Hippo Reads is proud to be partnering with authors and presses to highlight excerpts from recently released titles. Today, we are proud to excerpt THE SOUNDS OF LATINADAD, published with NYU Press.

NYU Press is proud to have THE SOUNDS OF LATINIDAD as part of their ongoing series, Social Transformations in American Anthropology.

This series draws on the rich discussions that have taken place over recent decades with respect to the anthropology of the United States. It aims to explore not only social movements but the undercurrents of excitement that may be seen as the precursors of social transformation: union organizing and its relation to the wider community, immigrant workers addressing restrictive laws and claiming space for their children, community gardens wrung from the ever-rising cost of real estate, salsa and other neighborhood music that may build new immigrant social and political networks, and critical artistic visions expressed in wall paintings, theater, and poetry to express the complex reactions of the upcoming youth to the precariousness of employment and living conditions of the current era.

We welcome ethnographic research capturing the re-inventions of kinship and the family, gender, marriage, and reproduction which continue to reflect fundamental divisions in the U.S. imagination. We seek projects on topics ranging from environmental racism to collective urban protest. At core, we are interested in highlighting the engaged approach to anthropology that has re-emerged as a central theme in the 2000s, a perspective that allows the researcher to tackle theoretical issues while simultaneously observing and participating in transformative movements.

Crossing Borders

On any given weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, you might find Latina/o musicians and their audiences headbanging to heavy metal in a tiny club behind a Mexican restaurant, dining in a suburban Cuban restaurant while singing along to covers of Latin American and U.S. popular hits from the 1980s and 1990s, sweating in a crowded downtown club while dancing bachata and merengue, enjoying a festival in the park while a Regional Mexican band performs, or lounging in the upstairs bar of a Brazilian steakhouse while a duo plays bossa nova.

Along with the music, Latina/o immigration to Charlotte resulted in a flourishing of ethnic restaurants and food trucks, new dance studios, sophisticated cultural festivals, visual artists, concert promotion companies, radio stations, and associated small businesses. But with the increased visibility of Latina/o immigrants, a backlash of anti-immigrant sentiment has led to new laws and immigration enforcement strategies that target immigrant communities for surveillance. This political climate hangs like a shadow over the music scene, affecting audiences’ comfort level at shows in different locales and creating anxiety for undocumented musicians traveling between gigs. It is through the music scene that many immigrants find a new sense of being Latino (or latinidad) through participation in a community that builds upon Latin American traditions while engaging with southern and local culture. It was this diversity of genre, as well as the sense that Latina/o musicians are breaking new ground in their music, politics, and ideas, that encouraged me to follow Charlotte’s Latin music scene. As I became more familiar with musicians and their community, I came to see how their social background and attitudes toward work and play influenced their music and shaped their worldview.

“Working musician” is an oxymoron in U.S. society because musicians’ work is strongly identified with leisure and fun. Unlike waiters, bartenders, cooks, cleaning staff, or security guards, musicians look like they are having fun when they work. How much of this outward appearance is a genuine enjoyment of their music making and how much of it is performative affect, a mask that they wear to appeal to audiences? It is telling that the English word for what musicians do is play, not work. However, the Spanish verb tocar differentiates the musical action of strumming or striking an instrument from the action of playing tied to games and sports expressed by the verb jugar. In the Caribbean and Latin America, musicians have traditions of playing popular music in styles that require more serious emotional timbres; for example, the Argentine tango stresses melancholy and longing, while participants in Mexican cantina music engage in melodramatic gritos that evoke despair and loss. Many regional Mexican songs, particularly corridos and ranchera song forms, continue to focus topically on experiences associated with work, with lyrics detailing crossing the border, migrating for jobs, obtaining a green card, or conflicts with bosses.

Southern Latinidad

The way that Latina/o musicians in Charlotte, North Carolina work and play defines their identity as southern Latinos, drawing from elements of southern, Latin American, and Latino culture(s). First, Latino immigrants to Charlotte often hold differing notions of latinidad from residents of long-established centers of Latino cultural production such as New York, Miami, or Los Angeles. As recent immigrants, they are much more likely to hold onto national or even city/regional identities of the places where they are from.

