Danced politics and quebradita aesthetics


Quebradita, or "little break," is a Mexican American dance and transnational musical style that became hugely popular across the southwestern United States during the early to mid 1990s. With its flashy Western clothing style, catchy tecnobanda (electrified brass band) music, and impressive acrobatics, the quebradita's novel combination of Mexican, Anglo, and African American influences represented a new mestizaje with a rasquache sensibility. Thousands of young people participated in quebradita clubs across the Southwest, adapting the dance and its practice to local histories and circumstances. Though short-lived, the dance was significant for its confrontational aesthetics and its political meanings, emerging in response to the anti-immigrant legislation that was then being enacted in California. Since then, a different yet related dance called pasito duranguense ("the little step from Durango") has emerged from Chicago and taken the rest of the continent by storm. Possibly a result of the new wave of xenophobia resulting from the September 11 attacks, the pasito shows the continuing relevance of regional Mexican music within the U.S. context.

I first heard of the dance called quebradita (or "little break") as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona in 1994, but I didn't see it performed until I took myself on a trip to Jalisco, Mexico in 1998. There I attended a competition in the small town of Pitillal, where couples performed hat tricks, daring flips, and the backbends that gave the dance its name to energetic tecnobanda music, the electronic version of the traditional Sinaloan brass band. The dancers' athleticism and artistry so impressed me that the next year I decided to base my master's thesis on the topic. In the summer of 1999, I conducted interviews and observations in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona and briefly in Hermosillo, Sonora. In 2005 I added Los Angeles and Chicago to my study, comparing the forms the popular dance took in different locations and examining how the dance related to the more recent trend of pasito duranguense.

When I first began to study the quebradita, I was struck by how many people were moved to express disapproval of my topic. A Mexican police officer who stopped me as I drove across the border wanted to know why I didn't study something "nice" instead, like ballet folklórico. When I arrived in Hermosillo, I found factory workers there performed the dance, but not their supervisor. Returning to Tucson, a Mexican-American intellectual laughed when I told her of my work, wondering why the dance was worthy of study. Over and over, I heard from those who considered it "tacky" or naco.

The negative reactions I heard only strengthened my conviction that the quebradita was much more than a fad. The disdain it earned from many observers stemmed from its aesthetic principles as expressed through flashy Western clothing and the fast, strident tecnobanda sound. This confrontational and strongly Mexican-American aesthetic gave the dance a political import during a time of ethnic conflict. In particular, it allowed dancers to gain visibility and claim urban space during the early 1990s, the time of California's Proposition 187, which sought to deny immigrants their basic rights; English-only legislation; and the rebellion produced by the Rodney King verdict in South Central Los Angeles.

The quebradita aesthetic is a very modern one, but it has deep roots in both Mexican and Chicano arts. It was a product of the border region, where working-class, mestizo musics like ranchera, norteña, and more recently banda have long held sway. All are expressions of an aesthetic/ideological system termed lo ranchero, which Manuel Peña describes as being associated with the past and with "the rugged but pristine, unspoiled and virtuous life that el rancho promotes" (Peña 1999:123-125). It is indexed by a whole host of symbols of ranch life, from vaquero (cowboy) clothing to gritos, the stylized shouts some believe originated as cattle calls. Because ranchero musics belong to a historically marginalized underclass, lo rancheroalso expresses issues of class and ethnicity.

Quebradita expressed its ties to the larger rancheromusic/dance complex in various ways. Some steps and styles, like caballito, or "little horse," el toro, "the bull," and la piolita,or "little rope," explicitly referenced rodeo events. Hat tricks called attention to the tejana or cowboy hat worn by the performers, and the fast footwork or zapateo put the focus on dancers' cowboy boots. Referencing older Mexican dance though the zapateo also said to those "in the know" that the quebradita was a continuation of those older traditions. Other references varied according to dancers' regional ties: in Tucson, border-style cumbia and Sonoran corriditas dancing played a role, while in Los Angeles, recent immigrants incorporated steps from Jaliscan banda dances and the cachongo of Nayarit. In both Arizona and California, quebradores also used moves from a variety of non-Mexican sources including country line dancing, merengue, and hip-hop. Such references helped dancers communicate a vision of a culture in which Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are able to participate in modern, technological, transnational society without losing their unique identity, their history, or their ties to place.

In my first video clip, one couple beautifully demonstrates a popular way to perform quebradas, turns, and other adornments, while the other makes the referencing of rodeo events obvious.

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The second clip shows two ways to dance solo quebradita: first with zapateo (or paso ranchero, as the video's voiceover terms it) and then a highly individualistic hat style.

