Andrew Green: Negotiating musical and capitalist divides in San Cristóbal

The literature on sustainable livelihoods in the field of development studies emphasizes the importance of fostering diverse sources of income for economic entities like individuals, families, and communities (Chambers and Conway 1992). Especially in rural areas, economic actors often cope with shocks and stresses by spreading their bets, using different forms of capital (such as human, economic, and physical) to produce specific livelihood strategies (Scoones 1998: 6–8). Some (see O’Brien Bernini 2015) have recognized the relevance of this approach to music making. For example, Coulson uses biographic/narrative interviews to investigate the livelihoods of musicians in the United Kingdom, finding two conflicting tendencies: on the one hand, formal music education often encourages the development of solo specialisms, especially at a university or conservatoire; on the other, most musicians must be flexible, taking on teaching, composing, and performing with multiple ensembles in differing styles in order to gain sufficient economic capital to survive (2010: 265–266). Taking its cue from this literature, the present article examines music making in a tourist “dual city,” San Cristóbal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas, Mexico (Mollenkopf and Castells 1991; Aubry 2008). Based on ethnographic field research between May and October 2013, I argue that to make a living, musicians to some extent acknowledged political division, expressed and enforced through capitalist arrangements. Equally, I suggest that such negotiations evidence the limits to analytical notions of individual economic “maximization” as much as to “capitalism.”

A “dual city”
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a city of almost 200,000 inhabitants located in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. It was established by Spanish invaders in 1528, and this colonial history remains visible: ladinos (Spanish-speaking people of mixed heritage, called coletos in the context of San Cristóbal) tend to occupy the town’s center, while indios (“Indians” or indigenous people) are mostly consigned to the outskirts. For most of its history, this spatial organization was legally enforced through the casta system of racial segregation introduced by the Spanish. In the twentieth century, improved transport links to the rest of the country brought so-called “ethnic tourists” to the town, as voyeurs of the state’s exotic indigenous population (Berghe 1994). Tourism, and the accompanying gentrification of the city’s historic center, wrote the racist history of the town into its economic trajectory and spatial organization as indigenous people were priced out of the center. Rents in commercial spaces of the city’s central pedestrianized zones are now around ten times those in nearby streets. Thus, San Cristóbal, historically a “dual city” ethnically segregated under a racist colonial regime (Aubry 2008), became a “dual city” in a “post-Fordist” sense too, with a centrally located tourist center providing low-level employment for those situated around the city’s margins.1 The contemporary tourist experience is a contradictory one; on the central square visitors pay money to take photos with people dressed as feather-costumed, kitsch simulacra of indigeneity, while ignoring indigenous poverty when child beggars approach them in restaurants and bars.

Image 1: A pedestrianized street in San Cristóbal at night (photo by  Andrew Green)

In January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), an anticapitalist guerrilla movement made up of mostly indigenous people rebelling against the government’s neoliberal reforms, invaded seven towns and cities in Chiapas, including San Cristóbal. During its brief occupation of the city, the EZLN used San Cristóbal as a center from which to call media attention to the conflict, after which the rebels retired to rural Chiapas and accepted a ceasefire proposed by the government. Socially, the rebellion worsened tensions between the city’s different factions. Many coletos fled San Cristóbal during the conflict, and others left in its aftermath, while indígenas became emboldened to assert their right to occupy the city center. But the rebellion also brought to the city a number of so-called “conflict tourists,” NGO workers and activists who sought to contribute to the civil autonomous communities that the EZLN had set up after the conflict. These pro-Zapatista outsiders, most of whom were from abroad or from other states in Mexico, attracted the ire of coletos, some of whom saw them, ironically enough, as “invaders” of the city’s center. Both ethnic tourists and these conflict tourists, however, brought economic capital to the city, which exacerbated preexisting hierarchies, bringing greater wealth to city center businesses renting properties from a small number of landowning coleto families. The irony that the anticapitalist Zapatista movement attracts so much capital to a post-Fordist city with an economy built upon rent, ownership, and exploitation of labor is lost on few of its residents.

It is this capitalist context that musicians performing in San Cristóbal, the “capital of culture” of Chiapas and a city with a vibrant live music scene, must negotiate. During a six-month stay in the city in 2013, I conducted ethnographic research with several solo performers and bands operating in San Cristóbal, three of whom (Hernan, Manik-B, and Lumaltok) publically expressed sympathies with the Zapatista movement. The economic fortunes of these three artists varied, but all had many years of experience performing in the city. Although urbanity is often linked to increased economic specialization and division of labor, it was clear from my research that diversification was a key means of survival for these local musicians.

