Day Laborer Band Sings for Immigrant Rights
On the cover of the latest Los Jornaleros del Norte album, Que No Pare la Lucha (May The Struggle Go On), a drawing portrays a mustachioed man wearing a cap stitched with the word “dignidad.” His right hand is clenched in a fist above his head. The stance depicts pride and defiance, the same attitude the group has taken in response to Arizona’s controversial immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, which shines through the band’s entire repertoire.
The first Los Jornaleros song was written on a discarded toy guitar in 1996. The story is now legend among day laborers: A mobile health clinic had arrived to a Kmart parking lot in The City of Industry, bringing with it mariachis and free food. Workers lined up for HIV tests, keeping eyes alert for potential employers. But the men who arrived soon after weren’t looking for men to stack bricks or mix cement. They were federal immigration police on a mission to round up and deport illegal immigrants. The day laborers fled. Some, including Omar Sierra, pulled needles out of their arms in their rush to escape. Later, Sierra, a 31-year-old from Honduras, brought out his trusty toy guitar and wrote “El Corrido de Industry” (The Ballad of Industry). After the raid, Pablo Alvarado, then an organizer with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, called a meeting to address the disillusioned workers. There, Sierra played his song:
The doctors were shocked
To see the people running
One friend of mine
Has never known fear
But they had him tight
By the hands and throat.
We don’t understand the motive, nor the reason,
For there to be so much discrimination against us
If we are all ultimately equal when we are in the grave
“You didn’t need to give any speeches,” Alvarado recalled recently in a class visit to Occidental. “The song said it all.” The experience inspired Alvarado to found Los Jornaleros del Norte (The Day Laborers of the North) which has become a project of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), an organization Alvarado now directs. Music, he argues, can empower listeners who suffer oppressive circumstances. “Once you restore the dignity of people, the employer who comes to the corner will not easily exploit them,” Alvarado said. “Dignity becomes power.” To that end, NDLON relies on musical strategies to work towards improving the daily lives of day laborers by protecting and expanding their civil, labor and human rights. Music has been especially important to NDLON’s Alto Arizona campaign meant to resist Senate Bill 1070. It calls on musicians and other artists to contribute songs and perform in solidarity with protesters, saying that “the human and civil rights crisis in Arizona demands our creativity.”
Alvarado’s larger theory is that art counteracts the dominant culture’s push for people to become successful at the cost of stepping on “other people’s rights, their dignity.” Success isn’t always defined by wealth and power, he argues. “These aren’t necessarily the values of poor people,” said Alvarado. “They are the values that have been imposed on poor people. In a way, poor people are taught to think like rich people while living very poor.” Alvarado hopes music can help people look inward to find their own values.
To form Los Jornaleros, Sierra and Alvarado recruited day laborers like themselves who had fled poverty and civil war in Central America during the 1980s and early 1990s to find work in the U.S., what they called el norte. Since then, new members have joined; some have left. Now, the band consists of Omar León (vocals and accordion), Alcires Herández (trumpet), Godofredo Rivera (trombone and saxophone), Joaquín Calderon (congas), Maneuel Ortiz (drums) and Alvarado (bass).
Los Jornaleros continue to write music and perform at rallies, protests and street corners. They’ve produced three albums that incorporate a range of styles: Mexico’s norteño, ranchera and mariachi, as well as cumbia, vallenato, salsa, tropical and rumba from South America and the Caribbean. Alvarado views Que No Pare La Lucha, released in May 2011, as the group’s resistance to Senate Bill 1070. The album is available for free online, and 5,000 downloads have been recorded at Alvarado’s last count.
Los Jornaleros have been the subject of only a handful of articles in mainstream and specialized media since they formed in the mid-‘90s. An article in The Los Angeles Times from 2000 gave examples of how audiences respond to the music. “El Corrido de Industry,” the article said, is “one of several Los Jornaleros favorites that send immigrant couples twirling in the aisles during the band’s low-paying gigs in churches and halls as nearby as North Hollywood and as far away as Seattle.” Audiences appreciated the music because “they hear their lives reflected in the accordion Sierra now plays for songs like “La Frasesita,” an account of the vulnerability and frustration one feels in not knowing English,” said the article.