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Quebradita dress made an even more obvious statement through its Western shirts with fringe, jeans in bright colors, hats, and boots. In contrast to newspaper reports that portrayed quebradita as an immigrant phenomenon, many immigrants actually found the style harder to stomach than did their U.S.-born counterparts, simply because middle-class Mexicans tend to consider lo ranchero backwards and embarrassing. Hermosillo native José Hunt told me he was at first hesitant to join a quebradita club after moving to Tucson: "The quebradita is kind of like the cowboy music in Mexico, and I didn't really dance that kind of music. Or, I didn't dress like people who danced that kind of music." Later he changed his mind, going against the tastes of many of his friends. "I'm not sorry I joined. A lot of my friends looked at me weird because I was doing quebradita…. Some of them [saw me perform]. They would laugh…. They didn't like the music, the outfits, anything. They would just make fun. 'You little cowboy,' whatever" (interview, 1999). Because Southwestern dancers did not wear western clothes in their everyday lives, the costumes helped to mark the dance as something especially significant and rooted in ideas of nation and region. It could be liberating to wear the boots.

But quebradita was more than this. When one watches the dance, it is immediately obvious that quebradores were different from the mariachis and the norteño singers who also call upon the ranchero aesthetic. Quebradores used folklórico moves, but they also used steps from hip-hop, swing, merengue, and country. Neither did their clothing, with its bright and glittering colors, come straight from the rancho. Instead it combined traditional elements like cuartas (short horsewhips) or cintos piteados (woven belts) with sequins and lamé fabric, tejana hats and exotic-skin boots with customized t-shirts. In California, former gang members who took up quebradita even made airbrushed shirts in cholo style and wore them with their boots, earning them the label of cholos quebrados (a pun conflating "broken cholos" with "quebradita-dancing cholos"). Quebradita was a conglomerate of popular culture, juxtaposing folklórico steps with the Electric Slide, urban gang style with cowboy culture. The dance thus brought together many cultures and accurately represented quebradores' confusing, conflicting environment.

The quebradita's use of pastiche, glitz, and a working-class sensibility showed it to exhibit some of the characteristics of rasquachismo, a particular aesthetic in Chicano visual arts relying on "hybridization, juxtaposition, and integration," along with high-intensity colors, elaborate ornamentation, and sparkle (Ybarra-Frausto 1991:156). Although both ranchero and rasquache are working-class aesthetics, the latter is uniquely Mexican-American and bicultural. And it is no accident that quebradita was created by teenagers, since rasquachismo is often best exemplified by, "the urban youth cultures, . . . [who] present profoundly dissident attitudes at the superficial level of style"(160). Quebradita style was such an affront to mainstream middle-class sensibilities that it provoked laughter from some observers. It was louder, flashier, and brighter, and it clearly showed its cultural and regional origin. The dancers in my next video clip show off their rasquache style: El Califas in his custom-made shirt and belt adorned with cuarta, his partner in sequins and lace.

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Inspired by depictions of quebradita on TV and in magazines and encouraged by deejays on popular radio stations like KLAX (a banda-format station that hit number one in L.A. during the mid-1990s thanks to the quebradita craze), hundreds of quebradita clubs were formed across the U.S. Southwest between 1991 and 1998. Yet the quebradita scene took different shapes from place to place. In Tucson, quebradita activity was centered on the clubs that performed and competed in public places, including Super K-mart, the swap meet, parks, and the rodeo grounds. These quebradita clubs were generally formed at high schools and were particularly strong at suburban schools far from centers of Mexican-American culture, where many students had not previously claimed their Mexican roots. At these schools quebradita helped to define peer social groups; they were also a way for Mexican-American participants to explore and negotiate their identities on both sides of the hyphen. It can be especially difficult to make sense of competing value systems like rural and urban, Mexican and American, for those who are part of the middle class in the United States, or who aspire to be so. Several middle-class, suburban dancers told me their involvement in the quebradita club led to improvement of Spanish language skills and increased interest in Mexican-American culture in general. For these teenagers, the dance not only represented the values of their forefathers but also helped them to create their own means of expression. It was part of the internal struggle of biculturalism and bilingualism as well as a way to build bridges between cultures, as administrators sometimes used quebradita clubs as school "ambassadors," sending them to other schools to create goodwill and foster ethnic pride (the slide show depicts CDO High School dancers performing the step called media luna on a basketball court at halftime). They served the same purpose at public festivals attended by multiethnic audiences: dancers unanimously reported positive reactions to their performances, and this reinforced their budding sense of ethnic identity.

