The Panamericanist, the album and the content of this website, is my tribute to my friend and mentor Alfonso Chacon. The facts of his life, his brilliance as a musician, his generosity as a teacher, the worlds he opened for anyone who came to his door, his fortitude and relentless optimism, and the utter humbleness of his existence need to be recognized and honored. I present all of this with great humility.
How it is that I came to be the honorer of such a man is something of a cosmic mystery to me. An accident of circumstance, I am merely the proverbial bird in the hand. For there should be someone else: a more gifted guitarist who could grasp his ideas more fully and play them more precisely; a native Spanish speaker who could understand his stories more clearly; a more knowledgeable musicologist who already knows the music and where it’s from. In other words, I can’t help but feeling there should be someone else who could play his music better, tell his story in greater detail and nuance, and appreciate and elucidate the quality of his work in the proper context. I welcome all comers!
But until then, dear reader, you are stuck with me. I will try to do my best. The content here is strictly of my own point of view based on the knowledge I have, mostly from hazy memories of bilingual conversations some 4 to 14 years ago. I make no claims to be his biographer, but I do wish to try to tell his story, warts and all, with respect of the highest. I also welcome anyone to write in with any more detailed information about his life, especially if you think I have something not quite right.
First I will try to describe his gifts as a musical artist. Then I will try to place his work in the context of his life story as I know it, and reflect on his life in Chicago. Finally I will try to relate how my time with Alfonso altered my view of the world.
Above all else, Alfonso’s life was dedicated to the guitar and making music for people. As a musician, Alfonso loved to entertain and loved to play to an audience. If he was playing in a restaurant or event and sensed a group of patrons from Colombia he would immediately start to play Colombian bambuco or cumbia. If an Argentine family came in, he would play tangos and improvise in the gato or malamborhythms. If he noticed a white North American clientele, he might start playing Beatles songs, which I always thought was very funny.
Nonetheless, I think what is most important to say about him as a musician is that he played music out of a love of people, more so than, say, a drive for abstract expression. Bringing music to people was his work.
He was a broad-hearted musician, and had a touch that ranged from Bach lute suites to indigenous American rhythms to Gershwin. I don’t think there was any particular music that he thought was “better” or necessarily loved to play more, especially in terms of solo guitar. When I say that he might switch styles based on his audience, I don’t think he ever said to himself “oh no, now I have to play this”. It may be hard to understand for a non-musician, but when you play at the level he was at, playing is playing and music is music – if something wasn’t interesting enough for him, he would add variations and harmonies until it was.
You never knew what would catch his ear. One day out of nowhere he asked if I would listen to a song that somehow triggered his memory that day, wondering if I knew what it was called. He then proceeded to play a drop dead gorgeous solo guitar version of “Theme from Mahogony” by Diana Ross.
His core audiences in Chicago were from the South American immigrant communities scattered in small pockets across the city. Especially, of course, those of his age cohort, who shared the memories of the songs he played and for whom Alfonso was a powerful link to the days gone by.
The greatest testament I experienced to what he meant to his friends and fans in Chicago was an event held in his honor in May of 2007. Alfonso had had a very serious bout with kidney stones – the first night he went to the hospital, we all feared the worst and were not certain he would make it. But after a two-week stay at Community Hospital he recovered and after a month he was back playing. To help ease the financial burden of losing work, a show was organized to raise money to help get him back on his feet.
It was at a Paraguayan restaurant called El Arpa (“The Harp”), named for the national instrument of Paraguay. The owner, Alberto Sanabria, was a great harpist and overall musician himself as well as a close friend of Alfonso’s. In addition to dinner there were musical performances all night, with Alfonso performing solo and accompanying many different instrumentalists and singers (including an especially incredible performance by Argentine singer Alba Guerra), all leading up to a performance by our guitar quartet, Los Guitarristas, to close off the night.
The restaurant was packed. All around the room it seemed that tables were pushed together to gather folks together from different Latin American countries – a table with several Peruvian families here, a group of Colombian friends there. A table with the MC for the evening, a local Bolivian radio personality, sitting with the Bolivian consulate and their friends and families. At another table was a fantastic Ecuadorian guitarist with his family and friends. He was just a bit younger than Alfonso and played with the quartet one evening years prior, but lived just a bit too far away to participate with the group. And on and on.
