The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Lo-fi logic and hi-fi law. November 22, 2007

Filed under: the people — ramonalvarado @ 1:21 am
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Being the courageous and fearless daredevil that I usually am, I took the gigantic risk today, again, of not bringing enough money to cross the border back into the United States. I only played for a little over an hour but for the first 40 minutes my hat remained completely empty. I didn’t quite freak out but I couldn’t help being constantly distracted by an immense blinking-neon-billboard-like thought in my brain that brilliantly displayed the words “WHAT ARE YOU  GOING TO DO?” while I played. There was a brief moment when I almost decided to leave but remembered that the reason why I wanted to leave was quite paradoxically the same reason why I couldn’t leave. I wasn’t making any money and it took money to cross the bridge back home. I decided to change my attitude, forget about that stupid blinking-neon-billboard-like thought burning my neurons and focus on the music, the posture and on bluffing that Murphy f****er (from Murphy’s law), with a little lo-fi logic scheme, into orchestrating some kind of universal plot that could lead an inconspicuously chosen individual to toss a coin into my hat.

At minute 38 the strategy worked and Murphy fell for the bluff. I’ve often been told that I am a master at acting as if I didn’t care.  I guess all of those nonchalant moments finally paid off with a very well deserved reward of a 5 pesos coin. It’s not like I can say that right after that the money just kept rolling in, but it sort of did, except in coins of a very small denomination. For the next half hour everything was business as usual on a Wednesday afternoon. I finished up, got my stuff, walked towards the money exchange store, got my dollars and walked towards the bridge.

It all seemed so normal, regular, even banal and dreamy, like a day fit to be forgotten. But then I saw something, something so baffling that I haven’t yet been able to categorize in a proper ontological drawer within my brain. The categorizing conundrum has me violently torn between two options: I either saw the most amazingly brilliant and capable or the most ridiculous customs officer in the whole world!  Picture this: I am waiting at the pedestrian line to cross the border, right next to me, on my left, I could see one of the lines for cars through the huge glass windows. As I am standing there staring at the void I notice a customs officer inspecting a car. He was just cautiously looking at some laser-visas belonging to the occupants of such vehicle. The officer then proceeds to go around towards the passenger side of the car, opens the back door and asks something (inaudible to me) of the lady sitting there, the lady complies and I just had to burst out laughing. When the officer said whatever he said to the women, she proceeded to extend her right hand, open palm up, towards the officer. The officer then took her hand, pulled it a little bit closer, grabbed her thumb and put it right next to the fingerprint side of her border-crossing ID and proceeded to compare the two. Not only that but he looked serious too, even frowning as if he had intelligently discovered an ackward whorl of tissue  that was not properly documented on the freaking ink print.  You can say good bye to old-school face/picture comparison now, or any super laser readers and hi-fi magnifiers because we have agent Cyclops on the immigration frontline.  I wonder if while analyzing the thumb and the print he was also  able to foresee part of the Lady’s future: “I can see something ma’am, something weird, I can sense that you have come here for something special. Is it the Mervyns pre-thanksgiving sale?”

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Day 5

Amount of money made: $4. 54

Crossing the border: .65c

Actual gain: $3.89

Time played: 1h 12 min.


On rain and a people’s character. November 18, 2007

Filed under: the people,Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 12:40 am
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The former is a picture that represents a third of yesterday, in particular the third that covers that awkward part between late morning and early afternoon. And yes, it  does follow that I did not head out to the streets to play this day. I’m not about to complain though, these rainy days are not at all common in this part of the world, so they are most welcomed. And as it turned out it happens that I did think a lot, more so than the usual pre-breakfast  and the over-bread-and-coffee thinking session. The thinking went on and on throughout a most annoyingly elongated part of the day, following me everywhere, from the kitchen to the bathroom, from the bathroom to the living room and so on, there were even certain instances where I could almost perceive some decision-making moments but they never really resolved into anything concrete so I won’t even bother to tell you about that. What I will tell you about though is an old thought that I’ve had about this part of the world, particluarly about Juarez, but I also see it in El Paso. It all has to do with street performers or the lack thereof in this region.

