Poetry, Stars, and Violence: An Essay on Mexican Folklore


In Ireland it’s known as The Troubles, in Colombia it’s known as La Violencia, and in Costa Chica, México, there is not definitive name for it but it is definitely historical, as well as, contemporaneous. With Ireland and México, the past gives the present meaning and the present returns the favor. The kinds of people, in both Ireland and México, who contribute to certain folk traditions influencing their respective cultures, have their own corresponding distinctions. In Henry Glassie’s The Stars of Ballymenone, Glassie defines these folk artists are as stars. In John H. McDowell’s Poetry and Violence: The Ballad of México’s Costa Chica, the same kind of folk artists sing ballads called corridos. The folk artists of México and Ireland are both the same and very different. Their difference is derived in their frame of references. Their similarities come from the need to critique their cultural and social experiences. Art in both of these cultures is created in a forgettable land where violence harasses them. In the end the agrarian people of these two liminal habitats are commenting on the universal condition of endurance.

First, it is important for one to understand what folklore is defined as. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, folklore is defined as: “The traditional beliefs, myths, tales, and practices of a people, transmitted orally.” The oral transmission of folklore can be through a variety of modes, such as conversation, telling stories, a joke and even singing. According to Henry Glassie, folklore is defined as an oral tradition that passes on from generation to the next. Glassie explains: “Call it art, call it folklore, but that is what it is: a momentary fulfillment of what it is to be human,” (Glassie, p. 415). Other folklorists, such as Diarmuid Ó’Giolláin or Gramsci, have defined folklore as an oral tradition of subaltern people. Subaltern people are usually the group of people who contribute to their folk traditions in respect to their culture and their immediate surroundings. The use of subaltern is a way defining a group of people who will always be there. That locality of the majority of folklore is one reason why there are so many varieties, why every culture of human beings occupying planet has a version of folklore. Even though everyone might be divided through culture, there are still varieties in folklore. Folklore is grand in nature while representative of the communal life. Folklore is grand in the sense that it attempts to critique human nature. According to McDowell, folklore is social commentary. This social commentary is commenting on recent violent events in the present and in the past. When one puts these several ideas together they arrive at the conclusion that folklore is a variety of oral traditions of a subaltern people, usually agrarian and poor, providing social commentary of the present as well as the past as a means of creating community and entertainment.

Glassie and McDowell are both trying to study the folklore of the respective culture of Ireland or Mexico with different goals in mind. Glassie’s goal is to get it right this time. He wrote about Ballymenone before in a previous book, but he felt his focus was too narrow. With Stars, he wanted to write about the community the way the community thought about the community. His interest in Ireland is its amazing creative spirit. Glassie is interested in rural communities. By going to Ireland he is able to combine his two interests. Glassie uses folklore to help him gain insight on the community of Ballymenone. This In a sense, he is trying to offer a case study of why folklore matters, as well as, the centrality of folklore in everyday lives. In the end Glassie arrives at the conclusion that for the people of Ballymenone in 1972, they use folklore to carry on. McDowell is doing the same thing; the problem is McDowell might not be aware of it. He is trying to study how the Mexicans in Costa Chica deal with their violence, understand violence, and understand how those living with violence define violence. In McDowell’s book he proclaims: “The object of this study is to assess the logic underlying the associations between poetry and violence in the ballad tradition of modern Mexico known as the corrido,” (McDowell, p. 13). This is the corrido tradition among the afromestizos (Mexicans with combined indigenous, Spanish and African ancestry). The area is on the Costa Chica part of Mexico, in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. McDowell’s main thesis is that those corridos compose who celebrate violent men in their songs encourages others to do likewise. For McDowell violence is the focus while for Glassie, the focus is more on the community and less on the violence.

When one is studying human nature, it is nearly impossible for the observer to not be somehow truly separate from his or her subject. Glassie, an American in a small Irish community knew his accent would give him away, but was able to maintain some sense of anonymity because some were confused as to where he was from. However, he was an outsider only when he spoke up. For McDowell, it was much harder for him to blend in to the surroundings for he was studying a group of people whose skin’s complexion has been darker for several centuries.

When one reads Glassie though, his method is as inductive as his narrative is poetic. An example of Glassie’s inductive poetry is when he starts to write about the existence, history and condition of Northern Ireland. He writes: “Ireland’s greatest victory, our old man says, was not enough. The farmers owned the land. Britain ruled the land,” (Glassie, p. 45). He goes on to give a brief history of Britain’s invasion, occupation and partition of the island of Ireland and its people. Ireland is the world’s oldest colony, the first to be colonized and first to experience partition. As a result the consistent political situation is one of violence up until now. Glassie wanted to focus on literature as in the context of resistance to authority, but he wanted to write in a style that was meticulously illustrative. He could have easily written about Irish history in the manner of a dry textbook, but instead he chose not because he wanted to get it right.

