I was in Dallas three years ago when, Sandra, a friend of the family and wonderful supporter of my music planted the seed. “You HAVE to check out Lila Downs!”
I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the name resurfaced when I saw her album, La Cantina, when visiting my friend and fellow songwriter Vanessa Lively. (Btw, she just released her new CD last night at the Cactus Cafe – great show!). It took another handful of months for me to break down and buy the album at Waterloo Records. I love it, but hadn’t put much effort into finding out more about the woman herself. I’ve since been on a search for what to focus on as I pursue my career in music. I’m one of those people who gets easily distracted and thrown off course. I’m productive once I really get into a project, but it’s hard for me to find enough focus to get into the thick of the trees. I tend to spend most of my time skirting around the edges, wondering which path into the woods is THE one.
Last week, my friend Duggan, an intense music lover and social justice advocate, planted another seed. “You’re a great musician and you want to help people. Now, find a way to make those two things work together!” In a sense it was earth-shattering to have someone tell me not only is it OK that I’m not a musician who pursues music as an end in itself, but that that it’s also an essential part of my story. I can’t get excited about pursuing my craft purely for successful career. If it doesn’t help people, it’s not success. For me, music is a way to bring people together. It’s perhaps the most powerful, if not the only force that has the power to touch hearts, teach, and ignite people who otherwise would never know each other. It’s a unifying force.
“The world is divided,” Downs says. “For me that’s where I’m coming from – this is one of my main concerns, because my mother always taught me to respect the roots. At the same time, we have so much wealth in this world, but we need more consciousness. I think art is one of those amazing things that can bring people together.”
Lila Downs has a similar path to the one I’m on. She’s a mixie, half Scottish-American, half Mixteca, who mostly grew up a gringa in Minneapolis, MN. But her Mexican roots drew her back to the language, music and culture of her mother, a Mixteca Indian. She is a performer who’s passionate work crosses musical, linguistic and cultural borders. I want to find out more. Who’s gonna write the book?
(A belated post from May 24, 2011)…
So, today is my birthday (May 24, that is . It’s also Maria Auxiliadora day. She’s the patroness of the Salesian community, with whom Jodi and I lived and worked in El Salvador for 8 months. Living in a Salesian community and having the same birthday as Maria Auxiliadora means I had a CRAZY birthday last year, complete with singing songs to La Virgen at 6:30 a.m., playing a student vs. teacher/sister basketball game (we, the teachers & sisters won!). We had dance presentations at a pep rally and lots of cake and partying.
This is all to say that I can’t believe it’s already been a year since I was in El Salvador. Jodi and I really miss our girls. If you don’t know, we started a college scholarship fund for 4 of the girls we lived with in Soyapango. Two of them, Marta and Xiomara have already finished their first semester at Don Bosco University, a private Catholic (and Salesian) college in Soyapango. We need to raise $3,500 to get them through their next year.
We set up a fundraising campaign here and we just need $10 or more. Go to:
All we need is $10 or more and you can help us send these beautiful girls to college, something that will offer them opportunities they could otherwise never dream to have.
Thank you so much for your help!
-Gina y Jodi
I been feeling a bit down these days – not sure what the deal is, but I think I’m drowning in my own muck. So, last night I made me a PBJ, tossed some quick Quaker Oats in a tupperware and set my alarm for 4:30a.m. At the sound of the iPhone, I rolled myself outa bed and got down to 12 & Lavaca for “Feed My People,” the fabulous Thursday morning breakfast ministry for the homeless led by First United Methodist Church.
They typically have a TON of volunteers, so I don’t really go because they need me. I go because I need them. I go so I can be with God’s people. To be around faces I see on a regular basis but yet I still don’t know their names. I see them on street corners with signs and on the Drag asking for a second of my time. I see them huddling beneath blankets and underpasses to survive the cold nights and unfriendly gusts of wind that I so easily shut out with a window or a door. People who don’t have a bed to come home to or a set of keys that jangle in their pockets, reminding them they have a place to call their own. People who have nothing and yet somehow manage to smile and thank me for pouring a glass of orange juice or ask about my music career.