I guess I can speak of this from two simultaneous points of view: as someone who now plays in the streets and has played in the streets of this region before, and as someone who truly enjoys cruising streets with musicians and/or performers on them. As you saw from these past post pictures, only one of them was of an actual street musician, not only was he the only one but he was also a blind one. And for that matter he represents exactly the kind of image that people  in these two cities have of street performing. In the case of this particular old and blind man, people think: “well, what else could he do for money?”It seems as if street performance is perceived as always some-body’s last resource, never as an optional endeavour, or a worthy  one for that manner. I thought about this when while I was playing guitar on day one a lady passed by, slowed down, came back,  approached me and stood next to me as if waiting for me to finish up the song. When she realized that I was still playing and not stoping she bent down to put some money in my hat and softly said: “vende tu guitarra” (Sell your guitar), in a very compasionate, understanding and almost angelically logical tone, she then turned around and left.  She made me realize that she wasn’t the only one thinking thus, and sort of gave an explanation, with her simple suggestion, to the baffled looks directed at the tripod throughout the day. For many if not most people in this area if you have a good guitar, you shouldn’t be playing in the streets; if you carry or even have a tripod to rest your guitar in between sets, you shouldn’t be there; if you carry a backpack with a bottle of water and a digital camera you just don’t belong in the streets.  You belong in your house, everybody belongs in their house, and the only reason they are out of it is because they need to, or because it may be a Sunday, a church Sunday in particular. I am exagerating of course, people do go out for other reasons, mysterious reasons, but reasons nevertheless.  I guess we can further expand on this same character trait of the Juarense sidewalk culture by demostrating a part of the mentality through something my grandmother says: ” I don’t understand why people have to travel anywhere, we have everything here”. For her traveling is reduced to migration. Why else would anyone go anywhere? right? The same applies to something like home. If there is food and warmth and a TV set full of terrible outside news, why would you need to be in the streets? The streets (when I say streets I mean sidewalks) are not really public spaces in this region, they are merely functional paths on which you can walk towards somewhere without getting run over by a car. There is no space for sidewalk artists, unless they are in evident socio-economic distress, and then they cease to be artist and become something else, something like merchants of nothing and anything simultaneously, where suddenly for the mere fact of standing on a street corner everything  the performer has (i.e. the guitar, the hat, the tripod, the amp, etc,etc.) automatically becomes part of a whole merchandisable unit. It is little details like this that say a lot about the way people see other people, specially in the streets. For example, the fact that somebody tried to buy the hat from me can be easily neglected as irrelevant if one does not capture the deep social connotation of the mere assumption that it is for sale. The hat was not being asked into the street market in terms of a random monetary offer, but was rather assumed to already have a price and caused annoyance and disbelief when claimed otherwise. It is like another one of those strange and ironic circumstances of a very contradictory sociocultural environment where you should never be selling anything in the streets but if you have to or are pushed to, then you should be able and willing to sell everything and anything. I believe this could tell us a lot about this society in general, the way they look at themselves, the division of classes, the concept of work, all kinds of things that can even take us as far as the inherent shyness of the northern Mexican culture that may break the myth of the apparent loudness and extroverted character that is usually attached to it. So here’s the deal, I’ll write an extensive paper on the sidewalk concept of the region and then you’ll read it, OK? OK.




Day 3 November 15, 2007

Filed under: the people — ramonalvarado @ 1:28 am
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It wasn’t the greatest day in the history of the universe. Let’s just put it that way. But I guess it was a pretty good day for someone somewhere out there in this planet which happens to be located within the limits of this cosmos, so I guess it kind of compensates. It was a calmer day and I was able to notice a little more of the organic sounds of the city. The ups, the downs, the constants and the crooked vibrations that entered my ears were just a minute part of the overall arrhythmia with which this town beats. Sometimes its sudden silence would strike me with my own echo being reverberated by the walls across the street, while just an instant before I couldn’t even listen to my voice because of the public transportation buses. Their noise is actually the less polluting component of their very existence and I’m almost sure that some part of them is made with Cobalt-60.  Yet they are a story in themselves worthy of another full post. So I digress. 

 It must have been that lady from Chile that left me all confused. She came by today and after asking me all sorts of small questions she picked my guitar to play a song. It was about a certain lord to whom she was so thankful for the sun and the grass and other stuff. I felt some kind of sympathy when she said grass. I guess she was part of the Harry Potter book club. I may never know. Nevertheless, the day went thus:

 Day 3

Amount of money made: $ 5.27 ( kind of an ouch)

Crossing the border: .65c

Water bottle: .60c

Time played: 1h40m

Actual gain: $ 4.02 (yeah, definitely an ouch!)

