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.
Art is supposed to do more than just mark that the Democrats are in town.
I inherited a funky pin from my mother that says “Arte Salva Vidas” — “Art Saves Lives.” An artist who created work in Guatemala during the terrible 36+ year undeclared civil war there, my mother understood that statement in her very bones.
And though my art and circumstance are quite different than hers, I understand it too.
I wear that pin, from time to time, to remind myself that the real power of any (all) of the arts isn’t represented by marketing ploys or branding campaigns, but resides in art’s ability to transform lives, ways of thinking and seeing, and society itself.
Art prompts participation, demands engagement, razes barriers and the walls between us.
I’m happy to note that a number of organizations and artists in our city have scheduled events during the week of the Democratic Convention that — in diverse, unique and very real ways — highlight the formidable transformative power of the arts.
Read the rest of the column and take a look at SOAPBOX for Cultural Equity, Truth to Power and Juntos’ portable mural and march events by clicking here.