It’s midafternoon, but the four members of La Santa Cecilia still look like they could use all the espresso on tap at the Design District cafe Buena Vista Deli. They were up late the previous night, presenting a prize at Univision’s Premio Lo Nuestro awards, and up again early this morning making the rounds of TV shows.
For this band of immigrants and children of immigrants who began performing for change on the streets of L.A., playing a wildly eclectic mix of Mexican cumbia and ranchera, blues, punk-pop and reggae, the appearance on one of Latin music’s glossiest telecasts was simultaneously exhilarating and disorienting.
“I remember watching Enrique Iglesias on Premio when I was a teenager,” says singer Marisol Hernandez, known as La Marisoul, who brought her mother along to Miami. “It was my guilty pleasure because I was a rocker.”
The pleasures — and disorientation — have been accelerating since January, when Santa Cecilia won a Grammy for Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Band. Hernandez dedicated the award to “the more than 11 million undocumented people that live and work really hard in this country.”
That one of them is Santa Cecilia accordionist Jose “Pepe” Carlos, who was 6 when his parents brought him to the United States from Mexico, has made the growing recognition all the sweeter. Santa Cecilia’s wrenching song and video ICE (El Hielo) has been an anthem for the immigrant rights movement. Their award prompted headlines of “ A Dreamer Wins a Grammy” and gave them a bigger platform for their passionate support of immigration reform.
“I didn’t even know I could afford a dream like that, to go that far playing music like we’re playing,” says Hernandez, whose parents also emigrated from Mexico without papers, and whose mother sometimes brought her along to cleaning jobs because she couldn’t afford a baby sitter. “It’s important to remind people that the reason this country is so great and so amazing is that everyone comes from someplace else.”
For Carlos, the award was a particularly proud moment of redemption. “It’s a small example of what we can do if we’re given the chance, if all the dreamers were given a chance to contribute to this country,” he says. “Of how the hard work we do as immigrants gives something to this country.”
His band mates are happy to be that example. “If this group of kids who are immigrants and children of immigrants are up on the biggest stage in music and receiving the biggest honor in music . .. then why is immigration a bad thing?” says percussionist Miguel “Oso” Ramirez. “We’re so grateful and happy we play music because it gives us an opportunity to show things you can’t always show in politics.”
Santa Cecilia, which also includes bassist Alex Bendana, will be showing up on more major stages this year, including the Grammy Museum next week. In the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee in June, the group is the only Latin act in a lineup that includes Kanye West and Elton John.
Carlos has been approved for an Obama administration program that defers deportation for immigrants under 30 brought to this country as children. He hopes to earn legal residence soon and to get a waiver to play with the group at Vive Latino, a major Mexico City music festival, in late March.
The band has gotten crucial help from producer Sebastian Krys, who built a successful career in Miami working with such acts as Gloria Estefan, Shakira and Alejandro Sanz before moving to L.A. six years ago. He was taken by the group’s raucous, joyful sound and Hernandez’s voice, a cross between bluesy Janis Joplin-style soul and Latin American diva.
“They weren’t tied down by what they were supposed to be or what people thought they should be,” says Krys. “They followed their own musical muse.”
He coached them on their songwriting, got them signed to Universal Music Latino and arranged collaborations with Elvis Costello, who sang on a track on their first album, last year’s Treinta Dias. The second, Someday New, which comes out Tuesday, includes a wild cover of the Beatles Strawberry Fields and the sensual first single Cumbia Morado ( Purple Cumbia).
Krys also connected with the band’s immigrant history. His own parents fled the dictatorship in Argentina for Miami in 1980, when he was 9, and the family didn’t gain legal status for three years. Krys says he still can’t watch the video for ICE, which shows immigrants being deported, all the way through.
“For my career [that song] is everything you hoped it would be,” he says. “Because you hope that whether it’s on a large or small scale, music will make people feel that strength of emotion. I don’t think I had ever been a part of something that was so powerful.”
Santa Cecilia’s growing success has affirmed the group’s determination to chart its own path, whether in its eclectic music or Hernandez’s unconventional style. The singer highlights her voluptuous body with wide-skirted dresses in eye-popping colors, flowered do-rag head wraps and rhinestone-trimmed cat’s-eye glasses — thrift-shop-retro diva meets post-punk cleaning lady. Her look flips a hot pink, size 16 crinoline in the face of pop music conventions that say female singers must fit a thin, silicone-boosted standard.
“When I was younger I felt like I wouldn’t fit in because I wasn’t skinny and light-skinned and sexy and didn’t have big [breasts] — I can’t even walk in high heels," says Hernandez. “For young girls . . . those kind of things kill your spirit.”
She cloaked her body in jeans and black clothing. “Then one day I said, ‘I’m tired of having to dress like this. I’d rather dress because I want to, dress like I like.’ Now’s the time to enjoy my body, enjoy fashion, enjoy who I am rather than feel like I have to be something I don’t feel comfortable with.”
Ramirez says Hernandez’s proudly flamboyant style has inspired the rest of the band.
“We have to stand up for a lot of stuff — for what we believe, what we look like, who we are, our culture,” he says. “You have to feel comfortable enough with yourself to say this is who I am. I know there are millions of other kids who are struggling with their identity . . . and how to navigate being bicultural and bilingual. We understand the struggle it takes to get to that point, to accept the way we live, feel proud of who we are.”
That they have been accepted by both Anglo taste makers like NPR and hometown Latino L.A. audiences makes success a lot more fun. The four in La Santa Cecilia know how lucky they are, and they are determined to enjoy it.
“I get bored with a lot of artists who act so disinterested, ‘I’m too cool, I’m not gonna dress or even smile,’ ” says Hernandez. “We’ve been in the background playing other people’s music at parties and bars for so many years. Now that we have a chance to be onstage and play our own music, be our own person — we take advantage of it and celebrate it every minute we can.”
As immigrants and as musicians, their dream has come true. “Every time we get onstage, this is what we live for,” says Carlos. “To give it all we’ve got.”