When Los Guitarristas played, something rather extraordinary happened. The quartet would perform medleys of songs and rhythms stitched together by country that we called “paisajes” (“panoramic views”). Our pieces would be called, “Paisaje de Bolivia”, “Paisaje de Brazil”, “Paisaje de Argentina #2”, etc., each including three to four or more songs and lasting five to ten minutes in length.
As we played, I could hear the surprising sound of singing coming from different parts of the room during different paisajes, and I slowly realized that each table was singing along to their own national songs. It was just magical how the voices faintly blended in with the guitars and the head spinning sensation of new voices coming from different directions at different points of the set. For me personally this was especially phenomenal as many of the songs we played I had never heard sung before in any form – as some of our work was based on original instrumental ideas I often wasn’t even sure what parts were even singable songs!
It was such a beautiful and profound moment. A truly organic scene, and when one considers what all of these folks had gone through to establish lives in Chicago, how hard they had to work, how difficult to lose touch with family and the places where they grew up, you can feel how much it must have meant to come out and celebrate this man who could represent the strength and soul of so many cultures. The overwhelming ovation he received at the end of the night was something I will never forget.
But I also want to specifically address his work as a guitarist in and of itself. In addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of regional Latin folk styles, he created some truly original music and had an endless imagination for arranging multiple guitars, always committed to getting theflavor of a style while adding a piece of himself. He had an unmistakable personal style and sense of tone. Strong short hands stabbing at two-note harmonies, followed by the electricity of exploding into an accelerating scale to land on a dramatic note in a melody, peppered with hints of deconstructed strums, never losing touch with the underlying dance.
If you know how to look, you can find recordings that he is a part of on iTunes or YouTube, most often though as a member of an uncredited ensemble. The fact is, most of what he recorded over his career is likely lost and unknown. Beyond the album El Mundo en Mi Guitarra, out of print and known only to collectors, he was not a prolific recording artist under his own name.
As someone who witnessed the process of him creating the music of Los Guitarristas, I would that as an arranger, he was a real modern artist. The guitar ensemble was really his ideal medium, followed by solo guitar music. At root was a commitment to representing the cultures of country people, ranch workers, dock workers – playing their dance rhythms and romantic ballads as means to bring people together in a good time, and as sonic forms to explore on the guitar, rich in musical possibility. To the uninitiated the shades of difference in guitar strums between, say, Chilean cueca, Peruvian marinera, Argentine zamba can be nearly imperceptible. But the distinctions are there, and Alfonso had the touch to make each articulate. He could speak in local accents. He believed in keeping the rhythms rough and would scoff at academic recordings made by classical guitarists where the rhythms were played too clean and pretty. Getting the flavor right meant playing the rhythms as the locals did, and among the amazing things about watching him play were the seamless leaps between classical and folkloric techniques.
Layered on top of that foundation, and beyond what you may find in the original local forms, were dense harmonies, constant variations in chord voicings, and decorative call and responses. This is where he brought in his formal education and artistic liberty. He loved to fill spaces and play to the textures and dynamics that multiple guitars can create. I found it all quite radical, and I have a hard time finding an equivalent parallel in North America.
His fantasy was to direct a guitar sextet, but he had to settle for a quartet of students in Los Guitarristas. To give you a sense of the creative force still present in his final days, here’s a very rough rehearsal recording from the end of Los Guitarristas’ run, the never performed “Paisaje de Chile #2”. We were still learning it, so please forgive the sloppy playing and poor recording:
You’ll hear portions of “Grandes Maravillas” and “Prepárese la Novia”, tracks both on The Panamericanist, in there, which gives you a sense that these are works that had multiple manifestations. Alfonso took great pride in what Los Guitarristas was able to accomplish, but I always wondered what he could achieve with a group that could some closer to matching his skills and vision.
More significantly though, I think, is to try to take his music in a historical and cultural context. Viewed from the 21st century, he was the extremely (and increasingly) rare artist for whom you could say what he did is what it is. When it came to Chilean styles, Alfonso did not merely play cueca or tonada (popular Chilean folk rhythms, currently enjoying a revival), what he and his posse played is what they are. He came on the scene in the early 1950s when folkloric guitar music came into an artistic and commercial vogue simultaneously with the formation of the modern recording industry in South America. He was in the class of originators in a golden age who encoded these styles for posterity. To understand these styles, still alive and thriving today, is to go back to his time. In this world there are not many people like that, and there are fewer every day – an enormous talent at the right place at the right time at the birth of a movement.
