Gilberto Vázquez Valle. Mexican Folk Musicologist Finds Poetic Justice in Minneapolis.

 

Gilberto at KFAI - 1

All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards working people of my country, who paid for my education. But I have learned … the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States. One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

Coming to Minneapolis

I was born in Yurécuaro, in the State of Michoacán, Mexico. When I was 14, my family moved to Guadalajara. I went to college there, at the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas of the Universidad de Guadalajara, which had a relationship with the University of Minnesota. Students and scholars would come up to Minneapolis to do research and to study. I came in the 80s for some research projects and then to go to graduate school. So I was unusual – I wasn’t part of a migrant stream like so many of my relatives. I had nothing of the experience that my uncles or father had.

My father spent chunks of time here in the U.S., starting when I was about four, until I was thirteen. At that time it was easy to come if you were sponsored by relatives, as he was. In Mexico he was a tailor all of his life. In the U.S. he did agricultural work in California until he found more lucrative work in the steel industry in Chicago.

Today — even though I like that city and have relatives there — “Chicago” is a sad word for me. In my childhood it meant my father was going to leave us again.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

I was very critical of the United States government. I felt hypocritical coming and staying in the U.S. to work at the University of Minnesota —a little like José Martí: inside the entrails of the beast. All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards the working people of my country who paid for my education. But I also learned — both through my own family history and through simple observation — that the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States.

I made myself available to talk to groups about the role of the U.S. in Central America. We would have events at the University — educational forums on what was happening. I wanted to give U.S. students some historical background and a radically different perspective, to get them to question what they heard in the media.

One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

La Raza Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota

In the early 90s I met the late Guillermo Rojas, faculty in Chicano Studies, and he asked me if I wanted to be a faculty/technical adviser for La Raza Student Cultural Center. It was going to be something temporary, just to clean up the place (there were accusations of financial mismanagement) and to reorganize it. The activist mission of La Raza’s creators in the 1970s, had disappeared and it was run by a cohort of students from wealthy families —-mostly from Central America —people with whom I would never have had contact in other circumstances. They couldn’t care less about activism and social responsibility. For them, La Raza was a social club.

Also fighting to regain control of La Raza , were a number of mostly Chicano students from throughout the United States —mainly women — determined, courageous, hard­-working, and politically aware. Most of them were of Mexican descendant, frequently first generation Americans and the first ones in their families to get to college. They regained control of La Raza.. and it became a place for community, activism, consciousness and a vibrant cultural center.

When the Zapatista uprising happened in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1st 1994 (the same day that NAFTA was implemented), we began having educational and political events every week focusing on the uprising and indigenous issues in Mexico and Latin America, the poverty, the discrimination, the cultural genocide still happening. Zapatista Sub­-Comandante Marcos sent communiques through the internet, and we were getting them a day after they were published in Mexico City — which was amazing at the time. La Raza became a sort of unofficial Zapatista resource center in town.

One of the sad parts of that uprising is that many of the issues that the Zapatistas were talking about, Ricardo Flores Magón was talking about in 1908 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. But on the positive side, there was a new respect and interest in the struggles of the Latin American indigenous peoples and a new understanding of the social and political movements in Mexico and the whole of Latin America. For the first time the word neo-­liberalism was used to understand what was happening on a global level. That was meaningful and refreshing. The Zapatistas had a global view, connecting their uprising to the struggles of workers in Bangladesh, Chicago and elsewhere.

The beauty, poetry and eloquence of the language of the Zapatista communiques also inspired and moved everyone, including myself. I remember reading the communique “¿De qué nos van a perdonar?”, in a coffee shop in Dinkytown and openly crying. Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many formerly apolitical young people in La Raza beginning to show an interest in the social and political movements in Latin America — and making connections with patterns of oppression and resistance in the U.S. That was the richest moment of my experience in La Raza —seeing that awakening, not just in others, but in myself.

My activism was focused on the U of M. I was trying to stay behind the scenes, keeping a low profile. At that time, my immigration status was as an international student. I knew my legal status was vulnerable. So I was trying to frame all the events I was involved in as academic. I was invited to speak at some rallies in front of the Federal Building in Minneapolis, and I had to decline.

