To borrow from our millennial friends, it is very on brand for the Tropics of Meta crew—composed mainly of Gen X Nirvana-loving kids who eat hot Cheetos and drink cold beer—to drop new books as the global pandemic unravels and reveals capitalism’s inability to care for the most vulnerable. Three books, three years into the global pandemic and zero in-person book events. Despite having to watch the world crumble around us, we’re thankful for all the support that our books have received. Most recently, Carribean’s debut short story collection Eat the Mouth That Feeds You made the shortlist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. To celebrate, we asked Carribean to compose a playlist for her short story collection. So here it, links to songs, with brief narrative.
Want an OG mixtape for Eat the Mouth That Feeds You? Mail a check, cash, or money order to the ToM headquarters.
“Lookout Weekend” by Debbie Deb
This song is from a bit before the approximate time period of my short story “Vicious Ladies,” but I still consider it a staple in the Chicano backyard party playlist. There are songs that will never die and will continue to be played and danced to so long as we have parties to play and backyards to dance them in. Whenever I hear this song, I immediately imagine someone’s tía or aunt letting loose at a quinceañera or baptism party and for those few minutes, will be young and wild again as she was when she first danced to it. There is an entire generation of Mexican Americans before my time, that partied so hard and were part of a whole subculture that has largely been forgotten and only recently being recovered in community-sourced archive projects like Veteranos y Rucas. My story, “The Vicious Ladies,” is about growing up in and around that culture but also not quite fitting into it. Lookout Weekend, like so many songs of the 1980s and into the 90s, was a song that I grew up listening to as it blasted from countless parties around my neighborhood even though it isn’t part of my generation. There are many songs like this that fill the air every weekend, that connect us to previous generations. My stories often delve into intergenerational connection, and I believe that for me, this is a very embodied process that happens through music and dance. In many of my stories, there are songs like this playing somewhere, even if you can’t exactly hear them.
“Paloma Negra,” Lola Beltran
Paloma Negra translates to Black Dove. Though this is a ranchera and accompanied by a mariachi, and considered regional music of Mexico’s countryside, it is incredibly modern and sophisticated in its poetry and composition. For me, most importantly, the song, like most of of Jimenez’s songs, are intensely emotional and complex. Paloma Negra is about a lost love who has strayed into their bad habits, drinking away at bars and misleading their broken-hearted lover. The song is about keeping one’s dignity in the face of vast disappointment. Though written by a man (Tomas Mendez), I think this song particularly resonates with women and is interpreted best by singers like Lola Beltran and two greats of ranchera music. In my story Sabado Gigante, the mother character sings this song as she goes about doing her household tasks of cleaning and cooking, listening to the radio, with her son as her only attentive audience. Over the years, they try to make sense of her husband’s abandonment. Songs like this allow her and many women to give some kind of voice to their vast disappointment in men, especially in men they continue to love. Women are betrayed by men all the time, by their partners, their fathers, their elected officials and so on. Men that are supposed to protect and care for them because it’s literally in their job description to do so, consistently fail. There’s a lot of abuse in this, as well as a lot of heartbreak, trauma, and rage. I wish women and children had more opportunities to talk about this openly.
“Amor Eterno,” Juan Gabriel
Sabado Gigante, titled after the syndicated variety show that ran for decades on Latin American television, speaks a lot through the songs that I reference. One of the key songs is “Amor Eterno” by Juan Gabriel. It’s a song of mourning. I remember one Mother’s Day when my daughter, husband and I lived in an apartment in Mexico City and this song echoed throughout the city all day long. I could hear it echoing through our building and I could almost hear people weeping as they sang. This day of celebration is also a day of mourning for people who’ve lost their mothers. The protagonist in my story sings this song on the television show as a way to grieve his father not because he’d died but because he’d abandoned him at a young age and was never really part of his life. Singing this song was a way to acknowledge the loss of his father and to let go of his longstanding resentment again him. It wasn’t an act of forgiveness, but one of self-healing. (I’m not convinced that forgiveness is always the best way to heal from old wounds.) Juan Gabriel, the artist, also had a complicated relationship with his family and was an orphan for a large part of his childhood. His sexuality was also ambiguous as his feminine mannerisms and style raised questions about his preference. Nonetheless, he became a loved icon. Unlike a lot of pop or regional music, his songs don’t shy away from complex emotions that fully express their grief, but also shift nimbly into great, defiant joy. Juan Gabriel was a champion of so many misfits and malqueridxs, but was also the dazzling evidence that triumphant love and joy are possible. We will miss him always.
