The traditional view of Thanksgiving, like many holidays, is full of irony. For many Americans, it seems strange, even offensive, to celebrate the arrival of English colonists when that arrival was quickly followed by centuries of racism, oppression and genocidal brutality toward indigenous peoples. These days, that celebration even exists alongside an increasingly ugly rage about “illegal immigration” along the Mexican border — when individuals, most of them descendants of indigenous peoples, cross borders that European immigrants drew.
Anyone looking for artists that express the current struggle for immigrants’ rights will find that My America, a benefit CD for the movie “Papers,” does a particularly good job. The CD was put together by Molina Soleil and Aju, a music duo from Denver, CO that specializes in their own multilingual fusion of jazz, soul and hip-hop.
My America and “Papers” both tell the stories of undocumented youths whose parents brought them into the United States when they were children. Some have siblings that are citizens, and a number of them spend most of their lives not even knowing they are undocumented. But the moment they turn 18, the law views them as criminals.
These young people don’t have “papers” — citizenship documentation like social security numbers and birth certificates. Without “papers,” they can’t live normal lives in the country they grew up in — hence the name of the movie and the album’s Spanish-peppered, hip-hop single, “Without Papers.”
The 16-track album by CHiTT Productions features songs from a range of musical styles. “Quero a Paz” by Quilombolas, is a funky, guitar-scratching track with a strut reminiscent of slower jams by Carlos Santana or War. “Pyramids” by See More Perspective — with its lyrics about pride in the artist’s Hispanic heritage and the greatness of the Inca civilization — is a pretty old-school rap song that approaches a bumping, party-like feel.
Overall, Molina Soleil and Aju’s CD presents a consistently meditative mood, often straddling the uncertain line between spoken word poetry and rap. A full hour of this kind of political and intellectual intensity may be too much for some. And several pieces — like Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria’s “Land of the Incas” — disrupt the flow with completely unaccompanied spoken word performances that offer no reprieve from the heavy content.
But these artists definitely have a reason to be so serious. Without a birth certificate or a social security number, it is extremely difficult — if not impossible — for the people depicted in the music and the movie to attend college. If they try to work, vote or even drive, they break the law. And though they grew up in the United States, these “immigrants” constantly face the threat of being deported to a country that many of them don’t even remember. In the movie, many of the undocumented youths remind viewers that if they were deported to their parent’s country, they couldn’t even speak the native language there.
The musicians and the filmmakers are ultimately trying to get Congress to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act). The DREAM Act would provide a path for these young people to gain legal status. The bill was re-introduced in March of 2009 by a bi-partisan group of senators after similar bills had been railroaded for years. Critics condemn the DREAM Act as “amnesty,” an ill-suited word, considering the fact these youths are being “forgiven” for choices they didn’t make in the first place.
Screenings of “Papers” are taking place all over the country to generate support for the Dream Act, and those who can’t host a screening can still use My America as another way to raise awareness. The proceeds from the benefit CD go towards distributing “Papers” to more audiences, while lyrically the music carries the message of young people desperate for a chance to succeed.
Geoffrey Dobbins is current Arts and Culture Fellow at WireTap who learned how to write for magazines, newspapers and blogs at the University of Cincinnati. Between runs to the local comic book shop, he’s been a contributor for Cincinnati Magazine, The News Record, The Cincinnati Herald, The Root and WireTap magazine.
Originally posted on WireTap Magazine on 27 November 2009.