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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Corporealities of Feeling: Mexican Sentimiento and Gender Politics

  • Author(s): Alvarado, Lorena
  • Advisor(s): Foster, Susan L
  • Arrizon, Alicia
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the cultural and political significance of sentimiento, the emotionally charged delivery of song in ranchera genre musical performance. Briefly stated, sentimiento entails a singer's fervent portrayal of emotions, including heartache, yearning, and hope, a skillfully achieved depiction that incites extraordinary communication between artist and audience. Adopting a feminist perspective, my work is attentive to the elements of nationalism, gender and sexuality connected to the performance of sentimiento, especially considering the genre's historic association with patriotism and hypermasculinity. I trace the logic that associates representation of feeling with nation-based pathology and feminine emotional excess and deposits this stigmatized surplus of affect onto the singing body, particularly that of the mexicana female singing body. In this context, sentimiento is represented in film, promotional material, and other mediating devices as a bodily inscription of personal and gendered tragedy, as the manifestation of exotic suffering, or as an ancestral and racial condition of melancholy. I examine the work of three ranchera performers that corroborate these claims: Lucha Reyes (1906-1944), Chavela Vargas (1919) and Lila Downs (1964).

Yet, in contrast to the discourse that naturalizes their depiction of ranchera melodrama, I contend these performers present scenarios that demand alternative epistemologies regarding affect, Nation and gender. Drawing from Chicana feminisms and interdisciplinary performance studies, I demonstrate how sentimiento functions as a technology of transgressive sexuality and a commodity of transnational appeal through the singing mexicana body. In my effort to demonstrate the radical politics of Reyes, Vargas and Downs, I consider the physicality of their performances, namely how gestures, sequences, choreographies, mediating technologies and vocal techniques constitute legible and manipulable codes of self and nationhood. My attention to the material and corporeal procedures needed to evoke feeling refutes the prevailing discourse that associates sentimiento as reflecting a depoliticized and natural ethos. The portrayal of emotion by these singers subvert the form and style of the canción ranchera, laboring within and against its commercial nationalistic legacy that broadens the signification of masculinities and femininities along Mexico/United States transnational routes. This manuscript thus attempts a novel approach to intertwined national and gender narratives through the poetics and politics of ranchera musical production and performance.

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