Distraction Free Reading

Audio Ethnographies of Water from Latin America: Confluences of the Domestic

Much of the water that enters homes in metro Guadalajara, Jalisco is toxic. Water from the tap is used to wash dishes and water plants, but for decades it’s been dangerous to drink. In this sonic ethnography, we hear contaminated water hitting plates used for a meal and evaporating from vegetables as a pan heats on a stove. A woman explains which brands of bottled water are safer, more trustworthy; some, she says, are appropriate for drinking, while others should only be used to wash vegetables. We hear bodies of water referred to as both rivers and sewers.

While the water cycle is often discussed as originating outside the home in nearby bodies of water, I begin this sonic ethnography in the kitchen, in an effort to turn towards a different orientation of its origin. It’s not until the end that we hear the sounds of the Santiago-Lerma River and El Salto de Juanacatlán, a waterfall historically called “the Niagara of Mexico.” In this decision, I’m attempting to unsettle the directionality of water as something that originates from the outside. Here, we listen to spaces where water is inside: passing through, permeating, or composing. It meets only briefly the surfaces of pots and pans, but comprises 95% of each tomato simmering on the pan. It permeates the everyday actions of organizers, who we hear telling the story of water and industry, and the lyrics of a rapper-activist weaving together declamations of political neglect, environmental deterioration, and chronic illness.

The water we hear is both nourishing and damaging, often at once. This sonic ethnography endeavors to explore how, by attuning to the sound of water, we might be able to locate the uneasy ways that its toxicity permeates the everyday.

Toxic water reaches towns like El Salto, in metro Guadalajara, by way of the Lerma-Santiago river. This river system stretches 600 miles, originating in the industrial city of Toluca just 39 miles southwest of Mexico City and eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Tens of thousands of corporate manufacturing facilities, operated by companies in the metalworking, chemical, pharmaceutical, electronic, automotive, and food and beverage industries, lie on the banks of this river—700 of which are located in the municipal bounds of El Salto itself (McCulligh and Fregoso 2019). These companies dump their toxic effluent with few interruptions to their business or repercussions to their profits, even while they violate international and Mexican regulations by doing so.

In El Salto, the river has been the site of much concern in recent years. It smells; residents say the odor wakes them up in the early hours of the morning, burning their noses. Fish turn up on the banks with blackened insides. Communities are experiencing high rates of respiratory illness, cancer, and kidney disease; most residents know someone under thirty who has died from kidney failure. It’s widely publicized and discussed that in 2008, an eight-year-old boy, Miguel Angel Lopez Rocha, died from heavy metal poisoning after falling into the river. This contamination is also the motivating force for activist groups like Un Salto de Vida, who for over 20 years have been mobilizing the mostly working-class community of El Salto—many of whom work in these factories—in the fight against environmental toxicity and state abandonment.

Like my interlocutors, a listener will experience the sounds of water differently with the knowledge that the water they’re hearing is toxic. It generates different affective registers—notably fear, concern, and uncertainty. Listeners might find themselves asking similar questions as my interlocutors, such as: how toxic, exactly, is this water? Or perhaps: are those tomatoes safe to eat?

Sound calls our attention to the moments when water is transformed. To hear water’s transformation is to attempt to understand how it lives in the everyday. It is also to understand how water is tremendously ordinary, while knowledge or perception may render it less so. In fact, we may find that water is at once toxic and nourishing, violent and sustaining, devastating and mobilizing. In this project, I hope to provide a brief entry point into how—through sound—toxicity, water, and uncertainty may mediate, interrupt, and connect everyday experience.

Listen to the audio ethnography:

Audio Description

This post was curated by Multimodal Contributing Editor Pablo Aguilera Del Castillo.


McCulligh and Fregoso. 2019. “Defiance from Down River: Deflection and Dispute in the Urban-Industrial Metabolism of Pollution in Guadalajara.” Sustainability 11, no. 22: 6294. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11226294.

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