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Finding Solace in California Gold

Sidney Robertson Cowell, copying California Folk Music Project recordings for the Library of Congress. Photo taken in the project office on Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, California in early 1939. Find the archival scan here.

This guest post by Alda Allina Migoni of the AFC reference staff is the first in a series of posts called Staff Finds During Difficult Times, in which staff members discuss collections and items that have been inspiring them while they are working at home during the covid-19 pandemic or in other difficult circumstances. 

In this time of remaining socially distant (or better put, physically distant and socially close), the collections at the American Folklife Center have helped bring me closer to my family. I have lived alone in self-isolation for approximately nine weeks and counting. However, being away from my family is not a result of the recent pandemic. Originally from California, I have had a longing for homeland and family since relocating to Washington, D.C. a handful of years ago.  What has always comforted me when I am feeling homesick has been my ability to peruse the Library’s collections for Spanish-language, Mexican, and Latinx collection materials.

At the beginning of my time in self-quarantine, I called my mother with one of these finds. I remembered how much joy the collections recorded by folk music collector Sidney Robertson Cowell in California had brought me when I first listened to a sampling of the recordings. These recordings are available on the online presentation California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, which contains 35 hours of folk music recorded in 12 languages representing numerous ethnic groups and 185 musicians. It includes sound recordings, photographs of performers, drawings of instruments, and written documentation from a variety of European ethnic and English- and Spanish-speaking communities in northern California in the 1930s. This New Deal project was organized and directed by Sidney Robertson Cowell for the Northern California Work Projects Administration.

In the online presentation, there is a set of three paso dobles, a fast-paced “double step,” recorded in Carmel, California, which has lifted my spirits. These paso dobles were recorded at the wedding of Ben and Rosa Figueroa on February 18, 1939. I can’t help but imagine what those wedding-goers would have looked like, dancing in front of Julio Gomez’ Orchestra. I like to picture the scene under the stars, white banderas de papel picado in the wind, and the temperate California weather I so dearly miss. Hear the paso dobles in the player below!

One night after teleworking, I called my family and had them search the collection with me over the phone. I referred my family to the Spanish-language songs from the collection, including “Atotonilco.” I was unfamiliar with the song, but to my surprise my aunt knew all of the words and started to sing along! Hear “Atotonilco” in the player below.

This phone call became a hilarious back and forth, of incredulity, long-held memories, and truly horrible singing out of tune. Laughing together on the phone, trying to send rapid-fire links back and forth, and listening to my family singing on the other end of the line (not to mention some of the more interesting interpretations by the singers themselves) brought me a brief sense of normalcy. In a time where I, like many others, have been consumed by waves of anxiety, there was serenity in being in the moment, consumed with laughter.

Later that week, and still intrigued by this vast collection, I searched for “Cielito lindo” on a whim. “Cielito lindo” is a ubiquitous tune that is deeply tied to Mexican and Mexican-American identity and nationalisms. To my surprise I found Lottie Espinosa’s rendition, which you can hear below:

Lottie Espinosa seated with guitar, 1939. Find the archival scan here.

Listening to Lottie Espinosa immediately brought a smile to my face. “Cielito lindo” was one of the first songs I learned in Spanish, and to this day, it reminds me of family and community. It is a song sung at weddings, funerals, birthdays, and even famously at the world cup. Its message “canta y no llores,” or “sing and don’t cry” felt particularly fitting during the epidemic. Its verses are dedicated to someone dear to the singer, a beautiful woman whom the singer urges to sing, as singing brings joy to the hearts of all. This song was famously sung in the streets after the 2018 earthquake in Mexico City, and is an unofficial national anthem of sorts. It serves as a reminder to Mexicans, Chicanxs, and the diaspora, that though times may get tough and we may deal with unfathomable hardships, we are resilient and this too shall pass.

I also found an instrumental version of “Cielito lindo” played by Puerto Rican group Los Amantes at El Romance Club in Chicago, Illinois, recorded on July 3, 1977. This recording is part of the Chicago Ethnic Arts Project Collection (AFC 1981/004), which was conducted in 1977  to assess and document the status of ethnic art traditions in more than twenty ethnic communities in Chicago.

The group Los Amantes plays a polka medley, rancheras, and a merengue. To hear the rhythms and songs I associate with my own family across time and space, played by a Puerto Rican latin rock group at midnight just before the Fourth of July, 1977, brought me a sense of unity and hope.  There is something truly serendipitous in finding a song I closely identify with my cultural heritage, sung on the eve of American independence; a symbol of two nationalisms and patriotisms colliding. Los Amantes’ version of “Cielito lindo” occurs at about 02:45  of the set in the player below:

So while it is easy to feel isolated, scared, and haunted by events both past and yet to come, by sharing stories and laughs with my family I remember we are all in this together. At this moment we all have something very much in common—we are all struggling with this pandemic in our own ways. Some have been asked to stay home, while others do not get the luxury of choice in the matter. However, we can all take a moment and revel in the fact that we are connected in so many other ways. My family and I can sing the same song at the same time, thousands of miles apart. I can listen to the laughter and applause of an audience from 1977 and the sounds of a California wedding from 1939. The world will continue to turn, and I hope, once we are all out of this we will have learned to “cantar y no llorar” together.

4 Comments

  1. Jurretta Heckscher
    May 19, 2020 at 9:44 am

    A beautiful and inspiring reflection on how deep-rooted traditions– even if they are not our own, I would add– can continue to sustain us in this dark time. Thank you.

  2. Maria
    May 19, 2020 at 9:52 am

    Thank you so much for your uplifting words and reminder of the comfort of music! Having grown up in the SW US I loved your selections, and their familiarity. Also, my mom is in memory care, and doesn’t really understand what is happening theses days. Music is one of her true comforts. Your piece reminded me to remind her caretakers to “use the comfort of music” to soothe her (and possibly them too)!

  3. Erin
    May 20, 2020 at 9:31 am

    So beautiful and such a wonderful reminder of the power of our national library during this difficult and isolating time! Thank you for bringing to light these treasures!

  4. Kaydee
    May 20, 2020 at 5:29 pm

    Beautiful piece! Thank you for sharing this fascinating collection and for letting us eavesdrop on a warm moment with your family.

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