Thursday 14 October 2010

Excavating for a Meaning so Providential

Plato’s allegory of the cave was elaborated in an ancient context that was witness to the demise of the city-state as an operational unit for maintaining social harmony and order. Hence, if civilization were to endure beyond Athens, it would have to submit to a higher condition, much different to that of a privileged pantheon of civic gods that justified the power of a bunch of short-sighted politicians. And it was precisely Plato’s ideas about an abstract but ideal deity that was taken up by Christianity in order to justify the imposition of an ethical claim to human brotherhood under one male god as a universal creed that in a sense resolved Plato’s dilemma single-handedly.

The Christian high-god would take the place of our philosopher’s ideal, and by this stroke of genius, humankind (in the west) was now regimented under the hands of an all-encompassing father figure that curtailed our existential defeatisms. But both insiders and outsiders who had developed their own all-inclusive claims subsequently questioned Christianity’s universal affirmations. The way out of this quagmire was to invent the nation, to substitute a grand idea for another, and to sideline any previous representatives with claims to a transcendent totality. But the new leaders left intact the idea of aspiration for grandeur and of a history with meaning. So our modern claims to universality had to settle for the coalescence of big tribes under one same roof, each of them headed by a political head, who in a sense was still going to be intent on perennially emulating Plato’s ideal of the Good.

But the Nation-States claims to universality were hindered because of their inability to convey its unifying message of shared values to every citizen in each corner of its territory, principles that tend to function as the cementing units of every patriotic ensemble. And the media at this stage had not yet sided with the state, and was still the conduit of public opinion for a people that were waking up to the freedoms that were being assuaged by the novel political organization in charge.

So with this backdrop in mind we could analyze Chile’s most recent soap-opera drama of the trapped miners. The actors in this play are basically four:

First, we have the victims, which provide tangible suffering as personal narrative and social lubricant for further collective scenarios and patriotic discourses within Chile.

Second, we have the State, which epitomized by the Nation’s father, acts as the main character, and the mastermind who plans the miners release and who ultimately relieves them from their captivity and suffering.

Third, we have the media, who overall increases the tempo, drama, and narrative, and who in the end benefits from the exposure and income that is generated from it all.

Finally, the global and mediatized spectator, who not only shares in with real human calamity, but who in the end signs and seals a deal which was previously orchestrated by the State with clear utilitarian goals in mind.

So while the world entertains itself and reflects on the greatness of concerted human efforts by tuning in to a televised rescue, other forces are being played out. The State’s genius in this act was to turn around an original accident that made bureaucrats lament that the 700-meter pit may be part of their geography. On the other hand, it is very curios to know that CODELCO, the national copper extracting industrial state monopoly, and the biggest source of foreign revenue, was being fought over between the interests of both public and private sectors. This televised show of force by the state will possibly render anathema any intent of further privatizing mining.

But by discounting economic interests for the time being, this article intends to focus on identity formation in an age of pseudo-operational Nation-states. What I want to highlight is the power of the new media and the hegemonic position that it has established in collusion with the state. What we are witnessing is the articulation by the state of patriotic discourses by using a relatively unknown phenomenon (up until yesterday) that has now achieved centre stage. This means that regardless of other countless mining accidents that have ended in tragedy, this one has been harnessed in order to achieve multiple goals besides the most obvious humanistic ones. So a country that is celebrating a bicentenary (just like many other Latin American countries), takes these miners as heroes of the anniversary, by materializing a reality that serves as flesh for the bones for a symbolic event of magnitude. In similar cases of recurrent national celebration, every other leader would dream of having heroes like our miner actors in order to give their social happenings some tangible and referential political meaning, besides the already familiar but very abstract memories of historical events that have made possible whichever is designed to be re-celebrated and re-enacted for social cohesion purposes.

Any government would wish to have a similar opportunity for nation building like this - in order to re-establish themselves at the top - by rebranding a still coherent, cohesive and functioning idea of collectivity. And there is nothing wrong with this. But the case shows us how the media has moved (at a large extent) from being solely critical of the state and a delimiter of public spaces, to a player that creates and re-shapes public opinion, in order to fit this space with its powerful and monetary goals and those of the state, whatever they may be.

