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Julia rocha : finding your own voice as a diaspora kid

Roxane Cassehgari
| 12 February 2022 | Music

Julia Rocha is a true multidisciplinary artist: a radio producer, a vocalist, a guitarist in a punk band, a music producer and a teacher of son jarocho, a traditional music practice from the Veracruz region in Mexico.

I interviewed Julia in the Fall of 2019, in their Columbia dorm, before they graduated. I was very interested in knowing more about their involvement with the son jarocho community, about the need to recover one’s cultural heritage to find oneself. Julia’s parents emigrated to the US from Mexico. Growing up, Julia started wondering about their identity, and about what it meant to be Mexican-American. Discovering and playing son jarocho brought Julia on a journey to put the pieces of their identity together, re-connecting with their family history, but also allowing them to build their own community.

We also talked about the role of the diaspora in shaking norms – norms around gender, class and race. In Julia’s view, with the ability to navigate cultures and cross borders comes tremendous privilege we should recognize and use responsibly. At the same time, immigrant and diasporic groups are by no means homogenous. The privileges vary. For instance, we take it for granted that everyone can equally access and recover their traditions. But when traditions get co-opted by institutions and elitist places like academia, they can become exclusionary.

In 2020, when the pandemic happened, I put this interview on hold, as I was grappling with my own life. Over social media, I saw Julia blossom into Niña Chispa, a scene alter ego that affirmed their non-binary self. This felt like a beautiful breakthrough in the journey searching for one’s identity, searching for oneself. We reconnected in the Summer of 2021. Almost two years since we had first spoken. This interview therefore captures both pre and post pandemic times.

Photos by Vielka Rosario Ebadan

How did you find out about son jarocho and get involved with the community ?

I first got involved with son jarocho in 2015. I was born in Mexico, and I was raised in California, which has a huge Chicano community, but the place where I discovered son jarocho was NYC, in Jackson Heights, Queens, at Terraza 7. There was an all-female son collective, Caña Dulce y Caña Brava. Ximena Violante was also there, with her group Interminable. I got to see all these women in the front singing and playing instruments and doing so many things at once. The music was calling me.

I was looking at the people playing these instruments, and I asked, “where do you guys gather?” And someone said « oh there’s a taller (workshop) tomorrow. This is an open space. You can come with no prior knowledge.” I went to the workshop the next day. Raquel Vega, a son singer, who was also at Terraza, was there. She is part of Los Vega family, a well-known son family from Veracruz. She was the first person to ever teach me how to sing and how to play the jarana (a little guitar used in son).

Son jarocho originated in the Sotavento region of Veracruz, on the Carribbean coast of Mexico. It shows the influences of Spanish, Indigenous and African cultures. Playing son jarocho involves gathering in circle, using instruments like the jarana (a little guitar), the pandero (a circular hand-held percussion), the harp jarocha or the cajón. Singing involves a call and a response dynamic. In the middle of the circle, people often dance zapateando, recalling the Spanish flamenco influence. A gathering of son jarocho is called a fandango. Like most traditional music styles, fandangos are community moments of collective joy.

When you talk about son, it feels like it is a family, in addition to being a music practice.

Son is a beautiful community. I got to travel to so many places through it. I was not familiar with the East Coast that much. With the son community, I went to Philly, and I was welcomed. People would invite you to someone’s birthday party, to a family event. The same happened in DC or Chicago. I instantly found a family.

In California, I now have a new chosen family, in addition to the people that I grew up with. In LA, the son jarocho community is very connected to the housing justice & anti-gentrification movement. They have been gathering at a community center, the East Side Café. I was familiar with this space and the housing justice work that has been done in LA, but I only came to realize how son jarocho was connected to that struggle when I moved back during the pandemic.

Son embodies a kind of horizontal learning that we don’t see much in official learning structures. You don’t have to be a master and know everything.

So son is about creating spaces for community. Is this why you created the workshops in New York?

Me and my friend Ivan, who also plays son here in New York, we would talk a lot about the son community that we had seen across the US. We would often have conversations about what we wanted to build here, and what we felt was missing. In a fandango in Veracruz, you have the elders singing verses that go beyond their lifetimes. You have young people who are interpreting these verses speaking about their own reality. And then you have the kids who never get tired and who keep that moment going.

Ivan started a workshop called ‘Mision Jarana’. I started teaching with him, and it’s been such an incredible experience. Son embodies a kind of horizontal learning that we don’t see much in more official learning structures. Coming into a fandango, your presence is validated. However you contribute is valuable. You don’t have to be a master and know everything. We also very intentionally maintain that space as an inter-generational space.

You talk about son being a horizontal learning experience. How was the experience of teaching it?

The fact that I do not consider myself a master of any kind is actually my strength as a teacher. I feel like I am always learning alongside the students. When they ask questions, they make me think about things. Kids are never out of questions. Their enthusiasm for son gives me energy for it.

