It’s circa 1986. I’m a high schooler, I’m buzzed on radioactive-emerald creme de menthe cocktails and I’m at a very loud and packed disco lounge in Reynosa, Mexico, a border town located right across from McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. The pulsing lights and dark corners give enough cover to my mismatched black J.C. Penney slacks and button-down shirt for me to ask a girl to dance without worrying too much about getting rejected and the long walk back to my table, where my friends are slamming rum and cokes hard enough to create a back-beat against a thick sound system pounding out Dead or Alive, New Order, Depeche Mode, the Cure and other European acts we would never hear on the radio back home in Texas, on our side of the bridge, where ranchera (Mexican country) music and heavy metal ruled the airwaves.
I sense a “no” and turn around for the walk of shame, seeing my friends excitedly pointing back at the girl I just asked to join me, who is actually getting up for us to hit the floor because she really said, “Yes, let’s dance,” and I’m so nervous it’s all I can do not to make eye contact as I start some very self-conscious gyrations and notice the girl looks as stylishly dressed and fetching as the singer of the refrain, “You spin me right round, baby, right round, like a record baby,” a gender-bending exsanguinated Englishman (Pete Burns of the band Dead or Alive) with raven hair raining down a velvety blouse on video screens scattered through the venue.
Round about the age of 15, I started going to Mexico with friends from high school, for the purposes of getting really drunk, meeting girls and dancing to new wave hits spun by truly heroic international DJs just for us, teenagers lucky enough to take advantage of both U.S. citizenship and Mexican backgrounds. We enjoyed adult-style nightlife many years before becoming old enough to buy alcohol legally in the U.S., and a long time before we could appreciate the dangers of getting wasted across the border in sister cities of our South Texas home in the Rio Grande Valley before driving home in a drunken fog. I once took my 12-year-old brother to Reynosa just a few nights prior to graduating from high school, and the doorman refused to let him in and continued refusing even as I kept putting more money into the guy’s hand, until I hit the right amount to get my brother past the entrance and then buy him a vodka drink.
Yes, we did dangerous and dumb things common to kids everywhere, like house parties and shotgun-beer sessions in citrus orchards, parking lots, undeveloped subdivisions under cover of irrigation canals, during lunch breaks from school — but more than all that, we could also drive 30 or so minutes to South Padre Island and sit on the beach in the sun with a sixer and no hassles or find a cantina after dark that would serve us, just a stroll down an international bridge.
Actually, we had been going to Mexico since we were babies, some of us every weekend on Sundays after church, to see relatives and shop. More than anything, I remember odors of organic rot, natural gas leaks from street pipelines, omnipresent exhaust wafting on sour waves of ultra-humid air and a lot of very poor people in very poor health. Even so, I reveled in unmonitored free play time and a few pesos that would buy me sharp, bitter candies, lurid comic books and fireworks on the big holidays when we’d stay overnight and awake to reheated tamales.
But by the time I was 13, Mexico no longer appealed to me as a way to spend a weekend afternoon. It repelled me, and we didn’t have easy transportation anymore to stay regularly in touch with cousins, my grandma’s niece or her sister. “Why do we have to go to Mexico again?” I would whine, preferring my side of the border: the mall, movies in English, video games and American food, or at least Tex-Mex staples like chicken-fried steak and enchiladas with beef-chili gravy.