I met several Ecuadorian musicians who stressed national identity (and thus spoke Spanish differently from Dominicans or Mexicans), but also that they were guayaquileños from the coast (and thus different from residents the Ecuadorian highlands). Second, Latino immigrants feel affiliation with and at times try to incorporate elements of Southern culture into their identity. They find “Southern hospitality” similar to their regional cultures and despite rampant residential segregation and anti-immigrant policies, Latino immigrants seek out shared elements of southern and Latin American culture as a means to establish their sense of belonging in Charlotte as newly minted Southerners.

Negotiating lunch meetings with musicians often meant deciding whether to eat carnitas tacos at a Mexican restaurant or southern pulled pork sandwiches at a barbecue restaurant. Musicians often brought a deep appreciation for southern music—particularly the blues—with them from Latin America and deepened their knowledge with trips to local clubs like the Double Door Inn.

I use the term “working musician” to refer to Latina/o musicians in Charlotte because it acknowledges the hard work and time that musicians put into their craft while avoiding the false dichotomy of professional versus amateur musician. The musicians I interviewed had strong views about the way they produced and performed music, views that came out of their ethnic background, nationality, and socioeconomic class (views that often differed from those of other Latinos and sometimes mainstream U.S. society). Like their fellow Latino immigrants, musicians encountered racism, close-mindedness, and police profiling in their daily lives, while also experiencing economic uncertainty after the 2008 recession; this created a sense of vulnerability that affected how they approached music-making and related to fellow musicians. Three bands I followed—Bakalao Stars, Banda TecnoCaliente, and Ultimanota—represent three different attitudes about the meaning of being a working musician in Latino Charlotte.

For Charlotte’s Latina/o musicians, being a musician means doing something they love or following a dream, yet when asked, they are quick to point out the anemic pay and difficult working conditions. Hidden behind the glamour and pleasure of a performance is the fact that musicians spend hundreds of hours rehearsing music, expend social capital to organize concerts, and put in long hours the day of a performance traveling, preparing sound equipment and lights, and breaking down the stage after the show. This dialectic between work and play comes to define how many Charlotte musicians see their music. Some see their music as a hobby, to be pursued for leisure, while others treat music as a profession, stressing their specialized training and professionalism. Most musicians rely on their gigs to make ends meet, while others have made a significant personal investment in their music in the hopes that monetary success will follow the release of the next single. Some musicians see rehearsing and performing as a way to stay connected to fellow musicians with whom they have played for years, while a newer generation sees playing as a way to gain acceptance and respect in the Latin music scene.

Bakalao’s Day

On any given Thursday night in a small room crammed full of musical instruments and sweaty musicians, Bakalao Stars rehearses. In an interview, band members Daniel Alvarado, Javier and Christian Anzola stressed the importance of Thursday rehearsals to the band’s cohesion and outlook:

Christian Anzola: I think that’s one of the things that makes a band stay alive. If you come to band practice and you’re not having a good time you might as well not be here … We do this as a hobby, I think none of us want to go and see Bakalao be famous …Thursday’s to me that’s my day of music. Whenever I’m not practicing or somebody cancels on Thursday, I’m pissed, because that’s—

Daniel: Bakalao’s day.

Christian: Yeah!

Javier: It’s just that time to … come in and play, and it’s just that connection between you and the instrument and you completely forget about everything else. There’s no worries, there’s no bills, everything is about hit that note or hit that cymbal, or get the right riff, and you’re so concentrated, you’re so into it that time flies, then you hit it and you’re like, “Wow!”

Figure 3

Banda Tecnocaliente performing in Hawaiian shirts and skirts

Bakalao Stars’ view of music making as fun and a hobby means Thursday rehearsals become ritualized as a time apart from “worries” where music becomes the central focus of their lives. Their music takes on a therapeutic and spiritual quality that corresponds to the band’s identification with reggae, ska, and other Afro-Caribbean music styles. This lends their rehearsals (and interviews) a certain enthusiasm that is infectious and certainly comes across in interactions with audiences at live shows. Yet they are serious and well-organized musicians. By working hard with the attitude that this is not work, they imbue the music with a looseness and approachability that are sometimes lost by other local bands that stress being as “professional” and polished as possible. There is a realization, from age and experience, that as a band they have little chance of “making it big,” so they do not kill themselves trying to become famous. While this strategy might not make for a great plotline, it helps explain their longevity, having been together since 2002. They try not to work too hard and spoil the point of being Bakalao Stars.