It is clear that what the state openly strives for is national unity behind an event that would have gone unnoticed if the media had not trusted and placed its money-hungry instincts over it. And it is in this relation with the media that the state most profits from, because the former does not only influence civil society in order to better position political candidates (and in some cases to make them outright winners) in popular elections. No, the state won with this hegemonic relationship with the media because the latter operated as the showcase for the plight of the forgotten and the dispossessed, something which is needed to heed popular calls for inclusiveness.

The media presented a very profitable human narrative that not only revealed the human side of things. It was also a symbolic way of telling the average Chilean on the fringes (which an education dictated from the centre had left out) that they too could form part of that patriotic family, and that he or she will be rescued from any situation of despair if only they would care to reunite under the protection that the umbrella of the state and its compassionate patriarch provides. So personal lives are enhanced to make us feel part of it all. We find out about someone’s existence that in most cases would be ignored if met on the street. Detail is tailored with the goal of making us feel more closely identified with their suffering, by stirring our emotions, thus we fix our attention on whatever a small quadrangular receptacle presents us.

“This has been a miracle” stated Chile’s president, whilst he took part in the whole orchestrated event. I wonder if the man ever pondered on legal claims to statehood, where a sane separation between church and state is necessary. Ultimately my answer was provided from above - God is still helpful for nation building - regardless of its inability of directly controlling the political public space. Nevertheless, the television saga offered a unique opportunity to catch a glimpse and observe that those on top still stand on religions’ shoulders for support.

In the end our main characters, the miners, which symbolically could represent the people inside Plato’s cave, emerge from it as targets of a system that utilizes them for diverse but covert purposes. The rope, that seems to be the link between real civilized life and the helpless but still hopeful group of individuals, becomes a metaphoric string that converts the miners into acting puppets of an ever more ambitious play.

Plato’s cavemen could potentially come out to light from deep inside the darkness of their confinement as free men because if they did, they would be able to understand what it means to come face to face with the ideal entity that created the life that they had played out as individuals underneath. Our Chilean miners surfaced as heroes, but of our interest-ridden and multi-purpose theatrical civilization.

Saturday 3 April 2010

The Catholic Church: A stagnant star stuck within a vibrant constellation of change

Any institution must develop a proper set of principles to define its internal operational framework, and by doing so, this will be functional in clearly identifying it within a specific set of social arrangements, and it will, by comparison, reveal what particularly it is not, if by this we take into account other existing institutions with their corresponding caracteristics.

Thus establishing an internal configuration means clarifying who is who in terms of human chain of command, and how specific elements operate in terms of roles  that are accordingly ascribed, in order to lubricate social relations within that particular framework. On the other hand, and depending on their interests, institutions have to spread a set of values by efficiently conveying messages to a public that has been chosen as a target audience and which will act as recipients for them. People follow institutions for many reasons, but most are revered because they offer members possibilities that can hardly be fulfilled by individuals outside the roof that a collectivist organization provides. The only way to God is through the Catholic Church - according to them.

Institutions also stand for repetition of well-known practices and procedures. This means that in the interior of a religious organization like the Catholic Church, priests and other clerics will have to constantly behave according to established norms, rules and regulations that will constrain them within that particular composition. And this is also true for its external associates, as they must follow what the institution has prescribed for them, in order to more fully comply with the tenets that it has set apart and which distinguishes its followers from others. Behaving according to plan is also necessary in order to more efficiently convey a kind of leadership, which maintains institutional loyalty from within and from   outside affiliates. What everybody wants here is constant and permanent cultural reproduction of a particular way of life.

But the fact behind every institution is that it has to compete with others for the supremacy of hearts and minds, and in some cases, for the physical bodies of subjects themselves.  Monetary contributions of members, in the form of grants or taxes, upkeeps the organized infrastructure of the institution - like the State, the Army, or the Catholic Church. Whenever any organization claims that it has taken over by privatizing any idea, for example ‘God’, as the Catholic Church claims, then it will have to be extremely careful in its connection between its transcendent and human characteristics, as in the end, and regardless of the purported infallibility of its founders and contemporary leaders who are in every case mortal, it must keep in tune with the times that it inhabits in. As any business endeavour has come to understand, the only way of being completely on top without regard or recourse to anything else, is by becoming  the only existing player, with no competition whatsoever, by becoming  a  monopoly.