I met Brian who likes roller skating and Nascar – though he’s not too big on Formula One.
I met Tom who visits all kinds of churches so that he can learn how to be a true follower of Christ.
I met Ricardo who awoke to a cop kicking his hurt foot and handing him a camping violation for sleeping outside a church.
I met Ryan who thinks his name is too common, but has quite a unique smile and uses it to lift up others.
I met Danny, a 24-year-old who is really down on his luck and just needs a reason to hope again – God, please!
I met Junior who had two strokes and gets treated for dialysis, but at age 56 says that he’s blessed.
I met Ricky who really likes orange juice and agrees with me that we’re all the same.
The people I met this morning spoke to my heart. I wish I remembered all their names. They reminded me that I am a beloved child of God and reminded me that there’s always a reason to hope. That reason comes in all colors, shapes, sizes and attitudes. Thank you all for giving me a reason to smile and hope for another day. That I might do the same for someone else…
On MLK day yesterday, I had to run to Houston and back. The travel time allowed for some great conversation about social justice, assimilation and other thoughts on the Latino community.
We heard snippets of Martin Luther King’s Address at the March on Washington (aka. the “I Have A Dream Speech”), which was given August 28, 1963, and a few phrases caught my attention:
“… the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. “
I cannot help but see the Latino the same way. Rightful heirs to the land their ancestors once inhabited, they are now barred from entering the very land that demands the fruit of their labors and at the same time cries wolf on the Capitol steps. And if we look beyond our own borders, to our cousins in Central and South America, we see a family suffering. Our family. It astounds me that in an age where a musician can spread her music to to Australia and back (approx. 9,300 miles one way) with the click of a button, we as a human family have not figured out how to feed, clothe or house our family members in the Third World without exerting tremendous time, effort and resources.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
I remember being given a list of values in high school and told to rank them 1 to 10 on a scale of most important. It was shocking how many of us put “freedom” as #1, while “equality” barely made the list. It’s an American mentality that freedom is king. Without it we have nothing. But what is freedom? Is it mere security? Or is it power? I would argue that we tend to fall on the side of the latter. And that the only way we can truly be free (i.e. powerful) means that others are enslaved.
But as Dr. King said, we must keep hoping. The “security of justice” is a value that has long been held for solely for the well-off and the light skinned. But there are thousands working for justice and equality so that all may be free from fear and oppression. The work will go on.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That’s right, peeps, I am back in the steaming ATX and flopping around like a fish outa water. I’m sorry for being incomunicado about my return home, but I snuck out of El Salvador a little early in order to carry out a birthday surprise and had to keep hush hush.
But now the cat is out of the bag — and my crazy, furry cat, Red, is back in my face, bleh! — and I’m attempting to pick up life where I left off…
It’s hard. I’m torn between feeling like I left too early (in the middle of the Salvadoran school year) and feeling like I’m going through menopause… it is RIDICULOUSLY hot here, and feeling overwhelmed by all the life decisions and bills and yadda yadda that have done nothing but pile up over the past 8 months. Coming back from an adventure is definitely not as fun as embarking on one.
But in a certain sense, I guess I’m just on a new adventure. I’ve got some new musical endeavors in mind invovling Latin and jazz music (not necessarily together) as well as picking up where I left off with my amazing band and our original songs. Can you believe Roel, Sammy and Kenneth actually kept practicing together while I was gone!? I know songwriter friends of mine who would kill for band commitment like that! Amazing
But in the midst of the excitement comes that pesky issue paying bills, ugh! Part of me says take me back to the nuns in El Salvador where, sure I had no income, but at least I had free food and living. And then part of me says, omg I’m soooo glad to have a toilet seat and veggie burgers! mmm…PTerry’s…
Yeah, so I’ve got the whole J-O-B thing hanging over my head right now. I’m unsure of what I’m looking for since fulltime jobs make music difficult and parttime jobs make eating difficult. But at the moment, I think anything would do. No-time jobs leave my schedule a little too open if ya know what I mean. What type of work am I looking in, you ask? Well, the teenage girl inside me really wants to work in a coffee shop or a restaurant (I’m serious!) and the social worker in me wants to work with the homeless, immigrants, or kids in need.
