for info about his father, I finally got it out of him that he had some of these letters. I was thrilled! What secrets would I uncover? Would the mysteries and the countless fictional narratives I’ve created around this man finally be resolved? I’m still working my way through the letters and there’s quite a bit to analyze and decipher. I’ve been impressed by my grandfather’s writing skills, for a laborer/farm worker (perhaps he’d been more) he’s very articulate.  It’s also interesting to notice the language variation between when he writes to my grandmother in a flowery and romantic way and the letter to his “carnal” (above) which is infused with border lingo.

The most shocking discovery about my grandfather’s past and one I would never have dreamed of, is that he and his family are from Guadalajara! My prejudices come back to haunt me. I knew he was from Jalisco but because he has always been so mysterious to me, I just assumed it might not be totally true. Guadalajara is where he finally returned after his unsuccessful attempts to make it to the US. There are few letters from a prison in Texas where he was kept after being caught trying to cross. Many sore spots surrounding his non-existence in my family’s life still persist, things better left unsaid on a public blog. My mother and father did try and look for him once in Guadalajara but their attempts were as unsuccessful as my grandfather’s border crossing skills.

According to the letters my grandfather and great-grandmother lived at this address:
Familia Ybarra-Ramos
Calle Independencia 110
Guadalajara, JAL, 44100, Mexico

Perhaps one day I will make a pilgrimage to Guadalajara and search the city for familiar faces.

excerpt from letter:

Pues yo cria que te avain castigado duro la migracion. Pero veo que eres invunerable y no hay frontera que se te cierre.

Sappy Slogans

Poster spotted in Hancock Park

I’ve always been a fan of public art especially stencils and wheat pasted posters. There’s been a long tradition of using these methods of public propaganda to promote subversive political ideas and critiques of culture. Often the graphics and posters are clever and thoughtful and the critiques they make witty and sharp. (See this video for how it’s done.) How could one not want to squat, take to the streets or run to the barricades after being inspired by such expressions of creativity?
It is within this context that I view the current crop of stencil/graff/flyposting artists here in Los Angeles and sad to say, these attempts at public art are hardly worth the mention. (Shepard Fairey? Pffft.) Most of the wheat pasted pieces I’ve seen, especially on the west side of the Los Angeles River are all about self-promotion and lack original and creative qualities.
Take this poster for instance. Einstein holding a sign that says “Love is the answer?” In this day and age of La Crisis and the numerous dire situations this city finds itself in, and the only thing this artist can come up with is this pseudo-hippie slogan? Oh how edgy! And Einstein…really? And when has ‘Love’ solely been the answer to anything? Some people’s ideas of love can be pretty screwed up, so no thank you. Social change comes not from wishful thinking and sappy slogans but from real engagement with the world we live in. Perhaps it’s this engagement that’s lacking from the current crop of west of the River public art.

“ People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth. “– Raoul Vaneigem, 1967

See LA Taco for an amazing gallery of public art from Argentina.

Favorite Video of the Week: Rembetiko

Rembetiko : Kaigomai-Kaigomai

A song scene from the 1983 Greek movie “Rembetiko” by Costas Ferris. More on Rembetika later.

English translation:
When a man is born, a sorrow is born
and when the war gets fierce, blood cannot be counted
Burn, I burn, spill more oil on the fire…
Drown, I drown, throw me into a deep sea…
Burn, I burn, spill more oil on the fire…
Drown, I drown, throw me into a deep sea…
I swore to your eyes, which were the Gospel to me
to turn the stab you gave me into laughter
Deep down in hell together, the chain break
and if you pull me by your side, blessed be you


I’m in between novels, hence more frequent posting. I’ve also been spending more time on Youtube researching various musical threads – so much so, that at this point I can probably do a favorite video of the day (I post videos daily on facebook). So what to do? Well, I suppose share them with you all, right?

Back when I was putting together the Music From Everywhere CD, I knew I wanted to include a song from Lata Mangeshker. She is after all, the voice of Bollywood and my first introduction to this music style. Dilbar Dil Se Pyare was the song I chose. The rhythm made me think of camel caravan stretching across the desert. The composers did a good job in conveying the atmosphere of the song because just recently I discovered the song really is about a caravan. And not just any caravan, a Gypsy caravan.

Lata Mangeshkar – Dilbar Dil Se Pyare – Caravan, 1971

While the music is strictly late 60s Bollywood, the dancing seems to be based on traditional Gypsy/nomad dancing from Rajasthan. I particularly like the use of the wheel in the choreography.

Oh Kesario Hazari Gul Ro Phool

The real Banjara-Gypsy dancing is beautifully performed in the much referenced (on this blog, anyways) Romani movie, Latcho Drom.
According to a translation on Youtube, the young Banjara boy is singing about a girl he loved who was so beautiful she was dangerous. “Beware the evil eye” was included in this translation.

It is believed Romani/Gypsy people left northern India about one thousand years ago in successive waves of immigration into Central Asia and Europe performing music and dance during their travels and sometimes were made slaves to perform as royal court musicians.

Another aside, of all the music of the Romani diaspora, it is Flamenco with the twelve beat compas and the rhythm of “Gypsy” Indians that is most closely related. In Flamenco there is a type of song called martinetes, derived from the hammering of metal smiths similar to what is shown at the beginning of the clip.

The border that isn’t

San Francisco trash can. Caution, items may escape.