There was one time when I got to hear the full story of how Alfonso came to Chicago. Over the years I had picked up pieces of information here and there but never the complete narrative. There were always other more important things to talk about and Alfonso was not one to dwell on his past, he was resolutely a forward-looking person. He was also undocumented in the U.S.A, and I had learned that sometimes it’s best not to probe too deeply into such things.
The winter of 2010/2011 was very rough on Alfonso. For any musician in Chicago, winter is the “off season” as folks hibernate at home and there are far fewer events, weddings and parties to play. In the early spring of 2011 he told me he was thinking it was time he moved on from Chicago, feeling it had just gotten too hard for him to survive here as a musician as well as deal with the cold. His wife Eloina had moved back to Venezuela several years before to care for an ailing daughter, and he also missed her terribly. He thought maybe he could return to Caracas and drive a cab. At that time we were rehearsing duet material together, and I was trying to find jobs for us as the Chacon-Smith Panamerican Guitar Duo. I asked him in March 2011 what his timeline for leaving might be and he told me nine months or so.
In June of that year my girlfriend (now wife) Tina asked what I wanted for my birthday. As I was thinking this may be Alfonso’s last summer in Chicago, I wanted him to have as many good experiences as possible, so I asked if she might treat the three of us to an architectural boat tour downtown. If you’ve never been to Chicago, it’s really the greatest tourist thing: a 90-minute trip through the river system, with vistas of the awe-inspiring city structures from otherwise impossible angles – she loved the idea and it was a date
We had a grand time. The photo you see in The Panamericanist package of us waving to the camera was taken that day by Tina. Afterwards we went out for lunch, and I invited him to take us through his journey from South America to living in the U.S.A. In ten years I had never directly asked him about this, but the moment seemed right and he graciously obliged. Over 30 minutes I heard so many aspects I previously knew nothing about – I wish it could have been recorded; I wish I had a better memory. But unfortunately many of the details are simply scrambled by the passing of time.
What’s important to know is that he came to Chicago in 1992. He had been living in Caracas. He had an opportunity to perform in Canada, which lead to an opportunity to visit someone in North Carolina, which to led to contacts in Chicago, where he landed and never left. Money was then raised to bring his wife up from Venezuela along with a young son from a previous relationship.
He told me he had always wanted the chance to live in the U.S.A and that he loved living in Chicago, winters aside.
He was born in the north of Chile in 1934 and left his home country forever sometime in the early 70s. This would be during the era of the socialist president Salvador Allende, before the CIA-supported coup d’etat led by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973, a military dictatorship that would last until 1990. At that time he had gone through two marriages and had a son, Alfonso Jr. (I thought there was a time that he mentioned other children, but now I am not sure). He sustained himself for a long time as a professional musician, and when that slowed he worked for the phone utility in Santiago.
During the golden years of the 1950s he made good money in music, performing frequently on radio programs, on stages, and maybe most importantly in private homes within the culture of la peña, informal gatherings where musicians and folks would gather to sing and jam, and it is in this context where his guitar styles formed and evolved (not in bohemian night clubs).
From there, rich folks interested in folkloric music would hire musicians like Alfonso to record along with them in vanity projects. In the early days Alfonso would get paid and spend the rest of his time playing poker until his money was gone, until the next gig. His first wife was acueca singer who had no interest in settling down to a family. Alfonso Jr., I believe he had with his second wife in a more domestic time during which his music career faded – but I really know very little about this.
Though I would not describe Alfonso as being politically ideological, I think it is safe to refer to his politics as “anti-communist”. I don’t know if the election of Allende was the reason he left Chile, but he would describe changes in Chilean life with the ascendency of socialism in that time, such as farmers who would suddenly be forced to use Soviet tractors, then left helpless when they broke down as there would be no replacement parts. In 1972 the Chilean economy tanked, ultimately setting the conditions for Pinochet’s takeover the next year. Perhaps it was during the turmoil of that year in which he decided it was time to split.
I’m sure it was a decision that was brewing for a long time. Alfonso was among the generation that would have likely felt alienated from the burgeoning global youth culture of the late 1960s and the rising leftism that Allende represented. The folkloric styles that were artistically ascendant in the 1950s were likely considered tired and even reactionary by the 1970s (it was common for Latin American military dictators of the time to appropriate national folk styles for cultural legitimacy in their propaganda). I would speculate that over the decade prior to his leaving Chile there was a long, slow decline in demand for his music. Though he had very broad tastes, Alfonso had no love or appreciation of rock music or anything countercultural. I can only imagine that the years before he left were very tough for him.
