April 22, 2019

Music and Justice

Thanks to a Guggenheim, UMass Amherst jazz professor explores the lives of DREAMers

When UMass Associate Professor of Jazz and African-American Music Felipe Salles met Tereza Lee while earning his doctorate at the Manhattan School of Music, he could not have guessed he was receiving the flicker of inspiration that would become the flame for a Guggenheim grant-supported musical composition. On the evening of April 9, Salles’s multimedia production, The New Immigrant Experience, had its world premiere in the Old Chapel Great Hall.

Salles was inspired by the experience of the DREAMers—people who are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. His friend Lee is “the original DREAMer,” the student who inspired Senator Richard Durbin to write the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act. The act helped Lee, who was undocumented—born in Brazil to Korean parents before her family moved to the U.S. when she was 2 years of age—receive a college education.

With the aid of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, Salles created The New Immigrant Experience from video interviews with a representative group of DREAMers. Excerpts from the interviews are projected on a screen, while being interpreted musically by Salles’s 18-piece Interconnections Ensemble. The premiere was preceded by an emotional panel featuring Lee, Salles, and UMass faculty whose research involves immigrant rights activism.

Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, Salles has his own unique immigration story. His grandparents were immigrants themselves, from Europe to Brazil. Salles came to the United States as a student, then stayed on with a practical training visa, three artist visas, and a green card, before he at last became a citizen. He used his ear for language cadences to create the music that interacts with the video projections.

Even though they are from places as different as Colombia is from Egypt, in their interviews the DREAMers reveal many experiences in common: codes of secrecy they received from their parents to disguise being undocumented, the pain of being riven from members of their family, the gymnastics of navigating different languages, the simple teenage angst of realizing you can’t get a driver’s license when all your friends are learning to drive. Some confess ambivalence about the limitations of the act itself. “I feel guilt,” says Catalina Cruz, whose family is from Colombia: “Getting status should not just be for a few of us.” Salles chose close shots of the speakers’ faces so that instead of being perceived as a group, they could be humanized in the audience’s perception.

“In the last few years, I felt so much despair,” says Salles. So, he says, he channeled his feelings into creating a beneficial communication and work of art. “The music is my emotional reading of each one of these stories.”