Kairos 19.3
An abstract header image, with jagged shapes resembling sound waves in pink, blue, and yellow


José Manuel Flores

Dr. Lucía Durá


The University of Texas 

at El Paso




A graphical flourish
The title image, which reads Border Soundscapes Project
A graphical flourish


What Does the Border Sound Like?

We begin this Praxis piece with two particular recollections from personal experiences as regular border crossers. In the narratives above, we each describe two different border crossings through sound. Like these, there are millions of stories—millions of sound combinations. During a typical day, 50,000 people cross any of four international bridges in the Ciudad Juárez–El Paso metroplex (Villagran, 2019). Walking the Paso del Norte Bridge in particular can feel like being submerged inside a tunnel where the sounds of daily life and commerce intermingle. Like an artery, the Avenida Juárez on the Mexican side and El Paso Street on the American side connect the two downtowns, offering a unique border soundscape that represents the hybridization between two cultures and two languages. Anyone who has crossed the border, especially at this bridge, likely recalls vivid images, smells, sounds, tastes, and sensations around culture, customs, expressions, accents, and the migration process.

Through this study, we embark on a search for a border sound identity—a polyphonous representation of who border residents are, how we coexist, and how we clash in spite and because of being a border community with its many embedded and overlapping communities. Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, is a large city (population 1.5 million) in northern México, adjacent to El Paso, Texas (population 682,000) in the southwestern United States. Ciudad Juárez has been a territory of passage for many years—known in historical accounts as el Paso del Norte. People from different parts of México and other countries have arrived and settled, some with the intention of crossing to the United States and others, with unknown intentions or plans to stay—at least for a time. For this reason, a multiplicity of voices come together in Ciudad Juárez that bring different traditions and social dynamics to the construction of a hybrid identity, enriched by the constant exchange of linguistic and aesthetic codes (Audio 4, 5, & 6). All these voices meet in public and private spaces, producing soundscapes enriched by their daily use artifacts, that is, the sounds produced by all kinds of artificial and natural sources of everyday life—sources that over time have been transformed into codes of their own culture.

Audio 4. “La Rueda de San Miguel. Mexican traditional Children’s game.”
Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)

Audio 5. “Language. Mamaleche y Chinchilagua. Some of the typical accents of the Borderlanders.” Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)

Audio 6. “Emotions. Friends Playing Balero at Borunda Park.”
Source: Border Soundscapes Project (2019)

Similarly, the city of El Paso, separated from Ciudad Juárez only by the Rio Grande, has been an important thoroughfare both for the United States and for México for more than a century. El Paso was greatly impacted by the Mexican Revolution in 1916 and 1917, and even at that time had a Mexican majority population at 53% (Ellsworth, 1916, p. 4). Today El Paso is about 80% Latinx, mostly of Mexican descent (United States Census Bureau, 2019). In El Paso, linguistic notions are especially interesting because the region acts as a third space where a different language manifests. Some have called this third language, also known as Spanglish, deformed and contaminated while others perceive it as simply modified or enriched. As Eduardo Antonio Parra (2004) explained, the sounds that come from the other side of the border have been integrated into each side’s personal discourse, interlocutors subjecting it to their own rhythms and giving it new meanings. Despite how these two cities appear to the outside world, together they have an imbricated identity that is as much romantic and idyllic as it is rife with the socio-economic ideologies and inequities of today’s globalized world. 

Many perspectives about the border exist in textual and visual accounts. Little attention has been paid to how the border sounds. Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) told us that “living on borders and in margins, keeping intact one’s shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an 'alien' element” (unpaged preface). Perhaps that “alien element” is both a motivation and a result of this investigation, in the form of overlooked sounds and everyday voices. Through this work, we seek to understand if these sounds are part of a specific language of the inhabitants of this region, and how each city or territory has a particular acoustic ecology (understanding acoustic ecology as the study of the effects of the acoustic environment or soundscape on the physical responses or behavioral characteristics of creatures living within it [Schafer, 1977]). To this end, the Border Soundscapes Project was created by one of the present authors, José Manuel Flores, as a digital platform in its beginning stages inspired by the following questions:

  • How do soundscapes contribute to defining the identity of the border? 
  • What kinds of sounds constitute border soundscapes?
  • How does language function in these soundscapes? What are our accents? What do they tell us about our social dynamics? 
  • What are the sounds of nature in our region? What are the sounds of the built environment? What do they reveal about our relationship to the earth, each other, and the world?