(I guess it could have been a better day, moneywise of course , if only I had taken a weird guy’s offer to buy the old and crooked leather hat from me.)



The evil spot plus some fellow street performers (aren’t we all?) November 13, 2007


 This is the infamous spot right at the corner of the two most Central streets downtown Juarez. As one can observe somebody is using it at the precise moment of my unexpected move with the camera. At this point the subject (whether you decide it to be The Spot or the person performing on it) decides to cover her/itself with an umbrella. So Seña Benina of her… Her art seems to be that of a 19th century Spanish, French or Russian realist novel.

He plays the violin too

I have seen him several times, and he seems to be there forever. The funny thing is that he just constantly bangs at the cords of his instrument, he doesn’t play any particular song or melody or even in any particular style he just bangs, strums and bends the chords for hours. I’ll talk to him one of these days. The first thing I’m going to tell him is going to go something like: “Have you ever heard of a song called Helter Skelter? I think you’d like it”. He has some of what some people would call sparks of genius sometimes, but he’ll never repeat them.

Alacran (native scorpion) man.

Mr. Alacranman is also very frequently seen in different locations of Juarez Avenue, he makes amazing figurines, mainly of alacranes (native kind of scorpions), with minute beads and wire. I think he got his performance together thinking of something Morgan Freeman might be good at: a patient, wise but also deceivingly clever grey head from rural somewhere who speaks to no one about his past…except Morgan Freeman is more of a carving-knife-and-peace-of-halve-carved- tree-branch-carrying  kind of guy. I don’t really see him with little bead bags and wire…

El Mystico

And last but not least, ladies and gentleman, with you, the famous, legendary and profoundly meditative spiritual warrior, mediocre tarot reader during the day but fruitful luchador by night: El Misticooooooooooooooooooo. I love the way Dora and boots are looking at him.



















Day 2 November 12, 2007

Filed under: the people — ramonalvarado @ 12:52 am
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So, that savage morale stab of $3.23/1.45h didn’t cut it to deter me from coming back. It was a test; I’d pick the same spot just out of spite, to make it tremble in surprise as it felt me walk towards it and eventually on it. I could see the cement sidewalk furiously frowning at my presence as if it knew I had a vendetta to resolve against it. A swirling breeze of dust swept past my ragged clothes as I (insert slow motion effect) made my way towards the spot while revengefully humming the base line of Nancy Sinatra’s This boots were made for walking. And then there I was again, carefully trying to unfold my crooked hat into a recognizable bucket-like shape to toss it in front of me and begin another street practice session. The way I see it is simple: I could be practicing at home; but why would I want to do that?

As one walks pass the border bridge and into Juarez Avenue, the main downtown strip of ciudad Juarez, one encounters many faces of the city: the impossibly busy Milusos (handyman, errand boy, or the one with the thousand uses, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing) walking from business to business running errands, the pharmacy employees endlessly yelling from their counters hoping to get you interested in some pills, any pills; one also sees the hundred faces of Wait from inside all the cars in the line to cross towards the United States. Downtown Juarez is a busy place, but it is with great difficulty that one struggles to comprehend what it is that its people are busy doing. But anyway, in the midst of all of those faces one also sees the many faces of the people sitting in the streets asking for money. I know I may have made it sound so easy to find the spot I’ve used this two days, but reality differs unkindly from the account I now tell you. As I made my way towards the end of the strip I kept judging the places where I could settle by the distance it had with other people in the sidewalk business and so I ended up walking the whole length of the strip until I encountered the front of the Museo ex-Aduana (Ex-Customs Office building turned history museum). There I was safe from infringing and stepping on anybody’s socio-economical toes. The length of the walk made me think about how much was I a part of this socio-economical stratum or how much was I an invader. I’m sure there are plenty of coins to go around for everybody, from the native Tarahumara family literally camping on the sidewalk to the accordion player, father of two, to me, but I couldn’t help feeling weird even as a lower class North American student for taking something that might have otherwise ended up in their hand. That guilt banished surprisingly quickly when I realized they made more than I did. It was a good day.

 Day 2  

Amount of money made: $12. 77

Crossing the border: .65 c

Bag of Cheetos: .55 c

Total gain: $11.57 (J)

Time Played: 1 hour 35 minutes

Doing it again: priceless again (in your face stupid spot!).