Mexico’s Cult of Morrissey Comes to Brooklyn

Morrissey. Photo: Gonzales Photo/Tord Litleskare/Corbis

If you have even a passing familiarity with Morrissey and the music he’s created over the last four decades, you know what the Platonic ideal of one of his fans looks like: a teenage miserable clad in tweed, volume of Wilde in one hand, gladioli in the other, wan and white.

But this description, especially that last adjective, hasn’t really been accurate for a while now. More than a decade since any of his albums had commercial impact beyond Moz diehards, the morose crooner’s most fervent fans are, arguably, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. While the rest of the world may treat the 55-year-old like a Thatcher-era relic, Latinos born and bred on telenovelas and ranchera music are as loyal as ever.

On Sunday, May 10, this demographic’s unwavering devotion, frequently an object of vaguely condescending curiosity, finally gets the spotlight it deserves via Mexrrissey: Mexico Loves Morrissey at BAM. The concert is the first American stop for an all-star roster of Mexican musicians – including, among others, the founder of alt-dance project Mexico Institute of Sound Camilo Lara, Calexico associate Sergio Mendoza, and Los Angeles–based rocker Ceci Bastida – giving their own unique spin to a slew of selections plucked from Morrissey’s catalogue, stretching from his days in the Smiths to last year’s World Peace Is None of Your Business. 

Lara has long felt that there is a connection between his home country and the English singer, and the concert will give him and his compatriots the opportunity to express it to a wider audience. “It has this kind of invisible line that joins us with the tension and what Morrissey is like,” he said. “We just wanted to make this invisible line visible.”

It wasn’t until Morrissey toured Latin America for the first time in the spring of 2000, during the middle of a seven-year stretch in which he didn’t release any new music, that most American music fans first became aware of the singer’s Mexican status. “It was his ¡Oye Esteban! tour, which seemed to be looking at the Latino audience,” John Schaefer, host of WNYC’s “Soundcheck,” said about that run of dates. “At a time where he couldn’t get a record contract, here was this audience that was loyal and perhaps kind of unexpected, and he went and played to them. For many of us, that was the first inkling we had that there was something unusual and peculiar going on there.”

This newfound awareness brought with it no small amount of confusion. Music critics and cultural commentators set about trying to understand why a distinctly British figure like Morrissey was connecting so strongly with such a decidedly un-Anglo audience. The most prominent inquiry came in 2002, when Chuck Klosterman explored the singer’s passionate East L.A. fan base in a reported feature for Spin that used the city’s annual Smiths/Morrissey convention as a jumping-off point. “That’s why this Smiths convention is so startling,” Klosterman wrote at the time. “Those predictably pasty people don’t show up (at least not in significant numbers). For the kids who live between the 5 and 10 highways in East L.A., this is a contemporary event, even though Morrissey hasn’t released a solo album in five years. These new Morrissey fans — these Latino ‘neo-Mozzers’ — see him as a completely relevant artist.”

Klosterman came up with plenty of reasons for why that was: the immigrant connection (the singer was born in England to Irish parents), Moz’s nods to the Hot Rods–and-pompadours greaser culture that’s also popular among a certain Latino subset, the fact that he chose to make his home in L.A., and so on. But he ultimately concluded that these fans were attracted to the same thing that Morrissey’s first-wave fans were; he, like them, was a tireless romantic who was unlucky in love.

That all seems reasonable enough, but doesn’t the inquiry itself reveal a strange bias? Why should we assume that only certain types of people like certain types of music? “Morrissey isn’t the only English-language group that Mexicans love,” says OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano, who wrote his own article about the subject for the paper shortly after Klosterman. “Mexicans love Led Zeppelin. Mexicans love Pink Floyd. Mexicans love love love the Beatles. And Madonna, oh God, Madonna and Michael Jackson.” So why is Mexican Morrissey love seen as a bizarre outlier by gringos? Arellano had a simple answer: “They’re morons, and racist morons, at that.”

Schaefer, for his part, chalks the impulse to puzzle over the teleology of Mexican Morrissey fandom up to something more benign. “I think it might just be that we don’t think of Mexican fans that much,” he said. “There’s a big Mexican goth community, a big Mexican metal community. We don’t know about any of this stuff. It may just be that we don’t see them, because we’re not looking.”

While Arellano doesn’t find anything especially strange about Mexican’s ardor for Moz, he does have his theories about what, in particular, this cohort finds magnetic. First, there are the similarities between his songs and classic ranchera, a genre of traditional Mexican music hung up on death and heartbreak. Second, the decade in which Morrissey rose to prominence, the 1980s, is the same period in which Mexican-Americans, who’d long felt forced to pick cultural sides, finally became comfortable embracing both halves — Latino and anglophone — of their cultural identity. Arellano believes his third reason, though, is the most important: “The music’s good!” he said. “Morrissey’s awesome.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Morrissey has intentionally cultivated a relationship with his Mexican fans. While he’s seems to have spent much of his recent career pushing everyone else away, whether by imperiously trashing his enemies in the press (be it the English monarchy or Jimmy Kimmel) or making combative public pronouncements  (comparing eating meat to pedophilia and Nazism), he has actually embraced his Latino fans.

“He has, at various points in the last 10 or 15 years, done things that are pretty clearly done with at least one eye on that community,” Schaefer said, noting the singer’s nods towards the fan base, both overt and subtle. “It’s not just obvious things like the song ‘Mexico.’ You take a well-known Morrissey song like ‘Irish Blood, English Heart,’ which is his song about growing up as the child of Irish immigrants in Thatcher’s England. That experience is so close to the experience of most Mexican-Americans living in East L.A.”

Whether Morrissey’s turn is born out of genuine reciprocity or simply a shrewd business strategy, it’s impossible to deny that it’s been lucrative. He’s carved out a market for his live performances in Latino-heavy parts of the country where few other acts of similar size even bother playing. “He’s smart that way,” said Arellano. “No one else likes him, so he doesn’t give a damn about those people. They’re not the people who are selling out arenas all across the United States or even Indian reservations in Yuma, Arizona. He’s not traveling to Yuma to hang out with the hipsters who go to Coachella,” Arellano added, “he’s going out to where there are Mexicans.”