It is possible to argue that the first institutions brought about by civilization could have been free of influence from any other, as the first of a series is basically at liberty to create what it wants. In spite of that, the Catholic Church was not the first institution of its kind. It could have developed a particular message of universalism that could have been inexistent prior to its inception, but it too was adapted to a structure that was not original in itself.

 Today, it is virtually impossible to posit that any new institution could be created from scratch without taking into account influences from others, be it organizational, administrative or ideological. And if we travelled back in time to the establishment of Christianity as a corporate body of ethics and morals, we would have been witness to a fierce competition between it and the State, a political system and concept which finally succumbed in the end of the 5th century A.D., and which cleared the way for Christianity, who took over the private and public spaces of proto-Europeans for the following 300 years of obscurant and raw politics and society.

So the main lesson is that you become relevant as an institution if you are the only or one of the few alternatives offering any series of propositions. But in the end, people on the other side of the receptacle have to follow you all the way, in order for you to survive as an organization, in the cases in which you have successfully systematized whatever that you do. In every phase of life, institutions must transform themselves in order to successfully adapt to whatever social, political, and cultural circumstances they may be faced with. The issue with the Catholic Church is that necessary changes have not been even dreamt of because of the grandiloquent claims of its founders and actual participants. However, and in order to subscribe to the church, one must have faith not only in God, but one must build trust towards the masculine and patriarchal beings whom God has chosen (theoretically) to represent him. In this context, the repression of sexuality as celibacy was in a way of secondary importance, only a means to a higher end.

Having established celibacy as a rule since 1039 A.D., the church did not have to contend with a public that was sexually free in any way to do otherwise. The Middle Ages were still absent of a printing press that would, in due course, come to question the incongruous practice of a corporation which by then had grown enormously powerful in every sense, from otherworldly to worldly (at least European) matters. But the Church’s recalcitrance has been its main defensive weapon throughout instances where it has been doctrinally confronted - with vivid examples in the Crusades, the Counter-Reformation  and its wars of religion - that ravaged Europe between 1521 and 1648, and the outright negation of the sexual sagas that have imperiously surfaced since recent times.

 The Church might be experiencing a cataclysmic shift today with a public scrutiny being undertaken by an ever-increasing informed civil society, in times where television has taken by storm both public and private arenas worldwide. The last time that the Church faced an issue as contentious as the present one was the sixteenth century Reformation, a phenomenon that was only possible, not only because of the socio-economic changes (rise of middle classes) that Europe was going through, but because of a new technology that spread the event like wildfire, Gutenberg’s printing press.

The contemporary world has definitely changed into one that would have been unrecognizable throughout the initial stages of the Church. Today we live in an information age that has up to a point questioned previous modes of economic development that preceded it, the agricultural and industrial eras. Socio-cultural changes have accelerated dramatically. If industry was a giant leap from agriculture, the Internet and telecommunications of our times have catapulted our societies in quantum terms. Belief today has to compete today with countervailing versions to the transcendent offered by other religions, scientific enterprises, the media, the State, and civil society itself, who to a large extent has been kept under pressure to maintain the dogmatic values that the Church has blindly professed throughout the various periods of global transformation. The Dark Ages gave way to the Renaissance, and from there we transited into Modern waters, but the Church has remained stolid ever since.

Now, this paper is not designed with the aim of questioning the Catholic Church’s claims of being the ideal way towards the transcendent. Its only goal is to question a belief and practice that has definitely come of age, celibacy. And it has come in a time of poignant sexual behaviour from within its core, not from without it. So it has become easier to quantify claims of absurd hypocrisy from within its rank and file because of the spectatorial quality of contemporary media and events that have thrown the institution into a tailspin. With over 5000 priests, bishops, and other orders and clergy positions involved in sexual abuses,we could say we are not dealing with  isolated cases of abuse (according to more. Spanning a territory of at least sixteen countries - Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, Mexico, USA, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, The Vatican, Italy, England, Ireland, Netherlands, Australia, South Africa -  the Catholic Church is in dire straits because of this infamous chain of sexual abuses.

