Review | Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture, by Eric Zolov

Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture. By Eric Zolov. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1999. ISBN 0-520-20866-8 (cloth); ISBN 0-520-21514-1 (pbk.). Pp. 349. $45.00 (cloth), $18.95 (pbk.).

Among my many nephews and nieces in Mexico, the rock acts Nirvana, Ozzy Osbourne, Pantera, Guns ‘N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Marilyn Manson are personal favorites. One might be inclined to read such musical tastes as confirmation of the reality of Anglo cultural imperialism. But at one point in Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture, in which Eric Zolov traces the emergence of rock music in Mexico, Zolov suggests that in our efforts to make sense of the place of Anglo music in Mexican society and culture, “We must avoid falling into the doctrinaire cultural-imperialist argument that presumes a mass of passive consumers of foreign culture, absorbing the aesthetic and ideological implications of a foreign rock ‘invasion'” (184). Zolov ends up demonstrating in his book that rock music from the United States as well as England has been perceived and used in multiple, critically-aware ways by the Mexican state and Mexican youth. Although Zolov is predominantly interested in reading the rise of rock music alongside and within the destabilization of Mexican state authority and social organization, his discussion ultimately invites consideration of how the Mexican state as well as its citizens have been affected by—and have responded—to the transnationalization of culture. Therefore, anyone interested in the “problems” or complications that the transnationalization of culture poses for national identities and cultures, particularly in Latin America, will also be interested in Refried Elvis.

As Zolov establishes in the introduction, the problem of nurturing a sense of imagined community has plagued Mexican leaders, especially since the Mexican Revolution. The Revolution itself was not unified, and when the bloodshed stopped in 1920, there was no coherent sense of nationhood. For the sake of salving internal division, the Mexican state immediately undertook the task of re-presenting the competing interests of the revolution as part of a singular, glorified struggle against the previous regime. As Zolov indicates, “Victors and vanquished [namely Francisco Madero, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, and Venustiano Carranza] thus shared the stage as national heroes, their images and (perhaps less successfully) memories sanitized and represented as official history: the unified Revolution” (4). Even in the present day, Madero, Zapata, Villa, and Carranza continue to stand as national heroes whose names are invoked for the sake of grounding Mexican national pride and unity.

In Mexico (as in other Latin American countries), there has been the additional problem of national identity being haunted by perceived cultural imperialism ever since Anglo capitalism began seeking out and securing Latin American markets. With the transnationalization of capital there has been an attendant transnationalization of culture that has destabilized the boundaries of national identities. At the center of Zolov’s work is the struggle of the Mexican state to maintain a coherent Mexican nationalism amidst the importation of rock music. In his first chapter, “Rebeldismo in the Revolutionary Family: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Early Impact on the Mexican State and Family,” Zolov indicates that rock music was eventually read as a threat to Mexican national identity and social organization. Initially, however, in the mid-1950s when English-language rock was introduced into Mexico, it enjoyed unfettered popularity not only because “it had an immediate appeal to a culture raised on dance” (18), but also because “the representation of rock ‘n’ roll successfully marketed around the globe was overwhelmingly a white one, with its attendant associations of a modernizing aesthetic” (18). Thus, the presence of rock music in Mexico was at first welcomed by the state and its citizens because it represented a way for the nation to join the First/White World. Zolov next points out, though, that rock music in Mexico came to be associated with “desmadre.” He explains,

An offensive, lower-class slang word, desmadre expresses a notion of social chaos introduced by the literal “unmothering” of a person or situation. This stands in antithesis to that other Mexican phrase, buenas costumbres [good manners or customs], which encapsulates all that is proper and correct … In challenging the social rules contained in buenas costumbres, the irreverant, raucous spirit of the youth culture threatened to undermine the very patriarchal values of parental authority that permeated middle-class social values. (27)

The Mexican state also became worried because “The official heroes of the Revolution had come to have less relevance for a new generation of urban youth who discovered a closer connection with James Dean and Elvis Presley than with Benito Juárez or Emiliano Zapata” (40). Evidently, young rock fans interested in reckless fun, gender-bending rock fashion, and “dropping out” of society were slipping out of the grip of official Mexican nationalism, and this carried with it the potential dissolution of the existing social and cultural organization of the nation (that is, the Nation as it was known).