This weekend in San Francisco I was asked a couple of questions that sort of surprised me and for one reason or another have lingered in my thoughts.

Someone asked me if I was Native American but they meant north of the US border native. It’s a common enough question but still interesting that the border still somehow defines a “regular” Native American person from an indigenous person in Mexico. I recognize no borders when it comes to my pre-European heritage.

Another person after hearing me speak for a few minutes asked me if I was from New Mexico. To this person’s ears my heavy vowel and soft consonant accent reminded them of their family from the region. Do Chicanos in the Bay Area not have accents? Anyways, I explained the accents are similar because they are derived from border languages of Spanish and indigenous dialects that moved west with folks from New Mexico, Arizona, Sonora and Chihuahua. But the accent here in Los Angeles is changing. It’s only the old-timers that speak like George Lopez nowadays. Glad to hear it’s alive and well in the ranchos of New Mexico.

Interesting that both of these simple questions brought up many more issues of identity than I was prepared to deal with at the time. Don’t ask me these kinds of things while I’m enjoying a beer, unless you’re prepared for a brutally honest response or a long, rambling answer.

Favorite Video of the Week: Explorations in Dance

My life is measured by dance parties, they are the occasions that define my time here on this planet. Such festivities sustain me through long work weeks and bureaucratic appointments. This weekend I played DJ for an impromptu gathering of people ready to bust some moves. We went from flamenco, to vallenato, to Bulgarian chalga and some banda and nortenos thrown in for good measure. The following videos are ones I’ll be watching to prepare myself for future dancing adventures.

Bulgarian gypsy – Sevgilim Apaz taifa – Mis Dibi

Luckily, one of my good friends has spent time enough time in the Balkans to have learned a few of these moves and share them with us. The rhythm in Bulgarian music is notoriously difficult to follow, add the Romani touch and man, I’m gonna need a lot of practice!
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Semmame Govend update

Popular semmame clip on YouTube

One of the best features of YouTube, besides the obvious access to clips from around the world, is the comments section. I must admit, ugly sentiments and vile comments can be often be found but more times than not, there are active interesting and informative conversations taking place.

After watching a good chunk of the available Kurdish Halay clips and scouring the commentary for bits of English to further my education on this intriguing dance, I finally decided to ask questions. And I am happy to say, I received answers.

I was told that “semmame” is Kurdish for a small, aromatic melon but it is also a traditional name for Kurdish women. My new YouTube friend also said:

“Another possibility is that in Kurdish tradition, when they love their daughters or young girls, they call them with the names of flowers and fruits. This song is Semmame buka.. buka means little lady.”

Ah, nice!
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Favorite Video of the Week: Cinema Cigani

This week I’m presenting a few clips from some of my favorite Romani* themed movies.

Clip from “Ko to tamo peva”

Ko To Tamo Peva (Who’s That Singing Over There?), 1980. Directed by Slobodan Sijan, filmed in Yugoslavia (Serbia)

From a youtube commenter: The two Gypsy musicians provide a running commentary through the film, like a Greek chorus. One of them plays an accordion and sings, while the other plays a Jew’s harp. The movie begins with them singing their recurring song, to which the refrain is “I’m miserable, I was born that way, I sing to sing my pain away, I wish Mama dear that I had but dreamt it all.” t’s about people taking a bus ride to Belgrade, just before the Second world war.

I have not seen this film and just came upon by chance when searching for other clips but it looks like the kind of film I’d be thrilled to see.
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Favorite Video of the Week: ÅŸemame hip hop

Bazid şemame hip hop (müthiş video)

Last year I did a long post on Kurdish Halay, it was one of my favorite posts to work on. I included a few clips of Semame, a fusion of traditional Kurdish music with hip hop style dancing and beats. There’s a large Kurdish population in Germany and just like with Chicanos, bi-cultural influences trickle down into everyday popular culture – for instance, this awesome Kurdish beatboxing. It’s these two girls though, that I find most impressive. They have a style, a rhythm that is so natural and makes one think that hip hop and halay have always existed together. Notice too, the little sister that tries to run up and join the dancing! Not sure of the location of this clip, Turkey perhaps?

Here’s the girls again, dancing to traditional music in semame style:

Random News: March 2, 2009

Random bits of news that caught my interest today:

article-0-03b05683000005dc-812_306x516 From

“Do these mysterious stones mark the site of the Garden of Eden?” asks Britain’s Daily Mail. I thought it was an odd choice to present this discovery of an early human sacred site in such a definitive biblical way.  A Kurdish shepherd uncovers Gobleki Temple, a Turkish Stonehenge.

From the Wall Street Journal: Mexican gardeners not losing as much work as their paisa cousins in construction and other trades. Wait until water rationing goes into effect. Many Immigrants Still Till the Land of Opportunity.

Remember the Orange Revolution? Unrest grows in the Ukraine, the economy is on the verge of collpase. Our economy is too but folks here can’t be bothered, they’re too busy watching TMZ. Unrest in Ukraine appears on the rise.

Everybody’s been linking to this video but it really is hilarious. Speaking of hilarious, I realized today I’m the only person I know who thinks Flight of the Conchords isn’t all the humorous. I don’t get it…

Louis CK on Conan O’Brien

Tomorrow and Wednesday, the greatest living Gitano Flamenco family, Los Farruco will be performing right here in Los Angeles. They are sure to bring the house down. See here for more details and info on half price tickets.