Sydney Hutchinson is a scholar, accordionist and carnival partier (of the pre-Lent variety) whose recent book, From Quebradita to Duranguense: Dance in Mexican-American Youth Culture, examines the cultural life of dances that were popular with Mexican-American youth in the '90s. You can read about her research and her travels at her blog, and maybe even drop her a line suggesting a name for her instrument--she offered to buy the person with the best idea a beer.
Tell me about your book.
It started life as my master's thesis some time ago, and has been through several incarnations since then. Some people think that because of mass media, popular culture has become homogenized, and new trends are imposed from above. This is not the case. People are very creative and come up with new dances on their own, developing them according to the history and culture of where they live. The Mexican-American teenagers that came up with quebradita and the pasito duranguense felt disenfranchised and often at odds with the larger society; dances like these that show pride in one's heritage were a way to cope and to fight against negative stereotypes of urban minority youth that, unfortunately, still circulate widely.
How did you first become interested in quebradita dancing?
Quebradita came out when I was a UA undergrad. One day, my roommate came home very excited after seeing a quebradita performance in the park. Her description made it seem like the coolest thing ever, and although her demonstration wasn't quite as impressive, I was intrigued.
In your book, you argue that the quebradita craze in the Southwestern United States served sociocultural and political functions. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It emerged from South Central L.A. at a time when anti-immigrant politics were rampant. Quebradita's biggest year was 1994: While (Gov.) Pete Wilson was pushing the notorious Prop 187 (which denied state services to illegal immigrants in California), teenagers were forming dance clubs. Both Mexicanos and Chicanos felt the effects of racism and came together to create a new kind of Mexican-American identity and make the community visible in a positive way. Pasito duranguense came out of Chicago in the wake of Sept. 11 and the new anti-immigrant legislation. In the current climate, I'd expect to see similar expressions soon.
Tell me about your research into Dominican merengue.
I study merengue típico, an older style from the northern Cibao region that's based around the button accordion. It's very different from the pop-style merengue one usually hears up here, much more exciting and jazz-like. I've been going back and forth between Santiago and New York City for six years in order to see how music that people still think of as "rural" adapts and helps its listeners to adapt to urban, transnational life. There are many great Dominican women accordionists, so I'm also looking at gender issues--how do they get accepted in a genre typically coded as masculine? Learning to play it myself was a great way to get in, and I gained some notoriety through TV and radio appearances in Santiago. Another goal is to bring merengue típico to a wider audience. To that end, I just produced a CD for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings with accordionist La India Canela. It should be available toward the end of the year.
I hear you were at carnival in the Dominican Republic this year. What was that like?
I've participated in Santiago's carnival for two years, where celebrations last from late January to March. Every town has its own carnival character, and Santiago's is the lechón. The word means pig, but it's purely metaphorical. The mask has a duck bill and huge horns about 3 feet long, and it's combined with a colorful costume covered in mirrors and bells. I joined a lechón group called Los Confraternos with whom I ran amok through the streets of Santiago, dancing, drinking rum, cracking whips and whacking people with inflated animal bladders (a 500-year-old tradition).
How'd you start playing the accordion?
I used to be a dancer and had won a scholarship to go study dance one summer with the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional of Cuba. After a knee injury, I had to cancel the trip. I bought my first accordion to cheer myself up during recovery. It worked pretty well.
What are some preconceptions people have about accordions and accordionists? Do people make fun of you?
Quite the opposite! A friend, Maria Sonevytsky, has been writing about how accordions are now big on the contemporary music scene in New York, which put me on the cutting edge when I lived there, and in Santiago, kids want to play accordion the way they do electric guitar here. What a relief to finally be hip!