And it is in trouble not because of its foundational myth, one that has nevertheless become increasingly harder to sustain in a world as rational and diverse, and that ricochets ideas more quickly. No, it is stuck as a cosmology because of its insistence in a convention that is supposedly a pillar of Catholic sacramental faith, but one whose realistic main motive is blunt social control, both internally within its structure, and externally for among its members: Celibacy. It is not easy to come to grips with the reasons (besides the obviously political) that moved the Church to impose it upon its members since the 11th century. But we today can easily understand why celibacy is not only archaic and anachronistic, but also surely cruel and inhumane, and an encumbrance for personal development. What does seem to be plausible is that sexuality and morality in the Middle Ages (to a great extent influenced by religion) more closely resembled back then what the Church still wants it to be today, the means for an end  of human reproduction.

Sexuality today means many things, besides Catholicism’s monolithic version of it. In addition, this latter position can’t be defended today on the grounds that the churchmen maintain a distinct status as a corporation with speciality in other-worldly affairs.  Be that as it may, this claims clash with other public contemporary social interests, like the predominance of the State, the rule of law, civil society, an informed public opinion, and a contemporary culture, which has certainly transcended the idea of a sexuality as exclusively instrumental for reproduction.

For our understanding of what Catholic suppression of sexuality could represent, we could follow Michel Foucault, in his view that ‘sexual discipline’ in turn implies control of inner drives, that is, control that takes place within the individual and of his life, and one which in the end shapes internal characteristics of human beings, which hence result as losers, in a game of power relations. But we could posit, on the other hand, Anthony Gidden’s idea of reflexivity in order to better comprehend what has taken place in the context of modernity. Individuals are using up their ‘sexual capital’ so as to say, in order to more freely express individuality and particular lifestyle choices in an age of more relative freedom for the body vis-a-vis the society they find themselves in. Essentially, sexuality is no longer an issue for the Catholic Church only, as it has become contentious for other social spheres of cultural life like family, communitarian, and State relations in an everly increasing globalized political world.

The other argument regarding the indefensibility of their celibate stance is plain and common sense. If criticism is rife it is because what it implies is social outrage, and what public discourse has branded as abuse and depravity is no misnomer. How will it be possible to conduct future Church affairs, whilst simultaneously maintaining and attracting more folk, on the grounds of congruency towards sexuality, if the main proponents of restraint have insidiously flouted the idea? Hence, there is no longer a defensible case for eschewing criticism on the grounds that sexual abuses represent isolated phenomena. The Catholic Church is drowning inside a tidal wave of empirical evidence against it.

Furthermore, what is needed is the opening up of spaces of representation for a subject that has been misunderstood for ages. Sexuality is much more than bodily intercourse, social control or self-engineering. It is also a gross, but fundamental energy that sustains the well being of the body, both personally and collectively, and certainly one that could overpower any physique if it is misunderstood or categorically repressed, as in the Catholic Church's case.

From the recent manifestations of homosexual paedophilia among the clergy, we could draw evidence to illuminate the previous claim by saying that what is really happening goes beyond confused sexual preferences and the legality of victims. Men within this hierarchically patriarchal institution and organization are faced with a reality that cannot be addressed in matters of faith and belief in God alone.
Males inside the Church are experiencing what any other gendered human being faces from his teenage years to full-blown adulthood, sexual urges which tend to surface in bursts of sexual energy. This vitality generally seeks satisfaction or at least comprehension, but it is also true that one can abstain from it, or even more, that it could be harnessed by transforming it into the essence of spiritual growth like a myriad of tantric sages have pointed out. We do not have to necessarily follow Abraham Maslow when he states that in order to access higher levels of awareness we have to satisfy the lower to begin with. But we can safely say that blocking sexuality outright by withholding it and repressing it will tend to backfire as negative consequences for the individual.

So, in the bulk of cases, sexual energy will find an outlet in physical sexual acts, be them personal/individual and or in participation with others. If those others are men, boys or children, it is because that is what is physically available inside an institution where women have been deliberately left out, not only of religious symbolism and tradition, but of the Church’s tangible location in the form of a cathedral, a church, a basilica, or whatever edifice acts as a roof for them around the world. On the other hand, there is also a relationship between this patriarchal vision of an all-male club and power relations that are established in horizontal and vertical ways within its structure, and that which to a point develop a sort of ‘cult of maleness’ that is surely unnatural. Members of the church are in a sense ‘Church property’ and young males will tend to hold respect and admiration for figures of higher standing. But vested authority has been flagrantly abused in the case of the sexual misfortunes that I am referring to, thus this alone threatens the cement that has held their internal coherence in working order for generations.

