In Pursuit of a Border Sound Identity
About five cars out, we shuffle around, looking for our passports. Our laughter turns into serious focus. Our lightness grows heavy as we inch towards the gloved customs inspector’s booth. Keep your words straight and your tone respectful, I think to myself. I’m a legal immigrant, but on this stretch of pavement, I always get nervous. Everyone’s quiet. We’ve left the hustle and bustle of street vendors and conversation. Over the years cameras and surveillance equipment have been added to the dog-sniffing routines. Our windows are rolled down and all we hear is the stop and go of the cars. This, the shortest stretch, seems the longest every time. We are not in México, and we’re not yet welcome in the U.S. Here we go.
What are you bringing from México?
What was the purpose of your trip to México?
To have dinner.
Is this your car?
What are you doing in the United States?
Going to school.
The customs officer waves us through, and everyone lets out a quiet sigh. We roll up the windows and take a moment to savor the silent victory of making it to the other side. The sound of cars is replaced by a gliding zoom of continuous, smooth pavement, and our conversation resumes.
José Manuel’s Narration:
For as long as I can remember, walking on Avenida Juárez has been a sensory experience very different from that of any other avenue in the city. “La Juárez,” as it is colloquially called, is one of the oldest streets and a commonplace where inhabitants, migrants, tourists, and some celebrities, draw many stories that are part of a border narrative. As a boy, in the early 1980s, I used to walk the Avenida hand in hand with my mom to cross to El Paso, Texas, to shop at the stores from “Los Chinos” (who were actually mostly Korean). There, my mom would buy fabrics and materials to make floral decorations for family weddings or quinceañeras. On our walk towards the international bridge, we heard many sounds. Many of these coming from nightclubs that from an early hour promoted late-night fun.
Amidst the music and the shouts of the clubs and bars announcing their promotions, which shifted back and forth between Spanish and English and were sometimes a bit racy, my mom would take my hand firmly and we walked hurriedly towards the bridge; even so, it was inevitable to hear the good, the bad, and the inappropriate. Among the hustle and bustle, it was common to hear the live Norteño music, Solo Singers (Audio 1 & 2) or a Mariachi band. They regularly sang “Las Mañanitas” for groups celebrating a birthday in a restaurant. Elsewhere, rock bands could be heard rehearsing for the evening show. All kinds of things were sold on Avenida Juárez (Audio 3), and sales were pitched through shouting, music, loudspeakers, and recorded jingles. On any given weekend, the bustle used to be deafening.
Audio 1. “Avenida Juárez Live Music.” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)
Audio 2. “Don Che Ledezma.” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)
Audio 3. “Avenida Juárez. Tacos, tacos, tacos!” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)
Once on the bridge, an interesting sound transition began, moving from the hustle and bustle to a lower intensity of sound. Now, in our gait, the prevailing sound of the cars and the engines running—at low speed or making a long halt—was mixed with the screeching of brakes and some mechanical failures producing harmonies that, in tune with the voices of vendors and beggars made up the soundscape of this contact area, an inexhaustible source of aesthetic exchanges. On the other side, a quieter El Paso Street awaited, our walk was not so bustling, some stores regularly had music, but it was a little more moderate and in the background. The soundscape that characterized El Paso Street was made up of conversations of shoppers dialoguing with the sellers. The most distinctive sound, perhaps, was the beep of the pedestrian traffic at the crosswalks. But although both cities sound somewhat different, the mixture of two languages is persistent.
The Border Soundscapes Project