Music in the dual city
Manik-B was a musician who regularly performed reggae sound system sets in several spaces in San Cristóbal. Manik had cultivated highly diverse sources of livelihood, musical and extra-musical, over almost a decade of living in the city. While that reggae sound system provided his main income, Manik also had a five-piece acoustic cumbia band, Sentido Contrario, whose “pared-down” sound made it possible to perform in smaller, more intimate venues. In addition, he ran a shop that sold T-shirts, CDs, and posters with political themes; his 2011 reggae sound system album Nosotros (recorded in Chiapas) was on sale at his shop and in a select few spaces across the city. Manik’s reggae sound system set was usually accompanied by guitarist and singer Panchito-Rha, who had also cultivated diverse musical activities in San Cristóbal. Panchito was the lead singer of a reggae band, Yuca, and also performed with Manik’s reggae sound system and cumbia outfits.

In Manik’s reggae sound system music, allusions to the Zapatista movement, a locally sensitive and divisive topic in the city, were rarely made entirely explicit. Instead, they were recognizable only to those familiar with Zapatista language and discourse. Only one song that Manik occasionally performed, “Zapanteras,” made an unequivocal connection to the Zapatistas, having been written and recorded to celebrate a 2012 meeting between the Zapatistas and Emory Douglas, an artist and former Black Panther. More subtly, “Nuestros Pueblos” contains the line “There, where the peoples dance, the consensus of their elders is the success of their good government,” a reference to the Zapatista Councils of Good Government. Meanwhile, “Somos de Maíz” references the EZLN’s 2001 March of the Color of the Earth and ends with the line “Brothers and sisters of the color of the earth / Finally we will see the end of their damn war / Sound of the southeast, rebellion in combination.” Manik-B, then, had built up a semi-clandestine mosaic of Zapatismo within his reggae sound system set, constituted of references to an indigenous utopia beyond capitalism, which could be clarified and embellished between songs, leaving the singer enough flexibility to adapt to different spaces, audiences, and contexts.

By contrast, references to local political tensions were mostly absent from Panchito and Manik’s reggae and cumbia side projects. Yuca’s lyrics dealt with political issues less obviously close to home; for instance, one song supported the legalization of marijuana, and another criticized police repression. Panchito, who described himself as “very politically radical,” nonetheless had to be extremely careful of what he said with microphone in hand: “Sometimes you have to withhold some comments, reserve them for people you trust.” This self-depoliticization had to do with both personal relationships and a perceived recent decline in the number of commercial spaces tolerating radical political expression in the city. Manik’s Sentido Contrario, meanwhile, intermingled songs “with political lyrics” and songs “with lyrics about love—but substantial ones, not naive ones.” Covers of reggae and cumbia songs (for instance, Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me” and Manu Chao’s “Merry Blues”) were placed on a set list with a few reworked versions of Manik’s reggae sound system songs, including “Somos de Maíz.” Both projects provided alternative sources of income for the two musicians, and each implied expressing a less divisive political persona.

Such musical diversification may be attributed to a variety of factors, such as a need for creativity, boredom, affective connections with particular musics, and so on. Manik claimed it had been his dream since childhood to front a cumbia band. However, this diversification also created new sources of livelihood, new income streams. These were especially important in San Cristóbal for two reasons: first, commercial spaces in which musicians felt comfortable making references to Zapatismo were few, and second, some of these spaces had scarce economic resources. Here, I present two examples.

El Paliacate opened in 2010 as a community space, in which its clientele could participate in organizing events, playing music, and serving behind the bar. In an interview, one of the teams that managed the project contrasted its ethos of cultural “freedom of expression” with the goals of most spaces in the town center, where it was as if “culture and art functioned solely as a tourist attraction.” Performers praised El Paliacate for the discerning audience it attracted, and the venue’s community ethos was evident in its colorful interior, in which people passing through the city had painted many murals. The space’s young, cosmopolitan clientele included a large community of pro-Zapatista activists from outside the city, some of whom described it as “like a family.” The live events put on in El Paliacate were often of a political nature, and it was one of the few venues in San Cristóbal in which musicians felt comfortable expressing pro-Zapatista sentiments.

Although local activists saw El Paliacate in a positive light, many musicians in the community criticized it for how little it paid them. Most performers could only ask for donations after performances. As those running the space commented to me, this had to do with the venue’s economic situation: “Sometimes we can’t pay the bills.” Location was key; El Paliacate could keep costs down and pay low rent in a property a short walk from the center, but this meant less attention, fewer visitors, and less income. Correspondingly, relatively few musicians, usually only those who had already built up a following in the area, could command a fee from El Paliacate. For instance, Tzotzil rock band Lumaltok, whose performances always drew a large crowd, played in this space regularly, whereas the majority of commercial spaces in the city gave it no such opportunity. However, the band had to play at the space regularly for no fee for a significant period of time before being offered payment:

At the beginning they just gave us enough for petrol … They give us a bit now; it’s not much, like 80, 70 pesos per person. It’s something for us. They offer us something to drink and to eat.

