Tony Garcia is a firm believer that any song can be a protest song.
He says one need look no further than “Amazing Grace,” a Christian hymn with lyrics later added by John Newton, a man who spent several years as a slave trader (later coming out against the horrors of the Middle Passage). The song has long been a staple of Black civil rights activists in the United States.
For a more recent example, Garcia, executive art director at Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, recalls an incident in New York when a white man at a lunch spot yelled at the waiters for speaking Spanish. A group of mariachis later gathered outside of the offending racist’s apartment. One of the songs they chose? “Cielito Lindo.”
“Cielito Lindo” isn’t exactly about social unrest. The lyrics vary from singer to singer, but the song is ostensibly about a pretty girl with dark eyes. When it’s performed for someone who hates Latinos, however, the song has power.
“It was so beautiful,” Garcia says. “And it was so profound, because ‘Cielito Lindo’ is one of the most benign songs there is, but when they all sang it in that context, it had power, and power to make a point in a very non-violent and very profound way.”
With that spirit in mind, the United States’ third-longest running Chicano theater company is putting on a virtual Resistance Jam on Inauguration Day, January 20. Musicians of all stripes are invited to perform in a round robin-style show that will be broadcast over the Internet. Garcia says the Resistance Jam events started in 2017 and has taken place live in less plague-ridden years.
“The idea of protest music coming out of Chicanos is very, very natural,” Garcia says. “Su Teatro was formed as a protest, a way of offering our view of the conditions we were living in. It was born of social protests and social change.”
The jam is billed as a celebration of sorts — a majority of the country will be happy on January 20 because a certain racist with anti-immigrant policies will be leaving office — but also a call to continued action. Asked about the call to action and what it means, Garcia recalls the tragic story of Ismael Mena. Denver police, executing a no-knock warrant at the wrong address in 1999, shot and killed Mena, claiming he pointed a gun at them.
“The idea of police killing people, the idea of marginalization, all those things are not new,” Garcia says. “I think we had a very heightened awareness this summer of the two conflicting worlds we live in. For our community, it’s a call for us to keep vigilant.”
Garcia, 67, is hopeful about the new administration — though he acknowledges that the country has always had problems and will continue to into the future. He remembers growing up in Denver housing projects and people in the neighborhood being afraid whenever the cops showed up. During his formative years, parts of the city were essentially white areas and off limits to Latinos. One time he ventured south of Alameda Avenue near Broadway, and a pickup truck full of white boys began to scream at him.
“One of them called me a 'beaner,' and it threw me off, because I didn’t see anything wrong with that, because I really like beans,” he says. “Another told me to go back to where I came from, and another said, ‘Go back to Mexico.’ I was stunned, because I’d never been to Mexico.”
Garcia has dedicated much of his life to fighting against that kind of racist world. It’s never easy.
“You can fight and fight and fight, and you don’t think it’s ever going to change,” he says. “And then it does kind of change overnight. The awareness changes dramatically. We’ve seen that happen twice this year. During the summer with the Black Lives Matter movement and [the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol]. That was a big wake-up call for a lot of people.”
Garcia adds that it’s important to continue pouring energy into making the future a brighter place for young people. He says he was struck by images of the insurrection in Washington, D.C., because none of the rioters carried banners demanding better futures for their children or that the country take better care of its people.
“I didn’t see anything that said, ‘Let’s create better education or better opportunities,’” he says. “I didn’t see anything that offered any kind of positive for our communities, for all of our people, not just people of color. I didn’t see any of that. It was all dedicated to one man.”
As for the Resistance Jam, Garcia says anyone who tunes in should expect a variety of music. Some professional musicians have pre-recorded videos. Garcia plans to just sit down at his computer, busting out his guitar and seeing what happens. Musicians from all over the country are expected to perform. Some people might sing corridos or ranchera music. Others might go in a more pop-oriented direction. Anything can happen.
“You get some people who are not really performers, but they just want to sing something,” he says. “Sometimes you see someone no one has ever heard of, and they just kill it.”
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