The average Catholic today has to cohabit with a large public in the contemporary world who increasingly has come to see personal development and transcendence as all-inclusive, in the sense of utilizing all available resources - especially the most intimate and personal like sexuality - as part of an action plan for humane dignity and growth. Many practicing Catholics themselves form part of this group. Moreover, sexual energy and action is impossible to repress without direct consequences for individuals, so the Catholic Church must be very careful with public reactions against it. If the priesthood is seen to be recklessly squandering the moral capital of the institution, people will shy away from it in every sense, ranging from physical absence to symbolic retraction. The Church must be especially cautious in an era were the letter, the scroll, and the book have been transcended by an information and media technologies phase of civilization which could annihilate any long held reputation in a few minutes.

Ultimately, it could be stated that what happens at the individual/personal level is mirrored at the social/collective level of any organization or collectivity. In this sense, individual repression of sexuality is replicated at the communal, thus making sex a problematic issue for the institution as a whole, including its constituency. So what is going on here is that the Catholic Church is in danger of affecting the more sublime and elevated aspects of its creed (liturgy, sacrament, theology) for failing to extinguish out a fire that is burning inside the edifice’s basement. The Catholic Church today is not the dominant institution that it once was in antiquity. It must revise its policy towards sexuality and celibacy if it wants to successfully keep its monotheistic God myth perpetuated. Modify, Change, Transform, Metamorphose, --- or perish.

Saturday 13 March 2010

A piece of the Jigsaw or the Jigsaw itself? The Sociology of the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’

Introductory context

Attempting to ascertain social phenomena within the bounds of monocultural nation states tend to be intricate tasks. For whenever specific collective actions are undertaken by movements that do not subscribe to mainstream culture, these will tend to be identified as sub-cultural or countercultural, depending on the degree of deviance in which they may be incurring. Subsuming these in a qualitative fashion as counterpoised to common praxis, is typical not only of the State and its organization of the social world; it is also customary for the general public at large.

The aforementioned introductory lines are a case in point for Mexico as a country. Common knowledge is prone, both domestically and internationally, to view the land of the Aztec and the Spaniard as composed of a homogeneous Mestizo (mixed white and indigenous race) background that makes up the building blocks for the prevailing racial composition. But an uncomfortable truth has haunted the nation for decades. Racial minorities, composed of white Spanish descended peoples and that of the darker skinned Indigenous inhabitants, were left out of the unipolar mestizo blend, and they have grown apart from each other, not only in class terms, but also in the utilization of available economic and cultural resources. The playing out of their particular symbolic worldviews occurs within unevenly shared public spaces. Centuries of bloodshed and race intermingling gave way to the formation of a socio-political unit that nevertheless has endured the most severe of hardships. But in the end, Mexico is not really a monocultural nation.

And the main issue is that it has always been like this. The State has been perennially intent (since its postcolonial inception) in consolidating some sort of uniformity out of a disparaged society. In this context, we could not really say that any collectivity is concretely sub cultural, as there is no clear and definite identity for Mexicans as a whole. Despite that, it could be true that there exists common national symbols, and that whatever a few ensembles containing few peoples does not necessarily imply a threat to a vaguely understood but accepted set of values. Overall, there is not really one type of Mexican, but many of them constructing particular narratives under one same roof.

So in order to understand a phenomenon as the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ we have to take the previous backdrop into account. The second thing we have to do is to remove our prejudices from the table, because minority behaviour tends to be treated in pejorative terms, to say the least. Hence, the better way of delving into any group’s livelihood is by direct face to face in depth qualitative interviewing and participant observation. The following lines will be laid down as a result of a case study involving members of a group that has been basically referred to as an “unregenerate mass of unemployed and addicted youngsters” by the media, the State and civil society. I was personally involved in the interviewing and qualitative analysis of the data obtained, and my work was motivated, not in terms of how we could question the latter reference (that I personally find unfounded), but in how we could really comprehend how some people make their way in a contemporary world, were narratives tend to be overrun by an onslaught of en-masse directed criticisms, that tend to obscure or plainly soil minority practices.