And once he left Chile behind he felt he could never go back. Especially because of Pinochet’s coup in ’73 and the increasingly terrible times that followed, he felt the perception of his fellow Chilenos would be that he turned his back and escaped during the hard times. When he was considering his options in 2011, I asked if he ever could return to Chile. He said some people would be happy to see him, but they would never support or welcome his return, let alone care for him as an old man. I don’t know if that is true, but that is how he felt.
I don’t know where he went when he left Chile. These are the lost years of his narrative. In his wallet I recall seeing an ID card from an Argentine guitar society from the mid-70s, so my best guess is he spent time a lot of this time there. I know there were periods in his life where he spent a considerable about of time in Lima, Peru, perhaps that was during this period. He discussed touring and travelling all across the continent, including playing on the beach at Ipanema, maybe that’s what he did.
Around 1975 he moved to Caracas, Venezuela. What brought him there I have no idea. In his time in Venezuela I believed he suffered the worst of his alcoholism and survived colon cancer. At some point he found his wife Eloina, and with her love regained his health and sobriety and became born again as a Christian and as a guitarist.
Though he loved his wife dearly, I’m not sure how much he loved Caracas. Perhaps coming to the U.S.A was a long harbored dream that he plotted in advance, or more likely a door simply opened and stepped through
Considering Alfonso’s music in the place of history is one thing, considering his life is quite another.
Around the spring of 2009 Alfonso asked if I could play with him at an event taking place at a church on a Saturday afternoon, and that it would mean a lot to him if so. I was free and happy to do so – there were often benefits or smaller cultural events that he would invite me and the other Guitarristas to play if we could (as these would be strictly volunteer efforts). For me they were terrifically unique opportunities to meet folks from around the world, and I never turn down a chance to play for strangers. But this particular event turned out not to be a benefit or a festival, it was a public meeting on a very serious topic: to share information for undocumented families about what resources were available if a family member was arrested or deported – often times immigration arrests happen on worksites, while families are at home without a line of communication.
This is the time that the “Si Se Puede” movement was ramping up and getting national exposure. There had been several large marches in Chicago of undocumented immigrant workers seeking legal protections. Any Chicagoan that has the slightest understanding of food service, cleaning service and contract construction (i.e., the foundations of much of our daily life) is sympathetic to this issue. Whether one likes it or not, the city runs on this labor.
We arrived early to set up, and there were other musicians as well who were to play at the beginning of the event and we would finish it out. As the large church filled to capacity, I understood it was also to be an extra significant meeting as Cardinal George, the most powerful person in Catholic Chicago, would be speaking. Cardinal George was an arch-conservative, but on the issue of immigration he fully supported the rights and aspirations of undocumented workers and families. The Cardinal made news that day speaking out forcefully against workplace raids being ordered at the federal level. Other local politicians and community leaders were there and spoke, along with TV cameras – the works. Alfonso and I then played as folks socialized before heading out – after all the rousing speeches, there was an electricity in the air, and I remember how great and uplifting it felt to play.
We were among the last to leave the church and as I stepped outside back into the sunny afternoon I was not prepared for what I saw. Across the street from the church entrance were several dozen protestors. I don’t recall them yelling, they didn’t need to. They were holding signs expressing anti-immigration sentiment. They seemed like pretty regular middle class white folks, exercising a right to free speech, and the news media was there after all. But mostly I would say they were there to physically intimidate families, apparently having nothing better to do on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
I’ve certainly been involved in protests before, but I suppose that was the first time I myself was part of something being protested. I’ve marched against warfare and in favor of expanding civil rights, with scorn directed at the top of the hierarchy. I can’t imagine the mindset of wanting to get in the face of people, mothers with children mostly, to call them criminals. It was a reminder of the shroud of fear Alfonso had to live with in his 19 years in Chicago, and the risks of telling your own story.
I should state right now that I am not a lawyer or politician. About any piece of United States immigration policy or legislation my opinion is of little concern or consequence. I know these are incredibly complex issues.
