It was a Wednesday like any other, so I looked at my watch to make sure that rush hour had come to an end. I took out my guitar from its case to quickly practice one last time the two or three songs I would sing. I felt the anticipation of being on stage, the curiosity to know if my song choice would please the listeners. Without further delay, I got in my car and drove forty-five minutes from West Los Angeles to the city of Bell Gardens, California.
La bohemia is a weekly musical gathering that has taken place in a collector auto restoration shop for over thirty years. The audience is older. Most are between forty-five and sixty-five years old, but younger men and women are also present. The evening is a weekly opportunity to sing sentimental music, to share stories and food, and to establish new friendships and reinforce old ones.
Don Sebastián Dominguez is the leader and founder. Dominguez was born and raised in one of the neighborhoods surrounding downtown Mexico City. There he grew up listening to Agustín Lara, Maria Grever, Gonzalo Curiel, and Guty Cárdenas among many other composers of popular romantic songs of the early twentieth century, otherwise known as boleros. His career as an auto body worker also began in Mexico City, where his skills soon earned him the admiration of many. Don Sebastián recalled that his customers came from far and wide. Still, the work did not produce the necessary income to build a future in Mexico. An opportunity came to immigrate to the United States, and so he did.
In the United States, he worked various jobs, but soon he landed in one of the best auto repair shops in the Los Angeles area. Once more, his skills made him famous, the most requested auto body worker among car collectors. On one occasion, he said, “Not for nothing am I known as the Miguelangelo of car shops.” In 1980, Don Sebastián established Sebastian Dominguez Coachwork Restoration, where he receives cars worldwide. The last time I went, I saw two Ferrari Testarosas in his shop, a 1959 and a 1957, two 1955 Mercedes Benz 300SCs, and two Ford Mustangs from 1965—together valued at more than $15 million.
The classic cars are fascinating, but neither he nor I were there to talk about cars. Over the years, Don Sebastián has built a community of Hispanic romantic music lovers. La bohemia has seen hundreds of musical performances featuring amateur musicians and renowned artists such as Amparo Montes, Guillermo de Anda, and members of famous trios such as Los Tres Reyes and Los Tecolines. It is always great listening to Don Sebastián reminisce. While we talked, friends brought out a stage, speakers, amplifiers, microphones, and music stands from the corners, along with the folding chairs soon to occupy the entire garage.
People began coming in around 8:30 p.m., unfolding chairs and greeting each other. Some went straight to the coffee machine, some directly to secure a seat. Others checked their guitar tuning or quickly practiced away in a corner. Before long, Don Sebastián took the microphone to welcome everyone and make some announcements. This was also an opportunity to tell a story or an anecdote with some profound meaning about love, friendship, and loyalty, and to share stories of people in need and how the community might help them. Someone switched off the house lights and aimed a red light at the stage, providing the illumination for what becomes a place where deep emotions are expressed. The shadows of the old cars suddenly seemed like quiet giants ready to enjoy the music.
Maestro Luis Del Angel, a man in his seventies, took the stage to play some instrumental pieces—some taken from the classical guitar repertoire and some original adaptations of boleros. After several songs, a singer was called to share the stage with the maestro. The pair consulted on the song and the key. As they performed, the audience listened intently and sang along. Everyone knew the lyrics. Under normal conditions, each singer is encouraged to sing three songs and then, at the end of his or her turn, announce the next performer.
Listen to an example of the performances and of the good camaraderie experienced by the members of la bohemia.
The lyrics of the song reminded the audience about the idyllic pueblito with small houses, how one day we will return, singing, with our soul sick of so much suffering, only to die on the same soil and under the same sky that saw us born. The audience erupted in emotive clapping and cheering. They collectively requested the presence of Don Lupe Arevalo, a man also in his late seventies, who climbed to the stage to sing “Cosas del Ayer” (Things of Yesterday) by Jesús “Chucho Rodriguez.” The song was popularized by trio Los Tecolines and describes another idyllic place while denouncing the falsehood of a failed love. It reached its highest intensity when the singer cried:
Volver a quererte
Sentirte muy cerca, muy cerca de mi
I wish I could have you
Love you again
Feel you close, very close to me
As the applause for Mr. Arevalo ended, I heard my name whispered in the audience. My heart jumped. As expected, I was called to the stage, and suddenly I was no longer safe behind the camera but in the spotlight. I sang my first song, “Piel canela,” which the audience seemed to enjoy. Unwilling to assume they would want another, I thanked the audience with a discreet bow and left my chair. I heard people saying “son tres”—there are supposed to be three—so I began again. As I sang, it came to me that we were all of us—singers and audience members—performing. The music, the lights, the rhythmic nodding and singing along by the audience transported us all to a different but familiar time and a place.
Many of the sentimental songs performed in la bohemia belong to the standard bolero repertoire. During the early twentieth century, the emergence of broadcasting, film, and recorded sound were instrumental in creating the imagined Mexico. Within this national imaginary, discourses were articulated through musical genres such as mariachi and son jarocho. However, one genre above all captured Mexicans’ imagination about love, morals, and economic struggle: bolero. The bolero became a crucial element in the formation of the imagined community, particularly for those in the city, and the preferred musical packaging in which sentimentalism was commercialized, circulated, and consumed.
La bohemia in Bell Gardens is another expression and transformation of the bolero as a musical and cultural space. In this instance, members of la bohemia continue to imagine the nation through the music and to feel part of this larger community. The emotions conveyed in the performances highlight the deep attachments we Mexicans still have for the music and the optimism we share of one day going back to a more romantic time. Songs like “Pueblito Viejo” and “Cosas del Ayer” show this sustained inclination for return and the close link between the ideas of nation and love.
British Australian scholar Sara Ahmed reminds us that the impossibility that love can reach its object of desire makes love a powerful and multidimensional narrative: “Love may be especially crucial in the event of the failure of the nation to deliver its promise for the good life…. One loves the nation, then, out of hope and with nostalgia for how it could have been. One keeps loving rather than recognizing that the love that one has given has not and will not be returned.”
Although the people in la bohemia physically left their nation years ago, they continue to love by singing. To stop singing would mean recognizing that their investment of national love over a lifetime has brought little value. The constant re-articulation of songs such as “Pueblito Viejo” and “Cosas del Ayer” constitutes the musical expression of hope that the nation will one day fulfill its promise of the good life, which has little to do with material wealth but rather with safety, health, and peace.
Many in la bohemia are triple political minorities: elderly, immigrant, and Hispanic. The vulnerability expressed in these songs sometimes parallels their status in the United States. Separated from extended family on which they would otherwise depend, immigrants are among the most isolated people in the country. Although many of them have left economic peril behind (that is, in Mexico), they face once again some of the social and economic concerns of the past.
Every Wednesday night, you will find Don Sebastián and his friends here at la bohemia, turning his auto body restoration shop into a performance venue, bringing this immigrant community of music lovers together to give comfort and to remember and celebrate the twin romance of song and place.
León F. García Corona is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Northern Arizona University. He worked as a content producer and education specialist for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, where he was the founder and managing editor of Folkways Magazine.