With His Ballot in His Hand

Anthropologist Margaret Dorsey on music, marketing, and Texas politics


Like no other Democratic candidate in this presidential campaign, Barack Obama has had an affinity for fan-launched viral videos, from a cutting spoof of Apple's famous 1984 ad to a star-studded singalong to a stump speech. But the most interesting Obama clip circulating online right now might be "Viva Obama!," a musical tribute cooked up by the Chicago-based marketing company Nueva Vista Media and performed by a California mariachi band. Aimed at Latino voters in Tuesday's Texas primary, the video features a Spanish-language testimonial to the junior senator from Illinois.

Translated into English, the song begins:

To the candidate who is Barack Obama
I sing this corrido with all my soul
He was born humble without pretension
He began in the streets of Chicago
Working to achieve a vision
To protect the working people
And bring us all together in this great nation
Viva Obama! Viva Obama!

The anthropologist Margaret Dorsey has listened to lots of lyrics like these—though this is the first time she's heard someone combine a corrido, a specific kind of ballad frequently used in South Texas political campaigns, with Mexican mariachi music. "This is insane," she laughs as she hears the song over the phone. "I can't wait to listen to it at home. It sounds like a wonderful example of cultural hybridity and innovation."

Dorsey has spent a lifetime surrounded by borderlands politics and borderlands music. The daughter of a now-retired Texas judge, she attended her first rally when she was five. More recently, she spent several years researching and writing Pachangas (2006), an intriguing study of the intersection between music, marketing, and politics along the Texas-Mexico border. It focuses on the pachanga, a local institution whose forms range from family barbeques with musical entertainment to choreographed commercial spectacles sponsored by Budweiser, Ace Hardware, and other multinational firms. She did her fieldwork in and near Hidalgo County, a rapidly growing border county that contains over 700,000 people.

Dorsey, 34, is now a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania. I interviewed her in late February, just a few days before the Texas presidential primary. We began by exploring the deep roots of Obama's campaign corrido.

reason: When did the corrido originate as a form?

Margaret Dorsey: The corrido of the Texas-Mexico borderland area comes out of a context of intercultural contact and conflict, specifically between Anglo and Mexicano populations. Américo Paredes [author of With His Pistol in His Hand, the classic study of the subject] points to the time period around 1900 to 1920, when you see the real emergence and innovation of this form in the region.

reason: What is the literal translation of "corrido"?

Dorsey: Literally, correr means "to run"; it's about a flow. But the best translation in English is really "ballad," or "border ballad."

The quintessential corrido, the ur-text, is "El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez." Paredes found many, many iterations of this song. It's never exactly the same: People change the places a little, and they play with it. But it follows the corrido form in terms of its rhyme scheme. There is a corrido melody, and it follows that. And the text tells the story of an upright man fighting for the right cause against a system that is not upright.

This is important, too: A corrido is based in reality. It's a legend, but it's based on historical fact. It's extrapolated from this wonderful story of what happened to this fellow.

reason: And what did happen to him?

Dorsey: In a nutshell, it's the story of an upright Mexicano fighting the unjust rinches, or Texas Rangers. It's a very long story, but the short version is they come on his property and try to arrest his brother, a shooting match breaks out, people are killed, and then he flees and Rangers chase him all over the state. Once they meet up, Cortez is put in jail. He is tried in several counties in rural Texas, and finally President Lincoln's daughter intercedes to have him freed.

reason: So it's a classic outlaw ballad, then.

Dorsey: It is. You can talk about this in relation to European balladry traditions. You can talk about this in relation to the Robin Hood story. It's connected to both Mexican and U.S. folk forms. In terms of Spanish balladry traditions, Paredes argues that it builds upon the romance form.

reason: It's interesting that this form that's identified with celebrating the righteous outlaw would evolve into something celebrating the outsider politician.

Dorsey: It makes a lot of sense, right? In my book I talk about [Judge Edward] Aparicio [subject of a popular campaign corrido, "The Song of the Judge"]. He was the politician from Washington state running for office in Hidalgo County in South Texas. And who was he running against? The political machinery. So you can see how those valences work.

You can see it with Obama, too. Bill Clinton was just stumping for Hillary Clinton in Corpus. There was not a strong turnout. There weren't many people there. And -- this fits perfectly with the corrido -- who was standing on stage with Bill Clinton? All of the political establishment, all of these elected officials. Then Hillary Clinton spoke at University of Texas-Brownsville, and from what I could see, she did not have a huge turnout.

Obama had a rally around the same time at University of Texas-Pan American, in Edinburg. At that rally, people arrived six hours ahead of time so that they could be close to Obama.

reason: But is a university typical? A campus would probably be stronger territory for Obama.