A look at the first two albums shows that Los Jornaleros have long relied on stories and slogans to advocate for civil, labor and human rights for recent immigrants such as day laborers. Consider, for example, “Prisoner in the U.S.A.” from the group’s first album, Cruzando Fronteras (Crossing Borders). It relates the story of a wife who marries another after growing tired of waiting while her husband works in the United States. Or a ballad called “La Paliza” (The Beating) commemorating the 1995 police beating of Mexican immigrants in Riverside. On the second album, Únete Pueblo (People, Unite), Los Jornaleros sing about Juana, a domestic worker and single mom. They also remember Juan, a poor Oaxacan immigrant who died in the river while trying to get to the U.S. Like many of their songs, each of these is based on a true story and is meant to convey honest representations of day laborer and Latino immigrant life in all its struggle and vitality.
In the article “What is an MC if He Can’t Rap to Banda,” Josh Kun uses Svetlana Boym’s concept of “reflective nostalgia” to describe how the hip-hop duo Akwid (transplants to L.A. from Michoacán, Mexico) invokes history without glorifying the past. Instead, the group is able to “excavate memory and put [it] in play with present.” This idea applies to Los Jornaleros as well. Many of the songs are based on past experiences. Instead of dwelling in them, the band connects stories to the present, converting experiences into slogans intended to galvanize people to take action. For example, “El Corrido of Industry” doesn’t intend for listeners to wallow in sorrow and frustration. Rather, it aims to inspire workers to fight for improved rights, while continuing to have faith in their new home country.
Songs on the new album offer examples as well. On “Traguito de Dignidad” (Little Taste of Dignity), Los Jornaleros sing, “I’ve experienced sadness, sorrow, hate, racism, poverty…mistreatment, but never liberty, but never liberty.” More sad verses continue, including: “The boss has stolen from me, I’ve gotten drunk from wanting to be with my family.” The lines are punctuated by the cry, “¡y llegaron!” The phrase, meaning “and now they’re here!,” is heard throughout many Los Jornaleros songs, a declaration that the immigrant day laborers are committed to creating a better future here in the U.S. It makes clear that even sad experiences can transform into calls to action. The singer has faith that his people will go out to fight, and “the spring will return,” along with liberty, dignity, and justice. Almost all of Los Jornaleros songs end with a statement that looks forward into the future.
Recently Alvarado, NDLON and other immigrant rights groups have adjusted their strategy in the wake of Senate Bill 1070. NDLON decided to take action to resist. “We knew that if we didn’t intervene, then the Arizona-fication of the country would be next,” said Alvarado. “We wanted to isolate Arizona as the example that states shouldn’t follow.” He moved nearly all of NDLON’s operations from L.A. to Arizona to address the issue, and created “Alto Arizona,” an immigrant rights campaign focused on resisting the bill. Music is crucial to the movement. As Alvarado said, “Having activists, organizers, and civil rights leaders denounce the law is different from artists doing it…art goes everywhere.” To that end, NDLON sponsored a concert in Arizona called ” Festival for Human Rights” in May 2010, featuring Los Jornaleros and other bands. Los Jornaleros also performed at marches in Arizona the same month, including one that drew more than 150 thousand people. Alvarado recalled that tensions were high, especially with the presence of 100 minutemen armed with assault rifles. But music helped calm emotions. “When you feel the spirit of people dancing and singing, it brings peace,” said Alvarado.
In keeping with the Alto Arizona campaign goals, two recent songs by Los Jornaleros deal directly with current immigration policy — “Dónde Está la Justicia” (Where is Justice) and “Racismo en Arizona” (Racism in Arizona). “Dónde Está la Justicia,” by Omar León, is sung from the perspective of a student brought to the U.S. illegally as a young child. Without citizenship, it’s nearly impossible to attend college and pursue a career in the United States. The song refers to the Dream Act, a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who entered the United States as kids to attend college and eventually become citizens. The Senate first considered the bill in 2001, and then again in 2011. It did not pass. In California, the Dream Act movement has found more success: Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act in 2011. However, it still awaits approval from the UC Regents, and meanwhile, is being repealed.
In “Dónde Está la Justicia,” the singer conveys his frustration by singing over and over, “Where is justice?” He feels unable to achieve his goals because of “erroneous” and “ridiculous” laws that make him “invisible.” College-aged youth, the song argues, can’t be blamed for living in the U.S. illegally. As the song goes, “Without realizing it / I crossed the border.” The singer’s reasons are noble: he hopes for a better life, with “big and beautiful dreams.” Despite the gravity of the lyrics, the song is upbeat. It opens with a vivid keyboard solo. Then a cheery accordion joins in, and plays a counter-melody to the singer’s voice. Mariachi-style trumpets accentuate the end of each line. Throughout, percussion plays slow-paced cumbia rhythms — ideal for dancing. Meanwhile, the singer’s voice is confident and clear, embodying determination and resolve.
