March is a journal of art & strategy.

Conversations on Sound and Power: Alex E. Chávez – Part 2

Sonic Insurgency Research Group

June 2022

Recently, we had the privilege to chat with Alex E. Chávez, whose anthropological and autoethnographic practices have been instrumental to our thinking regarding the relation between sound, power, and culture, especially in terms of how Latinx diasporic sonic traditions and experiments move through histories of migration. This conversation is a continuation of Part 1.

CumbiaSazo! Dance Party at Double Door, Chicago. Photo: David Nala Marques

SIRG: One thing we noticed in your newest work is this shift in your interests from the expected settings for studying or thinking through Latinx identities and the politics of identification, namely the US-Mexico borderlands, northern Mexico, and the migratory routes that lead from Central America to the US. Not that you’ve put that aside, but there’s been a shift between an interest in that and an interest in the emplacement of Latinx communities in an urban setting like Chicago. We’re really interested in your interest in Chicago and its neoliberalization, its political economies, its geographic histories, its histories of urban renewal, and how all that affects Latinx identity as it’s situated in a Midwestern framework. This is something you don’t hear too much about, the Latinx Midwestern experience. What does this Midwestern framework bring to the conversation of Latinx movement and emplacement (because it’s not always about movement)? We’ve been here for a long time in Chicago and the Midwest, generations. So what does that emplaced Midwestern framework bring to this kind of conversation about Latinx identity, politics, and the politics of identification?

AC: As you mention, Sounds of Crossing and my previous work dealing with communities of practice, in terms of music, poetry, and huapango arribeño, in particular, traces a specific sound and how this sound exists across multiple places and connects those seemingly distant places. My concern with Chicago is in some ways a reversal because I am now thinking about – to use big scare quotes – a “singular” place/city and how multiple soundings and sounds exist within it. There are a couple of reasons why my focus on Chicago emerges. One has to do with being an artist and Latinx in the city, which has been very impactful. Latinx Chicago remains in many ways woefully understudied, particularly from the perspective of cultural anthropology or an anthropology concerned with expressive culture. That’s curious because when we imagine the cultural atlas of where Latinxs exist and have existed in the United States, we think about New York, California, and the Southwest. We don’t think of Chicago – and this is coming from someone who’s a Latinx scholar. There’s something wrong if Chicago is not top of mind as a Latinx place within the scholarly imaginary. That made me quite curious and interested in this question, not just about Latinxs in the city and their histories but also about what makes that silence possible, to continue with the sonic metaphor.

A focus on sound, sonic practices, and sounding within the larger framework of Latinx studies necessarily invokes a concern with emplacement, which is necessarily embodied. There is a question around the sensorial and about how we experience a place. Part of how we understand emplacement, particularly in the urban context, has to do with situated forms of listening informed by social fields of meaning, power, and racialized experience. If sound is stimulating a sort of auditory imagining, it’s always in search of its source. Tuning in, thus, is composed of cultural modes of attention that desire to render the source of sound decipherable. Often this happens in accordance with normative conceptions of rationality. So, tuning in is a rationalizing exercise, and I think it’s one that gives rise to what Nina Sun Eidsheim in The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (2019) calls the acousmatic question: Who is this? And this question already assumes an a priori stable nature to a social identity. I would argue that as a rationalizing exercise, for our purposes, this question is always situated within an anatomy of othering. If that’s the question, within an urban and racialized context, I would say we can augment that acousmatic question to the ever-present “Where are you from?” This kind of imagining for me is revelatory with respect to the US, Latinidad, and racialization.

Actually, a colleague of mine who’s in the upcoming edited volume Ethnographic Refusals, Unruly Latinidades, Jonathan Rosa, has this wonderful book called Looking Like a Language, Sounding like a Race (2019). There, he suggests that that particular question, “Where are you from,” reveals how the racialized body must be yielded intelligible and accounted for. But it is not just “Where are you from?” – oftentimes it’s “No, where are you really from?” This is an amplification of the acousmatic question. When we listen to the city, we’re entering into these evaluative aural processes shaped by social relations. When we’re trying to locate sound, we place sound within certain anatomies of othering. Then it becomes a question of, what are the multiple registers in which these Latinx soundings exist? How do they flow? How do they sound out? And how are they lending meaning to the kind of politics of existing in the city? Sound and sound practices become not just loci of meaning but also of power with respect to claims to belonging, which, to be honest, are transnational in scope.

SIRG: Maybe we can return to this question around sound studies and musicology and how certain Latinx sounds exist in the city/urban setting and signal emplacement and belonging.