But understand that this is how Alfonso’s life became a marvel to me. It wasn’t just that he was a world-class musician who happened to be teaching me a vast and incredible repertoire of music from at least 16 different countries. It wasn’t just that he was an inspirational old man living alone struggling to survive as a working artist. My own simple association with him, in and of itself raised questions that caused me to confront my ideas about what it means to live here and who it belongs to. What it means to call oneself an American.
When I moved to Chicago in 1999 I was immediately immersed in a world of immigrants. In my first temp job (which ended up lasting 5 years) my supervisor was from Poland, just over to the U.S. to study to be a financial analyst. To play guitar I have acrylic nails on my right hand that need to be serviced, and I started visiting my nearest neighborhood shop, run by a Vietnamese family who came over from the war in the 1970s. I visited them every 2-3 weeks for a decade for my fill before moving to a different part of the city. The barbershop where I’d stop on the way home from work was run by a native of Baghdad veteran of the Iraqi army captured in the first Gulf War and placed in Chicago (which made for some tense post 9/11 interactions). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of daily life in the big city.
I had spent the previous 10 years in the academic environment of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I went to grad school and worked as a lecturer in the Communications Department of the University of Michigan. I was used to the “elite” international class, visiting graduate students and professors who often shared in the cultivation of the predominant lefty intellectual “anti-Americanism” you find on your better college campuses. An analysis of the U.S.A as an imperial hegemonic power, rooted in white supremacy, wielding the power of crass entertainment and/or patriarchal evangelicalism for the interests of capital to the detriment of poor people and especially the developing world.
I don’t disagree.
But in Chicago I found something different. The immigrants who, to put it most simply, were here to strive for the middle class. A decent life. I’ve met folks who crossed the border back when it was really easy (1970s) with absolutely nothing, who found work or started businesses, had families and kids who went to college and became citizens in the process. I’ve met folks who arranged green card marriages for individuals to get themselves established (and then safely divorced). I’ve met business owners who used family networks to bring in workers from the post-war Balkans, as they then slowly find their way into the U.S. system. I find these stories to be awesome and they even fill me with patriotic pride every time I hear another case. I like being in the place where people hustle themselves to, and they are amazing people for pulling it off. I guess I’m a sucker for the Statue of Liberty.
In my middle ages though I’ve definitely become a sucker for history. Always trying to understand the processes that built this world we’ve inherited and inhabit. As I learned about and became a fan of music and musicians from South America, it was a natural extension to start looking into those national histories as well, which definitely began to inform my own reading of United States history. I considered myself to be a fairly educated person, and I was completely gobsmacked by how absolutely ignorant I was of pretty much anything having to do with Central and South America (I certainly have little memory of what may have been taught in school, if anything). For the record, and maybe as a good start for anyone, the works of two writers have impressed and fascinated me the most: the historical novels of Mario Vargas Llosa, and the journalist Charles Mann’s books 1491 and 1493
Maybe on a certain level I was looking for what to call a common ground that Alfonso and I can both share. If gaining legal status in Chicago, IL, U.S.A. was simply a practical impossibility for him, of what world then are we both citizens? Because you’re not going to tell me that there’s not. If you need something that sounds nice, maybe he was a “common law citizen” for that was the reality that was lived. In his 19 years here he gave more to this community here than nearly anyone else I have ever met. He deserved our welcome, and a status of dignity.
In my view there is a simple answer. He, and I, and probably you, are Americans, unmodified, by birth and spirit. I don’t mean this in the sense of the common colloquial North American shorthand of U.S. citizenship. I mean that he’s an American because he lived as such, and that is good enough for me.
True story: On 9/11 I was working for a small finance company that financed and leased commercial aircraft. It was a surreal twist to that morning following the events while waiting to learn the tail numbers of the hijacked planes in case they were our own (they weren’t). Anyways, by coincidence one of our directors was an up and coming aviation executive from Chile, a really nice guy spending a few years in Chicago and we chatted often about South American culture, history and politics.
On one of the days that followed we were watching the noontime news over lunch featuring the requisite hysterical talking heads talking about American Values/Interests/Etc being under attack or something along those lines, and he said something rather pointed – a point probably made quite often, but often not to North American ears – basically how we (North Americans) use this word “American” as if we are the solo owners. “But you have to remember” he said, “that we are Americans, too”.
And maybe that’s when it took hold.
