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frequencies

by josh kun

Alien music

THERE IS A cumbia band in Mexico City who call themselves Los Extraños. Their name most literally translates as "the strangers," but on the covers of their two U.S. albums, 1999's Los Extraños and the just released Sigueme (both on EMI Latin), the band play with the name's other implications: the foreigners, the aliens. The former was their Mexican Battlestar Galactica, all seven of them in futuristic silver suits being beamed down to earth in the galaxial glow of a UFO landing light. On the more cartoonish Sigueme, antigravity gets the best of them, and they are all floating in space suits next to their Los Extraños rocket ship. The ship bears the same logo that appears on the CD itself, taking the place of the o in the band's name – the doe-eyed face of a National Enquirer extraterrestrial (they replace their tilde with a miniature Saturn).

A retro space-alien video-game voice introduces the songs of Sigueme, but there is nothing about the music of Los Extraños that matches their alien packaging. Though they once teamed up with beat freaks Titan to do a cumbia warp of Carol King's '70s hit "Corazon," Los Extraños keep it way down to earth on Sigueme, playing romantic midtempo cumbias that beg for forgiveness and swoon after angelic hearts and lost loves.

In Mexico City, Los Extraños' space shtick might just go down as cumbia kitsch, their alien getups nothing more than an easy marketing gimmick. But in the United States – a country that has so often made "Mexican" and "illegal alien" seem like natural, self-evident synonyms – the coupling of the band's alien role-playing with their innocuous cumbias could easily get received as a form of social commentary: aliens make normal, everyday music; aliens find and lose love like everyone else; aliens are human too. Monterrey hip-hoppers Control Machete made a similar point back in 1997 in their U.S.-targeted song "Humanos mexicanos," where they went out of their way to remind anti-immigrant advocates that – contrary to highway signs that warn motorists of Mexican families sprinting across lanes as if they were deer – it is possible to be both Mexican and human.

Joseph Nevins's new book, Operation Gatekeeper, is the story of how "extraños" get made, a detailed analysis of the Clinton administration's 1994 Operation Gatekeeper initiative, which further militarized the Tijuana-San Diego border and attempted to seal it off to the undocumented crossings of "illegal aliens." Nevins dates the conflation of "the Mexican" and "the alien" back to the turn of the 20th century, when U.S. politicians began looking to distinguish us from them across a line that had then only existed for five decades. And he reminds us that alienspeak is not merely metaphorical: beginning in 1903, immigration authorities would even fumigate Mexican immigrants at checkpoints.

Gatekeeper used the fear of alien invasion as an excuse to turn the border into a police state – more agents, longer fences, taller walls, and bigger budgets to bankroll the development of new surveillance technologies. It was the same alien specter that, with renewed post-Sept. 11 righteousness, President George W. Bush was fighting last week when he visited the El Paso-Juárez border and declared that it wasn't "smart" or "modern" enough. Bush called for a "biometric" ID system that would use digital fingerprinting and retina scans to allow frequent crossers – with maquila bosses and commercial freight shippers undoubtedly at the top of the list – a quicker passage. "We want to use our technology to make sure that we weed out those who we don't want in our country," he said in El Paso of the $11 billion he had allocated for increased border security, "the terrorists, the coyotes, the smugglers, those who prey on innocent life."

What Bush missed, of course, was precisely what drives Nevins's book: the inextricable link between the production of aliens and the policing of them. The more you look for aliens, the more aliens there are. The more fences you throw up, the more they will be cut. The more technology you develop, the more that technology can be used against you.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, a Mexico City-Los Angeles visual artist, plays with this very idea in Alien Toy, a 1997 video that is included in a new show of U.S.-Mexico border art opening this week at the Sweeney Art Gallery in Riverside. Ortiz-Torres takes a bed-dancing Chicano lowrider pickup, paints it U.S. Border Patrol green and white, and transforms it into what now looks like an alien spacecraft. What was once the cruising vehicle of border enforcement is now the "unidentified cruising object" itself. Where Los Extraños play the alien, Alien Toy shows how the alien can play. With the flip of a hydraulics switch, the sci-fi border gets inverted. Now it's Border Patrol agents and government officials who float through space, and now it's they who must prove that they too are human.

E-mail Josh Kun at jksfbg@aol.com.