Dorsey: Well, I was watching the news, and they were interviewing some young people who had come from Rio Grande City, which is an hour away. Obama's bringing in lots of young people, and when you talk to political scientists who study Latinos in the U.S., you can see it's clearly falling along the lines of young, educated, cosmopolitan Mexicanos overwhelmingly supporting Obama. For Hillary Clinton, it's middle-aged Mexicanos.

reason: There's also the idea that someone like Alonzo Cantu, who was reported to be bundling contributions for Hillary, also has the sort of turnout machine that can bus people in to vote for her -- people who might not be as politically engaged on the national scene but know who their patrons are. Do you buy that argument?

Dorsey: I think people who make that argument are discounting the ability of individuals to make their own choices.

reason: The most recent poll numbers I've seen have Obama ahead statewide but with Clinton holding the lead in the border country.

Dorsey: That's pretty much what I've been seeing, too. I haven't seen any surveys that have Obama ahead in the region. What people have told me is that in places like the Austin area his backing is much stronger, but when you get into South Texas there's a much more even split. Even families are split.

We're just going to have to see. I don't think anyone knows. I'm not a predictor.

reason: You mentioned Hillary Clinton's rally in Brownsville. I thought it was interesting that the Brownsville Herald headline called it a "presidential pachanga." Later in the article, the reporter said the rally had "the feel of a political pachanga."

First of all, how would you define a political pachanga?

Dorsey: There are different types of pachangas. You have corporate pachangas, you have family pachangas, and you have political pachangas.

When you look at the political pachangas, specifically in Hidalgo County, you see various iterations of it. You see old-style pachangas, which are still in practice, which are all men, typically out in the country on a little ranch. There's live music, the men cook the food, they're talking politics, and they're organizing people to run for office.

Another kind arose with women taking an explicit role in politics: the dance-hall style pachanga. You find that in small towns and cities. It'll be in a dance hall, usually a family-owned dance hall. It'll have food—traditional Mexican-style entrees, but also served with white bread and things like that. It involves usually a conjunto band. Conjunto bands play various genres of music, including corridos and including dance music. They always have an accordion and a bajo sexto, which is a kind of guitar, and a vocalist.

These rallies involve a pretty set format. You usually have some prayers, the showing of the colors of the flag, patriotic gestures, introduction of the candidate, then the candidate's speech. And then everyone leaves. It almost feels like going to mass, it's almost that regimented. People dance beforehand and afterwards.

The third kind is a novel combination. It's moving more toward a spectacle format, so it has a much more visual orientation, easier to broadcast on TV.

reason: What's the relationship between a political pachanga and the sort of rally Hillary had in Brownsville?

Dorsey: I can't comment on it, because I wasn't there and I didn't talk to anyone who went to her event. The images I have just aren't clear enough.

reason: I found another report about the Clintons going to pachangas back in the '90s. Those were actual pachangas that do fit the term?

Dorsey: They do. Bill Clinton is and was a strong presence in this area. You go into restaurants, and you see signs with the owner shaking Bill Clinton's hand, saying this was Bill Clinton's favorite restaurant. I remember a couple of years ago Hillary Clinton was down in the Valley raising money. So they have maintained their presence in that area for a long time. I never heard about Barack Obama going down to the Rio Grande Valley and drawing in the big money people and raising money the way Hillary has.

reason: I want to read a couple of quotes from your book. First: "Scholars have tracked the work of people, particularly upper-class conservatives in power, who use terms like 'boss,' 'patrón,' and 'machine' in conjunction with politics to describe all that is bad in U.S. politics. Usually such discourse functions to disenfranchise poor citizens (who tend to be darker and immigrant), keeping them as far removed from the political system as possible." The other one is earlier in the book: "With the final fall of bosses like [James B.] Wells, who saw Mexicanos as political capital, and with the rise of reformist candidates, politics reverted to strict racial segregation and a systematic disenfranchisement of Mexicano voters. The texture of politics in South Texas shifted from one of pistol whipping and brow beating—coercing Mexicanos to vote a certain way—to excluding them from the process altogether."

At the surface, grassroots democratic reform seems to be opposed to that kind of machine politics. On the other hand, there's this history of people using "reform" as a way of cutting out the lower rungs.

Dorsey: Usually that's been how people are disenfranchised. When I was doing my fieldwork down there, you still heard Republicans using that rhetoric. The Republicans would use this talk of transparency. And Barack Obama also talks about transparency in his speeches, though that doesn't necessarily mean that the valences are the same.

This is why the story of Aparicio is so important. Block-walking [visiting voters door to door] and grassroots politics are very important to this area. It's very important for people to get to know the candidates, for people to have personal contact with the candidates. The corrido, the music, can often work to facilitate that.