When the energy around the Zapatista movement diminished, I still continued being involved in La Raza, providing continuity in the organization as students came and went. There were many more first generation Mexican American students, in the late 1990s and their stories of immigrant struggle and resistance inspired me. Even though they spoke English among themselves, they enjoyed speaking Spanish to me. I have a fascination with Spanish language proverbs and know thousands of them. Those young students would come to the office and ask me “so, what’s the proverb of the day?” They enjoyed the wisdom, earthiness, sparkling quality and sense of humor present in the proverbs.

In spite of the age difference, with those young students I had a feeling of prodigal sons reunited.

Youthful obsessions: comic book super heroes and Latin American folk music.

When I was little in Yurécuaro, my hometown, I was so much into comic books that my father went around to all the barber shops and asked them not to let me in because they had comic books there and he thought I was reading way too many of them.

There used to be a system where you could buy comics for a peso or sit on a bench and read them for ten cents. I was so obsessed with the characters and the stories being told, that I got to the point of stealing money from my mother in order to rent them. One day she found me at the rental bench and asked me to come with her immediately. When she saw me pay for 13 comics, she immediately knew who had stolen her money. Back at home, I got such a monumental spanking that, many years after, it still mortified her to the point of tears.

The comic books I read avidly were made in Mexico— “Chanoc”, “La Familia Burrón”, “Kaliman”, “El Payo”, “El Diamante Negro”, “Memín Pinguín”, “Fantomas”, “Tawa”, etc. —even, to my father’s mortification, “Lágrimas, Risas y Amor”. There were also many American comic books, translated, of course, which never got my interest. It wasn’t only that I was indifferent to them: I openly disliked them. Perhaps it was the language: They were probably translated in Spain and the dialogs always felt contrived, silly. So, I was totally oblivious to “Superman”, “Batman”, “Los Cuatro Fantásticos”, etc. There was, however, one of those American characters and comic books for which I’ve always had a soft spot: “El Hombre Araña” (Spiderman).

When I was fourteen I gained a new obsession. We had just moved to Guadalajara, which, at that time, was a town of about 2 million people. Almost immediately I discovered the radio stations, one run by the Department of Fine Arts, the other by the Universidad de Guadalajara, that played some folk music. I’m immensely grateful to both of those stations. They enriched my life beyond measure. The music I heard there for the first time, sounded strange yet familiar. In a primal, visceral way, I knew that it was my own. It was like hearing an ancient tune apparently long forgotten but in actuality always present within me.

By the time I was 18 there were already a few places where Latin American folk music was played live. Some were small venues related to the local Department of Fine Arts the others were “Peñas” (coffee houses) that appeared in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other large cities throughout Mexico. Most of the performing groups were local and non-professional. Through college, I met two brothers and their uncle who, together with two other friends, formed one of those groups: “Los Cachicamos”. They took me with them everywhere they played: Schools, Peñas, labor union halls, music festivals, small villages’ festivities, public plazas. They were really good and played not only folk music from the Andes but also from Argentina and Mexico, which, amazingly, few of the Mexican folk groups at the time played. They even traveled to South America to get music and instruments, and they lent me recordings that were impossible to get in Guadalajara.

From their trip, they brought back several “Charangos,” a string instrument with five double strings (similar to a mandolin) that is fundamental in the Andean music tradition. The back of its box is made from the shell of a small furry armadillo that lives in that region.

My friends got their Charangos directly from a legendary Bolivian charango maker, Sabino Orozco. This man introduced my friends to his son who was chosen to continue the Charango making tradition. His name I can not forget: Clark Kent Orozco.

Bringing Latin American Folk Music to Minneapolis through KFAI radio.

In Minneapolis my Latin American friends were often surprised that I knew old folk songs from their countries. They would give me names of genres, groups and performers they thought would interest me. They would also give me tapes. My collection grew.

KFAI, the local community radio station, was one of the first stations I heard in the U.S.  I also listened to obsessively to the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The whole concept of a public community radio station struck me as both beautiful and powerful.

