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21 Cartas: songs from the wall

Portland musicians Edna Vazquez and Darrell Grant set words of incarcerated refugees to music

“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.”

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