NEA Heritage Fellow Suni Paz Sings For Children And The Have-Nots One of the first artists to introduce North American audiences to her style of Latin American music, the folk singer was named a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow.

NEA Heritage Fellow Suni Paz Sings For Children And The Have-Nots

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Singer and songwriter Suni Paz is an unsung hero of the folk music world. For half a century, she's performed socially conscious music and traditional children's songs in Spanish. This year, the National Endowment for the Arts named her one of its Heritage Fellows. That's the most prestigious award for folk and traditional artists. NPR's Mandalit del Barco shares her story.


MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: After moving from Argentina to the U.S. in 1967, Elsa Calandrelli gave herself a stage name in Quechua, the Indigenous language of the Andes.

SUNI PAZ: I chose my Quechua name - Suni Paz, meaning lasting peace, because that's what I want.


PAZ: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: The 85-year-old is dedicated to singing for and about Indigenous and working-class people and children of all backgrounds.

DANIEL SHEEHY: She never thought of her music as protest music. She thought of her music as something much deeper, much broader, much more profound.

DEL BARCO: Daniel Sheehy is the director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which has released most of Paz's albums. He says she became associated with a new style of music from Latin America, and he puts her in the same category as the great South American singers Violeta Parra and Mercedes Sosa.

SHEEHY: She came along and did her thing before the term nuevo cancion became a genre of music. In a way, she's a precursor of the Latin feminist movement as well. She's a pioneer in Spanish-language children's music. She does it all.


PAZ: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Suni Paz spent her childhood in a highly educated, creative Argentine family with Italian and Catalan roots.

PAZ: My aunt was a poet in France. They were artists. They were painters. I had so many stories, extraordinary stories that I wrote a book of my childhood in Argentina.

DEL BARCO: She learned to play guitar at the local penas, folk music centers. And by 14, she was writing and singing boleros, which she later recorded.


PAZ: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Her life took a 180 when she got married and moved to a farm in rural Argentina to raise angora rabbits.

PAZ: Oh, it's extreme. I was plowing the earth with my husband because otherwise, we couldn't eat.

DEL BARCO: It was there and in Chile that Paz learned about the struggles of workers and impoverished children.

PAZ: Farmers and miners and person that has to cross the entire Andes carrying enormous amount of weight on their backs - I mean, the children that froze sometime in the snow.

DEL BARCO: Paz calls her style musica de consciencia - music with a conscience. She sings about empowered women, political prisoners, the have-nots. By 1967, she was a single mother with two sons and immigrated to work in the Latin American Studies department at the University of California, Riverside. During the Chicano movement, she sang for Luis Valdez's Teatro Campesino and Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers union.


PAZ: (Singing in Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Hugo Morales, another NEA Heritage Fellow this year, says Suni Paz has been key for the bilingual radio network he founded in 1980, Radio Bilingue.

HUGO MORALES: She is just an incredible contribution to our audience, which is primarily, you know, essential workers, Latinos in the United States.

DEL BARCO: That's part of the reason the NEA named her a Heritage Fellow, says Cliff Murphy, the agency's director of folk and traditional arts.

CLIFF MURPHY: She has been very influential in terms of bringing the experiences of the most marginalized people in much of the world.

DEL BARCO: And especially children - she spent decades working with students in public schools.

PAZ: There were Indigenous children, Black children - (speaking Spanish) - Latino children. And I could see that they were very shy and kept on the side, and I didn't like that. And the kids received me like I was water in a dry campo (ph), you know, in a dry land.

SILVINA RUBINSTEIN: When she's with children, it is really like magic.

DEL BARCO: Silvina Rubinstein is the former principal of two elementary schools in Los Angeles. She invited Paz to develop literacy through music programs.

RUBINSTEIN: Suni was able to reach children who had very limited ability to communicate, children who had attention deficit disorders. But when Suni was there, children were engaged. They were singing with her in their own language, integrating songs that incorporated a few words in other languages as well.

DEL BARCO: After so many years of creating, recording and performing music, often with her two sons, Suni Paz says the NEA award still caught her by surprise.

PAZ: I didn't do it expecting honors of any kind, so this came out like a shower of roses, you know?

DEL BARCO: The ceremony honoring this year's Heritage Fellows was postponed by the pandemic, but Suni Paz says she'll forever treasure the honor.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


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