One heavy August evening on Randalls Island, I found myself in a field of Honda Odyssey and CR-Vs, deceived by towering rows of tweeters and subwoofers. Loudspeakers were fixed on the roofs or lined the trunks of vehicles like light artillery, painted in canary yellow, blood red and indigo blue.
This is the Dominican car audio culture notorious in New York City. It’s often parodied on TikTok, capturing the tragicomedy of life in this city. âI’m trying to fall asleep in New York City,â a caption will usually read, as bass hammers an unsuspecting sleeper out of bed.
If you live in parts of New York, that’s all too familiar. It’s the sound of bachata, dembow and merengue tÃpico seeping through every crevasse in town on weekends until the cops try to cut the music and a game of the cat and mouse starts after hours. It is a secret world of fun and protest, made glaringly public.
My guides that evening were Carlos Cruz, the leader of the Viruz team, and his wife, Karina. They wore matching swimsuits with neon green text and biohazard signs, their nicknames on the back: “Virus” and “La Bambina”.
Carlos is a musicologist; enthusiasts like him own cars with custom sound systems, and at meetings and shows they are like live DJs and engineers, selecting songs and mixing levels for maximum effect. Some prefer clear sound: high quality sound that allows them to hear the texture of the drum kicks and the metallic scratches of the gÃ¼ira en merengue tÃpico. Others simply go for volume, the kind that stifles their opponents and makes your eyeballs vibrate out of their sockets.
âIf you don’t feel like it’s strangling you, then it’s not good,â Carlos said with a chuckle.
On their way to Randalls Island from the Bronx, Carlos, 57, and Karina, 44, decoded musicological terminology for me. There are the instaladores, those who install auxiliary equipment and batteries in cars, which are called constructions or projects. Installers often have their own body shops, which also house sound crews, groups that meet in informal meetings in parking lots or take part in competitions judged across the country, chasing trophies and bragging about. Karina explained that people organize USB sticks full of MP3s; others design and build wooden enclosures. The process can take up to five months.
Randalls Island teams have spent tens of thousands of dollars to personalize their projects. And while New York City remains a stronghold for culture, the community has grown outside of the Five Boroughs and across the East Coast.
Josue Manzueta of Team La Movie is more recent on the scene. Coming out of his daytime job at a T-Mobile store on Long Island, he drove to a parking lot near Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, arriving in an unpretentious white 2020 Honda Accord Sport. He set up his radio and a small chuchero, a cabinet with speakers, tweeters, and sometimes a horn, and quickly assembled it on top of the car, rearranging the vehicle and its contents like a transformer. Its sedan has a personalized license plate that reads, in all capitals, “Q DULCE” or “HOW SWEET”.
Manzueta, 20, was introduced to the culture of the car audio system by his father. âBack in the Dominican Republic, he had a huge minibus filled with 10 speakers and 18 basses,â he explained. His parents eventually immigrated to the United States, where Manzueta was born. âHe took me to an event exactly where we are right now, like six years ago. And I fell in love, âManzueta said.
The La Movie team continues to grow, so its members mostly meet for casual weekend outings. âI don’t compete a lot,â Manzueta said. “But if someone comes and tries to put their music on mine, I turn my [expletive] upstairs! “he sneered.” ‘Yo, your music is crazy!’ He pantomimes, grinning from ear to ear, “I love to talk about garbage.”
Musicians with larger builds usually meet during the day at auto shows, where they have licenses and are safe from the police. But those with smaller projects get together after hours, informally, when team members are on leave.
Musicologists and the police almost always disagree. “Either the cops are coming right away or they’re already here waiting for us,” said Eddie PeÃ±a, a 21-year-old part-time installer who runs Team La Movie’s Instagram, pointing to a police van in the distance. , his sirens. is already blinking.
Sometimes the cops jump up when the music starts and order the crews to turn it off. If things get out of hand, confiscation is common, and it’s a musicologist’s worst nightmare, especially if you’ve invested thousands of dollars to personalize your car. If the police cannot easily remove the speakers, they will take the entire vehicle and issue a subpoena that can lead to fines. PeÃ±a said musicologists may have to wait months to get their vehicle back from the impound – and if they don’t have the title of the car, it will end up at a police auction.