So, if you’re in the business of helping a former volunteer who is currently looking for work, let me know of any openings you find. I have no experience as a barista, but I REALLY want to learn, I’m proficient in Spanish now and I think I’ve got a pretty nice smile.
As for getting back into music, I am planning a comeback benefit concert, so keep your eyes open and your ears ready for some rocking.
I can’t wait to see all your beautiful faces!
Saludos from your “chancleta” in Austin, Texas,
Just a quick note to say howdy from this tiny fruit- and flower-filled country. It’s May, which means flowers are in bloom on bushes, trees, shrubs and even in little girls’ hands. They are amazingly adept at creating the most intricate paper flowers here, it’s incredible. Everyday the “stage” in the gym is adorned with both real and paper flowers in honor of our mother Mary.
Tomorrow is the feast day of Maria Mazzarello, co-founder of the Salesian community. Both she and Don Bosco were from Italy, so we found a song to sing in Italian, hehe. Luckily, at least half of the sisters here speak Italian, so they helped us with the pronunciation. Such a beautiful language, Italiano
And in two weeks we’ll throw the mother of all parties for María Auxiliadora’s feast day on May 24. She is the Marian image (Mary Help of Christians) to whom the Salesians entrust their community. In a Salesian community, every prayer ends with, “María Auxiliadora, ruega por nosotros!” And the funny thing is, that just so happens to be my birthday, so everyone’s convinced I’m sainted. Or maybe that’s just what I’d like to believe, hehe.
And with that, this little saint is gonna go say her prayers and get some grub! María Auxiliadora…RUEGA POR NOSOTROS!
Please keep our beloved Sor Rosita in your prayers. At 3:50 pm today she had a brain hemorrhage that left her blind and mute. She is currently in the hospital and we’re all scared and praying that God hold her in comfort.
Sor Rosita is the dueña of our amazingly delicious panadería and our on-site St. Francis. She is a lover of all animals if there ever was one. Just last week, she took Oso, one of our guard dogs to the vet to see about a bad limp. It turns out he has arthritis and she was sure to get him all the meds and proper food necessary to aguantar the pain. Now, it seems she’s having to endure a terrible pain of her own. Sor Olinda got back from the hospital and told us that she has a constant stream of tears falling from the corners of her eyes even though she cannot see.
“Dulce Madre, no se alejes tu vista de ella no apartes. Ven con Sor Rosita a todas partes y sola nunca la dejes. Ya que la quiere tanto como verdadera madre, haz que le bendiga en el nomber del Padre, Hijo y Espiritu Santo.”
Ok, so maybe “jogger” is a better word. In any case, I’ve always hated, and I mean loathed running. In middle school I was on the track team (probably because I had no choice) and since I was one of the slowest creatures on the turf, they put me in the least popular races where you can often gain points just for finishing. So, I’m running the mile during a track meet (mind you, I was only supposed to be in the half mile!) and our tiny, strict and spry Coach Potter starts jogging along beside me and says, “Gina, go catch somebody.” I was like, “what!? you must be kidding! I would rather trip and fall than make myself go any faster in this !$@%& race.”
Yep, I literally would have rather fallen. Luckily, I didn’t. But I sure didn’t pick up the pace to catch up with anyone either. And to this day, I’ve harbored “hell no!” feelings toward running…until now.
It’s been said that “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Jodi reminded me of that quote from the Gospel of Luke one day as I was whining about my inability to write songs. It struck me that my same feeling toward running, specifically that I CAN’T or WON’T try harder is not an occasional cold or allergy, but rather a perennial infection, a virus that’s taken root in my mind. And so instead of fighting for what I want, I find myself in an eternal battle to reclaim my self esteem, esp. when it comes to music.