It’s also been interesting and challenging to teach because the diaspora has so many faces and so many experiences. We can all identify as Chicanx or Mexican-American, but that does not mean, for instance, that everyone in the room speaks Spanish. When I was teaching the lyrics, I took it for granted that these kids could read Spanish, so I would put verses up on the board, and these kids were so shy. So it dawned on me, and I asked them “can you read Spanish?”, and they were like “no, we don’t.” There are people in the room who only speak Spanish, and there are people who can understand Spanish but do not speak it or cannot read it.

You grew up in LA. you moved to the East Coast, and you found son, which brings you back to another home, Mexico. Were you looking for a way to reconnect with what was “lost in transmission”? Is music a way to repair and recover things that we lose when we migrate?

Yes, I would say that. There are things that existed even before we migrated that I am trying to repair. I am looking at a lot of the ways that whitewashing in Latin American countries functions. For instance, I am looking at what music we did and did not listen to in my household. My one wild experience was when I was looking at my grandma discs when I was in Mexico, and I realized there was a bunch of son jarocho records. But we never listened to son, not even Latin American music. My dad would listen to rock music or jazz, you know, very Western music styles. So, it was wild to go back to my grand ma’s traditional records and see that there. That’s something that she did not have the space to pass down to me. I could only be at her house once a year for a couple of weeks depending on how money was that year. And so, it was really fascinating to me that I did not have that space for transmission, and yet, I had somehow found it.

Today, when I go back to Mexico, there is this melancholia, a kind of longing. When I meet people my parents grew up with, these are people who would have influenced my life, same with aunts and uncles… I always think about what my life would have been like. But today I am so grateful that I have been able to build the kind of communities that I wish I had growing up. And now I can offer that space to other people. 

You are a first generation American, how did you figure your own identity growing up?

My mom always tells this anecdote. I was coming back from kindergartener, and I asked her, what are we? What am I? Am I Mexican? Am I American? She kind of told me that she could not answer that question for me. I would have to figure it out on my own. Being first generation can be a really isolating experience. How do you ask a child that you are raising in a culture and a country that is entirely foreign form what you were raised in, how do you ask them how they are doing? They were just so many questions that I was asking that I think they could not really answer. So, I would define myself against what I saw around me. Being in school in a predominantly white high school, what I saw around me was white wealth. I could say “my family emigrated here, and I am not that.” I am going to choose to visibly not be that. I would steal clothes from my mom’s drawers and wear huipiles to school. That was my beautiful search of identification.

How do you ask a child that you are raising in a culture that is entirely foreign how they are doing?

You’ve mentioned you’ve come to realize the many different experiences within the diaspora, like the fact that some people do not speak Spanish. Can you tell me more about this?

My family, we have struggled, but we also have a lot of privilege. My dad is a filmmaker, that is why we moved to LA. I remember someone at school asked me once “what do your parents do?” I told her my mom is a librarian at an elementary school, and my dad is a documentary filmmaker, and she goes: “oh, so your parents are educated Mexicans.” That kind of blunt “oooh your family is not the stereotype migrant labor.” 

We need to have more complex understandings of the different positionalities within the diaspora and to recognize the immense breadth of experiences within the category of immigrant. For instance, within being a person of color, there are so many things. It is not binary. It is really wild to go to Mexico and be rubiecita and be seen as part of the wider elite, and then come back to US and be a person of color. When I attended the Fandango Transferizo (see next question) – and I am not speaking for everyone that was at that event – I also realized that here I am, at an elite academic institution, despite my family’s income or what they faced to come here, and I now have the resources to take a week off school to fly across the country to be participating at this event. Don’t get me wrong. I am not invalidating the importance of showing up at that space, but it is also important to realize that within traditional music spaces, there is a lot of privilege. What can we do to mobilize that? Because we are already gathering people. But how do we want to relate to one another and how do we want to relate to power within our communities as well as between our communities and the world outside?

Thank you for sharing this. You’re right. Do you feel the diaspora has a role to play in shaking norms that do not serve us and challenging any simplification of identity?

One of the roles I see for myself as part of the diasporic youth is to break down barriers and show a different kind of Us vs Them. The struggles that we are facing here, and the struggles that we have out there, like in our home countries… this US vs Them is fake. National orders are fake. Of course, they are real in the militarized spaces, but when we look at why economics are functioning right now is all about transnational power. It’s all about transnational economics, companies that are causing harm here and causing harm and devastation in Latin America, in the Middle East, everywhere. These experiences of transnational solidarity that we are building are key to understanding that we need to be in solidarity with people who are living a reality that is portrayed to us as being far away and far away.

One of the roles I see for myself as part of the diasporic youth is to break down barriers and show a different kind of Us vs Them.

