Facing pressure from human rights advocates and families across the country, President Obama has vowed over and over again to end the crisis of deportation and family separation. And yet so often these promises boil down to vague overtures about making the system more “humane”–that is, reforming detention and deportation practices to focus on “felons, not families,” and finding a “compromise” between helping people “come out of the shadows” and imposing “accountability.” The question that always lingers is: how do you take away someone’s freedom “humanely”?
There will never be away to separate a family while still recognizing their humanity, but sometimes humanity does find a way to kindle itself even in the bleakest moments. The beauty of a serenade piercing the dark of night is one of the ways a human touch can reach a loved one over the cruel separation of borders, fences, walls and laws. In “Serenata a un indocumentado,” a mournful ballad by Los Jornaleros del Norte, an immigrant family exchanges final words through lyrics that carry across the physical boundaries of detention.
The song emanates from a series of direct actions staged last year, Chant Down the Walls, which brought out protesters from various organizations with musical accompaniment from Los Jornaleros del Norte, along with other musicians like hip hop artist Ana Tijoux. The colorful demonstrations livened the grim atmosphere outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles, where many immigrants are held as they await court proceedings. Not only was it a way to use music to raise public consciousness about the horror unfolding behind the walls, but also to use the space of the city as a vessel for communicating a different kind of political message about immigration reform. Not talking points, not 20-second soundbites on the evening news, not the bureaucratese of legislation or the venomous rhetoric of reactionary politicians. This message could only be sung, and it was meant for a different audience.
Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, described the power of this type of song amid the din of our tone-deaf immigration politics:
“Serenata a un Indocumentado” is not just a song; it is an enduring historical document that tells the world that beautiful acts of love can happen in the face of ugly suffering…. This is the sentiment and culture of protest, love, resistance, and struggle that we hope the Serenata concerts will replicate across the country. … music will serve as a tool to uplift immigrants’ humanity. We will highlight and redress family separation, unjust detention, inhumane incarceration conditions, criminalization of communities of color, and senseless deportations. We will confront dehumanization and unite in song to overcome walls that divide our community into deserving and undeserving, good and bad, winners and losers, “felons and families.”
“Although you’re imprisoned, someone who loves you is singing,” goes one verse, juxtaposing the cold isolation of detention with the tenderness of lyricized yearning. We don’t know how many people inside were listening that night, as the band played a last tribute to a family facing an impossible, perhaps eternal, divide. Maybe they couldn’t even really hear the words being sung. But in a way, what mattered most was that the words were heard by someone–a sonic testament that spoke as much to the voices of imprisoned families, as to the silence that befalls them when there are no words to describe their tragedy.
After all, it’s not the physical separation itself that is at the heart of this crisis. In some parts of the country, the alternative to detaining adults separately from their families is to detain whole families together. But there’s no humane way to imprison a family, together or apart. When anyone’s freedom is systematically destroyed purely in the name of “security”, we’re all a little less free, and we all lose a bit of our voice. So when anyone comes forward to sing, chant, shout and cry in the name of those whose voices we can’t hear, there’s a resonance between the walls.
This Sunday, Chant Down the Walls will be at the Adelanto Detention Center, to spread another round of song and protest far and wide.