There is a particular smell to corn that has been soaked in wood ash lye, then washed and hulled and ground into a fine meal.
It is the aroma of freshly made tortillas, of tamales as they steam, of my mother’s huipiles.
Really. No matter how freshly laundered, no matter how many cedar balls or lavender sachets have been thrown in the drawer to keep the moths away, the distinctive hand-woven Guatemalan blouses my mother wore retain the smell of a grain turned more aromatic, more flavorful, more nutritious by the nixtamalation process.
Yared Portillo, a Philadelphia community activist, has four of them: One she built from scratch; two others were secured from renowned artisans; the final one — received broken and in pieces from a friend — she carefully repaired and made whole again.
The repaired instrument isn’t a bad metaphor for the role the jarana has played in the US immigration protest movement for the past two decades. It’s a small, eight-string instrument from Veracruz, Mexico, patterned after a 16th century baroque Spanish guitar that is often confused with a ukulele.
In the hands of Chicanos or recent Mexican immigrants, the jarana — as well as the son jarocho musical form with which it is inextricably associated — energizes rallies and undergirds the chants of those who want to repair not only a broken immigration system, but the increasingly broken relationship between two nations sharing both borders and histories.
It looks at the deportation stories of two men: Mout Iv, who was deported to Cambodia, and César, who was deported to Mexico, after a lifetime in the United States. It also looks at the changing definition of criminal deportations over the years…