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Latino Music and Immigrant Culture - 2004-07-07


One of the themes of this year’s two-week Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which closed Sunday, July 4th in Washington, D. C., was Nuestra Musica: Music in Latino culture. At the festival we talked with immigrant poet-playwright-musician Quique Aviles about the role of music in shaping Latino identity in the United States.

The large white tents erected on the National Mall, the grassy sward that runs through the center of Washington, reverberated with the rythmic sounds of salsa, merengue, mariachi, and bachata. Folklife Festival visitors of all shapes and sizes, disregarding the sticky summer heat, crowded the tents’ wooden dance floors and swung their hips and twirled to the infectious strains of the pulsating music.

Quique Aviles, a compact man in an embroidered shirt and a baseball cap, acted as master of ceremonies for some of the performances, introducing the musicians and explaining the different styles of music they played. Mr. Aviles says that while many Americans might not be aware of the variety of styles and rhythms that constitute Latin American music, they still respond to it.

“Americans think of Latino music just in terms of merengue and salsa, but, you know, we have trios, we have bayonato, we have cumbia, we have boleros, we have rancheras, I mean, you name it and we have it. And there’s so many influences, there’s influences from Africa, influences from Asia, influences from India, so I think that anyone can cling to a rhythm and say, ‘Oh, I want to try this.’ Music allows Americans to get close to us, to want to dance, to want to listen.”

Mr. Aviles believes that music serves not just as a bridge between the Latino community and the broader American society, but as a way to define and unite the Latino community.

“I would say that there wouldn’t be much of Latino culture without music. I think that music is, perhaps, aside from language, the unifying element for Latino culture. You know, Latinos, we’re very much divided by region, by indigenous differences, by racial differences, but perhaps music, aside from the fact that we speak Spanish, is perhaps the only other element that brings us together. Where there’s bachata, where there’s merengue, where there’s salsa, there’s a sense of unity and there’s a sense of community.”

Quigue Aviles has been a prominent member of the U.S. Latino community for 25 years, ever since he fled the civil war in his native El Salvador at age 15. He started out in the rough, ethnically and racially mixed neighborhoods of center-city Washington. Eventually he was accepted by a high school for students gifted in the arts and music. Here he was introduced to jazz, and black culture, and aspiring singers, dancers, and painters. He says it was a cultural haven for him.

“And then I became an actor and a poet, and that’s what I do to this day. In the general American community.”

Quique Aviles quickly learned it was hard to earn a decent living as a budding poet and actor .. . So he took a job as an outreach worker with a Latin American youth center, helping young Latino immigrants adjust to life in America. Together with some African-American and Salvadoran friends he also organized a theater group that performed in city schools, staging skits designed to get students talking about racism, AIDS and other issues. Eventually Mr. Aviles became the artistic director of Sol y Soul, a multicultural team of young performers dedicated to community action. Meanwhile, he wrote reams of poetry, some in Spanish but mostly in English, and began performing his poems and theatrical pieces in high schools and colleges in the Washington area.

Much of Mr. Aviles’s work seeks to acquaint the American audience with the immigrant experience and the realities of being a Latino in this country. His poem “Latinhood”, from his new book, “The Immigrant Museum”, for instance, explores the complexity of his community.

“What does it feel like inside, what color is this ‘Latinhood’?/ How does it do what it does? What is it that makes it happen in the way that it happens?/ Volatile, inquisitional, monolingual, with a yellow flower stuck in the braided hair…/ Does it know the rules to civilized behavior, or does it tend to go for your throat when it feels threatened and cheated?/ What color is this Latinhood of mine? Is it black Latin, brown Latin, Indian Latin? white Latin, Latin Latin, Italian Latin via Buenos Aires, Latin with a tinge of whiteness, mestizo Latin with Korean roots?/ Is it straight A's, honor roll, Hall of Fame, welfare recipient, registered to vote, legal or illegal? / What does it feel like inside? What does it feel like inside? Oh my God!”

Mr. Aviles’s theatrical performances are usually one-man shows, also drawing heavily on the experiences of immigrants to this country. He says that through his work he wants to challenge people’s preconceptions, and dispel the myth that immigrants – particularly Latinos - are a threat or a drain on American society and economy.

“I think it’s the contrary. I mean we bring intellect, we bring poetry, we bring musicians, we bring, you know, historians. You know, there’s this whole idea that we’re supposed to be busboys and gardeners and maids and nannies. And yes, there is a certain sector of our community that does that, but at the same time we are diverse and very much a part of the fabric of America.”

And, as the Folklife Festival demonstrated, Latino music is very much a part of the fabric of America, as well.

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