Ethnographer-composer-performer-academic-musician, Alex E. Chávez earned his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2010 with a concentration in Folklore and Public Culture and holds doctoral portfolios in both Mexican American Studies and Cultural Studies. Having held post-doctoral appointments at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where he served as both a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Latina/Latino Studies and a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology), as well as serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and an affiliate of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
His most recent research project explored the performance of huapango arribeño—a musical form that hails from north-central Mexico—among undocumented Mexican migrants in the United States. Supported by the National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation this work resulted in his doctoral dissertation and forms the basis of his book manuscript, Sounds of Crossing: Music, Migration, and the Aural Poetics of Huapango Arribeño (Forthcoming, Duke University Press). This book represents the first extended study of huapango arribeño and offers a fine-tuned ethnographic analysis of how Mexican migrants construct meaningful communities amidst the contemporary politics of immigration in the United States. He explores how “Mexican sounds”—as a locus of aesthetic behaviors, performative acts, and signifying practices—resonate across physical, aural, and cultural borders and what they reveal about transnational migrant lives lived across them.
He has significantly extended the reach of this research through collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute. He is lead producer of a Smithsonian Folkways recording of huapango arribeño featuring Guillermo Velázquez y Los Leones de la Sierra da Xichú for inclusion in the world-renowned Tradiciones music series (to be released Fall 2016). Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution, the national museum of the United States, and is dedicated to supporting cultural diversity and increased awareness of peoples from around the world through the documentation and dissemination of sound recordings. This first-ever recording of its kind by an esteemed cultural institution of this caliber highlights the tradition at its finest and makes anthropological knowledge of this music-culture accessible to a global audience.
As a Cultural Anthropologist trained in Linguistic Anthropology, Ethnomusicology, and Folklore, he is committed to an integrative Anthropology that applies the tools of these sub-disciplinary fields to the realm of Latino Studies. His research explores Latino expressive culture in everyday life as manifested through language, music, and sound. The primary questions that inform his work are: How do expressive negotiations participate in place-making and community-binding across both the material and cultural divides represented by the U.S.-Mexico border? How do Latino communities leverage these forms of expression—as aesthetic and communicative resources—to comment upon and negotiate the social structures they emerge out of? His work also bridges scholarship and creative expression as a means to explore how performance intersects with larger cultural concerns surrounding illegality, mobility, racialized personhood, and the intimacies that bind everyday life across physical and cultural borders. In this regard, he has consistently crossed the boundary between performer and ethnographer in both Mexico and the United States. As a student and practitioner of various Mexican folk musics over the past fifteen years, he has engaged in music-making alongside his interlocuters, transforming his own experiences into a unique perspective on the body politics of performance that has shaped his understanding of how people cross various types of borders.
An accomplished musician and multi-instrumentalist, Chávez has performance experience in an array of styles ranging from American popular music to traditional Mexican son. He has recorded and toured with his own music projects, composed documentary scores (most recently Emmy Award-winning Where Soldiers Come From, Dir. Heather Courtney, 2011), and collaborated with various artists including Charanga Cakewalk/Lila Downs, Martin Perna of the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, in addition to members of the critically acclaimed Quetzal and Son de Madera, Grammy Award winning Grupo Fantasma, and Latin Grammy Award nominated Sones de México. Over the years, he has been invited to perform at a number of prestigious venues, including the Old Town School of Folk Music's Folk and Roots Festival, the Joshua Tree Roots Music Festival, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival.
He has published in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Latino Studies, Latin American Music Review, Southern Cultures, Música Oral del Sur, and has contributed to Celebrating Latino Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Cultural Traditions (2012), Iconic Mexico (2015), Latino, American, Dream (2016 Texas A&M Press), in addition to Con La Música a Otra Parte: Migración e Identidad en La Lírica Queretana (2010) published with the support of the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y Las Artes in Mexico.