Author: Emma Lodes
Last Tuesday, Herrick Chapel rang with the strong voices and powerful instrumentation of Entre Mujeres, a group of Chicana women coming together to express the hardships of immigration and the joys of life and womanhood through song. Their mission–“making music across borders”–is a modern take on Son-Joracho stye music and spoke to the themes of this year’s CSP California Immigration Semester.
Learning extends beyond the classroom in the California Immigration Semester (CIS). This semester, 32 students get to delve into the subject of California’s immigrant communities through literature, film and, now with Entre Mujeres, the artistic lens of Mexican and Chicana musicians. Richard Mora, one of the three professors who team-teach CIS, brought Entre Mujeres to Occidental through a personal connection to Martha Gonzales. Gonzales, a musician of Mexican descent, brought Entre Mujeres together and is now a prominent member of the progressive art scene around Los Angeles.
Entre Mujeres blossomed out of Gonzales’ efforts to record talented Jarocho female musicians during her Fullbright research in Veracruz, Mexico. Nestled in the inner crescent of the Gulf of Mexico, Veracruz is the heart of Son Jarocho music. Son Jarocho is a traditional folk-style music that fuses traditional Mexican, African, Spanish and Arabic sounds.
Gonzales created the group to unify women and create what they call “music across borders,” taking traditional Jarocho to a new level. “They play the Jarocho to maintain the culture but rearticulate an old craft,” Mora said. “They take the old beats and music and have progressive lyrics. They may have a political message and speak about women’s rights or workers rights.”
Entre Mujeres’ rousing harmonies and driving beats filled Herrick with a force and vibrancy that seemed to enhance the stained glass windows. The performance relied only on acoustic, non-electric sounds, but an energy filled the lofty chapel that amplified their strong voices and eight-string jarana guitars.
They played 9 songs, most using guitar, an upright bass, a violin and percussion that ranged from drums to a donkey’s jaw bone. But it wasn’t just music. The women danced, swayed and laughed. They hopped up on a wooden platform and danced on it like a living drum—somewhere between tap dancing and stomping—creating another layer of percussion.
Gonzales opened the performance by introducing Entre Mujeres as a “transnational” or “translocal” group. “I like saying ‘translocal’ because it’s not so much abut identifying with a nation as it is identifying with a social community,” said Gonzales.
All the lyrics were in Spanish. “Sobreviviendo,” or “Surviving,” was the title and theme of Entre Mujeres’ third song, which spoke of the constant struggle of being an immigrant in California. The women sung together with a strong harmony. The chorus burned in gospel-like spirit.
Not every song discussed immigration. One or more of the women wrote each of the songs. One number spoke of railroad workers in both the United States and Mexico, and the rhythms evoked the American blues. In another song, the lyrics described the writer’s dream of flying as a bird through the mountains of her home town and singing. Bright and joyous, the song delivered a spirit of freedom and release.
Several songs touched on women’s rights. Son Jarocho music is a tradition once dominated by men as women were limited to dancing while the men took on the role of musicians. By encouraging women to take on greater roles as musicians, Entre Mujeres is actively undermining that stereotype. “It’s been hard, but not impossible. We just have to teach [men] how to treat us properly,” Annahi Hernandez, one of the musicians, said. “Women used to just dance and sometimes sing; now we have instruments. Now men want to dance to our songs.”
Mora also mentioned the feminist themes in Entre Mujeres’ songs. “There’s something very powerful about the fact that it’s women coming together, and many of the women from Mexico are working class. They’re not making money from music. Music becomes a means to express themselves,” Mora said.
Gonzales calls herself an “artivista”—an activist through artistic expression. “I feel compelled to use music for more than just building my resume,” Gonzales said. She will come back to campus in several weeks to discuss the how collective songwriting is an effective tool for community building. Her upcoming scholarly lecture is part of Mora’s plan to incorporate the themes of the performance into CIS. The lecture will be open to the community.
Mora said that the performance itself was a means to integrate the arts into CIS. “There are three faculty members in California Immigration Semester, and none of them teach in the arts,” Mora said. “It gives students a chance to get exposed to the arts. How do issues of immigrant or migrant communities get expressed and defined via music and the arts? What they’re saying will be specific to Mexican immigrant communities, but will also have universal themes—you don’t have to be a member of that community to be able to connect to what they’re saying. That’s why these songs have remained over hundreds of years—they speak to the human experience.”
Mora said he hoped that students could draw inspiration from the performance. “We want to expose students to folks that will let them think broadly about California immigration and the contributions of the immigrant community. Here’s a way students can contribute—through art. You don’t have to be of that culture to contribute, you just need an appreciation of the art form.”
Entre Mujeres is due to release their first album. The Mexican musicians will be taking the CD back with them to Mexico, bringing the music full circle. For more information and concert dates, check out Entre Mujeres on Kickstarter and be sure to come to Gonzales’ lecture, date to be confirmed.
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