So you do have this very complicated relationship between personal contact and people looking at voters, especially people of color, as a "herd" to be marshaled to vote one way.

reason: How does Obama's rhetoric fit into that? The period of disenfranchisement that you're talking about was the Progressive Era, which is associated with liberal reform.

Dorsey: Right. Martha Menchaca, who's at UT-Austin, is writing a book about this period in Texas politics. And she agrees that these analyses of "machine," "boss" politics where you have people voting in herds is highly problematic. She's an anthropologist writing a historical study that's going to add a lot of complexity to our understanding of that.

With Obama, it's just hard to tell. I realize that's not really a fair answer, but I think we'll be better positioned to answer that question in the general election. Because the general election will be Republicans vs. Democrats, and that's when you tend to see that rhetoric used more clearly, because it tends to be Republicans using that kind of talk against people of color, who tend to vote Democratic. Republicans are already talking about Obama the same way: He's part of "the machine from Chicago."

reason: A lot of people wouldn't talk to you on the record about political pachangas. Do you feel that reticence was justified?

Dorsey: If one feels afraid or threatened to speak about it, certainly it's justified. It's not my place to tell them they should feel safe or unsafe. Politics is still physical in Hidalgo County. The day Barack Obama spoke in Edinburg, the local TV station reported the sheriff going out to a site where people were campaigning for a state rep race -- the campaign workers were having clashes. People were afraid it was going to turn into a fistfight.

Politics in South Texas is still very personal. It's still very family-based for a lot of people. You still hear stories about there being brawls at the polls. That's not everywhere at all times, but it still happens.

At the pachangas themselves, I write about the politiqueras, the ward-heelers, and some people affiliate their role with a type of coercion in getting people out to vote.

reason: Your book talks about the corporate pachangas converging with the political pachangas. When did that start to happen?

Dorsey: I didn't put a date on that. But companies like Budweiser putting on these huge pachangas has been around now for at least a decade. One important fact that I highlight in my book is that right at the time when you expect the candidates to be busy at their own pachangas, Budweiser hosts this huge event and all of the political players are there.

Those events aren't just people from the lower Rio Grande Valley. They bring in people from all over South Texas.

reason: You had a quote in the book about the changing meaning of the term "crossover." A marketer you interviewed, Robert Peña, flipped the word on its head—instead of talking about Tejano stars and the like crossing over to the mass market, he said that advertisers need "to cross over into the Hispanic marketplace." So instead of the outsiders crossing over to the mainstream, the people who are seeking the consumers cross over to the consumers' niche.

You seem ambivalent about that process, but I think it demonstrates a really interesting mutual influence between the local population and the transnational companies.

Dorsey: And we're seeing this today in these political campaigns. You see that in that webpage you sent me: "Viva Obama!" Hillary Clinton is doing it, too. I think Robert Peña was showing some foresight.

We have this wonderful Obama corrido, this hybrid kind of mixture. At the same time, both Obama and Clinton voted in favor of the fence—what people along the border call the wall. And that is highly unpopular in these places.

reason: How do they address that issue when they're in South Texas? It's not just immigrants who are upset—property owners are having their land taken.

Dorsey: Hillary Clinton said at the debate that when she spoke at the University of Texas-Brownsville the previous night, she learned that the president's plan would go right through the campus of the University of Texas. She said there was a "smart way" and a "dumb way" to protect the border and that this was clearly "absurd." And she said it had to be "reviewed" and that she would "listen to the people who live along the border." But then, after she says that, she talks about "smart fencing" and using technology.

So while they're stumping, people from inside the Beltway are finally hearing what people on the border have been saying forever. It doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat, if your skin is light or dark, if your first language is English or Spanish—almost everyone is against the wall. So people like Hillary are saying that we're going to build it in spots, but first we have to listen to the people. She's trying to do both.

Obama's not that much different. He even said, in this debate, that they "almost entirely agree." Obama has three talking points on immigration, and he does a good job in sticking to those three points. But one thing he's added—and Hillary Clinton has mentioned this too—is that we need to work with Mexico and the governments of Central America to fix their economies so that we don't have as many people coming in. Then he shifts attention to—this is his number—the "12 million undocumented workers" in the U.S.

reason: How did you get drawn into this world? Was this around you already, or did you decide as an academic that you wanted to take a closer look?

Dorsey: I was raised in Texas politics. When I went to grad school I was interested in studying the relationship between music and politics, but I didn't know where they came together. I was constantly going back and forth between studying music and studying politics, and the convergence just wasn't there. Then, in 1998, I was reading the Corpus Christi paper, and I saw this photo of Bush stumping with [Tejano star] Emilio Navaira. And he just swept the largely Mexicano counties, the first time a Republican had done that since Reconstruction. That's what brought it all together.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of reason.