Pachangas: Borderlands Music, U.S. Politics, and Transnational Marketing

By Margaret Dorsey. 2006. Austin: University of Texas Press. 232 pages. ISBN: 0-292-70690-1 (hard cover), 0-292-70961-7 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Rachel Gonzalez, Indiana University

[Review length: 1176 words • Review posted on October 3, 2006]

Margaret E. Dorsey’s Pachangas: Borderlands Music, U.S. Politics, and Transnational Marketing takes the reader behind the corporate and political scene in the predominately Mexicano community of Hidalgo County in south Texas. Dorsey depicts consumer and political power dynamics structured around the reinforcement of ethnic identity and the purposeful incorporation of a cultural habitus that legitimizes a particular local ethnic market. Entrenched in a combination of geographic and cultural borderlands, Dorsey seeks to expose the diverse and potentially controversial rhetorics involved in constructing publics, discrete and coherent groupings of individuals, particularly within globalizing political and consumer systems.

The pachanga is a multi-tiered event, which is both layered with meaning and mutable. Its potential for successful mutability gives way to recreations of pachangas tailored to serve multiple, discrete purposes that eventually fuse to illuminate a dialogic relationship between the power of the individual and the power of the constructed, marketable public. The pachanga as a local, historical fact is more than a social gathering; it is a vibrant, identifiable cultural moment that induces and reaffirms personal connections to history, community, power, and struggle. Dorsey understands the contested nature of the term “pachanga” and grounds her definition in perspectives of historical, linguistic, and ethnographic research, defining pachangas as social gatherings bringing together family, friends, food, drink, and music (5). Throughout this text, Dorsey incorporates a typology of pachanga-events differentiated by publication media, audience, and purpose. Beginning her discussion with the more traditional, all-male gathering in the countryside, she expands the focus to contemporary permutations of the pachanga-event, including the “political pachanga,” often a mixed-gender, dance-hall event, and the “corporate pachanga,” with the involvement of larger national and transnational businesses.

Dorsey examines the pachanga as event and as text. She breaks down these cultural moments into their constituent written and aural parts. The written elements include elaborate invitations to formal pachanga events, which serve a parallel purpose to musical selections made for dancehall-style pachangas. Although they utilize different media, both written and aural components serve to characterize their respective pachangas. Dorsey understands each of these components as independent texts while acknowledging that each continuously engages and influences the greater pachanga-event. The most prominently displayed of these textual layers focuses on music, particularly music played or performed at the pachanga itself. Dorsey shows that one way to differentiate pachanga-events and their intended purposes is through a comparative musical analysis. When compared to the “old fashioned” pachanga-events where “men would gather in the country to talk, informally organize, drink, eat and listen to and play music” (25), each successive permutation diverges in intention and scale. Unlike traditional pachangas (private events with local musicians), corporate and political pachangas are elaborately publicized and often include nationally recognized musicians. Their performances, rather than the interpersonal interactions of the attendees, become the focal point of the event. The contemporary derivations discussed by Dorsey create a separation between performer and audience not present in the original.

Dorsey discusses the case of a corporate pachanga put on jointly by Budweiser beer and the internationally renowned Spanish-language television conglomerate, Univision, wherein a group of promoters alight at a contest winner’s home to host a pachanga which is to be filmed so that a clip can later be broadcast internationally over Univision’s network during a popular sporting event. This “pachanga deportiva” [sports pachanga] which includes free food, a professional local music group, and the attendance of Budweiser’s popular “Bud Girls,” serves as a gathering for the contest winner and twenty close friends and family members. However, this event and many of the other pachanga-events produce an embellishment of the original pachanga-event, where the event’s competitive exclusivity creates an aura of elitism and a desire to be a part of the marketing scheme and the product behind it. This example supports Dorsey’s focus on these events as recognizable “visual spectacles” that communicate to and through these communities in south Texas (12), while also pointing to a broader discourse on economic and social disparity made visible through pachanga-events.

The author elaborates a similar argument for political pachangas. While they are different in many ways, their conscious constructions of event and audience sit at center stage. Despite the uncertain potential for political success possible from these large, carefully choreographed spectacles, each event attempts to engage its audience in an intense metacultural dialogue by capitalizing on the embedded authority and attraction of earlier pachangas where attendees would gather to flex their own grass-roots power. According to Dorsey, this fostering of personal engagement and “latching onto” an accepted event paradigm enables music and other familiar elements to engross and manipulate the audience. By revealing these manipulations, Dorsey highlights how the pachanga is a form of transmittable culture and as such is subject to decontextualization and recontextualizaton, in this case wrought for the benefit of contemporary political and corporate entities (18). The result of these recontextualizations is that the pachanga typology moves from dialogic moments between individual attendees to broad impersonal dialogues between corporations, media outlets, and target market shares.

It is in this deeper layer of desire and exclusion that the social power shifts from the hosts and participants of the pachanga to the marketing promoters. The pachanga changes from an event of grass-roots struggle to a corporate event that capitalizes on a communal understanding of a recognized and revered cultural experience. While their ability to mediate power is similar, these new versions do not match the aura of the originals, which were centered on individuals rather than corporate entities. This context of shifting power is visible in the pachanga text through the seemingly inherent indivisibility of politics, economics, and marketing. Dorsey illuminates the paradoxical nature of the recreated pachanga where corporate sponsorship capitalizes on culture but also acknowledges and legitimates it on a national and even global level. What remains to be clarified are the interpretations of her Mexicano consultants. How do participants view these manipulations? Do they acknowledge these infiltrations of their cultural and consumer identities?

Throughout the text, Dorsey remains attentive to discourse at a variety of levels, from presenting pachangas as tools with which to circulate and communicate elements of Mexicano culture in south Texas, to conversations among her informants, to the discursive use of aural elements of public musical performance. She effectively and evocatively uses ethnographic field research to probe performance in the power-infused contexts of pachangas, and shows how those performances function at levels spanning the gap between local, grass-roots, word-of-mouth advertising to global, transnational marketing campaigns of big business. Pachangas as musical contexts serve as a medium of communication, a language that, when mastered, allows entrance into cultural, political, and corporate marketplaces while at the same time hinting that they may all be one and the same. Dorsey’s work highlights the controversial connection of citizenship to consumerism, showing how music in this sociopolitical climate becomes a marketing vehicle that converts citizens into politicized publics. Her work stands as an inspiration to all who wish to push the boundaries of academic disciplines and look at language, politics, culture, and folklore as ever intertwined fields of productive study.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.