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"Es Siempre Preferible la Carpa a la Pulquería": The Construction of Poverty in the Music of the Carpas Shows in Mexico City, 1890-1930


Carpas - or canvas tent shows - were variety shows performed in itinerant or improvised theaters. These shows were one of the most popular forms of entertainment during the first half of the twentieth century in Mexico City. According to dominant ideas extant during the late Porfiriato the carpas and their musical repertory compromised the refinement and good taste the elites wanted to project onto the city. Yet, authorization to install the informal theaters not only remained, but even increased at the end of the nineteenth century and during the years prior to the Mexican Revolution. In spite of the aggravations they caused to the city's image, these musical shows were presumably tolerated by virtue of their beneficial social function among those who legislators referred to as the "lower classes." As the years passed, the notion of "poorness" mapped onto these shows was adopted by journalists, intellectuals, historians of the carpas and by the carpas community themselves as an essential attribute. As time passed, the poverty supposed to be characteristic of these shows endowed them with a distinctive quality, provided their audiences with an emblem of identity, and was later utilized by radio, film and television entrepreneurs to advance their nascent industries.

In this work I take a deconstructive approach to the idea of the "poverty" within the carpas. I claim that, rather than being intrinsically poor, these shows were materially and symbolically pauperized, both by local authorities' regulatory policies for public space, and by the prejudiced discourses of authoritative figures such as government representatives, journalists, city chroniclers, legislators and intellectuals. I analyze the tensions aroused by the carpas shows between two contrasting social sectors in order to unravel the multidimensional mechanisms - material, discursive, performative, symbolic and affective - by which the music present in these shows became misrepresented and gradually associated with notions of "the poor," "the people" or "the low classes," and also gradually becoming an emblem of these people's supposed inferiority. I thus inquire into the function that music making and music listening in the carpas played as a factor in the inter-subjective formation of social class.

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