Friday, September 5, 2014

My summer with Sones de México, or why I love Chicago

Chicago, as a major U.S. city, has always been a destination for immigrants. My grandparents on both sides arrived here from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century and settled on the south side. Chicago was an industrial powerhouse in those days, producing steel from the mills and meat from the Stock Yards in equal measure. Industry meant jobs, and jobs (then and now) often mean immigrants in search of a better life. My grandparents were preceded by the Germans and Irish, and followed by Mexicans and African-Americans (not strictly immigrants, but the American south with its Jim Crow laws could have been another country).

All of them faced hardships and discrimination upon their arrival, but hung in just the same, over time transforming the city into the multicultural place it is today. Those prejudices, sadly, haven't gone away, especially in the case of those easily identifiable by facial features and skin color. Segregation and poverty remain deep scars in our psychic and physical landscapes. Chicago is nobody's idea of paradise, but its blue collar working class culture still holds out a promise, not always fulfilled, that if you come here and you work hard, you can change your life for the better.

photo: Todd Winters
The members of Sones de México Ensemble all arrived in the early 1990s, as Pilsen, a near south side community with Czech roots that was my grandparent's starting place here, was transforming itself into the cultural and artistic heart of Chicago's Mexican-American community. I've followed the group off and on for years and became personally acquainted with some of its members. Twelve weeks ago, an e-mail arrived out of the blue asking if I'd be willing to assist them with the marketing of an upcoming concert. One of the members was aware that I was struggling a bit financially and knew of my work at the Chicago Sinfonietta, who had done a few collaborations with Sones over the years. I thought about it for about 2 seconds before saying yes.

And so it was that a part-time job quickly turned into an all-consuming endeavor and, as it turns out, one of the most satisfying projects of my professional life. More importantly, though, it was a profoundly moving experience that unexpectedly connected me to my own culture.

The concert was their 20th Anniversary Celebration, and it took place in what is perhaps the loveliest performance facility on the planet, Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion. Pritzker is beautiful to be sure, but it's also somewhat intimidating in its vastness, holding upwards of 12,000 people. Believe me, I've been to plenty of concerts there when a mere 3,000 or so show up and it can feel like a ghost town. So that was the challenge - go from zero awareness to a crowd of at least 6 or 7,000 in 11 weeks.

As a city owned venue, Pritzker Pavilion exists as a public service, presenting almost all of it's shows for free. It has been showcasing "world music" since it opened in 2004, mostly because of the efforts of the city's former Cultural Affairs program director. Heck, one of its first ever shows (after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of course) was an ad-hoc ensemble dubbed the Chicago Immigrant Orchestra made up of, yes, the city's finest ethnic musicians from its many communities. Those concerts are mostly gone now, and I miss the way the ethnic group represented on stage would show up en masse, joined by world music aficionados like myself, all of us in joyful communion for a couple of hours.

I won't bore you with details of my job but I will say this: Once we got rolling, the support and enthusiasm from the Latino community was a wonder to behold. In the hostile environment of 2014 America, where immigrants are scorned and children are deported back to their murderous homelands,  the prospect of a proudly Mexican-American music ensemble performing downtown on the city's most beautiful showcase (and a tourist magnet to boot) ignited a joy and anticipation that was nearly unquenchable.

photo: Scott Pollard
Some of you may know that I'm a freelance writer specializing in music coverage, and one of the pleasures of that endeavor is researching the artist that I'm writing about to better understand the context of their music. I do the same for my marketing clients. If I know what motivates them, then I can better tell their story. I began my Sones de México work with a series of long interviews with Juan Díes, one of their founders. One of the things I quickly learned was that Chicago was very much chosen on purpose as the place to start the group, not only because of the flourishing Mexican arts community, but also because of Chicago's broader identity as a city built by hard working immigrants. They were soon collaborating with Irish folk, blues, jazz and classical musicians to explore commonalities among cultures.

Unlike my father, I have been lucky to never spend a day on a factory floor or driving a bus. Despite this, though, I proudly self-identify as both blue collar and immigrant. When I taste Mexican food, I'm also tasting the Czech food of my childhood, and my parent's childhood, and their parents before them. When I go back to my old southwest side neighborhood and see that it's mostly Latino, it feels like it hasn't changed at all, still filled with immigrants and the children of immigrants, working hard to build a decent life.

Photo: Omar Torres-Kortright
As Sones de México was nearing the end of their astounding concert before an equally astounding crowd of 10,000 people, mostly Mexican but with a good chunk of other nationalities as well, they played a song I knew they were going to play because I had the set list. That knowledge, however, in no way prepared me for the wave of emotion I was about to feel. Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land has sometimes been called America's second national anthem, and I personally prefer it to the frankly militaristic Star Spangled Banner. "This land is your land..." Juan Díes said in English, pointing to the crowd, "... this land is my land", touching his chest. "Esta tierra es tuya." And then, "Para
todos los inmigrantes", for all the immigrants. And with that, they launched into their rollicking norteño arrangement of this beautiful song. Norteños are polkas, really, the musical result of Czech and German immigrants settling in Mexico and Texas 150 years ago, meeting both the indigenous people and the Spanish immigrants who arrived before them, sharing what they knew, sharing something that I knew from all those Bohemian weddings I attended when my cousins got married.

Photo: Dayna Calderon

For all the immigrants, indeed.


  1. Wow Don! My eyes welled up reading your story. I am glad I found you. I've also had a great time working with you this summer. I think you GET it! People have been asking me how we're going to top the success of Wednesday's concert going forward. Let's do more work together and show them! I am posting your story on our Facebook page!