On a humid day in May, Banda TecnoCaliente is suiting up for its slot at Charlotte’s annual Cinco de Mayo Fanta Festival. The sun glares off the windows of the parked cars in a grass field behind the stage; sweat glistens on the necks of the band members as they change from T-shirts to crisp white dress shirts and then don bright pink suit jackets with “Banda TecnoCaliente” embossed on the back. They take the stage, tune up their numerous keyboards, and begin playing up-tempo banda music. After a 45-minute set, with an enthusiastic crowd dancing on a soccer field, the band members exit the stage, dripping sweat, reaching for water and soda stocked on ice backstage.

TecnoCaliente is a professional band, meaning that its members have dedicated themselves on a full-time, semi-permanent basis to being a band and are actively seeking larger exposure and fame within the regional mexicano music market. They rehearse and perform regularly and treat music-making as their career. By investing significant money in uniforms, promotion (hiring a manager and a roadie), and transportation, TecnoCaliente must find regular work to stay solvent as a band; the hope is that eventually a radio hit and exposure through touring and appearances on television shows will pay off.

For Banda TecnoCaliente, a professional work ethic and vigorous training are part of what it means to be in a band and pursue success. Professionalism means refraining from drinking alcohol or other distractions (drugs, amorous adventures) during performances and tours, but also trusting in the expertise of a band manager who is more experienced at putting on concerts and managing the band’s expenses. Most club owners and festival organizers see regional mexicano groups (that are not famous) as somewhat interchangeable and thus relatively disposable as labor.

Banda TecnoCaliente must differentiate itself by its actions: showing up on time, having a professional appearance and sound, eliminating the personal distractions that plague other bands. That Banda TecnoCaliente is made up of teetotalers while members of Bakalao Stars readily admit to heavy drinking as part of their rehearsals and performance points to class and identity differences between the two bands and their musical communities. The professionalism and sobriety of Banda TecnoCaliente positions them not just as musicians, but as Mexican musicians who must do battle against negative stereotypes of working-class, Mexican men that associate laziness, drunkenness, and unskilled labor training with members of their musical community. Bakalao Stars, as members of a musical community made up of more assimilated immigrants, with longer residency in the United States, higher average levels of education and greater economic mobility, have less cause to construct a professional persona. In fact, their audience relishes their wild and uncontained stage presence and conflation of music, drinking, and dance with “fun.”


It’s Saturday night at a Cuban restaurant, A Piece of Havana, in a strip mall in the suburbs south of Charlotte where Latin cover band Ultimanota is setting up to perform. Ultimanota usually performs there once or twice a month. In addition, its members sometimes find jobs playing in other restaurants, at weddings and birthday parties, and at festivals. But playing at the Cuban restaurant represents their most reliable source of work as musicians. For a night’s work spanning from around 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., each band member receives 75 dollars. Their pay, however, gets eaten up by gas costs, food, and drink, and fixed investments in musical equipment, such as the cost of maintaining musical instruments. Tallying these costs, the band members come away with little after a night’s work.

What then do Ultimanota’s musicians gain from playing on Saturday nights? Several members of the band, such as guitarist Tony Arreaza, are older musicians in their 30s, who, a decade earlier, were part of rock bands playing Intown clubs. For them, a periodic gig serves as a way to keep playing music while family life and its daily obligations have limited their capacity to dedicate themselves full-time to band membership. On Saturday night, they get to escape the kids at home and have a drink with friends while playing music. For a younger musician, such as bass player Isaac Meléndez, playing with Ultimanota gives him experience playing for live crowds and links him to the more extensive social networks of older musicians.

