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Ozomatli's Raul Pacheco on collaboration, creativity and Dreaming Sin Fronteras

Dante Pascuzzo plays guitar on a recording for Dreaming Sin Fronteras.
Dante Pascuzzo plays guitar on a recording for Dreaming Sin Fronteras.
Courtesy of Shawn King

When DeVotchKa'sShawn King approached Raul Pacheco to collaborate, he accepted the invitation with open arms. Despite being in the middle of recording, releasing and then touring for Ozomatli's new album, Place in the Sun, Pacheco carved out time to work on Dreaming Sin Fronteras: Stories of Immigration and American Identity, a multimedia, theatrical exploration of the true stories of dreamers: undocumented youth seeking a clear path to U.S. citizenship. The show opens Friday, March 21 at North High; in advance of Dreaming Sin Fronteras's two-day run, Westword spoke with Pacheco about creativity, Place in the Sun and the new production.

See also: DeVotchKa's Shawn King on Dreaming Sin Fronteras, art and immigration

Westword: Talk about your creative practice.

Raul Pacheco: I sing and play guitar for Ozomatli. I've been in that band for almost nineteen years. We just came out with a record called Place in the Sun, our eighth studio release. I'm also making music with Denver's Shawn King, who plays in DeVotchka. We are working on Dreaming Sin Fronteras.

Talk about the production.

It's a play that was organized by a professor at the University of Colorado Denver, Jose Antonio Mercado. He was inspired by a series of immigration stories. I've known Shawn loosely for many years. Recently, we have been involved with an organization called Air Traffic Control that helps artists with political messaging. When this opportunity came to collaborate on music, he called me up and asked if I wanted to be a part of it. I'm interested in doing more songwriting with other people, audio engineering and producing, and I'm supportive of immigration reform, so it seemed like a good thing.

It's been a really exciting thing for all of us to be in different rooms with different people and put our own spin on what this could be. As creative people, it's been super-satisfying to try something different, and it's turning out to be something that we're proud of. This idea of collaboration is super-cool to me. In the modern world, with the way that media is, one of the tools of survival is collaboration.

Talk about how music and activism intersect for you.

Ozomatli started at a labor protest. That was our first performance; it was to raise money for a group on strike. We have always want to be supportive of political movements with our music, from just creating good vibes for people to putting out specific messages in our songs.

How do you approach writing political music? Does it give you anxiety?

In general, I do what I want. I don't worry about it either way. For me, as a songwriter, what's important is sincerity. I'm okay with songs that are party songs. I'm okay with songs that are outright protest songs. What I judge it on is the song. Is the song good? If I'm writing a protest song, I make sure I'm speaking about the issue in a real sense. That will make it a better song. I don't think about whether it will turn off people or not, because I really don't care. What I care about is whether or not I write a good song.

Talk about your writing process?

Whether it's Ozomatli or musicians outside of Ozomatli, I like collaborating. If I'm trying to write, what I hone in on is what is real for us. How do you write lyrics? You start with something real, not so esoteric, but instead something from real life, so someone can say, "Oh, yeah, I understand that." I think what's appropriate when you're writing with people is finding that real part of what they're actually saying.

How are you approaching these stories in your writing? How do you tap into the experiences that Mercado has documented?

Shawn would come with a few examples of stuff that Jose was writing and stories that he was referencing, and then we would sit around as musicians and songwriters and talk about what they meant to us. There is a really great song that Ceci Bastida came up with. It had the idea that immigrants come here and then turn their backs on newer immigrants. I found that interesting. There's the general story of whether you're for immigration or not, but then there are all these deeper nuances and deeper stories. Some of them are even self-critical of our communities.

It's not just about challenging the other. It's about challenging myself. Those stories are way more rich -- rich for challenging the notion of the self, of our community, of humanity. With songwriting, that's a good place to be. It's challenging. It's not simple. We may assume that everyone who shows up supports immigration, but within us there are things that we've got to learn to be better about also.

If we're really interested in growing and being better, there are things we have to challenge ourselves on. That's the point, for me, of art. There is a political edge in the kind of work that I'm attracted to and I respond to. It's not so black and white for any of us. There are the kinds of conversations that I see in most media that are super-extreme, and I get it. But I think we can connect more through our own personal struggles. People go through so much to live with dignity. What does that mean for someone with money? What does it mean for someone without money? Everywhere you go, you want a roof over your head, you want a job, you want to provide for your family and put food on your table, all very basic things. I think in the struggle, if we can remember those things, we can connect.

Continue on for more about Raul Pacheco's thoughts on creativity and borders.

What you're talking about seems so contrary to this concept of a border.

The border is the construct of a company. "This is our company. This is our brand. We make money, and this is how we do it." Borders are essential to that. Having borders is essential to being able to signify the limits that allow you to treat other people differently than you treat yourself. I think it's a very human concept and is an extension of the self: I am what I am, and what I do is mine. Wherever that came from, I don't know.

It's bizarre that there is so much inequality. The question is: What side of that do you want to be on? Kurt Vonnegut has a quote that I will always remember: "Are you going to be a creator or a destroyer?" I have the tendency to hang out with people who want to create. That means connection, bridges and affirmation. I think what can be challenging for all of us is the affirmation of the other. As someone who doesn't talk like you, look like you, dress like you and act like you, how do you connect on a human level? For me, this project is about that. It's about the big picture, which is the human one, more than the border. The most important thing is treating other people with kindness and respect. How do we push that agenda? As far as I'm concerned, immigration is about survival, and I'm going to help people who are trying to survive.

Talk about Ozomatli's new album.

We take a long time to make records, and one of the best parts of it is that people have a stake in it, and we try to satisfy as many voices and perspectives as possible. That's what's kept this band together for nineteen years.

The first song is called "Place in the Sun," and we ended up calling it that because there was this idea about creating your own space for yourself in this world. There is work involved in that. There is commitment involved in that. There is story involved in that. The pursuit of creating your own space is worth it.

After being a band for nineteen years, we've done that on a certain level. It's a message that we wanted to put out to people: You should follow your dreams. The basic idea of following your dreams, as corny as that may sound, is really worth it in this life. As an artist, you're always challenged with that. You're challenged with money. You're challenged with what it takes to survive off of music or any kind of art you do. You're creating how you want to experience life.

For people who are thinking about getting involved in a creative process and thinking about becoming musicians, storytellers or artists, what would you tell them to do?

I encourage people to do what they want to do. The idea of no money, that shouldn't be the end of the race. That's a benefit that you can and may get, but most importantly, you walk this planet with this idea in your head, and you're actually going to do that and not what other people are telling you to do. We all have to make those decisions. I'm not saying that you don't have to make choices. Say, you have a kid or a straighter job -- whatever the case is -- there still has to be something in us that allows us to do what we want to do, whether it's full time or part time. I think you've got to go for it, because that's going to give you some joy. That's where you should start. You should start at that place.

Whenever I write songs with people, I'll say: "What is it that you've always wanted to do that you've never done?" It surprises me that this catches people off guard. They'll say, "What do you mean?" I'll say: "That's what we should be doing. This is the dream place. We're going to start from this place of no boundaries. Why don't we have a joyous, damn good time right now and have some satisfaction and do what you've always wanted to do? It may mean the world, or it may not. It may just be a bad song. But we've got to start from somewhere." I'd much rather start from that place of the dream and the intention.

Dreaming Sin Fronteras runs March 21 and March 22 at North High School. Tickets cost $20 for adults and $5 for students.

Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris


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