[This is a transcript of an original piece that I performed at the storytelling show, “Is This A Thing?” on October 13, 2014.]
It was a magical evening in all the ways that a 12-year-old girl wearing a scratchy, poofy, lavender taffeta dress would dream. I was staring into the eyes of Alfonso, my pre-chosen date, who wore a matching purple cummerbund and a beaming smile. He timed each of his steps to mine and we were wonderfully in tune as we circled in front of spectators and other revelers.
It had been a scorching summer in South Texas. My immediate family was visiting our cousins downstate. We had been invited to the quinceanera of a distant cousin and somehow, I had been roped into participating. Although these events take hundreds of dollars and months of planning, I was called in at the last minute. Luckily for everyone, I fit into the dress that had been made for another girl, who was too sick to make it. Leading up to the main event were a blurred sequence of days of planned activities such as learning the order of the coronation line and dances that I was expected to know. I wanted to encapsulate the culmination of those confusing days in that moment in Alfonso’s eyes forever.
Many of my early memories were infused with the culture that I had spent the first years of my life experiencing in San Antonio, Texas until the age of 18. Most of that time was spent being exposed to all kinds of music. My family loved to sing and they really loved to dance. As I was still figuring out my own tastes, I enjoyed music with people who were the closest to me. Different types of music were relegated to certain times and places. I listened to the oldies station while in the car with my mom, who taught me to love and memorize the same 100 songs they played over and over and over again. They still play those same songs today and I find that immensely comforting in the way that going back home to a place that doesn’t change very much does.
I loved mariachi bands that would come out for special occasions like weddings or birthdays; my favorite songs included wailing and gritos. The more emotional, the better. My brother exposed me to the beginnings of hip hop and New Wave. My paternal grandmother and I bonded over our love of swing music and Lawrence Welk. My dad got me to appreciate the easy listening station that he’d play on the way to church some Sundays; in a way that felt especially indulgent when we drove without the rest of the family. And finally, my uncles introduced me to the testosterone-driven hair metal that I only began to appreciate much later in life. But there is one style of music that permeated my childhood, the one related to my singular memory of Alfonso, one that I would have a very hard time admitting to liking as an adult and that is: conjunto.
Conjunto is basically the brown cousin to polka music. In fact, it was born out of South Texas at the end of the 19th century after German settlers brought over and introduced the button accordion to their new neighbors. As soon as this style emerged, it was consumed by and for the Mexican working-class culture. Most people that I mention it to, outside of Texas or my family, detest it. It relies heavily on the accordion and repetitive beats. It also speaks of the experiences of “low social classes” and therefore, is probably not very “stylish” type. It’s ironic that most modern conjunto bands generally wear dressy, matching caballero (cowboy) outfits that are colorful and sparkly from the cowboy hats down to the shoes. Conjunto blends my heritage of being Tejana or Mexican-American and French-German quite nicely. My mother’s side of the family has lived in South Texas for so long, that when asked about her Mexican heritage, she confidently states that she is a Texan PERIOD. My dad’s side of the family immigrated to South Texas to a town called Castroville otherwise known as “Little Alsace” harkening back to their land of origin.
My feelings for conjunto are complicated. This is not the kind of music that I’d listen to on the radio, even when I’m in the car by myself. Nor would I buy any of the songs or albums or know the words to the most popular hits. It’s the kind of music that I like because of what I associate with it. It brings for me all of the heady soft-focused feeling of nostalgia. And when it really comes down to it, it reminds me of the one of the most important things in life and that is love.
My grandmother, who after a life of hardships and a cheating alcoholic husband, smiled from the sidelines at that quinceanera. She would light up every time she heard that familiar sound of the bomd-bomd-bomd. She could count off on her fingers all of her favorite conjunto bands and all the songs she loved. I wonder if it reminded her of growing up on a South Texas ranch, in a nearby town, surrounded by her family and cousins and horses before life brought on its inevitable woes.
I watched my parents ahead of Alfonso and me. They swooped and glided with each other, smiling and never breaking eye contact. Their steps were smooth with years of experience. They are ALWAYS the first and last couple on the dance floor at any celebration. If they don’t know the moves to a song, they may make it up. Above all, they always have a good time. I would have loved for my mini summer romance to have lasted longer than that one dance.
I think that is what is most profound about our “guilty pleasures” that they reflect our humanity, sometimes our most earnest emotions, our dreamy nostalgia for a lost time. And for all of that, I am proud.