Once an immigrant crosses the Rio Grande or the massive, unforgiving Sonoran Desert, the smiles and sorrows they carry from their native lands are stripped away. Not by choice, their identities are watered-down by others, as these migrants are put at the core of political disputes over who gets to peacefully be in the United States and who does not. Their stories become only a statistic.
To say the decision to embark on that brutal journey north will crush the soul is an understatement. To face the reality that there are more than 1,000 miles between you and what you think is a better life combined with the realization that it will be a hell of a long time before you see your family, friends and the neighborhood streets where you grew up and played fútbol is almost unimaginable—but there's no other choice. A human's survival instinct will always prevail.
For two years, cumbia band Vox Urbana interviewed some of the men and women who made it out alive from such journeys and are now trying to figure out how to shape a new life on U.S. soil. Their stories—whether fleeing extreme poverty, gang violence or persecution over their gender identity or sexual orientation—are the inspiration for the band's latest project: Cumbia Corridos.
The project got its lifeline thanks to a grant awarded by the Tucson Pima Arts Council and the Puffin Foundation about three years ago. It's taken Vox Urbana in an unexpected, but welcomed new path both musically and emotionally.
As the band prepares to unveil the outcome of these past few months of work live in concert, they have come to be part of a movement that puts the personal stories of immigrants at the forefront and gives them a medium where they can be heard.
Creating songs that have socio-political and cultural value isn't new to Vox Urbana—plenty of their previous work pushes messages of immigration advocacy and civil rights, including one or two telling Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio to piss off. This new set of compositions, though, have really hit them hard and challenged them—in a good way.
As Vox's saxophonist and keyboard player Jim Colby puts it, it's one thing to hear distant stories of migrants traveling from as far as Honduras and Guatemala, and something completely different to relive the events with them, face-to-face, from their lips to your ears.
Vox Urbana got in touch with more than 10 people with the help of Tucson's Southside Worker's Center, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, the Florence Project and No More Deaths.
The first immigrant Colby and Enrique "Kiki" Castellanos, Vox's guitarist and vocalist, interviewed was a young man who came here from Honduras.
"He was with two brothers...they were crossing the desert, and they didn't have anyone to guide them. They just went for it," Colby says. "Basically his two brothers died...He woke up [in the desert]...somebody found him, and he was in detention for months. I kind of knew the stories we were [going] to hear. It was really intense...to hear a person say, 'I lost my whole family a couple of months back.'"
Coming from a country that's plagued by gang violence, the young man and his two brothers felt they had no other choice but to leave Honduras because they had received several death threats.
"There wasn't anybody to protect them and their family," Colby says.
As far as the music, Vox Urbana is keeping the authentic cumbia sound at the core, while complimenting the afro-Latin American genre with other Pan-American styles, such as salsa, mambo and huapango—a Mexican folk music and dance often performed by a trio of string instruments. You'll also find hints of son Cubano, an afro-Caribbean style that has variations in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and is paired with a dance. For the most part, these are percussion-heavy genres that are very upbeat.
"[We] are writing more creative stuff that has never been heard from us before," says Saul Millan, trombonist and back-up vocalist for Vox. "Musically, it is very complex, and it is very diverse, which is important in this project."
The way corridos come into play is in the style of the lyrics.
A corrido, native to Mexico, is characterized by its narrative storytelling and poetic style. Although these days drug traffickers have adopted corridos to tell stories of violence, greed and misogyny (known as narco corridos), most corridos are about political and social oppression, or just pure romance.
Writing the lyrics has been tough for Castellanos and David Pérez, Vox's congas player and vocalist. Some testimonies are so heavy that they don't even know where to begin. It creates a feeling of, who am I to decide what's the most important part of the story you just confided in me with?
Some songs are strictly based on the testimonies they heard, even including direct quotes from the interviews. Others are influenced by the stories, but also blended with some fiction—always still depicting events that affect migrants. Then, there are others that don't deal with any of the interviews, but describe life before the journey—for instance, a young man explaining to his parents why he is choosing to leave his native land. The process, Castellanos says, has helped them grow as writers.
"[I] feel obligated to do a good job, especially since there is this other level of us transforming it into a song, you have poetic licenses...the people whose stories [you heard], you want to be true to it," Colby says.
The band also feels they have the moral responsibility to use their music to promote awareness on these issues, and encourage people to approach them with more empathy.
"[People] need to know that there are a lot of human reasons behind immigration," Pérez says. "You choose the way you approach music and what you are going to do with it. We choose supporting a lot of things we think are right."
After the concert, the Cumbia Corridos will be immortalized on Vox Urbana's third album, which doesn't yet have an official release date, but Colby says it will be later this year.