Throughout the book, Glassie is participating as much as he is observing. In the same chapter about Northern Ireland, Glassie focuses his attention on The Troubles, a period a violence between Irish Catholics who organized into the IRA (Irish Republican Army), fighting for the union of the entire isle of Ireland with the end of partition. On the other side were the Loyalists, Protestant Northern Irish people who defined themselves as Ulsterites. Most had either Scottish, Welsh or English ancestry. They wanted to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Glassie describes a local episode of an exchange of violence between two farm boys, Lunny and Timoney, one was Catholic and the other was Protestant. In the story, the two men make fun of the Troubles: They fired birdshot at one another’s houses, shook their fists in faked rage, then laughed and waved merrily,” (Glassie, p. 339). By acknowledging and parodying their differences they were able to master their tensions and make fun of it. Parodying violence is a way the Irish deal with it. As some might say, it’s part of the Irish character; to find humor in things where humor is usually not found. Glassie makes the following conclusion: “They speak of the Troubles as a climate. The violence was here before they came, will continue after they have gone. Like the weather, it is beyond their control, something to endure,” (Glassie, p. 51). Since violence is so familiar to the Irish it is no wonder they are capable to make fun of it. Violence for them is like a close friend. The character of a close friendship often includes the willingness to insult one another in good fun. It is a way of deemphasizing differences. However, Glassie befriends Peter Flanagan, one of “lone remaining star[s],” (Glassie, p. 187) in order to gain rapport and trust to build upon. Glassie has to become this intimate if he intends to examine the centrality of folklore in everyday lives. His is a qualitative study because he analyzes the existing varieties of folklore in relation to the community of Ballymenone.

McDowell’s methodological approach is focuses more on one thing versus Glassie’s book, which focuses on a community. Of course, McDowell’s book is much thinner than Glassie’s, but McDowell is focusing specifically on the corrido’s affect and reaction to the community it is a part of. Whereas, Glassie is looking for how a community defines community through its folklore. However, near the end of the book, McDowell attempts to broaden his study by including examples of the dialectic of violence and poetry in other cultures. McDowell explains: “My interest in the corrido was sparkled by the power of its heroic narrative … I was intrigued by an expressive form … that seemed so deeply embedded in the lives of ordinary people,” (McDowell, p. 6). First, McDowell has to create definitions that simplify things for his English readers who might not be familiar with such contradictory categorizations such as race. In Latin America, race carries much more emphasis and how it is defined as compared to the United States. When McDowell discusses his method for translating the lyrics of the corridor he explains: “I have strived to produce reliable transcriptions of these source materials, but cannot rule out the possibility of error in regard to the most recalcitrant passages, “(McDowell, p. 10). Where Glassie is poetic, McDowell is academic. McDowell gets to the point quicker, but has the tendency to attempt defining something as indefinite as violence; whereas for Glassie, although his is trying to study all levels of oral traditions in Ballymenone, he refrains from being too general. Nevertheless, Glassie’s lyrical descriptions do make him seem like he is gazing at the stars too much before he finally gets to his point. McDowell’s methodology has the appearance of being less participatory as compared to Glassie. Glassie befriends his subjects; he becomes a part of the community so much so that he had to write this second book in order to get it right. McDowell comes in a stranger and only observes. Consistently he writes about what he observes based on his own biases as an outsider: “Let’s examine one version of this ballad,” (McDowell, p. 140), but never does he come close enough to his subjects as Glassie does. McDowell examines a ballad where Glassie relates a story brought up during a conversation: “William Lunny, the elder, Michael Boyle said,” (Glassie, p. 338). Glassie does not only want to observe, he wants to absorb Ballymenone and all the people he meets. In the end, both offer meaningful insight to their subjects and the study of folklore.

Both books discuss how subaltern people maintain a sense of community while enduring the poverty and violence that surrounds them. Glassie explores the ceili, a part of a network of entertainment coupled with shared labor. The ceili was once a type of social event with music and dancing that then developed into something more subdued. It subdued to a conversation. The ceili gives segway to something else similar to traditional folklore. Glassie notes: “Out of the darkness, words come cleanly upon the ear, making sentences that break up for drama and then roll on. The style is direct, free of metaphoric fancy,” (Glassie, p. 252). They use stories of the past to help comment on topics in conversation which relate to Irish life. Glassie explains: “[T]he ceili’s tale frays at the edges, rising through a conversational prelude to narration, then descending through brief, repeated comments to join the talk,” (Glassie, p. 254). The social commentary of the different variety of tales told in a ceili make context of each other. The ceili makes comments on the main themes of Irish life. The Irish theme is common life and having the wit to deal with it by devaluing suffering. The Irish will tell a tale that would relate to a particular topic in a conversation, be it gossip, politics or The Troubles that are part of the Irish experience.

