What will the US-Mexico border sound like in 200 years?
An imagined concert held in an abandoned space rocket facility is at the center of the multimedia music project created by incoming Assistant Professor of English Jonathan Leal and music producer Charlie Vela. (Image: Courtesy of Futuro Conjunto.)

What will the US-Mexico border sound like in 200 years?

An experimental album created by USC Dornsife fellow Jonathan Leal and producer Charlie Vela celebrates the musical traditions of the South Texas borderlands, while also warning us of what the future could hold. [4½ min read]
ByMargaret Crable

Music producer Charlie Vela was in line at a grocery store in South Texas as Hurricane Harvey barreled towards land. Despite the dire weather report, most residents were certain the storm would pass with little effect. In had been 12 years since the last hurricane had touched down in the region and Texans were mostly just expecting heavy rain.

For Vela, however, the storm was inspiring serious contemplation at the checkout. “Surely, we’re at the beginning of a climate disaster,” he thought, as shoppers nonchalantly browsed around him. “What will the songs that commemorate all of these future events sound like?”

His intuition of impending doom would prove correct. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Aransas County, just three hours north of Vela’s community in the Rio Grande Valley, on Aug. 26, 2017. For the next few days, the storm caused catastrophic damage and flooding throughout the greater South Texas region, along with 100 deaths.

Jonathan Leal is an award-winning percussionist. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Leal.)

This grocery store reverie eventually inspired Futuro Conjunto, a sci-fi album with an interactive website created by Vela and his collaborator, Jonathan Leal, a postdoctoral fellow at the USC Society of Fellows in the Humanities and an incoming assistant professor of English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Set nearly 200 years in the future, Futuro Conjunto imagines what’s to come in the borderlands between Mexico and Texas, from hurricanes to eco-warrior uprisings to a second Mexican American war, and the songs that will commemorate these events. It’s as much a warning about our present political and ecological trajectories as a musing upon the future of music.

“The spirit of the album was, ‘Let’s imagine a future together, a “futuro conjunto.”’ Sci-fi was an apparatus to start doing that,” says Leal.

Borderland ballads 

To make an album about the future, the duo first looked to the past. Both Vela and Leal grew up in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas, which straddles the border between the United States and Mexico. Balladic “corridos,” Spanish-language songs that memorialize events and local legends, are a key part of the region’s culture.

The corrido tradition began during the Mexican American War and enabled the spread of news before radio or newspapers. Some more modern corridos, including drug ballads known as “narcocorridos,” record the exploits of the drug trade along the border. One album of corridos produced in the late 1960s recounts the events of Hurricane Beulah, which hit Texas in 1967 and caused severe damage and numerous deaths.

Leal and Vela aimed to predict the corridos of the future, which will likely memorialize ecological conflicts, natural disasters and technological advances. “The album’s a 21st-century look at possible futures for the region, and it’s directly informed by that local storytelling tradition,” says Leal.

Sci-fi on the Rio Grande

The two first met after Leal watched Vela’s documentary, As I Walk Through the Valley, on the musical traditions of the Rio Grande Valley. As a fellow native of the region and musician, Leal reached out to Vela and a friendship was formed. In 2017, they released a collaborative album,  Wild Tongue.

Jonathan Leal (left) and Charlie Vela both hail from South Texas. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Leal.)

Leal has extensive experience as a percussionist. He’s performed with numerous music ensembles, won awards at national snare drum solo competitions and has taught clinics and lessons on percussion. He’s currently at work on a book examining the impact of post-World War II Black radical music. It was Leal that Vela emailed after his grocery story epiphany.

The two wrote most of the music for the album, and then recruited fellow Rio Grande Valley residents to perform as musicians and narrators. They made sure to include community members that were active in reshaping the region, like Denni Arjona, who voiced the character of Soji. Arjoni is a reproductive justice advocate in the region and a member of the ska band Los Skagaleros.

“A number of them are playing actual facsimiles of themselves,” says Vela. “They would read the part and then we’d tell them, ‘This is inspired by you.’”

The Wild West

Both Leal and Vela cite sci-fi classics like the film Blade Runner as influential, but they deliberately chose to base their own work in an area rarely depicted in these traditional books or movies.

“The future is happening to everybody, everywhere, not just in major metropoles [like Los Angeles],” says Leal.

And, perhaps it’s the borderlands such as the Rio Grande Valley region that are the true vanguards of what’s to come. A steady stream of migrants and refugees arrives daily, a pattern that will potentially increase as climate change devastates warmer regions. Water is in short supply, and likely to become even more scarce as the planet heats up.

Technology is also marching in. Elon Musk, billionaire founder of the rocket company SpaceX, is attempting to establish a new town called Starbase around his rocket launch facilities just a few miles from the Rio Grande River. SpaceX has been pressuring residents to sell their houses so that the company can take over.

It’s no coincidence that the futuristic concert that forms the backbone of Futuro Conjunto is set in an abandoned SpaceX rocket facility. “We’re experiencing neo-colonialism right now, with what SpaceX is doing to our local economy and our environment,” says Vela.

Perhaps by predicting what events our future ballads will eulogize, suggests Futuro Conjunto, we can find a way to avoid our impending dystopian fate.