Allow me to summarize: 10-15,000 years ago populations from Asia crossed ice sheets in the north and populated the lands of Earth’s Western Hemisphere, creating diverse civilizations from Alaska to Patagonia. 500 years ago naval powers from Europe began arriving on the shores of the Americas, representing the interests of capital, Imperial Monarchy and/or the Roman Catholic Church. The prizes were silver and gold, tobacco, sugar, corn, potatoes, rubber, naval trade routes to China and pats on the back from God. They staked land claims, displaced/destroyed/disenfranchised native populations, declared ownership of resources and then imported populations of Africans against their will as an enslaved labor force where natives proved to be insufficiently cooperative. Colonial outposts became trading and transportation centers, then became cities. New civilizations established, with newly drawn borders and new names and new creole cultures. Administrative colonial ties soon cut, while new generations were born and new waves of immigrants arrived who may or may not have been terribly aware, or cared much about, of how it all got going. Alaska to Patagonia.
Drill down a level and we can talk of the different experiences of individual countries, the ramifications of different colonial models, the influences of powerful individuals, etc. But the point is that as a starting point the contemporary populations of the Americas, North, Central and South, have a uniquely shared history. Our American life today is the product of these processes, both atrocious and sublime. Thus, there is this level upon which we can say there is a historical identity that is uniquely ours, call it Panamerica for nothing else. And I would argue that this is a good thing, and even an important thing, if only in imagination.
This is the beginning point of what we might call the Panamerican View, the “Paisaje de Panamerica” if you will, under our patron saint of unified absurdity, Amerigo Vespucci. There is no movement here, no call for mass action. Just a small hope for a means to foster the potential of new friendships across our hemisphere, and in our own neighborhoods
What constitutes this Panamerican View? First, and most obviously, the simple recognition of our shared close quarters; a common geography and ecology. If it is a collective human responsibility to manage natural resources in the face of climate change then national borders are going to seem quite silly when oceans start to rise and mountaintop glaciers complete their melt. If that is too dire to contemplate, then perhaps it can simply be in our imagination that travel by Americans throughout the Americas may be affordable, safe and through de-militarized borders.
The Panamerican View also recognizes, celebrates and continues to breathe life into a fascinating shared intellectual and cultural history. There is a primordial recipe book in the culture of the Americas, a meshing of different European, different African and different indigenous cultures. The local creole that was created where you are is just the mix from the local dosages. A 4/6 African polyrhythm played one way on a guitar can sound like a Brazilian samba strum, flipped around it sounds like gaucho music from the Argentine highlands, flip it back and modify the accents and you’re in New Orleans, flip it back and modify the accents and head to Monterey Mexico or Appalachia. Stringed instruments, bass and drums, the blues, saudade. A musician can spend a lifetime exploring these forms and still only approach a portion of the library, and I believe there still remains oceanic frontiers of creative directions in new music performed by musicians with American roots knowledge.
In other words, The Panamerican View recognizes the continuities of and values and appreciates the great depths of the cultures of the Americas.
The Panamerican View also painfully recognizes that our histories are inescapably rooted in violence and tragedy. The violence of colonialization against native populations, the violence of slavery, the violence of revolution and civil strife, and all over the hemisphere the staggeringly horrific violence of the 19th century wars. There was never innocence in the Americas. But if there is something positive to take from that we can say that the prospects of war in the Americas in the 21st century seems small (especially compared to everywhere else). With the massive exception of narco-terrorism, today the possibility of warfare between nations in the Americas seems inconceivable. At whatever the immeasurable cost of history, that is a not a terrible thing for us today.
The elephant in that room, often found blocking the Paneramerican View, of course, is the EEUU. And I will say as a proud yank that part of the maintenance of, and hopefully building on this peace, on barstools and beyond, is a special responsibility of North Americans to understand and acknowledge the unique contributions of the United States to unnecessary awfulness in the Americas. If you don’t know what I mean, here’s a good start: the Mexican War, the funding of lousy military dictatorships, corporate imperialism such as United Fruit in Guatemala, the entire history of Panama, and Cuba, the Drug War, Walmart, spring breakers. The list goes on.
In contemplating the terribleness of history, we today can at least be thankful for the multitude of great writers and journalists who have done magnificent work telling these stories – the best of this work even being done today. We are living in the golden age of Panamerican historiography. To be interested in the history of the Americas is to enter a uniquely excellent library. If you can stomach the violence, there is so much there to inspire and fascinate, and North Americans can even take solace in learning that plenty of terrible things have happened that we had nothing to do with.