And then I find myself in El Salvador. And I can’t help but notice endless amounts of people doing an endless amount of work with so little. They start a pupusa stand on the side of the road with a portable stove, gas tank and some masa. They line streets and hop buses with toothbrushes, bras, toilet paper, dog collars, candy, coloring books, anything they can get their hands on. And they go. Without hesitation they find space where there is none and they get to work. And yet I spend weeks, months, even years brooding over what I’m called to do, sitting on talents that I’ve buried in the sand for later.
In April, I sang with a talented young Salvadoran, Jaime. He has no guitar of his own, but carries an awkward homemade guitar pick for the rare occasion that someone will lend him one to practice on. And yet my beautiful Ovation may sit in the corner for days before I take a pick to its strings.
Every day I teach schoolgirls who have nothing more than a white board from which to learn. No projector, few books, a computer lab without internet connection. And yet they learn. They move forward. They create beautiful and amazing things with the scraps people in the first world toss aside. The senior class absolutely transformed the simplest of gymnasiums into a true road to Calvary on Good Friday. They were fully-dressed Roman soldiers, pharisees and Jews, set changes, a life-sized pillar, crosses, sepulcher and even a real snake for Jesus’ agony in the garden. Though they have every reason to tuck tail and shrink into the shadows of poverty, these girls run with patient brilliance.
And so I’ve begun. With one step in front of the other, I’ve begun to pick up my feet. Observing the way I talk to myself, the resources I have at my fingertips, the doors that open at the mere sound of my voice. My stride lengthens. I reach for the guitar with a need to play. I look for pen and paper because I need to write. My pace quickens. And though I’m still not fast, I find I’m jogging steadily. I’m reading more books, learning new chord progressions and guitar rhythms. My breathing isn’t quite as labored. I take another lap around. And another, enough to lose count. Each day, a few seconds longer. A few more song ideas, a few more kind words to myself and others. And then one day I find that I’m actually looking forward to jogging at 4:20 on a hot Soyapango afternoon in the gym at Escuela Salesiana María Auxiliadora.
I mean, if a 12-year-old barefoot Salvadoran girl can outrun me in a game of tag on a concrete slab, and 38-year-old Salvadoran man can give a 10-minute oratory on the fabulous qualities of a blue BIC pen, and a then surely I can strap on my tennis shoes and jog for a few minutes every day. Surely I can write a few songs and use the gifts I’ve been abundantly blessed with.
Yes. Yes, I can. And I will. “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” -Mother Teresa
I’ve armed myself with this small yellow tennis-raquet-looking thing that electrifies them to death, mwah ha ha. So, as you read this you can picture me pausing every now and then to ZAP and SWAT!
The funny thing is, the zancudos never really liked me that much until Jodi left last week. What!? Jodi left? Yeah, she was on a plane exactly one week ago and I miss her terribly. Please keep her and her family in your prayers, esp. her grandmother and her cousin.
So, I’m going to finish out our last weeks solita. I know it’ll go by quickly, but I miss my partner in crime, especially since we embarked juntas on this missionary adventure. Plus, Jodi was the brains and organization behind our living and teaching, so I’m having to do my best with all the classes, laundry, cleaning supervising and loving the girls and getting up on time, lol.
And the internas miss her terribly. They ask about her every day and what news I have from our beloved “Yodi”. So cute. YODI, WE MISS YOU!
Speaking of the girls, I’ve been doing some informal research on our College Scholarship Fund around the school and finding there’s much greater need than we originally thought. I’ll admit that I’m not exactly sure about how to start collecting funds, but I guess I’ll start with the few of you reading this humble blog.
Basically, a college education costs anywhere from $15 to $75 a month, depending on the institution. I polled the senior class, 33 girls, and only 3 of them will immediately start college after graduation. The rest of them say they’ll work for 2 or 3 years to save enough money for school. But if they’re anything like American teenagers, there are probably very few who’ll achieve that goal. But unlike Americans, they have very few options here. Most likely, without a college education, our girls will end up housekeeping, cooking, or selling random things on the streets. I’m hoping we can give these girls a few more options
So, at this point in time, if you would like to donate to the CSF, you may click here to donate via PayPal or send a check to:
“Gina Chavez Music”
c/o Gene & Gail Chavez
7306 Greenhaven Dr.
Austin, TX 78757