The corrido in Mexico is also making a social comment. In order for the corrido to be heard they must perform in front of an audience. The corrido singer rarely performs on a stage. Instead, one is more likely to hear a corrido in an adobe-walled house, in a wedding, or in the street. McDowell makes note of the consistent subject matter of the corrido when he writes: “The quest for vengeance, a central theme in many narratives of violence, offers insight into these issue,” (McDowell, p 15). People in this region are highly sensitive to the demands of honor and to the agony of shame. For Latin Americans, themes are more important than they might be for an American culture. The corrido focuses on the main theme of Mexican life: Honor, how it is gained, lost and sometimes regained. The code of machismo, a condition of hyper-masculinity, can sometimes be defined as slight as sustained retaliation. Often this can escalate into a feud where violence occurs. Those people gathering to hear these songs create a sense a community. The songs offer entertainment while at the same time evoking a kind of thematic mentality Mexicans inadvertently promote.

In a sense, the corrido is like mumming is to Ireland. The mumming is a type of play where players gather at houses, Catholic or Protestant (nowadays a Mummer’s Play is usually performed in a pub), using rhyme and wit to commentate on the condition of Man, as well as resurrection. This resurrection was symbolic as it was religious. The corrido performs much in the same way. He or she uses poetry to commentate on the violence. McDowell writes: “The typical corrido focuses on an aggrieved individual or group seeking revenge for a fallen relative, “(McDowell, p. 32). The revenge of the aggrieved individual usually represents a type of positive violence. The violence is positive because it is validate because it is in response to brutal negative violence. The practice of the corrido ballad is historical. Its roots can be traced back to the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico. In other parts of Latin America, the corrido exists in different forms. However, the Mexican corrido, specific to Costa Chica is a practice of: “creating and singing ballads in response to the events of the day,” (McDowell, p. 43). This ballad is a vital component of the culture — as well as identity. The people in these Mexican communities are accustomed to the interplay if violence and poetry as the Irish are accustomed to poverty and poetry. Ireland in 1972 had levels of violence. The mumming is a form of healing, a way of again, deemphasizing the differences by poking fun of. In the same way, the Mexicans sing corridos where the lessons about honor try to shape the end of violence. For, positive violence would have to react if negative violence didn’t exist.

The violence is celebrated and critiqued by both cultures. In Mexico, men will try to imitate the heroes of their favorite ballad with the hopes to be immortalized in a song. And in Ireland, the IRA man tells Glassie that his consolation is that if he dies then old men will write a song about him. The corrido celebrates and encourages violence:

Corrido poets frequently allude to the catastrophic results of violent acts that unleash a chain reaction of retaliations before the violence finally subsides. It is well known in the towns and villages of the Costa Chica that one act of violence begets another. Corrido poets remind their listeners of the complications that are likely to flow from the employment of violent means and implicitly (and sometime explicitly) call for a tempered response,” (McDowell, p. 156).

At the same time, the number of men actually trying to imitate the heroes of the corridos is a small percentage. In Ireland, violence is encouraged by the insistence of rituals setting neighbor against neighbor. It’s contradictory for Ireland where companionship between neighbors is much more important than ties made by blood between families. The episode at the end of the book Glassie’s book, where an drunk IRA man in a pub gets up and starts spouting politics and radical ideas to people who don’t want to listen offers the answer. Violence is Ireland is observed in a certain way, with humor and humility The IRA man in the pub was expressing it in the wrong way, with anger and pride.

In Mexico, violence is endured but not tolerated — it is retaliated. Mexico has been a place historically embedded in violence. McDowell touches the historical significance of violence in Mexico. Mexico was the first place where a Social Revolution took place in 1910. The revolution is signified as social because it was started by agrarian people. The same kind of people who had a tradition of the corrido where the hero uses violence as a means of retaliation and defiance against his or her oppressor. It is not surprising the one day the oppressed people of Mexico would do the same. In Costa Chica, they have a saying, “‘¡Así es la costa!’(That’s how it is on the coast!),” (McDowell, p. 48). In the same way the people of Ballymenone, who in Northern Ireland, would argue the same thing. This is how it is here. Both of those comments offer insight to the psychology of endurance. Both offer acceptance as well as defiance. We will endure! Damn you!

Call it whatever you want, but violence begets violence, as McDowell observed. Violence exposes the great flaw in the social contract by proposing the impossibility of human coexistence. The only way to respond sometimes to things out of people’s control is to endure while creating commentary from creative expression. For the Irish people of Ballymenone and for the Mexicans in Costa Chica, the commentary is created through their oral traditions. By examining these oral traditions one can not only get close at the larger truth, but also the figure out why certain traditions maintain and some do not. Glassie’s book is one laced in lyrical language that gets it right. Glassie observed how people live with tension in order to create community — a community where no one hides their identity. The stars in Glassie’s book they tell someone else’s story because the point is to not create focus on the self, but focus on something else thereby creating a theme where humor and humility create commonalities. McDowell tries to attack his subject at the throat and offer an analysis of it from every angle. However, he soon realizes there is no precise conclusion as he offers none when he closes his argument of violence in relation to its influence on children. In the way it’s about endurance by tradition and the coming together of people.

Originally published at www.jordanaubryrobison.com on August 4, 2014.


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