The Economic Adventures of a Transborder Street Musician

Heading down south for the big Pesos.

Cyber Busking November 27, 2007

Filed under: Cyber busking — ramonalvarado @ 2:12 am
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For the past few days it has been quite cold out here and it even snowed for over a day during the weekend. I know that it sounds kind of weird to mention the fact that the snow lasted over a day but it is a remarkable fact in this border region. We do get snow sometimes but it is usually through a fairly brief snowfall that also tends not to stay once it hits the ground. Anyway, what you already know and what I am getting at is that we don’t have an intricate and welcoming underground subway station system like my colleague does in NYC, so I haven’t ventured out to the streets. I have however come up with an idea: cyber busking.

I have decided to upload a performance of one of my songs on video every once in while, maybe when I can’t make it to the streets, or maybe whenever I have a new one to share, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the idea of busking it online. I have added a paypal button where you can drop your coins if you liked what you hear or if you feel like I need a beer or something to lighten up and sing better. Whatever the reason is, please feel free to let me know what you think, if you don’t have any coins to share, then share a comment.

This is the first one and it’s kind of lo-fi, I’ll try to make it better next time. The song is called “A Guantanamera” and it’s all about Guantanamo. I know it’s a little screamy but then again the subject matter calls for it.


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.




So it happened… November 10, 2007

Filed under: Uncategorized — ramonalvarado @ 9:51 pm
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Museo ex Aduana 


It had been there for a while, hidden in the back (or in a furtive somewhere) of my mind, I could almost feel it slowly crawling towards my brain muscle structure to suddenly emerge as an actual action when the time, or the need, was exact. And so it happened on Thursday as I stood there, literally just stood and stared there. 17 minutes after Government class, 13 to 20 hours before our paychecks, and 5 and a half hours before having to drive to work, I just stood and stared there in the living room. I stared at the center table, the encyclopedia, the colorful and helplessly irrelevant coasters on the dinning table, the fucking TV, the books, the toy blocks, the paintings, and out the windows from which I could see the real menace of them all: a gasless vehicle.

So, three minutes later a saw myself, as if suddenly awakened from sleep-walking, riding my bicycle towards downtown with a (earlier) borrowed guitar strapped to my back. I guess you could, if you wanted to, imagine me looking down, front, and sideways as if caricaturesquely confused while my feet moved frenetically in what appeared to be automated pedaling cycles. You don’t have to imagine me thus, but it could add a slightly comical twist to your reading if you are a slap-stick kind of person. So anyway, I was thinking about all kinds of stuff while I pedaled away to downtown. The plan that from such cycling thoughts emerged was this: arrive at the downtown border bridge on El Paso St.(in El Paso Tx), park my bicycle, walk across the border in to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, spot a space where I could sit, drop my hat and begin to play my songs. Simple thus genial, I thought. So genial I didn’t even think about bringing the extra 30 cents that I’d have to pay to cross the bridge back to the States. My (borrowed) guitar, 35 cents in my pocket, an almost illegal amount of adrenaline in my blood and myself made it across the border and into Downtown Juarez. Well, actually, the 35 cents had to stay with the lady at the pay booth.

You might ask yourself at this point, since I mentioned geniality and all that, wouldn’t it be simpler to avoid the border crossing thing and just play in the streets of downtown El Paso? Well, there’s the rub (and I do mean rub, no Shakespearean connotation intended). I’m still investigating thoroughly the legalities of it but I have been witness of tickets being handed out by police officers to street musicians in downtown El Paso. So for the time being, I’m sticking to Mexico, it makes this blog sound so much more interesting, or at least not as painful. I’ll be following up on such issues in this blog, plus the places where I play, the people that I encounter and of course the money that I make for it is such that we are interested in, aren’t we? So down to the basics of it all for now:



Day 1 


Amount of money made: $3.88 (ouch)

Cost of crossing the border: .35 cents going plus .30 cents coming back.

Total gain: $3.23 (OUCH)

Time played: 1 hour 45 minutes. (As R. Starr would say “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”)

Actually doing it: priceless. (plus we made it to the gas station and to work)