A Norteño Oktoberfest

A Sunday Story for August 16th, 2020.

Last Saturday, masked up on a social distant grocery run, I stared down a rudely displayed endcap of Oktoberfest beer. I was annoyed for a couple of reasons:

1) From my German perspective: Oktoberfest does not begin for another seven weeks. That. is. the. schedule. Y’all are way off. Unacceptable.

2) From my Bohemian POV: Listen, consumer Satan, it’s too damn hot to start peddling Fall beer to me! Mother nature dictates when I’m going to slap on lederhosen and stomach Märzen!

We’re in the throes of Austin sauna weather right now. On average, the second week of August is the hottest time of the year in Central Texas. If you don’t live here, let me tell you — this past week did not disappoint the data. I think I got sunburn on my couch yesterday! I know we’re all about breaking 100+ year-old climate trends lately and the world was already on fire by July for so many other reasons. Still, I am reserving hope cooler air will prevail this year…sometime in October. No comment on heads in November.

With Sunday night scaries hovering I started thinking about my ancestral past. I blame that damn beer display. I reminisced about celebrating Oktoberfest last year with a polka band at the Free German School. So pre-COVID-19. Earlier this June I had a classic corona closet clean-out (highly recommend if you haven’t already) and I remembered I bought a German-made 50’s Hohner accordion back in 2006. I say remembered because I’ve owned it for 14 years only to be moved from closet to closet. Hardly opened and I never committed to learning how to play it.

So! I got this crazy idea I’d be able to learn the accordion well enough to provide a song sketch today. I took it into work on Monday to practice throughout the week — mainly because this thing is loud AF and I didn’t want to piss off my neighbors. By Tuesday I had accepted defeat. Turns out the results of one week of accordion practice eerily sounds just like you’ve only been playing accordion for a week.

I re-focused and pivoted because I still had a theme and story to share. It is a short one about my family’s Texas origins, immigration, and music. For now let’s bypass a large period of European settlers land grabbing from The People. That’s another story, anyways.

By all accounts I have been told and researched, my ancestors of Eastern Germany and Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic) immigrated to Lavaca County, Texas post-American Civil War between 1875–1885. Germans first began immigrating to Texas and Northern Mexico earnestly nearing the end of the Texas Revolution. That’s 1836 if you weren’t indoctrinated through Texas public education. Czechs were slower to arrive with the bulk coming postbellum. Most were peasant class farmers and, according to the Texas State Historical Association, some Germans were ‘axe murderers.’ No thanks!

Some family notes: Both of my grandfathers are of German descent. Both grandmothers are of Bohemian descent. The Texas-German/Czech language died in my family with their generation (2nd born in Texas). My parents generation was the first to complete K-12 and go to college.

A few immigrated for political or religious freedom. Some were teetotalers and some, like my ancestors, were fun-loving Lutherans and Catholics who enjoyed dancing and drinking. Most immigrated with the hope of better opportunities for themselves and their families. America, right!?

As mentioned in this NPR Morning Edition interview, two cultural staples were brought over from the Old World: Beer and Polka. The referenced waltz in the interview is from a recording of the Texas-Czech: Bohemian-Moravian Bands 1929–1959. A majority of the bands, including Adolph Hofner, were from Lavaca County. Shiner, TX (with the so-so beer) is also in Lavaca. I bring these up as points of personal pride because, honestly, growing up with family visits to Hallettsville, TX I tend to side with Mrsotatoheadsex’s Urban Dictionary definition:

To be fair this is most likely referencing Lavaca, Arkansas which I’m certain is worse. I mean, come on, it’s Arkansas!

What really got me falling into rabbit holes this week was how Old World polka, waltz, and the accordion infused into the Texas-Mexico border music culture. Not simply adopted, but elevated and evolved into music with real heart and soul. Not these military style polkas and waltzes. I wanted to connect it with my ancestry — I wanted to be a part of that story!

The reality is my ancestors didn’t do their part. That’s putting it softly — It was racism and fear. I’ve listened to interviews all week of how Hispanic musicians weren’t allowed into dance halls and certainly not welcomed to sit in with German/Czech musicians. Listening and learning from afar, Norteño music was born. And thank God, because this Old World stuff is really just stale bread pigeon feed sprinkled with nostalgia.

I kept going down the Mexican music rabbit hole and found Ranchera and Corrido. Two genres that slightly pre-date Norteño’s early days and gained popularity during the Mexican Revolution. There’s some amazing music here. I created a playlist of all three, if you’re interested.

Texas is a state of immigrants. America and Mexico are both nations of immigrants. But, just like my ancestors, we still continue to build walls out of fear: culturally, legally, physically, and emotionally. The current American administration has leaned heavy into these themes. A host of executive actions and legal challenges have been introduced to curb immigration. Except for corporate-interest, duh:

Two years after it was in the headlines we are still separating children from Central American parents/guardians seeking asylum at the border. The pandemic has only added more smoke and legal sidestepping to track our government’s actions. Instead of taking the lead in addressing this complex humanitarian crisis the administration took a lazy nationalist approach. In November 2019 we capped refugee admittance to historic lows since the act was established in 1980. America, right!? Wrong.

This weekend I made donations to these five organizations that support immigrants and refugees:

Hard working immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers deserve better. We are better than this.

This year, when that cold front finally hits Austin…sometime in October… I will pour a copita of Mezcal and dance to the music of Los Algres de Terán, Lydia Mendoza, and Lila Downs. I’m celebrating a Norteño Oktoberfest.

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Aaron Charles Treptow

Aaron Charles Treptow

Armchair storyteller and universal enthusiast