But if I had to reduce it down to a point it is this: as shameful as much or most of the history is, you will find everywhere, from Alaska to Patagonia, voices of people who stood on a moral ground we can recognize today as our own, who built the best parts of our world today. The American spirit in the Panamerican View is always one of new possibilities and expanded freedoms.. Even if it is simply the optimism of a working class boy trying to woo the rich man’s daughter, or a family pulling up stakes to find opportunity someplace else.
So I say, Alfonso Chacon is The Panamericanist. To reflect on his life and music is to propagate consideration of the Panamerican View. That we can care about and learn from our neighbors. That can we be unafraid to learn and play the music of others, and then make something new of it. Mostly so we may enjoy each others company.
A central character in the literature of the Americas is the self-made man. The hustler. And I don’t mean a con man (necessarily). The character who seeks opportunity and heads to a new place, deploying wit and guile to gain a foothold, and ethics and endurance to keep it. This was Alfonso’s life in Chicago
In 2008 Los Gutiarristas had an opportunity to perform in Ann Arbor, MI through some old connections that I had. When I was discussing the travel logistics with Alfonso, I could tell he looked uncomfortable. I asked him if he was nervous about something, and he expressed his fear that we would be stopped at the border of Michigan and have to produce our papers. I had to reassure him that you could drive around the states in the U.S. on the open road without being stopped. Then I had ask him: haven’t you been to another state? And he told me that in 18 years he had not left the city limits of Chicago.
Alfonso had a car that he drove within the city but never on the highways or out to the suburbs. If he needed to travel out of the city, he had friends or students he could call to perform the favor. The last several years of this life he took English classes at a local community college, and he was pretty stoked to get a nice student ID with a photo. He couldn’t get a regular job on a payroll, though occasionally he would be brought to conduct a class or two at different community centers or churches. When his wife Eloina left in 2006, he lost half a household income (she had been working as a nanny), and at that time various folks stepped up, mostly unaware of each other, and started helping out. I took on his phone bill, someone else got him a computer and paid for his internet service (you can only imagine Alfonso surfing YouTube and find old recordings he is on), he had students who were doctors and nurses who also kept an extra eye on him. Eloina’s son became a citizen and started his own family, and with them Alfonso was truly never alone.
But it could be harrowing. There were times I’d come over for a lesson, and I could see how stressed he was. One particular evening was especially intense when he invited me over to offer up his music collection for sale. (I was broke myself at the time, thankfully another student stepped up and bought it all). Alfonso taught me a trade – his repertoire is the basis upon which I know work – and I always tried to honor that by floating him extra cash when I could, and always on the hunt for gigs. Alfonso was always working on a plan – his instructional book and DVD (which several of us dedicated many hours to), finding contacts in Miami to get booked on Sábado Gigante, or requesting help putting together copies of a demo CD that he would pound the pavement trying to sell himself into restaurant gigs. A 78-year-old man living this way is its own intensity. Somehow he managed to keep a decent apartment up in a decent part of Chicago.
Maybe there was an easy legal solution to his situation, pay a lawyer $10k and somehow the paperwork is done. I know there are “genius” clauses in our immigration laws that give loopholes to scientists and academics, but I’m not sure there are mechanisms that extend to musicians not associated with universities.
To the community of people that cared for Alfonso, that promoted him and supported him, his legal status was pretty meaningless. In the Panamerican View he is an American we can all only aspire to.
He died the way any artist or adventurer could ever dream – he went swiftly and immediately, readying for work. December 1, 2011. A free man. He always described being a musician as an endless fight, and he never quit throwing punches. He never lost an ounce of ambition.
He had asked me a couple months prior what I had for gigs for our duet. I expressed that I didn’t have anything in motion because I didn’t know how long he was sticking around – I didn’t think he had the resources to really leave, but I didn’t want to presume I knew his business, after all he often surprised me. He confessed there was no plan at the moment, the money he hoped to make over the summer didn’t materialize. He only knew to forge ahead. This was in October, so to reignite our promotion we made some videos. Here’s a yanqui from Syracuse and a Chileno enjoying themselves playing some Mexican tunes together:
lfonso Chacon changed my life. His life and his work invite us to imagine a more interesting world, one that is ours to make. May he rest in peace.