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Arizona law spurs backlash among artists

Musicians and visual artists produce works decrying the anti-illegal immigration bill.

June 02, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • PROTEST: Harry Gamboa designed this poster.
PROTEST: Harry Gamboa designed this poster. (Harry Gamboa Jr. )

Four summers ago, a handful of Spanish-speaking radio disc jockeys encouraged hundreds of thousands of Latino marchers to the streets of Los Angeles and other cities to support immigration reform.

Now, in what is partially a sign of the growing clout of U.S. Latinos both as voters and cultural consumers, a number of prominent artists, both Latino and non-Latino, are urging fans to protest Arizona's controversial new statute that requires law enforcement officials to determine the status of people they suspect are illegal immigrants.


FOR THE RECORD:
Artists and immigration law: An article in the June 2 Calendar section about artists' reactions to Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law did not fully describe the measure. The article said the law requires law enforcement officials to determine the status of people they suspect are illegal immigrants. The law applies only to people whom police have stopped for another reason. —

Several musicians, including Carlos Santana, Willie Nelson and the Mexican pop-rock band Maná, are recording songs in support of the millions of immigrants, mainly from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, living in the United States, whatever their legal status.

"These folks are coming to us the way immigrants have always come to us. We really need to welcome these people," Nelson said in a phone interview, explaining why he took part in recording the song "Sí Se Puede," colloquially translated as "Yes We Can."

While some of the new songs adopt a gentle tone, imparting messages of universal brotherhood, others take a more aggressively political stance. For example, the U.S.-born, bilingual hip-hop performer known as Mexia has recorded a track called "Todos Somos Arizonahttp://www.youtube.com/watch%3Fv=ItEuDWHUWq0 (We Are All Arizona), in which he declares, "We're Latinos on the rise like blood pressure yeah, trying to control us with fear."

"We clean your home, cook your food while you sit on your [throne] without a clue," sings Mexia, who is the son of Hernán Hernández, one of the founding members of the Mexican super-group Los Tigres Del Norte, which has an enormous stateside following and frequently sings about immigrants' struggles.

A growing number of other musical performers, including Colombian pop stars Shakira and Juanes, Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, Los Tigres del Norte, Sonic Youth, Kanye West and L.A. indie favorites Ozomatli, have vowed that they will not perform in Arizona. So far it appears that few, if any, prominent musicians or artists have stepped forward publicly to support the Arizona law.

While opinion polls indicate that most voters in the U.S., including California, are deeply deeply divided over the Arizona law, it's doubtful that groups like Ozomatli and Rage Against the Machine need worry about alienating members of their multicultural, politically left-leaning fan bases. In a statement released this week, De la Rocha expressed concern that Arizona's SB 1070 could lead to fans of the group being "pulled over and harassed … because they are brown or black, or for the way they speak, or for the music they listen to."

The genial "Si Se Puede" conveys the idea of solidarity rather than protest. Alberto Kreimerman, the song's producer and president of Fundación Hermes Music, emphasized in an interview that the idea for the tune originated several years ago and was not written specifically in response to the Arizona law. The track's aim, he said, was to raise consciousness and empathy for immigrants in general.

"We think it's a problem of awareness," Kreimerman said. "It's not a problem of law."

The single, which includes contributions from Santana, Nelson, Ramon Ayala, Los Lonely Boys, Maná and the Tejano/Norteño group Intocable, is scheduled to be released on the Fourth of July. Sales proceeds will benefit Fundación Hermes and another foundation that assists immigrants, run by longtime farmworkers' rights activist Dolores Huerta.

Other musical artists are recording songs with more pointed lyrics. The San Francisco-area group Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds) has released a protest song in the traditional corrido folk style titled "Estado de Verguenza"

A few visual artists also have entered into the debate. Harry Gamboa Jr., the well-known L.A. essayist, photographer and performance artist, was inspired to create a graphic design image of Arizona with the words "Boycott Hate State." He is encouraging others to download the image free off his website.

Gamboa said the current controversy reminded him of the civil rights movement of his youth. But he doesn't believe that those who support the Arizona law are representative of U.S. popular sentiment as a whole.

"I think most people would like to have a good time and enjoy each other's company more often than not," Gamboa said. "One bad prickly pear can ruin the whole bunch and make things quite spiny."

Pilar Díaz, formerly of the group Los Abandoned, approaches the subject of illegal immigration somewhat playfully in her song and accompanying music video "Ilegal En Estyle." Speaking by phone, Díaz said she hopes that her Spanglish-titled tune and whimsical, partially animated video will encourage all immigrants to believe that they can rise above temporary hardships and "live in style," relatively speaking, while pursuing a better future.

"It's something that's very close to me because my parents immigrated here with me when I was a child," said Díaz, whose family is from Chile. "I know those struggles, and I know how hard that was for my parents."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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