“April 29, 1992,” Sublime
I was a kid when the L.A. riots happened. I watched all of it on television. And when I say “all of it”, I mean all of it, including the events that led up to the uprising. I watched the news when video footage of police officers beating Rodney King was aired. I watched the lead-up to the trial in which the police officers were acquitted. I followed along as people became more and more upset, eventually breaking into businesses. I remember fires in Los Angeles, and I have a memory, though I don’t know for sure that it’s a real memory, of seeing smoke on the horizon. I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, in Los Angeles County but outside of the City of LA. I was a little bit frightened by what I saw on TV, and I knew there were children like me in the middle of all that chaos, but there was also something there that I intuitively recognized as a familiar emotion, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time. It was a sense of rage. But what does a fifth grader know about collective rage? I lived apart from what was being experienced and protested against in cities nearby, and yet I quietly coveted the destruction I was witnessing. As I grew older, and certainly through my teenage years, I became more and more acquainted with rage, not just because it’s probably a biological part of adolescence, but also because I was learning about racial injustice, discrimination and economic disparities. I didn’t learn it in school of course. I found it on my own or it was shared with me. One significant source was anarchist zines that circulated, mainly among my punk friends. But also in learning about the Chicano and Black civil rights movements in the 1960s and 70s. History teaches us that significant social change most often does not happen peacefully. Rage and destruction are essential parts of bringing forth a new society.
My short story “New Fire Songs” is about all of these things and about a genuine appetite for destruction (you see what I did here?) and liberation. New societies can come of it, but also art. I think that we live in a historical moment in which we are witnessing and actively creating change. The massive protests following the death of George Floyd bear witness to the great need for creating just societies that value the lives of people of color. The even more recent mass murders of Asian women in Atlanta remind us of how white supremacy persists, in spite of and quite possibly in reaction to the great efforts of justice-seekers and change-makers. Collective rage, for now, will remain a valuable instrument in this process. I hope to continue writing characters that are ready to dance on the smoking ruins of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy and will help us imagine that a new world is possible.
“I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston
Apparently 1992 was a big year in the formation of my cultural and socio-political awareness. Not only was 1992 the year of L.A. uprisings, but also the year that The Bodyguard was released in movie theaters. I was 10 years old and not at all interested in watching the film, starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston. But I was interested in Whitney and her extraordinary rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”. I was already aware of her other gems, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “Saving All My Love For You,” but “I Will Always Love You” opened my young eyes to the deep well of emotional power from which a voice like Whitney Houston’s can draw. I was amazed that a body could hold a voice and thrust it into the universe like that. Everyone I knew (including myself) tried to do it. Of course, anyone not named Whitney Houston or Dolly Parton would inevitably fail. Whitney’s big booming voice and range, also reminded me a lot of ranchera songs that often sounded operatic as singers belted out songs, proclamations of love like rocket flares at sea, signaling calamities of the heart. This song makes an appearance in my short story, Sabado Gigante. It is a song that inspires my protagonist, Emmanuel, as he seeks ways to deal with the snowball of emotions he has carried for much of his life. For the protagonist and his mother, these songs help them channel complicated emotions and eventually heal from deep wounds. Similarly, I think Whitney Houston’s voice reaches people in very profound ways.
“Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division and “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus
Can we talk about suburban mom goth? Just kidding, but not really. Neither of these songs are directly referenced in my short stories but they can be found in long undulating wavelengths beneath plot, perhaps in the underlying tone or mood. Though both of these songs were released before I was born, and much of the post-punk, new wave and synth pop of the 80s peaked while I was still too young to be part of its zeitgeist, it still was still infused into the air that I was breathing and the culture that surrounded me. It’s important to note that growing up in a predominantly Latino community or even anywhere in Latin America for that matter, does not isolate you from the influences of American and other cultures. Singers like Gustavo Cerati of the Argentine band Soda Stereo, looked like an Andean version of Robert Smith. Mexican rock band Caifanes sounded a lot like Duran Duran before they found their mestizo rock sweetspot. Growing up in Southern California, Latinx and Mexican American kids embraced these genres intensely. Today, I am drawn to the emotional and sonic landscapes that I experience in these songs because they resonate with my particular experience of suburbia, once as a child growing up in the 80s and 90s, and currently as a mother. During much of the writing and revision process of these stories, I listened to the entire soundtrack of Donnie Darko (which is all about the ills of American suburbia) and “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” on repeat. I’d play Joy Division when I left the house to drop off my kid at school in the mornings, and then Bauhaus on my way to pick her up. It suited my mood as a mostly stay-at-home mom, writer as well as my overall nature.