One Saturday morning, a couple of weeks or so after I had arrived to the U.S, while listening to KFAI, I  heard “Las Mañanitas,” the traditional Mexican celebratory song used in Birthdays and Saint Days. I was moved to the point of tears. I had discovered Willy Dominguez’ show, “Sábados Alegres” —one of the longest running shows at KFAI, that plays Tex-­Mex music. Soon afterwards I discovered the Latin American music program run by Rafael Varela, from Uruguay, as well as shows centered on American folk music (which was one of my “discoveries” upon coming to this country).

After a few years volunteering and subbing at the Station, I applied for and got my own radio program, “Encuentro” —now airing Thursday nights 8­-10 pm. The show aired first on July 29, 2007; so I have been doing my program for nine years! I explore the cultural history and traditions of our continent, and to tell that story, folk music is fundamental.

I put in six hours every week just preparing the show. Sometimes more. My program is never improvised; it always has a defined order and structure, a theme or themes to explore for the day. I believe that to improvise implies that I don’t take it seriously and that would be a disservice to my community, to the station, to the listeners, to myself. I usually explore a composer, a genre of music, a country in particular, or certain themes or historical events that can be talked about or explained through music, like “The Music of Liberation Theology” and “The Music from the Life and Times of Frida Kahlo”.

I think I would never be able to find space on a commercial Latino radio station for my program. Those stations are all about business, commercial interests and commercial music. My program, proudly, doesn’t fit that model at all. At first I was disappointed that the people calling in to my program were mostly White, or not from the Latino communities. I would have been happier hearing from Latin American communities from South Minneapolis, and youth like those I worked with in La Raza. It was with them that I witnessed first-­hand, the power and inextinguishable relevance of language, history, culture and traditions.

Changes in Latino Minneapolis in the 1990s

Before the mid 1990s, if I wanted to buy a hint of home I had to go to West St. Paul and the options were very limited. It was rare to hear somebody speaking Spanish in the bus or in the street .

Lake Street had historically, been a sort of entry zone for immigrants in town. In the 1990s it was the front line, the border where demographic changes were most visible and tangible. Small Latino restaurants, stores and bakery shops started opening up there, seemingly out of nowhere. Latino communities revitalized that area, not only Lake Street but that whole part of South Minneapolis.

Visiting some of those Mexican and Latino stores on Lake Street was a lesson for me in the perseverance of memory and traditions. I found the same brand of laundry detergent (“Roma”) and bar soap (“Zote”) that Mexican working class families have used for generations; I found healing herbs and teas that, in Mexico are available only in a special store or market. I saw “leche de burra” soap — a product I heard about from countryside people from my parents’ generation, but never actually saw until the late 1990s, along Lake Street in Minneapolis!

And the food!

Food is a living manifestation of memory and tradition. It is also a noble, fundamental thread that, along with language and music, provides some the most immediate and visceral links between immigrants and their country of birth, their family history, their ancestral memories. Food is also a savior. Selling cooked food is frequently how a struggling family can get back on its feet; a means available to immigrant families to aspire to a measure of economic independence and one of the precious few venues available to them for upward mobility.

The traditional Mexican “refresco” (bottled soft drink) “Jarritos” —especially the tamarind flavor is easier to find in Minneapolis (you can even find it in Cub foods!) than in Mexico, where, in conventional stores, the only “refrescos” you can get are Coke, Pepsi and such. I see a measure of poetic justice in this.

Living in Seward/Surviving Assaults/ Growing  impoverishment in Minneapolis 

I don’t know how to drive. I walk, I bike and I use the bus. These observations, below, are the perspective of one who has been riding the bus and walking in the city for more than 20 years now.

When I first moved out of the dorm, I lived in Marcy Holmes near the University Campus — a fairly transient neighborhood. Then I moved to Seward, also near to Campus, where I have been ever since. I really like living in Seward, even though I have had some bad experiences. I was assaulted twice. Because of those incidents I have become much more watchful and alert of my surroundings.

I do not think these assaults necessarily reflect Seward. It is just part of living in an urban place, within the inner city, especially when you walk alone at night. Both times, those who assaulted me were Native American youth. That is only incidental— a reflection of other underlying factors, among them the growing impoverishment in Minneapolis and the ever-growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots throughout the U.S.

When I first came to Minneapolis I wrote home saying that everyone here seemed to be well­-off. But I have seen a noticeable and continuing growth in poverty since then — more homeless people, for instance.