And then, one afternoon in study hall, my friends and I came to a very serious, obvious yet singularly amazing realization: “Hey, we can go to Mexico!” At one end of the valley was Brownsville-Matamoros (Brownsville on the Texas side of the border, Matamoros on the Mexico side), with infamous bars like Blanca Whites and Sgt. Peppers, while out west was Hidalgo-Reynosa (same thing), with megaclubs like the Alaskan and the Jet Set. We would arrive at a venue and start lining up way too many drinks on one table, bounce around to extended remixes of New Order songs like “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Blue Monday,” maybe eat a few street tacos and then drunkenly stumble back across the Rio Grande with so-common-as-to-be-cliched regurgitation over the side of a bridge, which had just transported us not just to another country over a river but, ironically, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
In his book “A Kiss Across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies of British Post-Punk and US Latinidad,” Richard T. Rodriguez melds elements of memoir, cultural studies and music criticism into what he describes as a “mixtape” of a book that seeks to show the cohesion of largely Anglophone European pop music from the 1980s with queer theory and Latinx cultural life in the U.S. His work draws on a substantial body of scholarship and journalism that has documented how people of Mexican, Caribbean and Latin American descent have developed a love affair across the Atlantic Ocean with outsiders and gender-ambiguous heroes from a world that, at first glance, would seem a “white people only” party, one that I first and most vividly experienced in a border zone that has always been majority-brown.
The book is valuable in furthering a grasp of the deeply nuanced cultural hybridity, orientation and style sensibilities that have informed U.S. Latinx life from its very beginnings, and how this community has in turn been pivotal in determining artistic output beyond our borders and into the mainstream. Like Rodriguez, who hails from Southern California, I too benefited from transborder, transnational and transcultural influences that have informed my own views of music, literature and popular artistic genres. Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley flipped the national compass on its head and led to my own experience of trans-Atlanticism simply by crossing the border into Mexico, where as a teenager I frequented full-on, raging discotheques in which the hottest music from Europe was played, transporting me into a galaxy of new ideas about sex, politics and cultural identity.
At the start of my reading experience, I took Rodriguez’s advice to heart that he meant his book to be a sort of “greatest hits” from a soundtrack that helped save his life and make him feel like he had been “seen” by familiar oddballs on video screens and in the pages of hit magazines. This experience connected him to a greater sense of community weaving through and beyond Latinidad, a sense of belonging to a Latinicity that is itself multivocal, polycultural and polyglot, even considered as one Spanish language inflected differently in so many directions by so many diverse tongues.
I began looking up old tracks by Culture Club and Adam Ant, rediscovering lyrics I never knew existed, like, “Who’s got that new boy gender?” by Boy George, and relishing the uniquely roguish sartorial clash of 18th-century dandy velveteen against dayglo-hot eye makeup, pirate locks, motley and three-corner hats: “Don’t you ever / Stop being dandy / Showing me you’re handsome. … Ridicule is nothing to be scared of” (Adam and the Ants, “Prince Charming”). Even now, in middle age, I hear messages written and delivered just for me, like when Morrissey from The Smiths told me personally from a cassette-stereo speaker when I was studying at home: “I think I can help you get through your exams.” This line, from The Smiths’ song “Handsome Devil,” was mine — just for me — and I experienced the music as my own in the way only an uptight and self-serious teenager can.
Dividing his book up into seven chapters devoted to key groups through the mid-1980s (roughly), Rodriguez discusses Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants, Bauhuas, Soft Cell, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Pet Shop Boys, concluding with “the emergence of Latin-fronted bands that have, since the 1980s, made a lasting impact” and helped successive generations of fans revisit the decade without its romanticism and reactionary elements. In the process, Rodriguez takes an expansive look at a dynamic “post-punk” new wave culture that had roots in glam and flowered into synth-pop.
But the most familiar elements of his story begin at home, with a “frequently contentious household” and a cheap TV mounted atop a stereo system from yesteryear repurposed as furniture. His mentions of music mags, early MTV and formative moments watching “Top of the Pops” with mouth agape all seem to retell my own wending story of “discovering artists, writers, philosophers, and earlier musicians who not only compelled me to excel in school but also set me on the path toward an academic career … establishing an inseparable bond between theory, politics, and music.”
