I SPENT MUCH of yesterday evening outside, in my sister’s backyard, with two of my sisters, a brother-in-law, a niece and a nephew. We enjoyed the cool spring breeze, sipped on some cheap wine and exchanged stories, new ones and old favorites.
We also listened to the sounds of the evening. The traffic humming and clanking. The dogs barking. The grackles coming home to roost for the evening after a day out in the country, or wherever it is they spend their daylight hours. And in the distance, we could hear the faint sounds of music. Tejano music. Depending on the strength of the breeze, we could hear the distinctive conjunto sounds: the tinny wailing of an accordion, the steady rhythm of a bass, and the soulful harmonizing vocals. I commented that there must be a dance somewhere nearby but I was told that it was probably a local band, practicing.
“They practice at home,” my niece said.
That’s the kind of town I grew up in, the kind of town where noise — necessary noise, joyful noise: life’s noise — was not simply tolerated and seen as a byproduct of living, it was welcomed and celebrated.
One of the most enduring memories of growing up in this town was the daily amplified sound blaring from speakers mounted on the top of a car, announcing the day’s feature presentation of El Teatro Luna, the local Spanish-language film theater.
“No olvide used que la impresa El Teatro Luna presenta esta noche una pelicula …”
It was the voice of Tino Luna, the son of the theater owner’s son, Nacho Luna.
Every afternoon, Tino would make his way up and down every street of the Mexican neighborhoods, like a town crier, giving us the vital information about the latest feature at his family’s theater at the edge of the town’s cantina district.
When he drove in front of our house, we simply suspended all conversations until Tino and his noise moved past. Nobody called the cops to complain about the nuisance. Nobody ran out into the street and angrily threatened to shoot up the loudspeakers. Nobody went before the city council to demand an anti-noise ordinance.
Noise was accepted as a part of life.
Margarito Ramírez lived across the street from us with his widowed mother and never-married sister. He too had never married. Every morning he woke up early before dawn and walked to his job as a garbage collector, and every evening he’d walk quietly back home, where he worked on his beautiful vegetable garden until nightfall forced him inside, then he’d disappear inside his home until the next morning. He did that every day — during the week. On Saturdays, though, there was a transformation. Early each Saturday afternoon, Mague left his house dressed in crisply ironed shirts, buttoned all the way to the top, and equally crisp khakis. Five or six hours later, Mague slowly weaved his way home, totally sloshed. He was not a quiet drunk.
“Ajuuuuua,” he would shout, “Aquí viene Margarito Ramírez!”
Or: “Que viva Margarito Ramírez!”
Then he’d start singing. I wish I could say that alcohol gave Mague a magnificent singing voice, like Pedro Infante in the movies shown at El Luna, but it didn’t. He was a horrible singer. But that didn’t stop him. At least once every block along his long path home, he’d stop to proclaim or praise his existence, and to sing his warbled tunes.
We all heard him. It was almost impossible not to, but none of us dared go out onto the front porch or stoop or sidewalk to watch or listen to him, much less make fun of him. It would have been the ultimate in bad manners and it would have shown a great deal of disrespect to Doña Ester, his mother, and Nicolasa, his sisters, both of whom were cloistered in their home, mortified with embarrassment. We didn’t ignore Mague. We joked about him and we listened for any nuances in the songs and declarations he chose. But we did it all inside our homes.
And nobody — nobody — complained. Nobody dialed 911 to ask that Margarito be picked up for disturbing the peace or creating a nuisance. It was part of our life and he was part of our community.
And one final acoustic memory: every Mothers Day, soon after midnight, the sweet, sweet sounds of a conjunto began to fill the pre-dawn air. The sounds would start faintly as the band performed las mañanitas — a set of songs devoted to mothers — to someone’s mother blocks away, but gradually, as the band members sang nearer our house, the sounds would get clearer and louder. Then they would fade again as they moved on down the street. And then another band would come along. And another and another until, as daylight arrived, the serenading would end and the sounds would be no more than beautiful memories and smiles on countless mothers’ faces.
Again, despite the fact that the serenading music interrupted people’s sleep and lives over and over again, nobody complained, nobody called the police and nobody asked the city council to outlaw the practice (it still exists).
That’s because in a small community, we knew the difference between good noise and bad noise. Bad noise was what other people make, and in a small town, there were no other people; we were all us.
In a small town, we knew that life comes with sound, full stereophonic sound. We knew that a rooster has to crow and that a donkey has to bray and that a celebration, by definition, involves loud, boisterous sounds.
And we knew that life, no matter how harsh, no matter how cruel, is a celebration. So we simply sat back and took in the blaring loudspeakers, the drunken neighbors, the crowing roosters and barking dogs, and the bands playing down the street or next door.
In a small town. Back then. We would do that.