AC: My current work revolves around multiple examples of this. So, I’ve been exploring, especially in my forthcoming essay, “El disco es cultura: Sonic Artifact, Racial Geographies, and Latinx Chicago,” how vinyl circulates as a sonic artifact. Beyond that, I’m thinking more and more about the cultural politics of outdoor festivals in the city. One example of this is the curiously named Ruido Fest, which means “noise” in Spanish. I’m also fascinated with the sonic metaphor in relation to the history of Latinxs in the city and Chicago’s own cultural poetics about itself. I begin the “Disco” essay with Carl Sandburg. Reading the introduction to Conversations on Sound and Power I thought, yes, this is one of the intellectual spaces where I’ve been living, particularly as you quote Michael Warner: “Every sentence is populated with the voices of others, living and dead, and is carried to whatever destination it has not by the force of intentions or address but by the channels laid down in discourse.”1 I find these meta discursive exercises, in terms of Chicago and how it likes to talk about itself, fascinating. What are those stories, particularly within the purview of Chicago’s literati? While soundings and the practices of listening occur across varied sites, they’re also inscribed across multiple textualities, which begin to reveal a complicated culture and politics of personhood in the city. Who do we imagine in the city? Who are its inhabitants? Who’s afforded claims of belonging?

All of that is bound up with this question of emplacement, which is a question about the sensorial, about affect. Regarding Chicago’s literati and how they’ve imagined the city, I consider how all of that work constitutes a particular performative voicing whose material character has become embodied within the city and representations of the city. There’s an affective circulation of this discourse and an aural registering. In other words, texts always imply a communicative process within a field of exchange. There is the author, the reader, the speaker, or the listener that frames this sanctioned universe of voicings, which then shapes who gets recognized – historically or otherwise – in the city. Who gets heard? There’s a public ear, what Ana María Ochoa Gautier calls an aural public sphere. And it impacts the very real fabric of any society, any city.

I recently completed an NEH fellowship at the Newberry Library, one of Chicago’s oldest archival institutions. It was built around the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Yet it has very little to say about Latinxs in the city. Again, what makes that silence and absence possible? I dug into all of that work, Sandburg, Nelson Algren, etc. And so, I’m interested in not only someone like Algren – a chronicler of the blue-collar ethnic proletariat Chicago – but also how it is that these particular writers at that time are also being informed by the dispositions of the Chicago School of Sociology, which is quite polemic with respect to how it represents the city, how it understands “newcomer” ethnic groups (migrants, but also Black folks coming to Chicago from the South). The Chicago School of Sociology, particularly in terms of its urban ecology model, sets up modern American sociology writ large. These scholarly perspectives and questions regarding racialization and the “urban question” are informing the literary representations of the city of Chicago, which shapes the ways we come to understand and relate to the city as a cultural poetic space and how it is imagined. And so, this has pushed me to think through these histories of migration, emplacement, segregation, and displacement from an aural sonic enregisterment.

There is one kind of through-line that I have landed on – the impacts of sedimented colonial logics, which are transhemispheric in scope. Consider Juan Gonzalez and his book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (2011), which suggests that it is through empire-building that we can understand one aspect of the story of the Latinx presence and their long-standing histories in the United States. Those same logics don’t just segregate communities, but now in the twenty-first century are displacing them. In other words, the same racial, colonial logics that first corralled people of color in the inner city in the early twentieth century are now displacing them. There is a linkage, a resonance between forced migration from Puerto Rico to Humble Park – or at that time that community was arriving in Lincoln Park – that gives rise to the Young Lords. A lot of that migration is tied to the imperial, colonial logic of Operation Bootstrap.2 And so those folks end up here and over time it is those same logics that displace them from neighborhood to neighborhood. One way for me to trace that story and experience, its memories and sense of displacement, and claims of belonging has been through sound.

One final example to link up the Chicago literary imagination and Puerto Rican Chicago is the Division Street Riots of 1966, falsely named riots. When I was at the Newberry, the archive had very little to say about that. When we think about “riots” in the context of Chicago, we tend to think about the Haymarket Affair. We think about 1968 and the Democratic National Convention. We don’t think about 1966, Division Street, and the Puerto Rican rebellion against acts of police brutality. There was nothing to be said in the Newberry Library archive about this. Yet, I could read Nelson Algren’s wonderful story “How the Devil Came Down Division Street.”3 At that time, Algren was living in a largely Polish part of the city and the story is a fable of sorts that speaks to the Polish immigrant perspective. In his later years, Algren is actually living in what was then a more Puerto Rican part of Wicker Park – adjacent to the site of his “Division Street” story. So, he himself witnesses this demographic change but has very little to say about it in terms of the poetics of the city. Ultimately, I’m trying to calibrate the visual metaphor of palimpsest for sound. You have all these textualities at play that are historical, that are narrative-based, that are about memory and about literal sound, which provide a different and fascinating way into not just Chicago but Latinx Chicago.