In much the same way Rodriguez talks about a rabbit hole opening up — from music to visual art, literature and big ideas and then to the politics of the day — I learned about the musicians’ interests in Salvador Dali, Jean-Paul Sartre, Antonin Artaud and Oscar Wilde, seeking out readings to help fill in the worldview behind the passionate and puzzling lyrics, then looking up even more bands and moments in rock history to flesh out a great chain of being, a grand unified theory of music as the one great thread of glorious experience that connects to every other way of knowing the world. And I learned how to move in my own body, not to worry about people looking at my awkward hesitation sometimes, at first, or the ungainly gusto I would other times express with perhaps embarrassing abandon, to wear all black and act flamboyant with my own self as flesh that was there to be seen against the video screens and flashing club-light colors as a part of that very moment, while I would sing the lyrics as if possessed by all the poetry.
At an age of embarrassingly heightened emotions and a painful desire for meaning and belonging, I would pore over the lyrics of every song that became an instant soundtrack just for me in those moments of watching the dancefloor come alive — for example, with a song by Depeche Mode cued in, like “Never Let Me Down Again” from 1987. The down tempo dance hit would speak in bitter repetition to my teenage experiences of disillusionment with friends, family and institutions I grew up with, even as the club floor would fill with people happy to dance to the words: “I’m taking a ride with my best friend / I hope he never lets me down again. … We’re flying high / We’re watching the world pass us by / Never want to come down / Never want to put my feet back down on the ground.”
The lyrics seemed to yearn for something easily promised but threatened impending disappointment, repeating over and over again in the closing refrain: “Never let me down.”
Or next in the mix: Another British band with a hit from 1987, New Order, put optimal club beats behind more hopeful words in “True Faith,” capturing the sense of being alive at that moment at a surging discotheque: “I feel so extraordinary / Something’s got a hold on me / I get this feeling I’m in motion / A sudden sense of liberty.”
Similarly, Rodriguez opens up vistas from personal experience and lifelong research to chart dizzying connections across fandom, fantasy and friendships, showing influences from Latinos on both U.S. coasts on recording artists who received and processed Latinx culture in tandem with their trans-Atlantic careers. Decades prior to a fully realized internet, I too found ’zines and mixtapes by mail, as post-office-launched fan clubs spanned seemingly impossible distances — vast stretches of land like King Ranch or the North Texas plains — to link me to deliriously imagined panoramas far beyond eyesight. Rodriguez writes, “Under the banner of politics were the antiracist struggles (Rock Against Racism), the advocacy of workers’ rights (Red Wedge), opposition to homophobic policies (anti-Clause 28 efforts), Caribbean and south Asian migration to Britain, the case for nuclear disarmament, and emergent discourses of gender nonconformity and nonnormative sexuality.”
Not to mention international solidarity to end apartheid in South Africa, as well as militant AIDS activism. An otherwise reactionary decade of backlash would have been all the more dreadful without these ideas populating my imagination and fueling youthful passion.
I listen to this music now and it does something to me to hear it again, like I’m the boy who first heard these tunes alone in his room, who treasured the lyrics as his own and mapped them onto his life, sharing them with so many interesting strangers on a dance floor where we could all work out our connections to the words and become ourselves in our own bodies by feeling like we weren’t alone anymore. From New Order’s 1983 song “Age of Consent”: “And I’m not the kind that likes to tell you / Just what you want me to / You’re not the kind who needs to tell me.”
I now tell my own students who are enamored with tip-of-the-iceberg ’80s hits and so-called dance parties that their conception of the perfect track list for the decade is incomplete without a nuclear warhead hanging over their heads and a Doomsday Clock about to hit midnight. The clubs and bars in borderland Mexico for underage youth closed down some time in the 1990s when cross-river travel after dusk became more dangerous on one side and authorities started cracking down on the other, bringing an end to a slice of time when we had our own place for international alternative music. But I was there, Latinx people were there, and Rodriguez’s “A Kiss Across the Ocean” seeks to further such stories and our claim to global cultural currents that will take you on a ride you may not have expected, like my journeys to Mexico for new wave nights out.
Listen to the accompanying playlist for Richard T. Rodriguez’s book “A Kiss Across the Ocean: Transatlantic Intimacies of British Post-Punk and US Latinidad” on Spotify.
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