Music has long been a force that creates our self-image, both personally and nationally – particularly in times of challenge. The most consequential challenge America is now undergoing is one of demography: economic, environmental and technological forces are driving people to move around the world – and to the US – at a pace unknown in history, rapidly changing our demographics and our image of ourselves and our nation.
Our music reflects this. The emergence of Latin and Latino music as one of the most popular music genres in the U.S., surpassing country and EDM, is one sign of that. The incorporation of music forms like cumbia into songs in the US and worldwide is another. The fusion of Latin, Reggae, blues, rock, jazz, mariachi all reflect the demographic change in the US.
Until recently the US has handled the change fairly well – much better than Europe or Japan. After all, the US was born as an immigrant country. The eastern and Southern quadrants of our nation were colonized by immigrants from Europe, and the western fourth was colonized by Spain and was actually Mexico until 1848. So Americans have not only been more comfortable with immigration than Europe, but the nation has benefited from it, economically, technologically and musically. Immigrants were welcomed, put to work, and allowed to take advantage of the opportunities here to found companies like Google, Pfizer, Amazon, Tesla, and nurture artists like Carlos Santana, Gloria Estefan, Joni Michell and many more.
That is changing; the pace of change has been so fast and the scale so large that the welcome mat is being pulled in – sometimes violently. But the change is unstoppable – the global forces driving immigration can’t be blocked by laws, by walls, or by politicians who are willing to risk the next Google or Kraft Foods or Eddie Van Halen for their short term political gain. The paradigm that immigrants work hard, start businesses, and raise children who grow America is slipping away.
Music can help bring it back.
Songs can remind America of its past – that it is an immigrant country. And songs can remind us that immigrants are is best source of innovation, its secret weapon in the world against the closed countries like China and Iran and North Korea that want to destroy us. And some songs can do both at once and make us cry and hope at the same time.
I encountered one of those songs this week in Nancy Sanchez’s video of her song “Puerto del Sol” – “Sun Gate” in English – with the Grammy-winning mariachi band Flor de Toloache. The video follows a middle aged immigrant women through her 12- hour day of multiple jobs to support her daughter who wanted to become a singer. The woman was Nancy’s mother; her years of backbreaking work allowed her daughter to become an award -winning jazz singer, appear in television shows and in movies, play on NPR, release albums, get signed to a major publishing label, and do it all while graduating from college.
Nancy’s parents brought her to the US when she was 8 years old, worked non-stop to let her and her sister earn the American dream, and in the process gave this country the gift of music. The video and the song reminded me that when my grandparents immigrated here from Ireland and worked 15-hour days on farms and oilfields in Oklahoma and Texas they didn’t know they would they eventually gave the US a son who became a Navy captain and then designed the communications equipment for the experimental jets that helped the US maintain its technological advantage in the air. Nor did they know they would see grandchildren who graduated from MIT, won Emmys, and even launched a project that got nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. They were just hardworking immigrants pursuing the American dream for their children, like Nancy’s mother.
“Puerto del Sol” surfaced those memories and gave me hope that it will surface similar memories in other Americans of their parents and grandparents who came here, worked incredibly hard, and gave America children whose creative energy continually renews it and is leadership in the world. That is what music does. I was reminded of that when I saw Sanchez’s video on YouTube (created by an immigrant) and walked through the “Sun Gate” with her mother.
Patrick O’Heffernan, host Music Sin Fronteras radio