Centrally located Café Bar Revolución, meanwhile, was commercially successful and able to pay its musicians a good wage, at least 200 pesos per musician for each concert. Its owners were reluctant to take any political stance, saying that “we’re not here to convince people of the need for revolution: this is a cultural space for entertainment that is called ‘Revolución.’” For the owners, this was an existential problem: around one hundred families, they said, were dependent on the business continuing to function, and should they step out of line, the government would find out and act against them (“The government is watching us. We know it”). The owners’ purported ambivalence toward political issues was not reflected in this space’s interior design. Revolución boasted a large number of pieces of art with revolutionary themes; further, the venue regularly hosted performances by Zapatista-sympathetic musicians such as Manik-B. The owners valued the diversity of music styles fomented in the space: “Jazz, reggae, salsa, rock, hip-hop … the stage is really open.” While the management stressed the venue’s inclusivity, it did retain some sense of exclusive identity, effectively marginalizing certain genres of music, like heavy metal. Musicians were invited to “play what they want to play” but only on the basis that they did not “desentonar”—a word that meant “play out of tune” but which could also mean “clash” or “jar” with the venue’s identity. This was justified based on an allusion to democracy: “the people” (la gente), they told me, “want to come to hear salsa, or a group that plays covers, that’s generally known; it’s a bit more our style.”

Image 2: Interior of Café Bar Revolución (photo by Andrew Green)

In part, then, power relations between owner and worker here become dissimulated behind allusions to the social. It was typical of the city that sociopolitical division should be expressed and reinforced through arrangements that were “capitalist”—in a Marxist sense, involving surplus value, rent, exploitation of labor, and the emergence of entrepreneurial and proprietary classes—and refracted through the identities cultivated by distinct commercial spaces. Hernan, a singer and guitarist who had spent several years performing in San Cristóbal, would sing Zapatista anthems, like the “Himno Zapatista,” in the few local venues that identified with the Zapatistas, like El Paliacate. However, in other venues, such overtly political musical expression was not tolerated; in interviews, Hernan recounted multiple occasions when proprietors or managers of commercial spaces had specifically requested that he not play the “Himno Zapatista.” The singer, then, changed his set in order to be accepted to perform in many venues, singing songs about love and heartbreak instead. Given the mandate within the Zapatista movement for its supporters to “spread the word” (difundir la palabra), such a situation created a tension for these pro-Zapatista musicians between livelihoods and politics. Like Hernan, they frequently had to produce strategies for attaining livelihoods through music while also “spreading the word.”

It is in this way that we might reflect upon some of the music produced by Manik—one of the great survivors of the San Cristóbal music scene. Manik performed frequently in both Revolución and El Paliacate, as well as diverse bars across the city, and had been a frequent visitor to the city in the 1990s; he was as aware as anyone of the city’s political tensions and instability. His musical activities created diversity and flexibility, particularly in the ways they approached the theme of Zapatismo; his reggae sound system music, which was frequently performed for a respectable income in Revolución, made veiled references to Zapatismo, attracting Zapatista-sympathetic outsiders who mostly disappeared from his performances in other spaces with Sentido Contrario. As revolutionary as this musician’s intentions were, then, his music reflects creative and pragmatic responses to the tensions present in this “capitalist” scenario.

An application of the livelihoods approach may help to explain why the presence of a significant population of pro-Zapatista activists in San Cristóbal was little reflected in the city’s live music scene. This approach can equally illuminate the forms that pro-Zapatista musical expression took in the city and its links to particular commercial spaces. As I have sought to demonstrate here, the livelihoods approach can be a useful tool for understanding musical activities and the negotiation of complex local political themes by music makers. It would be wrong, however, to portray these relationships as irreducibly economic. The case of San Cristóbal illustrates the nuances that the word “capitalism” obscures, as music makers had to negotiate sociopolitical divisions that dated back to the colonial era but which came to be expressed, in part, through post-Fordist, tourist capitalism. Finally, in line with Graeber (2001: 27–29), who argues persuasively that rational self-interest cannot explain human behavior, the relations of value emerging from this music making were not entirely economic. In interviews, Manik pointed out that his activities sat uneasily with models of individual “maximization”; financially, for example, his cumbia project represented a great economic risk based on many hours of effort. Indeed, it would have been most economically beneficial for musicians to avoid locally sensitive political issues altogether. Although capitalist arrangements provided these musicians with their means of attaining income, then, this was one arbiter of value among several.

Andrew Green is a PhD candidate at the Department of Music, Royal Holloway, University of London. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Studies and Music from the University of Sheffield and a master’s degree in Rural Development from the University of East Anglia. His PhD dissertation title is “Spreading the Word: Music as a Communicative Strategy in Zapatista Activist Networks in Mexico.”

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1. This is an empirical rather than progressive description, since San Cristóbal cannot be said to have ever been “Fordist.” The broad term “post-Fordism” here refers to an economic system oriented around spatially concentrated luxury services (tourism) attractive to capital-rich classes.

Cite as: Green, Andrew. 2015. “Negotiating musical and capitalist divides in San Cristóbal,” FocaalBlog, April 10,