The Importance of Being AQUÍ

I have always felt strangely disjointed while living in the Valley. With both of my parents from the Dominican Republic, being a first-generation American and living in the Rio Grande Valley created a singular yet slightly fragmented way of growing up. Dominican customs and traditions and American ideals intersected among the heavily-influential Mexican culture in the Valley. Even after living in the Valley for over 18 years and being active within our own Dominican community here, it’s an intimidating and overwhelming feeling when you know you’re on the same Latinx wavelength as the people around you, but there’s still a hiccup in your Valley identity because of your similar yet inherently different customs.

I had never been able to truly verbalize this discomfort or pinpoint where it stemmed from, but I knew this feeling of un-belonging to my own community is where my desire to leave Texas came from. As a child, I wanted to become an illustrious pastry chef and study in New York, working towards the ultimate goal of becoming a Food Network star. I had never felt tied down to my hometown with the exception of family, friends, and my pets, and figured I’d have nothing to lose if I left. Though times have changed and though my career interests don’t exactly line-up with my eight-year-old self anymore, I’m still fulfilling my childhood dream of attending school outside of Texas; I’ll be studying Journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois beginning this fall. However, I’m finding it harder than I ever could have expected to say goodbye.

At the beginning of this final summer (because for all intents and purposes, this is my final summer as an official resident of the Rio Grande Valley), I became involved with an internship with the wonderful people at Curando RGV, which describes itself as “an intersectional community organization empowering our people in a variety of ways through activism, the arts, local history, and culture.” I had grown involved with the social justice scene in the Valley, but wanted to find a way to make more of an impact and figured this internship would steer me in the right direction.

Though I selectively chose to involve myself in the Media and Reproductive Justice committees, the internship proved that I would be working in all aspects to help improve the Valley; I’ve been volunteering as a clinic escort at Whole Woman’s Health in downtown McAllen throughout the summer, and as a whole we’ve volunteered at the McAllen Nature Center, visited ARISE in Alamo and saw the powerful and important work they are doing to help low-income immigrant families, and helped collect clothing for Curando RGV’s donation drive for the Refugee Center at Sacred Heart Church. I’ve experienced the Valley in such an incredible way. However, I never thought that the social justice work we were doing would intersect with the one thing I admittedly love most:  music.

I witnessed the power and influence that comes from the intersection of music and social justice at Galax Z Fair — a two-day festival put on by Tigersblood.org that takes place during Spring Break — where the festival and a demonstration involving the Caravana 43 coincided. Galax Z Fair became a space for the family of those disappeared 43 students to speak to an audience of mostly high school and college-age individuals and to alert and educate them on the heinous situation they were enduring and what we could do as a community to get closer to the justice that their loved ones deserve.

“A border culture is a beautiful culture, and I wish more of us here, as well as other alternative media outlets, realized this.” – Patrick Garcia

 At the beginning of the summer, word began flying around that a new, two-day summer music festival was in the works for McAllen. AQUÍnceañera was to be a totally unique festival; a celebration of place and independent sound complete with a brand-new venue devoted to culture, creativity, and inclusion.  In my case, the initial announcement of the festival didn’t relay its immediate importance.  Of course I was excited that there was another festival happening quite literally in my own backyard, but I was expecting something along the lines of Galax Z Fair.

However, AQUÍnceañera strayed far from any and all music festivals I’d attended in the past. AQUÍnceañera was an entity of its own, incomparable and immeasurable in importance to the countless other summer music festivals happening. There may be words in existence to describe what occurred AQUÍnceañera, but I don’t believe there exist words to describe how being at AQUÍnceañera felt.

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“In the Valley, nearly everyone is a person of color. And if one throws a local fest, I mean, that’s ultimately what it’s going to be. But the idea of celebrating that element, as well as place, is a narrative I wanted to see revived, reminded, and asserted.” – Patrick Garcia

Walking into Yerberia Cultura for the first time was like walking into a friend’s backyard; it felt like home. Though I attended the first day of the festival alone, I didn’t feel alone in the slightest. I saw the familiar faces of those active in the local music/activist scene, I saw some well-known friends, but the electricity in the air of finally having a safe and familiar venue was intoxicating and enough to make being alone completely comfortable. Throughout the evening, which was filled with dancing to Selena out on the patio and complete with a Donald Trump piñata, I went around asking friends at AQUÍnceañera their thoughts on the festival, which allowed me to see that it wasn’t just me surging with feelings of love and community those two nights.

“It’s important because it’s really easy to lose your culture. […] Here, it’s everywhere. It’s expressed in all the art being made. You’re with your own people and your own culture.” – Myriah Acosta

“I think it’s important because you are celebrating what you are.  I feel like in the Valley we always try to be ‘we want to be like Austin’ or ‘we want to be like San Antonio’, and this is a counter to that. We don’t need to be that; we are something different. In my opinion better, but it’s definitely different, and I think it’s beautiful. There’s nothing like this.” – Edgar Gonzalez 

From Danica Salazar’s throaty pleas of “DON’T FORGET YOUR PLACE” during DeZorah’s final song to Victoria Ruiz’s constant affirmations of love for McAllen and the Rio Grande Valley throughout both Downtown Boys’ set and the days preceding the festival via social media, it was obvious that AQUÍnceañera stood for something far and beyond the music.