Without trying to determine that a particular socio-economic status or class position stereotypically paves the way for specific group interests, it is still safe to pin-down the circle of individuals better known as ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ at the top-end of the lower class, if by that we understand, people who do not by themselves show any propensity to form part of a well established structure of class mobility (led by the upper classes), but who nevertheless are aware of a social world that can be transformed by the acting out of their potentialities in the acquisition of at least a partial slice of material consumption, which has in a sense established the material basis for their particular cultural habits. This by itself distinguishes the upper-lower classes from the rest of the disenfranchised bulk in this social categorization.

It is also necessary to differentiate occupations within that social echelon, to better try to tangibly locate our participants. The Mexican working class (which forms the lion’s share of the lower classes in Mexico) could well be divided in at least two forms. A first classification could include the lowest denominated of occupations, ranging from informal workers (which represents up to at least half of domestic commercial activities throughout the country and are centred around the main big metropolises of Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey) who are detached from a tax-collection structure, and on the other hand, we could also include manual workers (subsistence farmers, carpenters, mason workers, et cetera) and they both tend to be people with barely or, in some cases, no education or literacy at all. The main distinction between these and our interviewed subjects (upper-lower class), is that the latter are bearers of at least a basic primary education, and, in some of the cases interviewed, holders of a basic technical education that functions as the knowledge-basis of particular lines of work. In this sense, the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ life is centred around a working week that pays off their leisure pursuits, which only become affordable thanks to an averagely paid job. They are able to provide for their attires (that distinguish them and sets them apart from others) and can simultaneously finance any entrance fees to local clubs that harbour the ambiance, music, and dance styles that they seek. But in the end, these guys do not maintain their families or offspring of any kind. Their earnings are directly invested in their own image, both in portraying it in symbolical ways, and by reproducing it in conjunction with other members of their clan. Working classes are centred on peripheral, but nevertheless well-established working class neighbourhoods. These communities supply the majority of work force necessary to maintain an agro-industrial economy as it is played out in Monterrey, the northern industrial hub of the country.

Middle classes, on the other hand, are both more professional and educated (with at least secondary or tertiary degrees) and can be found in completely different subject positions, well placed in a class structure that is organized in a way that guarantees (at least in theory) social mobility. In this way, we could determine a kind of symbolic relation between the middle and upper classes. Aspiration for the former in this scheme, is not only portrayed by observing similarities of material uses like fashion and other elements like lifestyle options and choice of residence and consumption of automobiles, but by a whole array of symbolic choices that tend to be understood as “upper class” and which tend to be emulated because of tangible possibilities of doing so.

Essentially, the lower classes are not particularly and clearly accommodated in a position of mobile and hierarchical class structure like the one played out by the middle and upper classes, as they are far away from the scheme, as explained in the introductory context. However, as we have seen and will continue to do so throughout this paper, the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ have found ways of giving meaning to their lives by delighting in a kind of recreation that goes beyond accepted conceptions of the term, but which in the end, harms no one. These activities require particular attention and a just explanation, not only for those involved in them, but for others who may have little or no knowledge of them and who could easily become victims of miscomprehension and of class-mongering.

Music & Dance

The ‘Cholo Colombianos’ use of music as differentiating practice is one of their most salient characteristics, as they have chosen a particular style throughout their projective phases since the 1980s. The Colombiano part of the name implies an appropriation of a Colombian cultural product - that is of their music - the cumbia Vallenata. The use of a foreign product takes place in a curious manner. Our lot does not take into account nation-specific particularities (besides music) for their enjoyment. They are attracted by the appealing rhythm of Colombian music, by its joy and simplicity of tune, and by its infectious melody that is very conducive (according to them) for effective dancing in both private and public arenas. It is also very important to say that the utilization of Colombian tunes is not something new but something that has been constantly imbibed by them since both their youth and the inception of the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ a few decades ago, in and around their own neighbourhoods. In their own words, “It was there, and we grew up with it”. So in this sense, the music being there means that it has been taken up by others in their own way of building their own group identity. In the end, it was preferred by them (contemporary members) particularly in order to conform their own bloc personality. At heart, Colombian music and dance reinforces the group’s symbolic worldview, both internally (as a mode of personal and signification) and externally, in the practice of public and social bonding processes like dancing and concert attendance in massive venues. It is important to mention that Colombian Vallenato music is not orthodox fare as Mexican autochthonous songs, which in comparison are favoured as the most conventional or popular throughout the nation.

