Tropical troubadour: Agustín Lara in Veracruz

Feb 05, 2017 Comments Off on Tropical troubadour: Agustín Lara in Veracruz by

From Agustin Lara: A Cultural Biography

By Andrew Grant Wood
© Oxford University Press, 2014

The early association between Veracruz and Lara [began] in January 1929 when, while performing at the El Retiro, Maruca Pérez referred to Agustín as “the inspired Veracruz composer.” Further constructing this fictive identity, Lara began telling interviewers in the early 1930s that he had been born in the charming tropical town of Tlacotalpan, located on the banks of the Papaloapan River (“Río de Mariposas” or River of Butterflies). Over time, the connection would stick.

With a European connection through certain French and Spanish resident families as well as a reputation as a fashionable destination for elite and middle-class Mexicans around the turn of the century, Tlacotalpan afforded the capitalino (Mexico City) artist a certain provincial respectability. Clean streets, colorfully painted houses, and Tlacotalpan’s charming historic center served as an idyllic setting for Mexicans nostalgic for a small-town past. As one’s place of birth and regional identity is fundamental in all national cultures, Lara’s fictive testimony provided the rationale for his claim to the regional Veracruz tradition. With this came an important cultural connection that tied him to the region’s longstanding association with Cuba, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world at large.

Lara’s emerging public persona as a gift ed young composer “from Veracruz” came at the same time officials in Mexico City endeavored to reconstruct national identity through a mythic characterizing of specific regional “types.” Among a wide array of these traditional “personalities” (including poblanos from Puebla, tehuanas from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and so on), Veracruz-area jarochos were attributed a certain lowland essence thought to be made manifest in all areas of social and cultural expression: an open, friendly attitude; relaxed comportment; ripe sexuality; flavorful food; ample drink and expressive music; visual art, literature, and the like. With Mexican elites working to reinvent a vision of the nation that made use of romanticized images from each of the many regional cultures, Lara’s taking on a jarocho identity fit nicely with this larger program, adding to his growing reputation as an artist by providing him a specific regional and cultural locus.

Lara’s association with Veracruz also provided him with an important set of nationalist credentials. Known for its “four times heroic” defense against foreign invasion during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (most recently against the US invasion and occupation of 1914), a spirit of popular resistance circulated among those gathered in the union halls, neighborhoods, parks, plazas, and portales (archways that ring the central square in Veracruz where cafes, restaurants, hotel entrances, and storefronts are located).

Lara’s newfound jarocho identity also tapped Mexico’s postrevolutionary desire for personal pleasure. In the mid to late 1920s many sought to regain time they had lost during the violent years of the Revolution by embracing an assortment of leisure time activities with a special exuberance. Mexicans began to travel for fun, and Veracruz represented a popular destination for national tourists who came to enjoy the tropical sun, ocean breezes, beaches, rum, food, cigars, gambling, dancing, festivals, and the all-around seductive nightlife of the port.

These cultural and geographic identifications with Veracruz proved critical in the making of Lara’s emerging celebrity identity. He would crystallize this connection in his 1936 composition “Veracruz.” Thought to have been “born under the silvery moon, a jarocho troubador with the soul of a pirate,” Lara would indeed take seriously his role as a hopeless romantic always desiring the company of a beautiful woman and an eventual return to his beloved Veracruz:

Yo nací con la luna de plata,
y nací con alma de pirata,
yo he nacido rumbero y, jarocho
trovador de veras
y me fui lejos de Veracruz

I was born under the silvery moon
I was born with the soul of a pirate
And I was born a rumbero and jarocho
A real troubadour,
And I fled, far from Veracruz.

A 1951 RCA Victor recording of “Veracruz” opens with a dramatic piano introduction in a minor key with Lara playing arpeggiated tonic and dominant chords followed by ascending ii, iii, iv chords before concluding on the tonic. In this, Lara takes certain liberties in holding the notes for dramatic effect. The introduction creates a somewhat dark storytelling mood due to the minor key and the percussive, sustained manner in which he sounds out the chords. The verse continues in the minor key and takes on a tango feel as violin and percussion join in. Moving toward the chorus, Lara plays a transitional part while singing “I was born rumbero . . . ,” leading to the “Veracruz” chorus that switches to the major key followed by a solo and final refrain of the chorus.

Veracruz, rinconcito donde hacen su nido las olas del mar.
Veracruz, pedacito de patria que sabe sufrir y cantar,
Veracruz son tus noches diluvio de estrellas, palmera y mujer.
Veracruz, vibra en mi ser, algún día hasta tus playas lejanas tendré que volver.

Veracruz, little corner where the ocean waves make their nest.
Veracruz, little piece of the country that knows suffering and song,
Veracruz, with your nights filled with stars, palms, and woman.
Veracruz, resonates in my being, one day I will have to return to your distant beaches.

The composition would prove one of the composer’s most enduring, as it created not only an important association between Lara and Veracruz but also a compelling melodic and lyrical combination for jarocho enthusiasts more generally.

One of the first associations between Lara and Tlacotalpan to appear in print can be found in a 1931 newspaper article titled “La tierra de Agustín Lara” (The Homeland of Agustín Lara). An alleged testimony describing his boyhood past, this short piece included three photos of Tlacotalpan, including one of the house where Lara was supposedly born. A month later, while on tour in northern Mexico, Lara tempered his story somewhat by telling an interviewer that he came “originally from Tlacotalpan but had spent many of his early years in Mexico City.” Subsequent tales of Lara’s youth, however, did not shy away from full-blown mythmaking about his origins.

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