SIRG: There is a history in Chicago of the brutal logics of real estate development that go hand in hand with the new information-based economy. All of these new scales of development have truly had a profound effect on how the city is narrativized and on the experiences that Black and Brown folks have lived through. What you were describing in terms of those displacements makes me think about Lilia Fernandez’s work around Mexican community formation in Chicago’s Near West Side and the waves of Mexican immigration coalescing around the Hull House, what is now the University of Illinois, Chicago campus, and then moving down to Pilsen. I am thinking about those histories of emplacement and the university’s implication in that dispossession and displacement. And even now, the way that we think of Pilsen. It exists in waves of gentrification that continue to displace those communities generationally.

AC: It’s these multiple cultural practices that form larger projects of emplacement, of creating community and cultivating senses of belonging or citizenship – very broadly conceived. But always in dialectical relation to logics that are colonial in scope. There is a revelatory connection between projects of urban renewal, public/private partnerships, and expansive efforts around policing and surveillance. There is lived trauma around these conditions, and so there are deep wells of history that get silenced. Alternately, there exist politics of refusal and people claiming place in the face of all of that. There exists wonderful sociological work and some historical work that attends to these different Latinx histories and how they’ve existed over time in the city. I’m trying to understand all of that and contemporary politics through expressive culture, through the envelope of sound.

SIRG: We’ve been writing and thinking about what we’ve been calling the sonic ruling class, which is by and large defined by capital logics of property owners and the idea that whoever has access to ownership gets to police sonic public space and even community neighborhood space, not to be too reductive. We’ve been mapping that and its relationship to a history of whiteness as a mandate of silence or a cleansing of cultural space as part of the process of gentrification. You shared with us this chapter from the book that you worked on as a contributor and editor with Gina Pérez, Ethnographic Refusals, Unruly Latinidades – we have already spoken a little about it. In the chapter you authored, “The Urban, Sonorous and Collective Witness in the City of Neighborhoods,” we really gravitated to the idea of the sonic commons, which you’ve been talking around but haven’t specifically named. This term is very generative regarding what it opens up. Can you say more about this concept? Where does it come from and how are you using it in your thinking and writing?

AC: It grows out of a contemporary concern with the neoliberal economy in relation to the urban setting. If we think through the context of neoliberalism as it relates to the city, we come to recognize the very real shrinking of public space – the intensified extension of commodity relations deep into the public sphere, particularly that of the “neighborhood.” Within the purview of Latinx life, that goes hand in hand with generating an atmosphere of abjectivity for people who are considered deportable or illegal, whose experiences and claims to place are ultimately seen as discardable or displaceable. We know this happens. We see these enclosures. But I’m more interested in how we hear them and thus how communities sanctify public space in common. It’s always complex; it’s never neat.

One way of doing that is through sound. I am borrowing from a couple of people to try to push this concern along. Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger wield that term, the sonic commons. Part of what they say is that a sonic commons is a space where people share an acoustic environment and because of that, there is an awareness or kind of community formed that can be intentional or unintentional. I thought that was generative. But I was less interested in merely the acoustic qualities of sound and more so in how sound is necessarily sedimented with history and the social because it circulates within fields of recognition that are about power, memory, race, and coloniality. That’s one proposition. Sound is sedimented history. And to go back to the acousmatic question, sound is also always necessarily capable of generating or producing alterity. At the same time, regarding someone like Fred Moten, for example, and his notion of an undercommons, there is always this space of an oppositional knowledge that resists existing orders and strategies of enclosure.

SIRG: That touches on so many notions of property, urban renewal, the sonic practices of communities, and powerful processes of gentrification. It opens up these new concepts or frameworks to think about the sonic enclosure of the public sphere or being excluded from the sonic public sphere. So we can think about enclosure and exclusion and inclusion in terms of who is allowed to have a place, a sonic place, within a sonic commons. That makes me think about Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book, Commonwealth (2011). They’re very much resistant to capitalism from the Enlightenment era onward, but of course, thinking through the new, intensified neoliberal versions of capitalism and globalization, which I think is something that Latin American studies people are interested in.