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The festival did not occur in a vacuum in which music and social issues were mutually exclusive and where we would all return to our daily lives and recount the weekend’s events as just another concert. It became a space where important issues, such as the brutalization of black and brown bodies at the hands of police, feminism, immigration justice and reform, and the the Valley’s first-ever conference for queer people of color, were openly and publicly discussed within and alongside the music and persisted within the festivalgoers.  Before Malportado Kids exited the stage band member Joey DeFrancesco said, “We’ve been all over the country this month and this is the most special thing we get to do.”  In those moments was impossible to acknowledge the beauty and singularity of the place where we live.

I left the venue that night feeling warm and starry-eyed, and that warmth continued onwards into Aquí Estamos, the Rio Grande Valley’s first-ever conference focusing solely on LGBT people of color and the intersections that those identities bring about in the RGV. Full of insightful workshops, knowledge-sharing activities, and beautiful and positive individuals committed to making the Rio Grande Valley a safe and equal space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identifying people of color, Aquí Estamos was a learning experience and a chance to communicate with individuals who we may not necessarily see or hear about in our every day lives. Taking part in such a critical and pivotal movement was a reality check in the practices of what allies like myself should be doing in order to bolster the voices of these individuals and what we as a community must do in order to continue being an equal and safe space for everyone in the Rio Grande Valley.

The humid South Texas air blew slowly and quietly as Romeo Santos’ voice echoed throughout the patio of Yerberia Cultura. The venue was celebrating its opening eve by hosting the after-conference dance party for Aquí Estamos.  As I stood in the circle of dancers, swaying my hips and spinning in time with the music, I soaked in the moment. There was a feeling of lightness, of comfort, of pure joy that I felt dancing under Yerberia Cultura’s hanging lights. I felt a connection with everyone dancing with me, even if I wasn’t necessarily the closest of friends with anyone there. The hesitation and trepidation I previously felt of not being a “true part” of my community dissolved in the night.

I realized a had a true and established home here, even when it didn’t feel like it sometimes, and realized I would miss everything about the Valley. I would miss these South Texas nights. I would miss raspas and elote and marranitos and spiropapas and conchas. I would miss the manager at my local Walgreens that sees me so often he’s started calling me “mija”. I would miss the electricity that erupts and overflows from the crowds at Cine El Rey. I would miss being a part of this community. And within the realization of everything that I would miss, that evening, I felt more present than ever. I felt powerful and whole and at home.

Me sentí AQUÍ.

Austin City Limits 2014

Originally published in the October issue of InkArt, a collaborative student-run literary magazine published between Sci-Tech and Med High

Music festivals are pretty scary places.  Between the throngs of strangers, the ridiculous amount of bands present (and the set conflicts that ensue – EEEK!), rampant cultural appropriation (PSA:  bindis and Native American headdresses are NOT fashion items), and the very real possibility of you not making it to a port-a-potty in time, it becomes fairly clear why people avoid these massive concert events.  However, Austin City Limits consistently continues to be one of the best ways for people (especially teenagers in high school who don’t live fairly close to big cities) to see multiple bands in one place in the span of one weekend.  Complete with a breathtaking view of downtown Austin from the park, incredible food from local eateries, and plenty of activities to participate in when you need a break from the crowds, Austin City Limits truly holds its own among the countless other music festivals in the festival circuit.

Weekend two’s festivities were made special by the fact that many of the sets were being livestreamed on YouTube, giving the artists a little push to do something that would want to make people tune into their particular set.  Childish Gambino’s late afternoon set on Friday drew a massive, energized crowd that danced and rapped along at every moment, even when he performed a new track less than one week old.  He lit up the stage with both charisma and pyrotechnics, and surprised the crowd by closing out his set with by premiering the music video for his song “Telegraph Ave.”.  The day closed out with one of the most heart-wrenching set conflicts of all time – Beck vs. Outkast – but Outkast brought the party with them, tearing through hits and classics such as “Ms. Jackson” and “Hey Ya” while having their fun with the crowd at Zilker Park.

Saturday brought a fair amount of rain and more mud than was appreciated, but that couldn’t stop the party.  Mac Demarco’s mid-day set drew one of the most engaged crowds of the whole weekend, with everyone dancing along as he played songs like “Freaking Out the Neighborhood.”  He crowdsurfed, he joked, he even pulled up a guy from the crowd and got them to do the guitar solo for his song “Ode to Viceroy,” and he killed it!  He then met up with fans at the side of the stage after his set and was all in all a really great guy and a great performer.  The night brought out the party animals as big name EDM artists like Major Lazer and Skrillex dominated the late night slots, and Zilker was bathed in neon light and thumping bass.

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Mac Demarco at Austin City Limits 2014

Sunday morning brought an early, electrifying performance from Danish songstress MØ, whose solid voice and exciting stage presence made her show all the more memorable.  The electronic duo Chromeo gave festival-goers their dose of funk for the weekend, treating the crowd to hits like “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” and “Fancy Footwork.”  The night ended with perhaps what enticed most people to buy a weekend two pass:  a breathtaking performance from Lorde.  The New Zealand seventeen-year old commanded the stage Sunday night, her incredible voice filling the night air and her spastic yet calculated stage movements capturing the attention of all who watched.IMG_0492

Lorde at Austin City Limits 2014

Though the festival has long been over, the afterglow of those three days still lingers, whether in the form of post-concert depression, the lingering taste of those kimchi fries from Chi’lantro, or the comfort of your commemorative t-shirt.  The experience of Austin City Limits is not one that is easily forgotten, but one that is eagerly awaited for as soon as you step foot back home.