It’s ironic: Agustín Lira should have been born an American.
His mother, a U.S. citizen, was illegally deported in the 1930s. Lira was born in Mexico and came to California as an undocumented migrant farmworker before becoming an activist.
The Fresno man’s experiences fuel his work, using art to talk about inequality. Despite the struggles — picking crops from age 7, growing up in poverty, being homeless for a while — he is on the brink of releasing an album of his songs from the Chicano movement of the 1960s for that most quintessential of American institutions, the Smithsonian.
Lira and his collaborators with Alma (Spanish for soul) landed a record deal under Smithsonian Folkways, the institution’s nonprofit label that documents folk and world music. They recorded 15 songs in two days back in 2012. But they had to put the project on hold to wrap up some other works.
Last month, they finished what they started.
Lira, 69, is the driving force behind the group. He writes the music, sings and plays guitar; Patricia Wells Solórzano, 59, plays lead guitar, sings and helps arrange the music; and Ravi Knypstra, 44, plays bass. (Knypstra lives in Los Angeles and drives up to Fresno for practices, performances and recording.) They describe their music as a hybrid of Mexican, Latin American, American folk and Afro-Cuban styles.
At Maximus Media music studio in Fresno on Jan. 14, Lira played the chords to “Ser como el aire libre” (“Be like the wind”), a song about freedom. It’s one of the first songs he wrote while volunteering with United Farm Workers.
After a wrap-up mixing session two weeks ago, the album was shipped off to the Smithsonian for production. The 17-song CD is expected to be released late this year or early 2016.
“It represents a struggle of a community that went unheard for many years until they finally stood up to fight for their basic rights in this country,” Lira said. “This living history is what is in the CD.”
Through the Folkways Latino Music Initiative, Alma’s album will exist under the Tradiciones/Traditions series of iconic music, said Dan Sheehy, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
Folkways has published music from a few other Valley artists: Mariachi Los Camperos; the big harp ensemble Arpex; and Armenian oud player Richard Hagopian. When Alma’s compilation comes out, it will be available for purchase digitally and as a CD, accompanied by free liner notes and videos on the Smithsonian website.
Sheehy said original album recordings cost around $75,000 up front, not including marketing and staff time. Alma’s album will join a collection with 45,000 tracks from most countries in the world.
“It’s a big world out there,” he said. “There’s a lot that all of us don’t know. So we believe that music is a powerful medium of expression and representation. It’s one of the best ways to learn about other people and, in the case of the U.S., what it means to be an American.”
Sheehy said he chose both classic and newer songs to paint a full picture of Lira as an artist. Among them are songs about the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a leftist group in Chiapas, Mexico; about the immigrant experience; about the farmworker movement; about love.
“The purpose of keeping on his album some of the classics of his from the era of the farmworker movement is to keep them alive and show people there’s still something to be learned from them,” he said, “both as a piece of history and a message that’s relevant today.”
As the Folkways curator, Sheehy said his philosophy is to publish good music with a great message. This album, he said, is Lira’s story and, more broadly, the story of the movement he and Wells Solórzano were part of.
Sheehy has known Lira since 1968 when Sheehy was a graduate student at the University of California at Los Angeles studying world music.
“I listened to a lot of recordings people made and there was this voice of this guy singing songs about Cesar Chavez, about the farmworker movement,” he said. “It just grabbed me. I said, ‘Who is that?’ I was really captured by just the voice and style and mission of Agustín Lira back in the late ’60s.”
Sheehy never lost track of Lira, and when the Tradiciones/Traditions series started, he knew Alma’s music would fit perfectly into the concept.
“This is really a good time — a generation has gone by — to bring people’s attention to what happened in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said, “give it a new life for people to consider and discover.”
Lira was born in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico. As a child, he and his family migrated throughout the San Joaquin Valley before settling in Selma.
At Selma High School, Lira was in choir and a quartet. He also participated in many musical and theater productions, and learned to draw and paint. Shortly after graduation, his mother died.