Los Jornaleros released “Racismo en Arizona” as a single in July 2010, a couple of months after Arizona announced plans to launch Senate Bill 1070. The song argues that the bill is racist, as are Arizona’s governor, sheriffs and police officers. “The color of my skin doesn’t make me a criminal,” the singer explains. The bill could turn Arizona into a “state of fear” where families — “the mothers, the fathers, the kids, the students” — are scared to walk outside. To emphasize this point, the song opens with the sound of helicopters. The song doesn’t criticize any public figure by name, suggesting the problem is systemic rather than personal and individual. The only time we hear the bill mentioned by name is in a clip from a recording. A woman, presumably governor Jan Brewer, states, “I will now sign Senate Bill 1070.” Although the bill would mostly affect Latinos, the largest illegal immigrant group, the lyrics only mention Latinos once. (“In all the neighborhoods where Latino people live / the people are persecuted for having skin the color of coffee.”) This is a human issue, not distinctly Latino, the song seems to say.
Various lines are shouted rather than sung, including “You lied to me, Arizona!” Arizona is not living up to the country’s promise of opportunity, freedom and equality for all, the song indicates. The song ends with a young boy saying in English, “I will fight for my rights and my parents’ rights, I have a dream.” “I have a dream” alludes to Martin Luther King’s famous speech that galvanized the civil rights movement. This boy has likely grown up in the United States, the son of illegal immigrants. He represents the future of Latinos in this country — a future that Los Jornaleros hope will be just and fair.
Many others have joined the campaign to resist Senate Bill 1070 via music, including world famous polyglot pop singer from France, Manu Chao. As a musician known for his socially and politically conscious songs, it’s no surprise that Chao chose to fight the bill. But he might not have gotten involved if it weren’t for Alvarado. After seeing Chao perform in L.A. in fall 2010, Alvarado met with him backstage. As Alvarado tells it, Chao made all the celebrities wait while he spoke with Alvarado for over an hour. Two weeks later, Alvarado brought Chao to Arizona to perform at the “Festival de Resistencia,” a free, public, outdoors concert organized by NDLON. Ten thousand people attended.
Alvarado also arranged for Chao to collaborate with filmmaker Alex Rivera for a music video of Chao’s immigrant anthem, “Clandestino” (Clandestine). The video was intended as a not-so-subtly veiled attack on Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who has taken the ideas of Senate Bill 1070 to their extremes. One action has been to create immigrant detention centers that many see as unnecessary at best, and inhumane at worst. To explain this context, the video begins with the sound of a phone ringing. A woman’s voice on the answering machine of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office says, “Thanks for calling… here are some interesting facts…Nearly all those convicted in Maricopa County live in a tent city. It is an inexpensive jail housing system that has become known throughout the world….more tents are now under construction to make room for a predicted surge in illegal immigration arrests.” Meanwhile, images of that tent city are seen in the video — a tall guard tower, barbed wire fences, men wearing shackles over black-and-white striped jump suits, and tents that are little more than canopies on poles, with rows of thin beds underneath.
Then the video zooms in on Manu Chao, strumming an acoustic guitar outside of the barbed wire fence. He begins to sing “Clandestino,” his voice clear and melodious. Chao’s only accompaniment is a fellow guitarist playing and singing the counter-melody. “My life is prohibited, says the authorities,” sings Chao. Then he changes an original lyric to sing, “Maricopa, illegal,” and gestures behind him toward the camp. Chao wears an image of two eyes on his shirt lapel, as if to indicate that he is watching the world. The video was filmed in a single take, according to Alvarado; law enforcement arrived within moments to order Chao to leave the property. NDLON’s lawyers held off the police long enough to film the video. “Arpaio is telling us ‘you’re illegal,’ but through music we’re telling him, ‘no, you are illegal,’” Alvarado said, explaining why the video was so important. He hopes that songs like these, including those by Los Jornaleros, can help to “dispel myths” about immigrants and “reach out to the hearts and minds” of anti-immigrant opponents.