AC: I love that you bring that up. I would relate that to Gautier’s work around aurality because part of her argument is that we can trace this all back to the Enlightenment moment and the emergent state apparatus in Latin America. She’s referring quite specifically to Colombia, but the question is about how sound participates in affording rights and citizenship to particular racialized bodies. And for her, a lot pivots on who gets to have a voice. That’s an important discussion that extends into this concern with empire in the sense that Hardt and Negri bring up and the larger concern with neoliberalism as a framework for organizing economy and society.

Toward the end of my chapter in the Unruly Latinidades book, I draw on John Holloway’s work, which is adjacent to Hardt and Negri in the autonomist Marxist tradition that concerns a politics of refusal.4 Part of Holloway’s argument is this claim of always existing in and against capital (in the classic Marxist perspective). I love his metaphor because he begins his book Change the World Without Taking Power (2002) with the voice. “In the beginning is the scream. We scream.” I mention that because this concern for contemporary iterations of empire has been very influential to my thinking and analysis. I draw very much from Hardt and Negri but also from folks like Harry Cleaver or my colleague Gilberto Rosas, and other folks who deal with these ideas. For me, the ideas of the commons or commoning and enclosure that are at the center of those modes of analysis, Marxist autonomous, were helpful to think about place, space, economy, enclosure, and refusal.

SIRG: All of that seems very related to this idea we’ve been thinking about, sonic mutualism. The question for us is: How do we make extra-legal arrangements regarding sonic public space, culturally and in the commons, that are more relationally and kin-based, that require knowing your neighbors, which the fragmentation of property makes impossible or very hard?

AC: That’s a great question or idea to meditate on and think with. One thing I would add is a reference to collective witnessing, which is a term I’m borrowing from George Lipsitz. One of the things that I have found fascinating and generative in his work over the years is his gesturing toward a sense of mutualism and all its complexities – he is always asking about the emancipatory potential of cultural forms and practices. In his book Dangerous Crossroads (1997), he asks: Can the market obliterate all conditions of origin or meaning of a cultural form? (He’s talking about music.) One answer is, yes, because music can just exist as a commodity. Nevertheless, while music does circulate as a commodity, it can also sometimes allow for certain kinds of connection and meaning-making. And that’s a dangerous crossroad that highlights an emancipatory potential or lack thereof. And that’s a serious question when considering sonic mutualism in a kind of abolition tradition. So, I live where George Lipsitz is, because it’s an uncomfortable space. I’m good with that because that’s life. Life is never going to be neat; it’s never going to be that easy, especially if you’re thinking about a community of practice. There are always going to be significant overlaps in solidarity and a lot of conflict too. One way I try to explore that is through a generative sense of what Lipsitz offers.

SIRG: Dangerous Crossroads doesn’t propose a utopian vision. It reminds me a lot of what Jillian Hernandez talked about in our previous conversation. She’s drawing on this idea of transcoloniality. Transcoloniality refers to all the ways colonialism has different iterations across different places and how those different iterations have different structures and outcomes for different people. In that way, it’s terrible. But also along those same transcolonial routes are brought forms of culture, forms of resistance, forms of solidarity, forms of knowledge. So it’s also a path of liberation at the same time that it’s a path of oppression. That’s what we think of when you describe these dangerous crossroads. Yes, music is a commodity. But it also has the potential to carry these other messages or to be engaged in ways that are against the capitalist grain.

AC: Certainly, and all of this helps me think through things. Having had this thoughtful engagement with like-minded folks around similar ideas is but one way that we can learn about ourselves and each other.


  1. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 128.
  2. Operation Bootstrap is the name given to a series of projects that transformed the economy of Puerto Rico into an industrial one. For more information, see ​​“Operation Bootstrap,” Wikipedia, last modified May 3, 2022.
  3. Nelson Algren, The Neon Wilderness (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1947).
  4. John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto, 2002).

Sonic Insurgency Research Group (SIRG) is Josh Rios, Anthony Romero and Matt Joynt. SIRG’s research-based performance and exhibition practice examines normalized associations be­tween criminality and sound, silencing as a form of social control, and voicing as a form of social resistance. SIRG’s group work has been exhibited and featured in M:ST 9 Biennial (Calgary, Canada), Counterpublic 2019 at The Luminary (St. Louis, MO), Acoustic Resonance at Institute of Contemporary Art at MECA (Portland, ME), State of the Art 2020 at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (Bentonville, AR), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis, MO), and Work for the People (Or Forget about Fred Hampton) at Co-Prosperity (Chicago, IL). Upcoming work includes solo and group exhibitions at Locust Projects (Miami) and The Vincent Price Art Museum (Los Angeles). Writing has been featured in ON Journal’s Rules and The Design Studio for Social Intervention’s Spatial Justice.