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The Shock of the New : Anti-immigration fever is at a fever pitch, but the real issue is this: When will the old (Anglo) L.A. join the new (Latino) L.A., and learn to dance quebradita ?

January 30, 1994|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez is an L.A.-based editor of San Francisco's Pacific News Service and co-host of KCET's "Life & Times."

"La noche que Chicago se murio... "

The boots. Smooth, black brushed-leather boots. Snakeskin boots. Cheap, white vinyl boots. Sharp-toed boots. Tasseled boots. Hundreds of boots shuffling, kicking, twirling. Kick forward, twirl at the knee, kick back, twirl at the knee. . . fast , across the dance floor. Boots belonging to boys and girls. The boys in jeans and crisp white shirts, or in T-shirts with the names of their dance crews in graffiti-style lettering--"La Herradura," "Vaqueros Nortenos," "Indias Carinosas." The girls in jeans too, or short shorts, silver nylons and blouses sequined and sparkling. The boys with their mustaches, lots of mustaches. The girls made up, some modestly, others chola -heavy. And then the hats, the all-important tejana , the Texas-style Stetson, preferably black, tugged down low over the eyes. A sea of hats across the dance floor, bobbing up and down, along with the shoulders, the chests, the breasts, the hips, the knees and the boots that kick forward, twirl at the knee, kick back, kick fast, kick-twirl-kick-shuffle to the beat: um-pa-bum, um-pa-bum, um-pa-bum.

It's Friday night at Mi Hacienda in La Puente, and I'm witnessing the resurgence of the American cowboy and cowgirl: the brown-skinned and black-eyed vaqueros y vaqueritas . The new American cowboys and cowgirls are mostly from Mexico and have been here only a few years. But there are Salvadoran vaqueros , too. And second-generation Chicana vaqueritas . Most are in their late teens and early 20s, dancing to the quebradita beat of Banda Toro, a brass-heavy Mexican outfit in matching uniforms of embroidered shirts, boots and, of course, black tejanas .

"La noche que Chicago se murio..."

"The night Chicago died." The melody brings back memories of the '70s: a group called Paper Lace hit it big with this song about gangsters in Chicago. And here it is in 1994, in Spanish, set to the polka-ish, tinny, fast quebradita sound that the vaqueros y vaqueritas live for.

" Arriba Michoacan! " cries out Toro's lead singer between songs, a salutation to the natives of that Mexican state. A cheer sounds, hats are raised. " Arriba Jalisco! " More cheers, more hats. " Arriba Zacatecas! " Hey, that's me! Well, sort of. My grandmother was born in a small town of that Mexican state. If I had a hat, I'd wave it.

To say that there is Latino pride in La Puente tonight would be an understatement. It's more like a cultural revolution. We're Mexican, speak Spanish, dance quebradita and are damn proud of it.

And therein lies the revolution. The quebradita fad began here, though it's roots are obviously south of the border. Historians and and ethnomusicologists agree this is the first instance in which a Mexican popular music--in this case from 19th Century Sinaloa--has been revived and commercialized in the United States, then shipped back to the Old Country. In Mexico, quebradita is just starting to catch on, about two years after the scene took off here.

To Steven Loza, a professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, the quebradita scene is about establishing a sense of Latino independence--in the North. "People are saying that we don't have to look like Prince or Madonna," he says. "We can wear our boots and hats. The vaquero style is important as a symbol. When a Mexican puts on that suit, just like when in the old days you put on a zoot suit, you can walk into that club and be proud that you're a Mexican."

All of which begs many questions that relate to California's most volatile and polarizing political topic: immigration. Why is it that Mexicans both recently arrived and American born are proclaiming themselves Mexican on this side of the border? Are Mexicans and other Latino immigrants overturning America's cherished rites of assimilation, proclaiming themselves an independent cultural Other within the United States? And why now? Is it mere coincidence that the quebradita craze was born roughly at the same time that politicians began staking out positions against the presence of immigrants--especially the illegal immigrants--in our midst?

Most observers think that questions of "why so much pride" and "why now" merit a simple answer: "It's almost like a response, a backlash, if you want to call it, against the anti-immigrant rhetoric," says Loza. The question of the creation of a non-assimilated Other is a little more complex.

Quebradita is but one of many signs that the city of Los Angeles is undergoing a radical transformation. Latino Los Angeles hovers at more than 40% of the population--a plurality heading toward a majority. Historians and demographers refer to this percentage, which includes newcomers and several generations of the American-born, as a "critical mass," an agent of change.

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