Cinco De Mayo, Blowout Denial (Or: Rufino Tamayo, Burnout Ohio)
For those actually interested in the outcome of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, many of the United States’ Cinco de Mayo celebrations must seem about as Mexican as chop suey. In the ranks of cultural misappropriations for inebriates, it’s right up there with St. Patrick’s Day, except that instead of offering you dyed-green Bud Lite, someone will show you a picture of Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav wearing a sombrero. And you thought 911 was a joke.
But let’s not get too smug about this. 911 was not a joke. Celebration seems in order this week, even if many of us are too tired and numb to find the right words. I’ll dedicate the selections below to the unsung heroes who patiently get their jobs done without bluster and self-promotion. In tribute to Mexico, where millions struggle for basic dignity while caught in a crossfire few of us understand, I’ll throw in some blustery promotion for my favorite Mexican painter and band. Rufino Tamayo, a former wrestler from a Oaxacan Zapotec family, was sometimes derided as too “historical” for resurrecting pre-Hispanic art. Yet his art was both traditional and subversive, finding a riotously colorful new context for centuries of forgotten folklore. Never claiming the only “right” path, he insisted that the fundamental thing in art is freedom.
Much the same could be said for Mexico City’s Cafe Tacuba, a band whose two decades of subersively traditional, traditionally subversive music are captured in a 2010 documentary, Seguir Siendo. Josh Kun’s essay on the band captures the dizzying number of moving parts involved:
Tacuba has always made music that strives to participate in international conversations while being identifiably Mexican. They referenced Mexican cultural history, wore huaraches in their videos, played acoustic contrabajo and acoustic jarana guitar, spliced son jarocho, boleros, and banda into punk, disco, and classical, and sang songs about the metro and falling in love with a chica banda. Their belief that they could be avant-garde without ever having to leave home—which they spelled out on Re (1994)—has made them a favorite of like-minded music boundary-pushers throughout the Americas.
“Seguir Siendo: Cafe Tacuba” (Lado B, Track 1)
Cafe Tacuba, “El Aparato”
Finally, to betray my own Midwestern nerd-rock roots, I’ll close out today’s cross-cultural rambling with a couple of extremely non-Mexican provocateurs who also delight in muddling the traditional and the subversive. The first is by Liz Phair, the almost-famous New York Times journalist and Bollywood rapper. As an Oberlin graduate, she’s highly qualified to rhyme “Cinco de Mayo” with “Burnout Ohio.” The second is by Bob Dylan, who eventually disbanded his Woody Guthrie tribute band to become an ace storyteller and the country’s finest deejay. His chronicles of Yankee power are highly recommended for long walks in the drizzling rain:
Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?
Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?
Liz Phair, “Cinco De Mayo”
Bob Dylan, “Isis”