“I feel like most of us are really misinterpreted [as] be criminals, âManzueta said. âAnd we are not. Most of us have 9 to 5 jobs. We have honest lives.
It is a culture born out of a love for sound, for community – a cradle of belonging in a country that is hard to call your own. It’s an echo of the din that saturates life in the Dominican Republic, the kind that occupies street corners, houses and colmados. An inherited sound dissent, transmitted through migration experiences.
âI love listening to loud music. I like to watch people, âsaid Manzueta. “And there is certainly a source of pride there.” One of his favorite genres to play is tipico, a traditional Dominican style of merengue. âI like to represent my country.
On a cloudy afternoon in late August, in his body shop in Island Park on Long Island, Adrian Abreu Bonifacio wiped the sleep from his eyes. The garage was a mess. Buckets of plastic nails strewn the floor. The back porch was overflowing with skeletons of speakers and spare wooden planks. Bonifacio had spent the last two days working around the clock with a customer who had traveled all the way from Texas to build his system from scratch in Abreu Bonifacio’s store.
Abreu Bonifacio’s crown jewel is La Perra Blanca (âThe White Dogâ), a minivan he designed and built for a client earlier this year. It has love apple leather interiors and an arsenal of matching red and white subwoofers and tweeters sits on its roof, adjustable by remote control. Inside there are four 21-inch subwoofers. “We are the first to launch this kind of project,” he said, beaming with joy.
Abreu Bonifacio, 36, may be wanted today, but he was once just a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic playing with car radios. âMy father repaired cars,â he explained. âPeople’s cars broke down and they brought them to our house. I would take the radios; I would remove the speakers. At 9, he knew how to install a radio. And he was 13 when he finished his first personalization: a pasola, the Dominican word for a scooter.
Today, Abreu Bonifacio is a full-time installer. âWhen I started, I loved doing it, but I didn’t know where to find the resources,â he said. His wife, Carolina, who stood in his body shop office, laughed as she remembered that when he didn’t have the proper materials, he would ruin their silverware, using knives and forks as makeshift tools.
He said this scene has grown so much that it has become like a sport, as competitive as baseball or football. And while car audio culture is popular in various Afro-Caribbean and Latin American diasporic communities, in the tri-state region, it is the Dominicans who outperform the rest. âIt’s very rare to see someone with a major project that is not Dominican,â he says. âEveryone has their own style. But bass and vocals that sound so loud – only we use it. ”
“Dominicans, in this country we are causing a mess,” he smiled.
A desorden is an uproar, a disturbance, an agitation. The last weekend of August another desorden was planned. But it was not a daily desorden. It was a specific type of thrilling, vibrant euphoria: a car show at Wall Stadium Speedway in Wall Township, NJ
Pickup trucks painted in neon magentas and pastel pinks assembled in huge circles, the loudspeakers on their entwined roofs and swarms of spectators gathered inside the rings. Car windshields, T-shirts and caps were adorned with team and project names written in capital letters: âLA ABUSADORAâ and âTEAM BELLOâ and âLA SUPER RABIOSAâ.
And of course there was the music. The bass pulsed through the air, expanding and contracting like heart palpitations. In each crowd, musicologists blew songs about their rivals across the circle, hoping to drown them.
In the roar of desorden, the adversaries faced each other on the roofs of the cars, overlooking the people. Their fingers curved into a mouth shape to mock their opponents’ trashy speech. They put them across the neck, simulating a slit throat. Another wrote a message on his cell phone in all caps and scrolled it: “NO SOUND FROM NA ‘.” Basically, âYOU ARE NOTHINGâ.
Like Manzueta’s, this trashy speech was harmless. Instead, a sense of intimacy hung in the air – the kind of intimacy that underpins Caribbean diasporic life. Here you could feel the comfort and the kinship that lives in noise, in the comfort of the word. It was a fluid idyll, which refused smallness and silence.