By Rachel Wishnie-Edwards
Being a successful businesswoman, doctor or CEO is not the only way women can shine as leaders. Many women in the arts world use their talent—be it music, painting, dance or more—to inspire audiences. Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez, lead singer of the Mexican-American band La Santa Cecilia, with her unique style and message about immigration reform, is one of those women. La Marisoul and the five other Latino band members, each the children of immigrants, write many of their songs with the goal of humanizing the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In 2014, the group won a Grammy for the best Latin Rock album for their album “Treinta Días.” In her acceptance speech, La Marisoul dedicated the award to the “more than eleven million undocumented people that live and work really hard in this country, and that still need to lead a more dignified life.”
This past summer, I was lucky enough to see an outdoor concert of La Santa Cecilia as a part of the Arts and Ideas Festival in New Haven, Connecticut, my hometown. La Marisoul embraced her typical quirky appearance by wearing a flouncy yellow skirt, striped tights, hot pink belt and rhinestone glasses. Her playful style first caught my attention, and I loved that she did not play into the typical female pop star role. Once she began to talk, first introducing the band members, then the group’s rare sound and message, I realized her uniqueness ran much deeper than her appearance. La Santa Cecilia’s sound is a combination of Pan-American musical styles ranging from rumba and tango to jazz and rock. Like the origins of the band, and their hometown of Los Angeles, California, their sound is an unfamiliar yet beautiful blend of cultures. The band’s upbeat rhythms quickly had the 10,000 people who had come to the concert up and dancing.
Halfway through the concert, I noticed a group of people—mostly Latinos—had gathered at the front of the crowd holding up posters. The posters read things like “ni una más deportación,” or “not one more deportation,” and “dos millones demasiados,” or “two million too many,” referring to the huge number of deported immigrants. As the concert went on, more signs emerged from the crowds, with each person shouting their support for undocumented immigrants and immigrant rights. These supporters were responding to the passionate goal of La Santa Cecilia’s music: they seek to humanize undocumented immigrants, by reminding listeners that they are not political fodder or statistics, but real people.
The band’s cover of the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” offers a new interpretation of the classic song. Their version is about migrant farm workers, and the difficult lives they lead. La Santa Cecilia’s music video illustrates this connection by reminding viewers of where their produce, in this case, strawberries, comes from. The video begins with a bowl of clean strawberries and moves back through the process of getting them to the table. Ultimately, the video shows the fields where migrant workers painstakingly pick strawberries from dawn until dusk, in poor working conditions. Miguel Ramírez, another band member, explains “we made the video because…we want to make sure people understand we’re talking about people, human beings that are working, human beings that have families.”
Another song on the Grammy-winning album is called “El Hielo,” or “ice.” This is a reference to ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that detains and deports undocumented immigrants. The song lyrics, entirely in Spanish, reflect the perpetual state of fear many immigrants live in because of their undocumented status. They are at the mercy of their bosses, who threaten to report them for being “illegal,” and of ICE, el hielo, which can raid their workplace or home at any time to arrest them. The music video for this song shows real-life undocumented immigrants facing the daily struggles that La Marisoul sings about.
In 2013, La Santa Cecilia performed for 100,000 people at an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C. This and the small-scale rally at the outdoor concert that I attended are just two examples of the massive following La Marisoul and her band have garnered. La Marisoul has used her talent to make audiences think about the precarious situations of the undocumented immigrants, and how important those people are to the rest of the population. Her ability to provoke such thoughts, while at the same time getting thousands of people to jump up and dance to her idiosyncratic musical style, is inspiring. Women like La Marisoul can make as much of a difference through artistic talent as professionals can in their fields. I can only imagine what La Santa Cecilia has in store next.