Now, a couple of years after Senate Bill 1070 entered the public consciousness, activists are still pushing for immigrant rights. Los Jornaleros give performances brimming with vitality and optimism, as demonstrated at two recent L.A. performances. At the NDLON annual assembly last February, an audience of mostly day laborers and immigrant rights activists attended “Noche Cultural” (culture night). Some came from L.A.; others from as far as New Jersey. Many jumped up to dance at the center of the Sheraton Hotel conference room when Los Jornaleros took to the stage. The crowd mixed Latinos and non-Latinos, men and women, children and grandparents. In the relaxed atmosphere, even strangers joined hands to dance salsa and bachata steps. On accordion, saxophone, congas and a keyboard, the band played songs from the new album. They also performed standards such as “Guantanamera,” beloved across Latin America, and invited the audience to sing along. Hand-painted banners covered the walls, proclaiming slogans such as, “When a people celebrates its fight with song, culture becomes a tool for peace, unity, resistance and liberation.”
Los Jornaleros brought their music to a wider audience with a performance at L.A.’s May Day protests, focused on worker’s rights. This time, they weren’t just performers, but leaders of a march across downtown to City Hall, singing from the back of a flatbed truck. Alvarado played guitar, accompanied by an accordionist, singer, two percussionists and one keyboard player. For this event, the band mixed songs with slogans. On “No Dejes de Luchar” (Don’t Stop Fighting), the singer chanted one of the lyrics that is ordinarily sung: “Lucha, lucha, lucha, no dejes de luchar, por una trabajo digno, justicia y libertad.” (Fight, fight, fight, don’t stop fighting, for a dignified job, justice, and liberty.) He was as much event organizer as lead singer, at one point asking audiences, “Are you tired already?!” Los Jornaleros also played “Traguito de Dignidad,” “La Movidita,” and the classic “La Bamba.” A press photographer said he thought the band was Very Be Careful, a popular L.A.-based cumbia and vallenato band. Unfortunately, the performance must have been lost to the hordes of people following behind the truck, rather than alongside it. Still, leading the march with music and not just shouts and chants seemed to invigorate the crowd who walked to the beat.
Anti-immigrant groups were in the mix that day too. They have accused immigrants of not caring about their local communities, much less country as a whole. They argue that immigrants split their loyalties between the U.S. and a homeland. On the contrary, Los Jornaleros actually demonstrate patriotism. In publically expressing hope and resolve for improved rights, Los Jornaleros prove their commitment to the country. With better rights and a path to legalization, immigrant workers can foster new communities and contribute to the nation’s development. The Los Jornaleros songs show that immigrants care about upholding the country’s laws and ideals– including the promise of equality and freedom for all. The “American Dream” may be difficult to attain, but the idea that opportunity is possible for all is what has enabled the country’s success. The image of Los Jornaleros singing in Spanglish on a flatbed truck rumbling through the historic streets of downtown Los Angeles, waving a mix of American and Latin American flags, is the perfect symbol of belonging. Not to a home country, but to the United States. It’s helpful to reference a description of citizenship from the article “Patriotic Citizenship, the Border Wall, and the ‘El Veterano’ Conjunto Festival” by Margaret E. Dorsey and Miguel Díaz-Barriga. The authors argue that there’s no one way of being patriotic, just like there’s no one form of culture. As an example, they say that the conjunto musicians in Texas use poetic, embodied, ritualized ways to validate and remind the nation of their citizen status. At the same time, their methods don’t deny a Mexican identity. Instead, Spanish language and other Latino signifiers are used to celebrate contributions to the U.S.
Los Jornaleros is still working on another album. Meanwhile, Alvarado plans for NDLON to produce an album of songs written to denounce Senate Bill 1070. Manu Chao has committed to writing one, and Alvarado hopes to include tracks by Los Trigres del Norte, Jenni Rivera, and Rage Against the Machine. He already knows 40 possible songs, and Los Jornaleros will contribute as well. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is debating the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1070 this summer. Could the music of Los Jornaleros and other groups supported by NDLON play a role in helping the justices decide? The direct impact of Los Jornaleros on immigration politics is likely negligible in the absence of other grassroots organizing efforts. But there’s no doubt that for those who hear the band’s songs — the fluttering of accordion keys, the strumming of a guitar, the rattle of a shekere, and cries for “justicia” and “libertad” — the music is stirring, hopeful and influential.
- By Daina Beth Solomon, Class of 2012
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