“Don’t let Arizona take us back!” called Ximena Violante ’14 into the dark, swaying crowd.
There, under the lights of Olde Club, the Swarthmore mariachi band’s “radical baby” was born.
Fresh from a semester abroad, Ximena Violante ’14 needed a band to play with at the Halloween cover show. Reaching out to fellow members of Los Paragaricutirimicuaros, the Swarthmore mariachi band, Violante assembled a group to learn a few songs by East Los Angeles band Las Cafeteras. The Halloween show came and went, along with the group’s supposed expiration date. But the band, calling themselves Parangaterxs, soon grew into a fully-fledged project of cultural reclamation, musical exploration and political activism.
Last year the band was comprised of Violante, Yared Portillo ’15, Pati Gutiérrez-Fregoso ’15, David Lazere ’16, Azucena Lucatero ’16 and Nathan Scalise ’16, with Maria Elena Covarrubias ’15 and David Ortiz ’16 joining second semester after Portillo and Gutiérrez-Fregoso left to study abroad. The name “Parangaterxs” — spelled with an “x” to remain gender neutral — combines “Los Paragaricutirimicuaros” with “Las Cafeteras,” an ode to the origins of the band and one of its chief musical influences. Las Cafeteras plays a distinctive fusion of Afro-Mexican rhythms, hip hop and punk, and draws inspiration from traditional son jarocho, a musical style from Veracruz, Mexico, which has roots in resistance movements. Las Cafeteras’ music largely addresses issues of social justice facing the Latino community in the US, including Chicano, immigrant and transnational experiences.
Portillo, who originally introduced Violante to Las Cafeteras, said, “One thing I really like about [Las Cafeteras] is that they do music in English and Spanish — they merge both of those, which was a very central part of the experience for me, personally, growing up in a space that had both those things.”
Though Parangaterxs continued to play mostly Las Cafeteras covers throughout the year, members voiced concern about the implications of Las Cafeteras’ brand of cultural fusion, particularly with respect to its borrowing and interpretation of the son jarocho style.
“With [Parangaterxs], what does it mean to be playing covers of a group that’s already doing their own take on this huge, really rich tradition? Then it’s this doubly removed portrayal of [son jarocho],” said Violante.
This question gained complexity as Violante launched into research on son jarocho for her comprehensive or “comps,” the final senior project for music majors. When she began, she discovered that Swarthmore had few resources to offer on the subject.
“The process of going toward understanding what son jarocho is has been long and [Parangaterxs] has screwed up all over the place because there’s no guidance,” said Portillo. “Doing this within a space like Swarthmore in its own way feels like an act of resistance, of saying, I’m not just going to learn what they’re trying to teach me, I’m going to learn the things that are valuable to me, to who I am as a person, to my people, to my culture.”
Ultimately, Violante’s investigation into son jarocho did not entirely dissuade her from playing the songs of Las Cafeteras or similar fusion bands. “I still think those songs tell beautiful stories and they’re just wonderful, and really fun, and powerful, but I also have to [play them] in a way that doesn’t perpetuate the diminishing of the son jarocho tradition,” said Violante. Before the beginning of every Parangaterxs performance, a band member takes the stage to explain to the audience that what they’re about to hear is not music of an unaltered son jarocho style.
For the members of Parangaterxs, playing in the band has been not only a process of discovery, but also an opportunity to bring new awareness to others. After Parangaterxs performed at an action organized by Juntos — a non-profit working for the rights of the Latino-immigrant community in Philadelphia — the possibilities of this role became increasingly apparent. Following some deliberation, the band decided to adopt a more intentionally political position.
Portillo described of the moment, “It’s recognizing that you’re beginning to be a part of this community. The music you’re playing is not just like, ‘oh, we’re out here at this random, abstract school,’ but this can mean something to a community in the same way it can mean something to us.”
Following this transition, Parangaterxs’ work became focused on reclaiming and introducing cultural narratives to Swarthmore that are often excluded from mainstream academic discourse.
Thanks to Violante’s research, Underhill Library is now stocked with albums and the latest scholarly research on son jarocho. Violante said, “For me, the comps weren’t about getting a grade or making my professors happy. […] It was about showing other students at Swat that you can step outside of the main narrative and that there’s so much to learn outside of it.”
Members of Parangaterxs have found support among their peers, and the band has been invited to perform at a variety of student-run events, including the Intercultural Center awards dinner and a show at the Barn apartments. “People who are really involved in activism and social justice [at Swarthmore] have been really into Parangaterxs — that’s where I’ve seen the beauty in community come out of,” said band member Covarrubias.
Despite last year’s successes, the future of Parangaterxs remains unclear as the band’s direction is in flux.
“Two things to note: First, I have no idea what the hell Parangaterxs is, I’m not sure what we do. Second, I have no idea where we’re going,” said Portillo.
The band has discussed broadening its repertoire to include other Latin American musical styles, but has also considered narrowing its focus to concentrate on traditional son jarocho exclusively.
“One of the things we’re holding is how important it is to all of us to have Latino issues and Latino music represented on this campus, but what exactly that’s going to look like, I think people have ideas about whether this band is the best thing for that,” said Covarrubias.
Portillo added, “The best way to look at Parangaterxs is that it’s something that has been, and has been really cool, but there’s no guarantee that it’s something that will continue to be.”
Though Violante, having graduated last spring, is no longer a member of the band, her plans include continuing a long-term study of son jarocho. When asked about any existing son jarocho community in Philadelphia, she smiled and replied, “You’re looking at it.”