Another final aspect that is fundamental to point out in order to more closely come to grips with the playing out of this particular group identity is dance. Cholo Colombianos have their own particular technique, but in a sense, the latter could be understood a syncretic way of dancing a foreign jingle but with a local flavour. It is a social dance style, not an individual one. This is further evidence of the bonding qualities of this the music of their choice.

Clothing & Fashion

The clothing style that characterizes the ‘Cholo-Colombianos’ is a curious blend of eclecticism. On one hand, the individuals conforming they have added to their own distinct style out of available domestic resources. On the other hand, depending on a foreign import for music does not necessarily exclude the possibility of enjoying it with a local taste. And that is specifically what has happened. Cholo Colombianos have developed their own clothing style in something that could be termed as a “fashion statement” that flaunts various elements and influences simultaneously. So following this argument, we can say that the Colombiano part of the fashion equation is represented by the use of well-established icons of Mexican extraction, but this are just utilized for symbolic motives. But be that as it may, these exclude the usage of icons, which could be understood and related to symbols of nationalism or patriotism in any way (I will come to this last point in the identity part of our account).

So the employment of icons like the Virgin of Guadalupe, cactuses (nopal) and or flowers in their attire is characteristic of them, and it tends to maintain their public use of identity within an established set of symbolic meanings that could well be understood by compatriots within Mexico. Another important thing to comment is that the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ have developed their clothing tastes and aesthetics (how they view themselves and others who share the public world) not only in counter position to others, but have developed their own motives (both internal and external) that could serve as justifications for behaving that way. Their social use of clothing is not to alarm others or to be against them. Nevertheless they definitely want to stand out from the crowd.

But in order to complete the fashion statement and eclecticism we have to completely flesh out the other part of their name and social identity, the Cholo part. Here is where we can picture the influence from the United States of America (and of television) in terms of a kind of aspirational opportunity of expansion for them as individuals and as a movement, but not as class awareness within a well-established social hierarchy (as explained before). This could be understood by the predisposition for particular brand names, which are not only related to, but which are worn by a particular circle that in a sense, and according to them, is placed above them - at least fashion wise. This latter band in question is the American gang culture of Los Angeles, which tends to leads the way in clothing matters. The interviewees questioned were clear about brand labels that are American in origin, and they were also clear in their reference of these as sort of higher placed outfits in a scale of socio-economic positions. Ironically, this usage of alternate, but well established trademarks, also serves the purpose of ‘refining’ or ‘cleansing’ their collective identity up to a point, as interviewees were clear on this as representing more austere (squared and line patterned shirts but nevertheless still colourful) but less stigmatized garments by other public peoples outside of their circle. The boys were clear about being overtly criticized whenever they wore cactuses, or representations of the Virgin of Guadalupe because of the “popular culture” feel that these symbols elicit. Overall, they believed that wearing a more Cholo-like, US influenced attire, dramatically reduced criticism and condescension. In this sense, we could safely say that (just like any other big tract of a big aspirational society that tends too look in the upper echelons of itself for solace when it comes to social mobility and distinction) ‘Cholo Colombianos’ not only revel in imports for their particular use in terms of identity formation, they also serve as safeguards or pressure relievers when it comes to manifesting themselves within a range of opposing or competing social blocs. ‘Cholo Colombiano’ fashion is not only a collective phenomena, it also stands for individual and very personal public statements that nonetheless show structural group guidance in their compounding. To sum it up, clothing style is shaped both by local and foreign influences, but has nevertheless conflated as a hybrid and healthy mix that they have incorporated in order to better represent them. Group identity is hence reinforced by dress.