Talking about transnational solidarity, can you talk about the Fandango Fronterizo?

That’s an event that has been going on for ten years. There are two fandangos. There is one during the day and one at night. The one during the day is on both sides, and the one at night is only on the Tijuana side. I participated from the US side, the San Diego side. It was wild to be at that space. There were people from the US, and other people who traveled from Mexico.

That was another moment in which I was very aware of my positionality as someone who has a passport and can be on both sides. There are so many people who play this music who may only be able to be on one side, who are coming there to see their family. I think it was beautiful to have people from all kinds of experiences come out there and be in solidarity with those experiences.

This must have been powerful emotionally.

Definitely. Son is a call and response music, and there you’re doing that with steel barriers in between you. During a fandango, you have to project your voice because there is a lot of instruments. But when there is a steel barrier, you really got to throw your voice. I needed to be loud so that the people on the other side of the border could hear me. It was charged with a longing to be heard, and to be in contact with the people on the other side. There were moments where I could not hear the person on the other side because of the steel barrier, and there were moments where you almost forgot that it was there. The tarima (stage) was right up on the border so when you step up to dance there was a tarima placed on the other side of the border. Even through the rejas (barrier), you could see that you were dancing with someone.

The fandango during daytime lasted only 2 hours, if I remember correctly. So, for these two hours, we were all together. At 2 pm on the dot, when the fandango was over, on the Mexican side, they were free to do whatever. On the US side, the border patrol came and told us that we needed to step away from the wall immediately. It was a moment of joy and convivencia, and then, we had to get out right now.

I am thinking how joy, and pleasure, and being in community…It reminds me of pleasure activism that Adrienne Marie Brown writes about. This could easily be a role for the diaspora, especially within traditional music: to create spaces of joy as a political act.

Yes, I would see this work as inherently political, and yes pleasure activism is right there: what we take pleasure in, what we find community in, where we find the belonging… Those are all the fundamentals of political formation. Who we build alliances with, and the way we chose to relate to one another. That is political work. We must create spaces of political education in a way that also create joyful spaces; spaces in which people feel a sense of belonging. I hope to do more of that. 

Since the pandemic happened, you have really blossomed as a music producer and a performer. Over social media, I witnessed the birth of Niña Chispa, and their first songs. How did the music alter ego come about?

I had just gotten into learning music in 2019. That was scary. The people I knew that were producing were only cis-men. I always felt it was an unapproachable thing. A good friend helped me demystify it, so in summer 2019, I started making my first beats. I realized, ‘oh my god’, I can make a whole song by myself and make it feel full. I loved how you could manipulate sounds and take sounds from your life. I recorded sounds from our son jarocho workshops, and I used them. 

Then the pandemic came, and all I had was my bedroom. Music has always been about gathering and sharing space with other people and suddenly, I found myself in a space where I could not meet with other people. I do not know what the pandemic would have been liked without music. During the quarantine, I created an intimate relationship with my own voice, and I strengthened myself as a vocalist and producer. The second week of quarantine I figured how to loop my own voice on Ableton. I remember what the sensation of my body was. Being back in my childhood bedroom in California, being able to create these harmonies by myself, I went off on the vocals. I just started experimenting. I recorded like 19 vocals, it made me less alone. In my headphones, I was hearing 19 voices all singing together and it was all me. It was myself keeping myself company and process all the shit happening around me.

So, you started composing?

I started writing a song in the TSA line on my way back to California, and I could not stop thinking about Octavia Butler’s parable of the sower:

“All that you touch you change
All that you change is changing you
The only lasting truth is change
God is change” 

A first song came up from that verse. It was springtime, and spring is supposed to be a new beginning. Nature around me was showing that, and yet the reality felt so disconnected. I was supposed to graduate from college, and everything got abruptly changed. So, it is a song about being in this moment of rebirth and finding yourself in a different place than you expected and still finding ways to celebrate that growth and finding space for it.

What about the name Niña Chispa? Where does it come from?

My family used to call me “chispa” or “chispita”, like a little thing running around. A lot of my songs are about going back to childlike energy and healing children wounds. As a kid, I absorbed so many messages about gender that I know realize were harmful. During quarantine, I came out as non-binary. I had a realization of how I am in my body. With the stillness, without life running around, I realized how uncomfortable I felt in that stillness. With that came the realization of where I feel comfortable, and I realized I wanted to divest from this binary and find other possibilities for myself. 

I wrote a song the week that I came out to my parents. In that song, I am singing to my childhood self, this child that was so full of possibility, and who was told that they could align only with certain possibilities. And I am also speaking back to my ancestors. Maybe if had told my grandma that I was non-binary, she would not have understood what that meant, but I recognize that as a woman in her own time-period, her resistance is the reason why my queer ass person is able to exist. One of the lines of the song is:

“I know I am not what you expected, but I am what you made me possible.”