by Valeria Manzano

Twenty-five years ago, University of California Press published Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture by Eric Zolov. The book traced Mexican rock and roll from the 1950s, when it was heavily influenced by U.S. bands, to the emergence of a full-blown counterculture that pushed the bounds of social acceptability in the direction of utopia under an authoritarian government. Using rock and roll to illuminate the tumultuous long 1960s and exploring the social, political, and cultural dynamics at play, Zolov, to great acclaim, opened up a field that had not been treated as serious point of inquiry by historians of Latin America.  In celebration of Refried Elvis, we will be running two blog posts from scholars that reflect on the book’s publication, its novel approach, and its enduring impact on the field and the study of Mexican rock music.

Our understanding of the sociocultural and political history of the recent past in Latin America owes a great deal to Refried Elvis: The Rise of the Mexican Counterculture. Published in 1999, Refried Elvis placed the intersection between culture and politics at the center stage of its narrative in a remarkably original way. Focusing on the emergence and transformations of a (youth) counterculture in 1960s Mexico, Zolov not only offered a formidable history of rockers and “jipitecas”—and the ways in which they linked to and appropriated a transnational repertoire—but also questioned what this counterculture tells us about the crisis and reconfiguration of a patriarchal culture at the family and state-political levels. Zolov read this counterculture in its relationship to patriarchal politics and understood it as a political space — that is, as part of power relations and power disputes in their most capillary senses. Based on this interpretation, Zolov questioned the common approach that separated (and even opposed) the terms culture and politics.

Twenty-five years ago, the historiography of Latin America’s recent past was beginning to develop as a subfield of inquiry and soon became very dynamic, both in United States academia and in a wide range of national historiographies. In terms of its time scales, this historiography singled out the 1960s and 1970s as the most important period (epoch) of Latin America’s recent past. This historiography was specifically interested in political dimensions and processes, either privileging the reconstruction of the experiences of leftwing militancy and activism or emphasizing the study of the repressive mechanisms of the states. Likewise, another important body of scholarly works revisited the history of the expressive arts and literature, generally focusing on their dynamics of politicization and radicalization. Even though both trends (political historiography and the historiography of the expressive arts) had a tendency to identify young people as key to the understanding of that period, there were practically no studies that centered non-university youth as subjects and objects of study.

Refried Elvis author Eric Zolov

Refried Elvis came as a breath of fresh air for that historiography on the 1960s and 1970s, which soon—and also thanks to Zolov’s editorial and historiographical interventions—would begin to be conceptualized as the “long sixties.” With its themes and research problems, analytical categories, and attention to multiple scales (both temporal and spatial), Refried Elvis delineated new paths for future research. A must for those who study the history of youth, popular music, cultural consumption, and entertainment, Refried Elvis is also, and rightly so, a key reference for studies on the global 60s and the left, including a redefinition of the ways in which we understand the “new left” in Latin America. Refried Elvis is much more than a bibliographical reference: the book has inspired historians across the Americas to take the risk of developing an ambitious and original research agenda, which both builds new knowledge (on previously neglected subjects or topics) and puts into discussion analytical and interpretative perspectives in the study of Latin America’s recent past.

Zolov showed that it was possible to develop a novel research agenda and, at the same time, engage and fascinate a readership. That readership is composed of researchers as well as many cohorts of undergraduate and graduate students. Reading Refried Elvis is a real pleasure, and myriad classrooms—again, across the Americas—have vibrated with its invitation to think about youth subjectivities, countercultures, and political-cultural mobilization in the past and in the present. The celebration of its twenty-fifth birthday is, then, an occasion to reaffirm that it is still a young book. Having Refried Elvis available, in English and, hopefully, again in Spanish, is the best way to celebrate this anniversary and to hope that, like all great books, it can continue its journey touching the lives of more and more people.

Valeria Manzano is the author of The Age of Youth in Argentina: Culture, Politics and Sexuality from Perón to Videla