In chapter 2, “Containing the Rock Gesture,” Zolov describes the Mexican state’s attempt to neutralize the transgressive potential of rock music. As the government sharply increased the tariff on imported records in order to halt the flow of “dangerous” Anglo rock into Mexico, record companies in Mexico, deciding to regulate themselves in an effort to evade government intervention, began contracting native bands to perform Spanish-language covers-“refritos” (literally, “refried versions”)-of English-language rock hits. Zolov explains that “because of the close associations between rock ‘n’roll and rebeldismo, copying the original connoted a level of authenticity that record producers were at this point anxious to tone down. What was needed was a Spanish-language equivalent that maintained the essential rhythm and structure of the original (with perhaps some English thrown in) but that provided greater control for producers who needed to deflect assaults by conservatives” (66). Thus, in the 1960s, Anglo rock’s ethos of defiance was translated into “a discourse of nonthreatening rebellion” (72) that “conveyed an image of familial harmony, but always under the rubric of assent to parental guidance and restrictions” (73). Zolov makes the valuable point that ultimately even the relatively sanitized refritos enabled youth’s sense of its own liberation. The push for refritos served to nurture a native rocanrol movement that still ended up signifying “a disruption of social control for many adults” (85) via its noise and attendant dancing and partying. As Zolov suggests, “rocanrol may not have been subversive of buenas costumbres on the face of it, but in its usage it became a wedge against the dictates of parents and other voices of authority” (88).

In chapter 3, “La Onda: Mexico’s Counterculture and the Student Movement of 1968,” Zolov concentrates on correlating Mexican youth’s unrest, protest, and rebellion in the 1960s with the increased popularity of rock music in English. He points out that 60s English-language rock made its way back to Mexico City via bands from the Northern provinces that had more contact with Anglo rock and were now looking for record contracts in the capital. He suggests that with greater access to rock songs in English, youth could “project themselves onto a fantasy space of a universal rock movement” and experience themselves more directly as part of the “countercultural consciousness exploding around the world” (98). In turn, Zolov says, Anglo rock can be seen as contributing to the “countercultural orientation” of youth who were now more willing to challenge social codes and official political power. By 1967, this new counterculturality came to be called “La Onda,” or “the wave,” and it manifested itself most memorably in 1968 with university students protesting (and then being massacred) at Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City.

Importantly, in the course of his discussion of La Onda, Zolov points out that in some ways rock’s role in the countercultural sensibility of Mexican youth in the 60s was somewhat limited. Clearly, rock music became more widespread in Mexico at the same time that Mexican youth’s countercultural gestures became more pronounced and radical. However, rock music was just one feature of students’ lives. As Zolov acknowledges, due to modern communications technology, students in Mexico were aware of the unrest, movements, and uprisings in other parts of the world, and this awareness has to be factored into understandings of Mexican youth’s own willingness to rebel. Moreover, Zolov indicates that Mexican youth already had powerful reasons for their own discontent due, among other reasons, to a corrupt government and repressive police forces. Although rock undoubtedly played a part in fostering rebelliousness-partly through advertising it and partly by serving as a point of identification for restless Mexican youth—it alone did not usher in student disobedience. By thus subordinating somewhat the role of rock in Mexican youth’s defiance and attending to a more comprehensive matrix of factors and influences, Zolov actually makes more visible Mexican agency in the negotiation of both rock and non-rock transnational influences. The foregrounding of this agency is perhaps the most exciting implication of Zolov’s book. Zolov demonstrates that Mexican youth were not simply sutured into or carelessly embracing foreign trends, and he manages to show how Mexican youth’s contact with a transnational countercultural consciousness produced not their abandonment of their “Mexicanness” but, instead, their own re-imagination of their Mexican identity.

