Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

21 Cartas: songs from the wall


“I am Mexican, and they killed my husband a year and a half ago, leaving me alone and pregnant with our second child. It has been so difficult to find a way to feed and clothe my children, and we had to live in hiding from the gang members because they had put a bounty on my husband for not helping them. “

This Sunday, many of us celebrate our mothers, whether in memory, over the airwaves, or in person. But some moms and their families won’t be celebrating. These mothers and their children are locked up in detention facilities like Dilley, Texas’s South Texas Family Residential Center — a soothing euphemism for what’s really a for-profit prison for refugees fleeing danger. But they’re not imprisoned by their home countries, but by us — jails paid for by American taxpayers.

Grant and Vazquez rehearse 21 Cartas. Photo: Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal

This Mother’s Day weekend, audiences in Hillsboro and Portland can hear the words of some of those mothers, set to music by two of Oregon’s most accomplished and socially conscious musicians. Mexican singer/songwriter Edna Vazquez and jazz pianist/composer Darrell Grant have drawn on letters written by mothers to create a bilingual song cycle, 21 Cartas that they’ll perform alongside readings of the letters themselves. (Excerpts from the letters appear throughout this story in italics.) The performances will also include Portland-based Mexican filmmaker Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal’s portraits of Portland’s immigrant community.

 “The bilingual songs of 21 Cartas range from lullabies to battle cries,” Grant explains. “Together they address the hopes, hardships, struggles, and dreams of those who have risked everything in pursuit of better lives for their children.”

“I am Guatemalan and I fled from my country with the illusion that I could come here and be a free and productive member of society. I could never have imagined that I would come here and be placed in jail with my children. It is an injustice that we are here when we come with the words of Jesus in our mouths. All we ask is for justice.”

Three years ago, one of Grant’s former students, Cameron Madill, 36, volunteered to help families imprisoned at what they called STFRC’s “baby jail” expedite their asylum claims. Many were fleeing violence, gangs, and corrupt authorities in their home countries, sometimes in part enabled by US action or inaction in Latin America. People who can show that they’re trying to enter the US because of legitimate fear of persecution at home have a legal right to seek asylum in the US. But they have to make their cases.

Madill, a fluent Spanish speaker who owns Portland web design and digital marketing company PixelSpoke, could help, thanks to Portland-based​ ​Innovation Law Lab’s​ legal software that allows average citizens to​ assist in processing asylum claims​. He spoke to some of them on Mother’s Day weekend 2016.

When Madill returned to Portland, he brought with him 21 letters (in Spanish: cartas) from the incarcerated mothers that he translated into English — letters that expressed fear, hope, despair, prayer.  He wanted to share their stories with the world.

Letters from ‘baby jail.’ Photo: Cameron Madill

These women come from “societies where women are viewed as property,” Madill wrote on Medium in 2016. “Societies where if a woman dares to leave their boyfriend who beats and rapes them at his whims, they will have committed the ultimate affront to his machismo and will be hunted down by his friends. Where a man can lock his partner up in an apartment and refuse to let her leave for two years, inflicting terrible abuse on her and their young daughter the entire time. Where a gang can break into a woman’s house, point a gun at her 4-year-old son, and then gang rape her in front her son. Where a gang can demand $5,000 from a woman and threaten to kill her son and force her 11-year-old daughter to be a prostitute if she doesn’t come up with the money in 3 days.”

“I am from Honduras. I have taken a long journey with my son, fighting every step of the way. I have risked everything for my son and I know that nothing is easy but we have suffered so much: days in hiding, days without food, and so I am left with nothing else but to plead that God cares for us. I have risked so much to come here for a powerful reason: I am terrified to return to my country.”

Darrell Grant read Madill’s Medium post. A dedicated advocate for social justice, the longtime PSU prof has long encouraged his students to put their talents behind their values. (Read my ArtsWatch profile of Grant, which discusses his teaching philosophy.) Some of his own students had been immigrants and “Dreamers” who’d been brought to the US as young children and faced deportation. And Grant’s own African-American ancestors, brought unwillingly to the US, had faced similar struggles for rights and acceptance in a strange land.

“I thought,” he remembers, “‘We have to make music about this.’”

