The debate over immigration is highly political, but for the Los Angeles-based group La Santa Cecelia, the issue is painfully personal. Lead singer Marisol Hernandez’s parents came to L.A. from Mexico without papers, and accordionist Jose “Pepe” Carlos is undocumented.
The group’s poignant song and video El Hielo (ICE), from their upcoming album Trenta Dias, has become something of an anthem for immigration reform since its April 9 release. Hernandez discussed it with The Miami Herald while here for last week’s Hispanicize Conference.
Q. What inspired El Hielo?
A few months ago we were working on the music for our new album with songwriter Claudia Brant, and we said we want to write about what’s going on with our parents, with us in the band, with immigration. The song talks about three characters. One is Eva, a domestic worker — she’s my mother. We also wrote about Marta, a dear friend who’s a Dreamer [undocumented student who was brought to the U.S. as a child]. And Jose, who’s a gardener who drives around without a license, is loosely based on our band mate, Pepe Carlos.
Q. Tell me about your own experience with being undocumented.
I was lucky enough to be born in the U.S., but my parents came to this country [from Mexico] without papers. My father came in, I think, 1969, my mother came in the late ’70s. They met here in the United States and fell in love. I was their first child.
My mom’s always been a domestic worker, cleaning houses, offices, being a babysitter My father would help at my grandfather’s shop on Olvera Street where they would sell Mexican goods.
When I was very young I didn’t know anything about immigration or borders. I remember one day my great grandmother passed away. My mom was very close to her and she left to Mexico to her funeral, and it took her a long time to get back home. She came back and was able to get her residency.
I remember my cousins coming [from Mexico] and having to go to San Diego to pick them up from a “coyote” [smuggler]. As an adult and a U.S. citizen, I’ve had family friends who ask me for help. One said please could I pick up his wife and child who was 3 years old. I had to pick up a woman I’d never met at a truck stop. I was afraid and amazed at what she had gone through, having to hide in the back of a cargo truck with her kid.
Q. What about your band mate?
Pepe Carlos was brought here to the U.S. from Oaxaca when he was 6 with his mother, brother and uncle. I’ve known him since we were 16 years old. We met on Olvera Street playing for tips on weekends, learning our musical trade. Pepe is like my brother. We have the same dream, the same passion.
When we get invites to go to Mexico or Arizona or San Diego, it’s bittersweet, because sometimes we’ve had to leave him behind because he can’t travel. We were invited to go to SXSW in Austin, and knowing how things were getting worse in Arizona we had to take extra long routes to avoid checkpoints. He’s been very courageous to say “Let’s go” or “I’m not going to Mexico, get a sub.”
Q. Doesn’t his coming out as undocumented with this song put him at risk?
We think in a way he is. But I think writing El Hielo was therapeutic for him. He felt tired of living in shadows and in fear. We’re so proud of him and we’re standing beside him. And we’re inspired by other people coming out saying we’re undocumented and we’re unafraid.
Q. What do you hope to convey?
The best thing we can do is share the stories of immigrants and deportation and humanize them, show stories of mothers, students, hardworking people. Often immigrants are treated like criminals, or like they’re just numbers. A lot of people think this has nothing to do with them. But this country was founded and made by immigrants. Our parents aren’t here to take — they give. My parents came from another country and now here I am to share their story and Pepe’s story.
You have 11 million or more people in this country living in shadows and fear. There has to be change, some kind of reform where people aren’t taken from their homes and families. It’s inhumane and it’s got to stop.
Q. What kind of response have you gotten?
We’re so overwhelmed that people are embracing this song for their own struggle to be a citizen in this country. The first time we performed it live was at the Kennedy Center a few months back and it was pretty amazing, the way people listened and sang along and applauded and came up to us afterwards. People are sharing and passing along performances of us singing El Hielo.
We were just in Washington, D.C., [on April 10] for the huge immigration rally on Capitol Hill, and we sang the song, we marched to the ICE offices. They were expecting 25,000 and at end of day it was 100,000 who came out, families, children, people from different walks of life and races. I felt like we were part of something bigger.
Q. Do you think a song can make a difference?
We have faith. If we keep telling our stories, if people start coming out of the shadows, if we keep making our presence known, there will be immigration reform.