Darrell Grant read the letters and immediately knew they had to be turned into songs.
The letters were written by refugee mothers in a private United States-Mexico border detention facility in Dilley, Texas, in 2016, about what it's like being in prison on Mother's Day. Grant, jazz musician and Portland State University music professor, came across the letters through his friend and former student, Cameron Madill, who asked the mothers to write down their thoughts as part of the Innovation Law Lab, which works with attorneys working pro bono for asylum cases.
So began the "21 Cartas" project. Funded by a Regional Arts & Culture Council grant, Grant has teamed with musician Edna Vazquez to turn the letters and words into songs and help inspire, inform and influence people about the plight of refugees from Central America and Mexico. Clearly, it's an emotionally-charged current immigration debate about the humanitarian and security situation involving refugees on the border, and Grant hopes to make an impact with the performance of "21 Cartas," Friday, May 10, at Alberta Rose Theatre and May 11 in Hillsboro.
Filmmaker Adolfo Cantu-Villareal's evocative portraits of Portland immigrants, reading the letters as part of a film, adds to the story.
There were 20 "cartas," or letters, written, and Grant considers the 21st an ode to the refugee mothers by him and Vazquez. Both Grant and Vazquez wrote lyrics and music for the 14-song, bilingual show, which examines why refugees fled, the dangerous trip north and detention.
Some passages from the refugee women, translated from Spanish:
• "One flees the country due to the gang members and death since the police do nothing."
• "Believe me that it is very difficult for me to flee from my country, but life is sometimes very unjust and if God allowed me to be here it is because he has a bigger purpose for me, for my children and for my family."
• "My dream as a mother is for my children to be free and to make their own decisions."
• "May they have dreams that I did not have, and may they know that they will always have me."
Grant says it was eye-opening going through the letters and making the music.
"I feel moved as a human," Grant says. "One of the things that resonates with me is the idea that I don't have the immigrant experience but I do have a history of African-Americans that were brought to this country without their consent and had to flee in search for a better life.
"To listen to these stories is to call upon one's humanity. We are a nation of immigrants. And legalities and illegalities have always been separate from the morality. (The U.S.) did say, 'Bring us your tired and weak and poor.' This is who these people are."
Obviously the immigration topic is very important, personal and sensitive for Vazquez, who was born and raised in Mexico. She comes from the belief that "no human being can be illegal," that it's a much more complicated problem than building a wall would fix, and "How can we be better humanitarians?"
She adds: "Music connects humanity. It educates and opens minds and helps us overcome social issues together. I give this project my heart. I step into their shoes and I embody their stories, with all their voices, words and laments expressed. It's very difficult to read their stories of agony when all they wanted was to create a nice life. To want more, to want better, that's a universal quality — it could be me or you."
Grant and Vazquez have bonded during the project.
"She's pretty amazing, incredibly powerful, soulful artist," Grant says. "She brings this huge range of musical experience — trained in mariachi music culture, sings rock and folk songs, plays incredible guitar."
Says Vazquez: "We joke, laugh, explore our ideas, talk about hot topics, and always find respectful understanding ... Through our music, we become their voice."
Darrell Grant and Edna Vazquez perform "21 Cartas," accompanied by filmmaker Adolfo Cantu-Villareal's work, 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10, at Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 N.E. Alberta St. Tickets: $30, $20 seniors, $10 students, www.albertarosetheatre.com.
The show and film will also be held 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 11, at the Glenn & Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center in Hillsboro.