Religious symbols and Identity

Now, regarding the use of religious symbolism, a few things can be stated. First, it is clear that religious icons are used because of the impact that religion not only has had on the nation (a fundamental facet of Mexican life), but on families themselves and their sense of identity within and across narratives of everyday living. But is important to state at this stage, that regardless of the fact that some nations tend to establish bonds with particular religions in order to cement national identity (excluding theocracies as obvious examples), the ‘Cholo Colombiano’ use of religious iconography is not related to patriotic issues. In our case study, the symbols are worn for particular qualities that they expound. The Virgin de Guadalupe is worn because of the maternal symbolism and her ‘protective’ characteristics. In this case, we could relate the habit of displaying this image to a wider and more commonplace use. Regardless of the fact the Virgin de Guadalupe represented (and it still does) an important milestone for a sense of national identity ever since the formation of Mexico as a nation, it also depicts ideas of protection from various eventualities. The interviewees were very clear on the protective aspects of the usage of the Virgin, but also probed on the possibility that it in itself has become an object of emulation for the bunch of members that are “not so sure of why others do certain things but nevertheless imitate them because at least those others feel like they know what they’re doing”.

Moreover, it was also intriguing to learn that the Christ as a symbol was sporadically absent, as it in a sense represents the main and patriarchal figure of Catholicism, but one who does not posses fragmented qualities that could be integrated into individual necessities. On the other hand, I was witness of the common use of images of ‘minor deities’ or saints like ‘Saint Jude Thaddeus’ that functioned as repositories for specific broken-down demands like for example pardon from petty sins, whenever they were committed by the bearer. In this sense, the Virgin and the Saints are worn because they function as intermediaries between the porter, and the qualities that he seeks in those iconic figures directly, thus bypassing an intrusive and bloated clergy. In the end, the use of iconography in a material form also represents a kind of amulet for bad vibrations that are ever present in and around social arenas.

So belief is socially catholic for the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ as they have acknowledged being religious, but have subsumed it below family, an institution that in the Mexican case is anyway a pillar of religiousness. Thus a strong religious identification is inescapable in this context, and it both serves to legitimize the group as an ontological reality versus the external social world, as it also provides an in-group psychological and symbolic synthesis.

Now in order to better understand issues of collective identity as a whole we have to take into account individual experience and narrative that form a complementary dimension. This means that the guys do not have to give up much of what they consider being their own individual personalities in order to fit in with the crowd. Nevertheless, the ensemble does function as a space of representation where they play out their personalities in a more horizontal fashion. This means that they do value their families and religions highly, and both are prized above the ‘Cholo Colombiano’ bunch, but they find themselves more comfortable in forming part of an concept which does not only function as a collective identity, but as an outlet for their particular natures. An example of this is that they generally keep their nicknames and use them throughout their unique contribution. In short, family and religion are too hierarchical, so the group gives them a kind of support that is lacking in both the former. It is fundamental to state that the movement serves as a recipient for identity and that it is also established as a means to fulfil the normal expectations of these young adults, that of entertainment in a shared environment which is tailored for that purpose. Ultimately, the ‘Cholo Colombianos’ are not interested in political claims or ideologies of any sort, and are up to a point exempt from graffiti and violence, like gang fights, militancy or social frictions.

The ‘Cholo Colombiano’ phenomenon can help us to understand how complex Mexico really is and how it keeps becoming in its transition towards a multi-cultural and globalized nation, thus morphing in its own way, and integrating itself, in an ever expanding and inter-connected world. So with this backdrop in mind, it can be better to say that the movement could represent more of a kind of ‘subtle post-modern tribalism’, one that is not archaic or regressive in any way to a derogatory pre-nation state context of irrational and uncivilized group in-fighting for supremacy in the social world, but certainly one that takes elements from a contemporary semi-coalesced idea of nation, and which should not be seen as a threat to it, and that moreover should be taken for what it is, avoiding political and or socio-cultural intents of subsuming it under an advantageous idea of a homogeneous Mexican identity.

Juan Carlos Guerra / Monterrey, Mexico - February 2010

Friday 12 February 2010

Global-Es / La Antorcha Olimpica en Problemas y Sociologia de los Emos

Global-Es / Sociologia del Deporte

Global-Es / Medios de Comunicacion Viciados y El Racismo como fenomeno

Global-Es / De Fidel a Raul en Cuba y Ley anti-Tabaco en Mexico

Global-Es / Estados Fallidos

Que-hacer Regio / Graffiti

Global-Es / Balkan Tour de Musika

Global-Es / La Libertad