Such an understanding of Mexican youth’s agency underpins Zolov’s discussion in chapters 4-6. For example, in chapter 4, “La Onda in the Wake of Tlatelolco,” Zolov indicates that in the late 60s, Mexican “jipis,” influenced by the influx of American hippies in search of a “primitive” experience in Mexico, were actually reappropriating Mexico’s indigenous culture. He says, for instance:

The naturalness of listening to rock music while in the Mazatec Sierra tripping on hallucinogenic mushrooms reflected the fusion of modern and indigenous cultural experiences that informed the hippie and jipiteca movements. It was discovering the possibilities of such fusion that opened up new spaces of meaning for a generation of Mexicans raised on a modernizing ideology that separated the ‘folkloric’ from the ‘cosmopolitan’ spheres of everyday life (139).

In jipismo, “Mexican youth thus discovered new ways of being Mexican, ways that ran counter to the dominant ideology of state-sponsored nationalism (141).

As Zolov relates, American and Mexican hippies unsurprisingly became the object of Mexican police crackdowns. However, Mexican youth continued to reappropriate nationalist discourse and imagine new possibilities for Mexican identity. In chapter 5, “La Onda Chicana: The Reinvention of Mexico’s Countercultural Community,” and chapter 6, “The Avándaro Rock Festival,” Zolov describes La Onda Chicana (the new rock movement of the early 70s) as distinguished by “a repudiation of sacrosanct nationalisms” by youth in search of “new collective identities based on a fusion of Mexican indigenous and mestizo culture with the rock counterculture that emanated, above all, from the United States” (176). Discussing the rock group La Revolución de Emiliano Zapata, for instance, Zolov indicates that the “mixing [of] images and references from foreign as well as national origins . . . reflected a strategy aimed at forging an original fusion” (180). Zolov therefore concludes, “In creating names and images that specifically made reference to the Mexican experience, [La Revolución de Emiliano Zapata and similar groups] forged an essential psychic space for youth in which they could reimagine themselves as social actors among the changing, newly constituted reference points of national identity” (181).

Only in his conclusion does Zolov touch on rock in the 80s and 90s. He points out that in the 80s, Mexican bands went in different directions under the influence of American punk and power rock. Then he suggests that in the 90s, “Mexican rock has once again become the vanguard of a new countercultural movement, one that transcends class in its opposition to the ruling political party and a mounting culture of repression” (258). Clearly, rock continues to be performed and consumed in Mexico in different ways and in different contexts that endow it with shifting significance. Today, for example, my nephews and nieces still listen to Nirvana and their ilk; Mexican magazines always feature articles on Oasis, U2, and Beck; 50-year-old, suit-clad Enrique Guzmán still enthusiastically sings Spanish-language covers of songs originally performed by Little Richard and the Beatles; and recently, modern-rocker Alejandra Guzmán, daughter of Enrique, performed her own fusion of modern rock and Mexico’s indigenous cultural history by performing at a replica of a Mayan village. In the many shifts that continue to take place in the performance and consumption of rock music, we see the ongoing renegotiation of the relationship between personal and national identity, tradition, and circumstance through calculated appropriations of foreign and native musical and ideological vocabularies. Of course, the possibilities are endless, especially now that many other influences have made their way into Mexico, too. For example, the 16 January 2000 issue of the Mexican magazine Eres recognizes rock, techno, heavy metal, dance pop, as well as “El Nuevo Idioma Musical: La Ola Francesa” (“The New Musical Language: The French Wave”) as some of the significant genres in the current Mexican musical scene. In an interview in this issue of Eres,Jorge Soto of the Mexican group Moenia explains that his musical generation is “like a generation of pushes and innovations, styles that had not been experienced in Mexico until the present day” (27). As these pushes and innovations in music continue to unfold, we might follow Zolov’s lead and continue talking about the attendant pushes and innovations in Mexican culture and identity.

Phillip Serrato
University of California, Riverside