In South Central Los Angeles, dancers created a unique scene that centered not around competition and performance but on "flyer parties," events generally held in warehouses and advertised through the distribution of photocopied flyers at schools and among friend networks. Reflecting the long history of street socialization in the area, quebradita clubs in South Central were formed in neighborhoods rather than at schools. They in many ways replicated the structures and practices of area gangs: club members threw signs, wore airbrushed shirts, and held a kind of initiation, the ceremonies of apadronazgo (godfathering) where older clubs agreed to help younger ones and sealed the pact by ritually spraying champagne over them. Their flyers replicated some practices of placas or Chicano gang graffiti in their long lists of affiliated clubs that showed their size and strength. L.A. clubs thus contrasted with Tucson ones in their inward focus: they brought together Mexican-origin youth, uniting Chicanos with paisas (rural immigrants) for the first time, but were seldom noticed by outsiders. The next series of photos shows a selection of South Central flyers from the early 1990s.

One reason the quebradita rose to such heights in the early 1990s was the political atmosphere of the time. Racist politics meant that dancing quebradita was for some both a way to reclaim ethnic pride and a step on the road to future politicization and involvement with ethnic-political activist groups like MEChA. It showed that one had not swallowed American pop culture whole and still retained ties to Mexican culture and the Spanish language. Today, quebradita clubs and competitions have disappeared. However, the quebradita continues to influence Mexican-American youth cultures in the new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sparked by the events of 11 September 2001.

The recent trend of música duranguense in many ways echoes the earlier Southwestern quebradita scene. This regional Mexican pop music comes from the norteño style of the states of Durango and Zacatecas; it became hugely popular first in Chicago and then around the country, topping charts in 2003. The dance called pasito duranguense,popularized by the Chicago music group Montez de Durango,combines norteño-style polka with influences from quebradita and merengue and has inspired Chicago teenagers to create clubs much like 1990s quebradita clubs. However, the look and the focus are different. The clothing style steers away from the earlier rasquache aesthetic, instead utilizing neutral colors and a unique hat style (see it in the next video clip, where Chicago clubgoers dance to duranguense), while duranguense videos and song lyrics incorporate more direct references to U.S. environments and the immigration experience than did their tecnobanda predecessors. For example, Montez filmed the video to their hit "El sube y baja" under Chicago's El train and at its Navy Pier. And in their "Las mismas piedras," we see a young man leave his home and family in Mexico to end up working in a Chicago warehouse, where a friend urges him to ward off nostalgia by dancing the pasito. In this way the pasito stakes its claim to territory within the U.S., demonstrating that space must be created for Mexicans in this country, and if politicians will not do it, then musicians will.

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Quebradita and the pasito duranguense are more meaningful than most fads. Outsiders often saw quebradita as tacky, but the teenagers who performed it found the dance a source of pride and empowerment, and the adults who sponsored their dance clubs saw it as a way out of gangs and a means of creating cross-cultural bridges. The quebradita's integration of many dance styles demonstrated that teenagers wanted neither to assimilate nor to maintain a conservative Mexican-American culture. Instead, they were intent on creating a new space for themselves in U.S. society and a new means of self-expression to show how they fit into that space. Today, new regional Mexican styles like duranguense take it a step further, putting down roots even further north of the border. In 1994, journalist Rubén Martínez asked, "[w]hile [California politicians] rant about the 'immigration problem,' the more pertinent issue might be this: When will they learn to dance the quebradita?" (Martinez 1994:10). The recent emergence of pasito duranguense from Chicago's Mexican community demonstrates the continued relevance of this question, and of the quebradita.

Sydney Hutchinson is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at New York University. She has published on topics such as salsa, merengue, and quebradita in journals like Ethnomusicology, CENTRO Journal, and Folklore Forum, and her book titled From quebradita to duranguense: Dance in Mexican American youth culture will be published in Spring 2007 by the University of Arizona Press. Hutchinsons dissertation deals with issues of migration, transnationalism, and gender in the recent history of merengue tipico (traditional accordion music) in Santiago, Dominican Republic and in New York. She is also active as an accordionist, pianist, and dancer, and maintains the website as well as a blog,

Works Cited

Hunt, Jose Miguel. Personal interview. Tucson, Arizona, 3 August 1999.

Martínez, Rubén. "The shock of the new; Anti-immigration fever is at a fever pitch, the real issue is this: When will the old (Anglo) L.A. join the new (Latino) L.A., and learn to dance quebradita?" Los Angeles Times 30 January 1994: 10.

Peña, Manuel. The Mexican American orquesta: Music, culture, and the dialectic of conflict. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.

Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. "Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility." Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985. Richard Griswold del Castillo et al, eds. Los Angeles: University of California Wight Gallery, 1991. 155-162.