Figure 5

Bakalao Stars playing at A Piece of Havana

Unlike Bakalao Stars, who stress the creativity that comes out of rehearsals and jamming, Ultimanota rehearses much less often, mainly because band members cannot find the time every week with families and jobs. Instead, Ultimanota performs more often, and its concerts become like rehearsals in that they are a fun exercise where the band experiments with playing a new song, letting Joswar Acosta, the conga player, sing a number, or taking extended solos. While Ultimanota presents a very professional image on its website and in guitarist Tony Arreaza’s relationship with restaurant owners and other clients who hire the band for private events, this professionalism is not the same touring ethic that guides Banda TecnoCaliente. Instead of rooting the band in the nightclub community, Ultimanota’s performances root them in the community in a different way. Its visibility at restaurants gives it access to a different crowd of middle-class Latinos who hire it to play private parties—weddings, birthdays, and other family celebrations. I witnessed the band play a Bolivian woman’s 50th birthday celebration at an Eastside club that had been rented out for the occasion, a wedding in a Charlotte suburb, and the birthday party for a Colombian woman in the backyard of her family’s Intown home.

Why do people hire Ultimanota to play private events? Beyond the initial social connection, both band and audience belong to the same age group (in their 30s and 40s) and are usually the first generation of Latino immigrants who have established families and roots in Charlotte. The “cheesy cocktail music,” as Arreaza describes it, appeals to listeners who want familiar songs from their early adulthood and embrace a sense of nostalgia at Ultimanota shows. Ultimanota performs new “classics,” but with a twist, in effect curating an enjoyable concert that appeals to clients who, as relatively upwardly mobile, established immigrants, often attend the same concerts, frequent the same restaurants, or are members of the same church congregation.

In fact, the local church and the role that several Ultimanota musicians play in it provide an interesting point of comparison to their work with the band. Camino del Rey is an evangelical Christian church in suburban Charlotte that has a majority Latino immigrant congregation, but is led by a white American pastor who has learned Spanish and led missions to Latin America. Tony Arreaza, Joswar Acosta, and Isaac Meléndez play in the church band on Sunday evenings. While their participation in Ultimanota is about making money, maintaining a presence in the music scene, and diversion, playing for a church audience is about showing faith and dedication to God and being part of a religious community. Their churchgoing also positions them as respectable members of a group of religious, middle-class Latino residents of Charlotte. Membership in the church community shapes how musicians interact as members of Ultimanota—their sense of familial obligation, as well as what constitutes proper moral and ethical behavior, all stem from their relationship with this religious community.

Think, Work, Play

The experience of Latino musicians working and playing in Charlotte highlights the difficulty, but also the importance, of understanding musicians’ labor. The ethos of certain bands, like Bakalao Stars, and their onstage personae can make it appear as if they treat music making as “fun.” However, the easygoing nature of public performance is built upon a process of community making that starts with intensive and regular rehearsals and years performing together. Other bands, such as Banda TecnoCaliente, stress the “professional” and money-making purpose of their music by tying their labor practices with a desire to have a hit record. The term “working musician” encapsulates the diversity of musicians’ experiences and viewpoints, stressing their labor power over common divisions like amateur/professional or full-time/part-time musician, while also linking musicians’ vulnerability as laborers to the experiences of their fellow Latino immigrants, many of whom face similar labor conditions and workplace challenges.

The examples above provide lessons about how Latino immigrants in the U.S. South think about work and play. Like other immigrants, musicians have to hustle to find extra income in the informal economy, often earning pay under the table and on a per diem basis. They rely on social ties with fellow migrants and word of mouth to acquire work, which can limit their economic mobility outside the Latino community. However, some musicians have developed social capital, drawing on English-language skills, experience organizing concerts, education, and length of residency in Charlotte, that helps position them as cultural brokers and tastemakers in the Latin music scene. Working as a musician involves the constant pursuit and maintenance of musical community, a difficult task in the context of immigration policing that constantly threatens social ties and through a medium that is rarely financially rewarding. Yet they succeed, at least momentarily during performances, in sparking audiences to feel a sense of belonging and solidarity. And with each other, musicians form lifelong bonds of friendship, camaraderie, and a sense of “family” that ties them together in common cause.

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About The Author

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Samuel K. Byrd is an anthropologist (City University of New York Graduate Center) and author. His research interests include music, urban life, immigration, and the U.S. South. He lives in Manhattan with his wife and two daughters.