In Los Angeles, Millennials Wield Music In Fight For Immigrant Rights : Alt.Latino In the face of tough immigration attitudes and laws, a group of activists in SoCal use a traditional birthday celebration to raise awareness.
NPR logo In Los Angeles, Millennials Wield Music In Fight For Immigrant Rights

In Los Angeles, Millennials Wield Music In Fight For Immigrant Rights

Quince Night organizer Alexis Chavez Rob Aft/Andy Hermann hide caption

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Rob Aft/Andy Hermann

Quince Night organizer Alexis Chavez

Rob Aft/Andy Hermann

On a recent Sunday night at the Lodge Room, a Masonic temple turned music venue in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, salsa and cumbia music wafted down from the second-floor concert hall. Over the stairs, gold mylar balloons spelled out the words "Quince Night."

In the lobby at the top of the stairs, young couples waited in line for slices of tres leches cake, while others posed in a makeshift photo booth. At first glance, it looked like a typical quinceañera, which was the whole idea. But this Quince Night was not one 15-year-old's coming-of-age party. It was the latest fundraising concert in Los Angeles put together by a growing movement of young Latinx promoters and activists who are using music to fight back against what they see as federal policies that are anti-immigrant.

The event, whose full name was "Solidarity for Sanctuary Quince Night," raised money — and awareness — for CARECEN, an immigrant rights organization that, most recently, has been at the forefront of efforts to protect the more than 260,000 Salvadoran immigrants facing possible deportation if the Trump administration follows through on its plan to rescind their temporary protected status in 2019. Between bands, attendees listened to speeches by members of UndocuMedia, which helps immigrants lacking legal status apply for DACA and other legal protections, and L.A. City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who called Quince Night "one of the most brilliant events I've ever been to."

"Ever since Donald Trump got elected, I've been waiting for this moment," declared Kevin Martin, the Mexican-American singer-guitarist for Brainstory, a jazz-rock trio from the predominantly Latino L.A. suburb of Rialto. "That I can play my heart out to people who believe in diversity and love and peace. That's what this s***'s all about."

Solidarity for Sanctuary Quince Night is far from the only event of its kind. A few weeks earlier, an L.A. rock band called The Soft White Sixties held another benefit show for CARECEN at the behest of their Mexican-American lead singer, Octavio Genera, who sang the band's new anti-Trump single "Brick by Brick/Piedra a Piedra" in both English and Spanish. Elsewhere around the country, a new group of Latinx promoters from Atlanta, called OYE, has begun producing "immersive experiences that live at the intersection of arts, culture and progressive activism," according to its website, while in Denver last fall, a ska band called Roka Hueka organized a benefit show for the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, featuring a diverse bill of young local acts playing everything from punk to hip-hop to electronic dance music.

Back in Highland Park, one of Quince Nights's organizers, a 24-year-old music industry newcomer named Doris Muñoz, darted around the Lodge Room making introductions between musicians and activists and generally making sure everything ran smoothly. Muñoz, whose main gig is running her own artist management company, Mija Mgmt, held her first fundraiser concert in March of last year for purely personal reasons: to raise money for her own undocumented parents' legal fees.

"When I was little, my biggest fear was one day I would come home and my family wouldn't be there anymore because they'd been deported," said Muñoz, the only member of her immediate family who was born in the U.S. In 2015, her brother, a U.S. resident since the age of two, was deported for misdemeanor marijuana possession and unpaid traffic tickets; since then, she has lived in dread that her parents could be next.

"Seeing how aggressive ICE has been since Trump's administration, I broke down one day, like, 'What the hell am I gonna do?'" Since she had extensive experience booking shows, having worked as a concert coordinator while getting a degree in communications at Cal State Fullerton, she decided to help her parents with a fundraiser concert.

She called her event Solidarity for Sanctuary. It raised nearly $3,000, more than she expected but still only "half of what's really needed" to cover the legal fees her parents need to petition for permanent U.S. residency. After a second concert raised the rest of the money, she decided to keep Solidarity for Sanctuary going as a regular series, first fundraising for specific families under threat of deportation, then for undocumented students in need of scholarships. Moving forward, she plans to align her events with non-profits like CARECEN, having learned that they're better equipped to find families and individuals with the most pressing needs for financial and legal assistance.

Quince Night was originally conceived by two other promoters, Alexis Chavez and Johan Moreno, who met while volunteering together at local NPR affiliate KCRW and decided to launch a fundraiser concert series of their own. When they reached out to Muñoz for logistical advice, she offered to combine their two events into one night.

For Muñoz, organizing a concert was playing to her strengths. But for Chavez and Moreno, who had never booked a show before, it was more a matter of choosing a vehicle that they felt had the best chance of connecting with their fellow millennials. "I feel like young people especially, they relate to music," says Chavez. "That's something so powerful and something that brings people together," Moreno adds.

At Quince Night — which Chavez attended in the same billowy white dress she wore to her own quinceañera, while Moreno opted for a wide-brimmed black cowboy hat — their strategy appeared to be paying off. The overwhelming majority of the crowd looked to be under the age of 25, and most stuck around not just for the musical acts — which also included local singer-songwriter Hana Vu, San Diego bedroom beat-maker Temporex, and falsetto-voiced singer-guitarist Omar Apollo, who flew in from Indiana for the show — but for the speakers, as well. The young, racially mixed audience greeted calls for solidarity and social action with cheers and frequent profanities aimed at Donald Trump.

"It's all the young people here who give me hope, because you're gonna be voting," said CARECEN's Jenny Villegas, before introducing Brainstory, the evening's last act. "You're gonna be running s***."

Muñoz, Moreno and Chavez plan to produce more fundraising events in the future, both together and separately. But more than that, they hope that Quince Night and Solidarity for Sanctuary can lead by example, inspiring young promoters in other cities to mount similar events that both raise money to support undocumented immigrants and celebrate the culture those immigrants, undocumented or otherwise, have brought to America. Already, Muñoz has been sharing knowledge and resources with Atlanta's OYE, one of whose co-founders, a DJ named Florista, came to L.A. to spin records at Solidarity for Sanctuary Quince Night.

"We want to set this on a national level eventually," says Muñoz. "This is my passion project. This is my baby. And I want to see it continue its growth."