I see it on the bus and in the streets: Everything from more clothes and shoes that are not appropriate for the weather or that don’t fit, to obvious signs of poor health, especially in people’s teeth. This might be considered only anecdotal evidence but the fact is that data and statistics confirm it.

I have noticed an increase in the body language of sadness. In the early 1990s I used to travel by bus to go to Madison, Wisconsin. For me it was fun and convenient, but I saw that those who traveled by bus seemed to always be sad and down on their luck. Now I see the same sadness every day in the city buses and in the streets.

I also see more conflict, more tension. Twenty years ago or so, it was the sort of conflict that normally happens within a crowded urban space. Now I see more signs of confrontation —in racial, social and economic terms.

Of course, there has always been some grumbling about immigrants. But the resentment now seems to be greater, more openly belligerent and confrontational. Two examples that have happened recently:
— In downtown Minneapolis there were two East African youth waiting for the bus. An African-American guy stopped by, just to cuss at them, to say he hated Somalis. When he left the girl said to me, “They are always hating us.” I told her “He is probably struggling —maybe he doesn’t have a job.” She said “You know, I didn’t see it that way…. but… this happens to us all the time.”
— A Native American man, complained loudly to the whole bus about how the immigrants have come and taken all the jobs, the resources.

I think that when I was assaulted those two times, I was a victim of this growing poverty, exacerbated by a massive housing crisis and a recession, and that ever-growing social and economic disparity. Before at least there was a feeling of hope in a not too distant future. Now even that is gone. And people are taking it out on each other.

Disparity and Hope. 

But there’s something else: mounting disparity,  long-­lasting hopelessness, and the closing of venues to upward mobility are by themselves a form of inflicted violence and, as such, it have been detonators for community activism.

In the 1990s there was little evident signs of activism among new Latino immigrants. People went to work, and, on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps to Mercado Central to eat some tacos, menudo or tamales with champurrado. People just stayed in their corner, making as little waves as possible. That has changed significantly in response to the desperate immigration situation, the constant political backlash, lack of upward mobility, and limited, low-paying and frequently exploitive job market for people in our communities. Recent restrictions on driver’s licenses (since 2001), have brought into the streets many immigrants who, because of fear, would never have been active in the political process. People now have the boldness to be directly involved in different stages of political activism, even if it implies taking significant risks, including being deported.

In that sense, I’m hopeful. I see different community organizing efforts going on locally at different levels: grass-roots, faith-based, workers’ centers, etc., and the growing consciousness that comes with these efforts. I particularly admire the work done by CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) a local workers’ center that is doing amazing organizing with retail cleaning workers.

Something else: These movements also plant a seed for future generations. A tradition of consciousness and community organizing doesn’t happen overnight, it is nurtured and that is what all of these community organizing movements are doing.

One thing immigrants from Mexico  know quite well is that they are very valuable to both the U.S. economy and the Mexican economy. The U.S. economy desperately needs the cheap, vulnerable labor and their remittances are absolutely essential for Mexico. There is power in that.

We saw an assertion of that power on May 1st 2006 when millions of Latino workers and their families throughout the United States rose up and marched through the streets —40,000 here in the Twin Cities — who marched to the State Capitol wearing t-shirts that proclaimed:  “Undocumented and Unafraid”.

May First, the International Workers Day is, of course, rooted in the rich, proud, obscured and ignored, U.S. labor history. It was celebrated in nearly every country in the world except the United States where it originated — until 2006, when the most marginalized exploited immigrants of this nation, rescued it, dignified it, and brought it back to its place of origin. Poetic Justice.

A final thing: I had my own stereotypes when I first came to the U.S. — about the “average” White U.S. person. I did not know there were people here concerned and aware about the policies (both foreign and domestic) of the U.S. government, that there were so many people committed to change things, doing so out of solidarity.

And that’s the key word: Solidarity —not empty, self-gratifying charity, not condescending attitudes, but understanding and solidarity. I meet people all the time, many times young, who are active and committed, to achieve and build a more just economic and political system; people who talk the talk and walk the walk, as the saying goes; not out of empty romanticized notions, but out of solidarity. I think that Minneapolis is special in this way. It has a rich local history of solidarity movements and I constantly see that tradition not only being kept alive but also moved forward.

Minneapolis Project.