The Border Soundscapes Project is based on the concept of “soundscapes,” coined by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer (1977) and his “World Soundscapes Project,” which made sound a formal subject of research and a fundamental dimension of what it means to “inhabit” the world in a “universal” composition in which we all participate. Schafer’s approach invited different knowledge-making perspectives such as music, architecture, design, computer science, sociology, biology, health, psychology, philosophy, rhetoric, and so on, to converge in a reflection that is unified by an authentic concern for sound, or methodologically speaking, the sound phenomenon.

Soundscapes are little observed in areas of communication and rhetorical studies (Gunn et al., 2013). However, they have begun to arouse the interest of scholars like Kati Fargo Ahern (2018), who sought to understand the sound spaces in memorials by questioning how soundscapes allow for starkly different experiences of embodiment, participation, and change due to their sonic materiality, as they do in their visual and physical materiality. Ahern’s pursuit gave us more ways to analyze and reflect on the field of rhetoric. Furthermore, Byron Hawk (2018) focused on the growing interest in sound studies and the junction of new materialism, based on Latour, Heidegger, and Serres's notions. An extensive work that explores the possibilities of composition nowadays.

On the other hand, Gavin Steingo and Jim Sykes (2019) highlight the need for new approaches to the study of sound, with an orientation towards ethnography and archives in various languages. Their vision exposes a commitment to place sound in and from the South as a unified and alternative notion. Border Soundscapes is a response to this need. It is a project that emerges from the necessity to investigate the border phenomenon by analyzing it unconventionally.

Sound is potentially influential in all societies. It is a powerful vehicle for social transformation through its different modalities as the recording of nature, the recording of historic speeches, the city's daily life, oral history, sound art, music, and so on. The sound memory of society grants semantic value to the sociocultural experience. Thus, it is necessary to cultivate it, guiding the community towards the relevance that sounds have in their daily life. Social change begins with ear culture. Therefore it is crucial to develop pedagogical tools that lead to identifying sounds with symbolic value for their context, history, and identity, which constitute both the individual or collective memory of a society.

This article explores some of the Border Soundscapes Project's questions through a conceptual framework called “dimensions of sound.” Over the course of 2019 and 2020, we collected urban sound sets from the U.S. border and the Mexican side. We were also able to capture sounds from both sides simultaneously. In total, we have collected 400 recordings following an ethnographic process of multilingual data collection and observation, which in this case involved observing with our ears rather than with our eyes. The Border Soundscapes project collection is organized following the three primary acoustic sources that make up a typical soundscape, geophonies, biophonies, and anthropophonies, in agreement with Bernie Krause (2015). For better understanding, geophonies are non-biological natural sounds produced in any given habitat, like the wind in the trees or grasses, water in a stream, waves at the ocean shore, or movement of the earth. Secondly, biophonies are the collective sound produced by all living organisms that reside in a particular biome. Lastly, anthropophonies result from human activities: language, music, border commuters, cars, planes, and many more. 

For this Praxis piece, we selected a representative sample and developed a sound analysis framework based on the natural, mediated and artificial dimensions of sound. To set up our analysis, we begin this article with a brief history of sounds and soundscapes. We then introduce the Border Soundscapes project and follow it with a conceptual framework for use by scholars and students, which we call “dimensions of sound.” 

This work seeks to

  • (1) contribute to the development of a cultural repository for borderlanders and, at the same time,
  • (2) contribute to the (re)mapping of sound studies through a rhetorical and border perspective. 

The sound heritage is a relevant source of cultural information due to its invaluable witness of human evolution. Also, sounds stimulate knowledge and function as vehicles of education and social empowerment. We believe that the study and distribution of soundscapes will influence the community as part of a social change process. In this sense, the ear culture will play a preponderant role in the border society. A sound archive represents a possibility for social, political, and entertainment uses. However, in the educational and cultural sphere, the value of sounds increases, as echoes of our daily lives, our identity, and how we differentiate ourselves from other cultures.

The Border Soundscapes Project