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Portland musicians create concert about immigrant and refugee mothers to be performed Mother's Day weekend.

COURTESY PHOTO: VESPERTINE WORKS - Portland-based singer songwriter Edna Vazquez wrote and performed the songs for '21 Cartas,' a film about immigrant and refugee mothers incarcerated along the U.S.-Mexico border.When musicians Darrell Grant and Edna Vazquez set out to create "21 Cartas," a performance about immigrant and refugee mothers to be released for Mother's Day weekend, they said it was important the film be shown in Hillsboro, where it could be shared with western Washington County's large immigrant community.

The Glenn & Viola Walters Cultural Arts Center, 527 E. Main St., Hillsboro, will showcase at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 11. The musically infused performance aims to amplify "the human voices behind the immigration headlines" in the United States, according to the filmmakers.

Grant, a jazz pianist and professor at Portland State University, said he was inspired to make the film with singer-songwriter Vazquez after he read read a 2016 article on, written by entrepreneur Cameron Madill, a former student of Grants, who shared 21 letters written by mothers incarcerated in the South Texas Family Residential Center, a private prison near the U.S.-Mexico border. Madill wanted to share the women's stories on Mother's Day about their experience fleeing their home countries to come to the United States.

Madill asked the women to share their thoughts on motherhood and their stories coming to the United States.

"To me, to be a mother means this: To love your children; To want a better life for them; And to not see them in danger," wrote a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman.

Struck by the article, Grant, alongside Vazquez and Portland-based filmmaker Adolfo Cantú-Villarreal set out to create a collaborative piece commemorating the women and their experiences.

"I was really struck by it," Grant said. "Not only his work, but the words of the mothers. I told him I would love to do a project around this and after a grant, we worked on it for over a year."

This features original music composed, produced and sung by Grant and Vazquez, with many of the letters read out loud, both in Spanish and English.

Grant said the music and words from the letters help paint a picture, and bring out the emotion behind each story.

COURTESY PHOTO: VESPERTINE WORKS - Jazz musician and Portland State professor Darrell Grant wrote music for '21 Cartas,' an idea he had after a former student shared their work about collecting letters from incarcerated mothers."We wanted to see the themes of the letters to create chapters of these journeys these women went through, like fleeing their country, coming to the border, being detained and incarcerated," Grant said. "We drew on our own experiences, as well as worked with the Latino Network, an immigrant rights organization, for a workshop where we worked with them and collected other people's stories, and all that went into writing these songs."

Grant moved to Portland from New York in 1997 to teach music at Portland State University and directs the Leroy Vinnegar Jazz Institute. Currently on sabbatical, Grant spent much of his time collaborating with Vazquez to prepare this piece to be released by Mother's Day. Grant and Vazquez worked together as artists in residence at the Bravo Youth Orchestras, and Grant wanted to collaborate with her since meeting her, he said.

"She is a force of nature," Grant said. "She is an amazing person, advocate and spokesperson."

Grant said the film has been inspired by the current political climate. Fights on Capitol hill have erupted in recent years on immigration, including expansions to the U.S.-Mexican border wall and rights for Dreamers, children brought to the U.S. illegally as children who were granted temporary citizenship under President Barack Obama.

"I've had students that were Dreamers at PSU and I understood them getting through that process and what they've been through," he said. "So many of us are personally affected with what is happening with immigration in this country."

The film is meant to capture the immigrant experience in a way anyone can relate to, he said, whether they are a newly arrived immigrant or have had family in the country for generations. America is a nation of immigrants, Grant said.

"We all have this in common, and we wanted to bring that out," Grant said. "We talk about it a lot, about how we all have these immigrant stories. As an African American, my people didn't come from here. They were forcibly brought here generations ago. They, too, had to find refuge in this country and fight for their rights and to be seen as a human being. It resonates with me as I think it would with anyone."

For Vazquez, the 21 letters stuck a personal chord. Vazquez was a guest singer for the Portland band Pink Martini. Her band, The Edna Vazquez Band, was working on her newest album, "Sola Soy," at the same time as "21 Cartas," a challenge she welcomed and enjoyed, she said.

COURTESY PHOTO: VESPERTINE WORKS - '21 Cartas' is a film to be shown in Portland and Hillsboro, and was created by  Adolfo Cantu-Villarreal, Darrell Grant and Edna Vazquez. As an artist, Vazquez said she learned to trust her drive to create and be who she wants to be.

"I find this connection with the audience and my songs are really personal," she said. "I am composing and writing music about what I am experiencing and feeling. I talk about immigration and things like racial problems, in order for us to find understanding and connect, beyond me being Mexican and people expecting me to sing only mariachi."

Vazquez moved to the United States from Mexico in the 1990s and purchased her first guitar in Hillsboro, she said. Part of mariachi band, she fought to be compensated equally to her male counterparts and eventually went solo in the Portland area.

She describes the music in "21 Cartas" as a mix of jazz and Mexican folk with elements of rap. Many of the lyrics of the songs use phrases from the 21 letters to draw attention to the power of words, she said.

"Just hearing the phrases said in the letters is so deep and makes you enter like a book of emotions," Vazquez said. "Each chapter is a different sound and it draws the emotion of the whole situation. Our first question was, 'Why would they leave their country?' and 'Why do we have these issues?' We did our own research and found amazing things."

Vazquez and Grant have both performed at The Walters before, and said it was important to them that the film be brought to Hillsboro, where members of the local Latino community can view it, Grant said.

"People will be moved by the music and stories told," Grant said. "For me, I hope people will find and feel the sort of commonality of these stories and be able to reflect where they came from."

Vazquez added, "They should come for a better understanding of what is happening at the border and the reasons why moms are being incarcerated in private jails, coming in caravans because of U.S. intervention. People should come so we can be in each other's shoes."

"21 Cartas" was funded by a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, along with the Consulate General of Mexico and Latino Network among others.

Tickets cost from $10 to 30, and may be purchased at

By Janae Easlon
Features Editor
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
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