Edna Vazquez. Photo: Tonia Gomez Daza

When Innovation Law Lab asked him to perform at a benefit for the organization, Grant knew he needed a collaborator with closer ties to the involved community. He thought of Vazquez, another boundary-breaking musicians whom he’d worked with in projects at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre and Bravo Youth Orchestras. She immigrated from Mexico in the 1990s, performed in a mariachi band and then forged an admired solo career that embraced diverse influences and her own original musical vision. She also worked with the Oregon Symphony on another family related song as part of Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project, which pairs musicians with mothers, often from challenging situations like housing insecurity, to write and record personal lullabies for their children. Vazquez is receiving the ​Most Influential Latina Award 2019​ and is touring with Pink Martini.

Grant secured support from ILL, Regional Arts & Culture Council, Latino Network, Joaquin Lopez, Cynthia Gomez, and Innovation Law Lab. As the project developed, its urgency grew, as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump leveraged rabid anti-immigrant sentiment in key voting regions into a narrow Electoral College victory. His administration has since intensified anti-immigrant rhetoric and action, expanding the detention policy, separating parents from their children, and making 21 Cartas even timelier and more significant.

Darrell Grant

“Let people know of this injustice, and that here we are imprisoned with our children and it is unjust.”

Grant also reached out to the immigrant rights organization the Latino Network to gain a deeper understanding of immigrants’ stories and struggles that in turn informed their songwriting. Each wrote about half the songs in both English and Spanish.  In music blending jazz, Mexican folk, and even rap styles, their song cycle, which includes phrases from the letters themselves, channels the varied emotions felt by the mothers along various stages of their journey.

“Working with Darrell has been an adventure,” Vazquez wrote in an email. “We don’t see ourselves as separate because he is American and I am Mexican. We are two human beings working and understanding each other through music. Collaborating on the 21 Cartas project has exposed us to stories of oppression and has called upon us to step into the stories of these mothers. Through our music, we become their voice.”


“We came because we suffered and now we suffer more here being mistreated in the icebox and in a kennel. It is what a mother endures to give our children better opportunities.”

They also brought in Villarreal, whose 2014 documentary The Darkest Hour, narrated through spoken word and hip hop, exposed the inhumanity of the U.S. prison system. He’s also directed videos for rappers, post punk musicians, and more, and has a new feature film, Stacy, about how Americans avoid honest discussions about race and sex. Grant and Vazquez insisted that Villareal’s film be shown in Hillsboro, which boasts a diverse immigrant community including many Latino Oregonians. 

Chamber Music Northwest The Old Church Strings Portland Oregon


Filmmaker Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal.

  “To be a mother at such a young age is very difficult, but I hope that with the help of my family here I will be able to give my children what we never had: the ability to go out from your house and walk the streets without fear that you will be killed.”

Beyond bringing the mothers’ stories beyond the walls that imprison them, Vazquez and Grant have other goals for the project: to reveal tough truths about the causes and effects of the border crisis, and to build lasting relationships among all involved.

“The US has a long history of policing immigration, beginning with CIA intervention in Central American governments back in the 1960’s,” Vazquez explains. “Today, fear of immigration has manifested into the rise of dangerous gangs, caravans of families at the border, mothers being separated from their children, and modern day slavery in the form of people being sent to private jails across Texas. The systems of oppression at play here are real and this dynamic is deeply ingrained into a system of privilege that benefits some, but not others. What makes me passionate about a project like 21 Cartas is the opportunity to explore and shine a light onto these truths. Music connects humanity.”


Vazquez rehearses a song from ’21 Cartas.’ Photo: Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal.

Grant wants the project to continue sowing those connections. “The one kernel of writing the piece is the start,” he says. “What I hope will happen is relationships will be made, connections will be built, hearts will open up — and from there, policies will change. “

“I pray that those outside can understand and sympathize with our plight. We did not take the decision to flee our countries lightly, and we are here because we hope you will help us knowing what we have left behind. I am so afraid of returning to my country because I was the victim of beating and rape by my ex-boyfriend. Please, help us and — above all else — listen to our stories.”

21 Cartas, 7:30 PM Friday, May 10. Alberta Rose Theatre, Portland, and 7:30 PM Saturday, May 11. Glenn & Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center, Hillsboro. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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