“I used high school like people would use college,” he said. “I picked the things I loved. I promised my mother I would work in the fields and support the family after high school, but then my mother died and, ironically, that set me free.”
Lira took off, leaving his seven siblings in the care of their stepfather. He was homeless for two years, staying with friends and working odd jobs before landing a spot at the Hotel Californian in Fresno as a bus boy.
One day, Lira picked up a newspaper and read about a group of farmworkers who had gone on strike and were looking for volunteers. “The world opened up to me.”
He co-founded El Teatro Campesino, now located in San Juan Bautista, in 1965 with fellow United Farm Workers volunteer Luis Valdez during the Delano grape strike. They rehearsed at night after boycotting, sleeping no more than three hours. Lira was 19.
Performing on picket lines, at meetings and rallies, the theater company grew to serve as a voice for the Chicano movement.
The day before the historic 1966 UFW march from Delano to Sacramento, union leader Cesar Chavez gave Lira a task: Write a song for marchers to sing the next day. “La peregrinacion” (“The pilgrimage”) became the anthem of the UFW movement. Lira debuted his music before more than 10,000 people on the state Capitol steps.
“I do not come to sing
because I have such a good voice.
Nor do I come to cry
about my bad fortune.
From Delano I go
to fight for my rights.”
Teatro Campesino inspired the creation of other Chicano theater groups throughout the Southwest. Wells Solórzano said Lira’s group was a dream come true for those like her who felt alienated. It voiced the way they felt at the time, she said.
“It was a catalyst for a generation,” she said. “They were like role models to us, those of us who learned about Teatro Campesino. After that everyone wanted to do Chicano theater.”
After leaving Teatro Campesino in 1969, Lira continued working in the arts and formed Alma with Wells Solórzano in 1979. Lira’s music has been featured in several films, including the PBS documentary “Fight in the Fields,” about Chavez. Alma released two full-length albums.
Their music was featured in a 2005 Folkways release called “ Rolas de Aztlan: Songs of the Chicano Movement.” In 2007, Lira received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Smithsonian leaders invited Alma to perform in Washington, D.C., at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2011.
Lira realized early the extent of discrimination in the United States. His entire family, most of whom were U.S. citizens, was deported in the 1930s under the Mexican Repatriation Program, which saw as many as 2 million people of Mexican descent forced or pressured to leave the country. Lira, born while his mother lived in Mexico, became a U.S. citizen in 1997.
He also grew up around U.S.-born uncles who were World War II heroes but were turned away from restaurants and other public places due to overt racism of the time.
“So I grew up with those things,” he said. “I read about them, I heard about them. My tios (uncles) told me those stories. Those are the reasons why I’m not on the other side (with) people who have everything, don’t have to struggle.”
After joining UFW, Lira said he became a target of other rights violations, including COINTELPRO, the FBI Counterintelligence Program that started in 1956 to disrupt the activities of the Communist Party but expanded in the 1960s to include civil rights, antiwar and other organizations. As the FBI acknowledged on its own website, “COINTELPRO was later rightfully criticized by Congress and the American people for abridging First Amendment rights and for other reasons.”
Lira experienced the operation firsthand: “The first thing I was taught in Delano when I joined as a full-time volunteer, was not to give valuable information over the phones because they were all tapped by the FBI.”
He said federal agents visited his siblings to ask where he was. Teatro Campesino was repeatedly accused of things, such as stealing or using violence, that its members didn’t do. He and other members of the theater company and the Chicano movement were also held many times by airport security without explanation, he said.
Using the arts, Lira tries to tell parts of Chicano history that have been silenced. He researches social movements and issues he reads about or sees in the news, coupling that with his personal history.
“What can you do? We organize and educate our community about those things so they will be able to defend themselves better — through the arts, because otherwise we would be murdered, too,” he said.
Music ‘makes you braver’
Wells Solórzano was born in Brawley and grew up during the feminist and civil rights movements. One of her earliest memories is of crossing the border in the early 1960s and passing through shantytowns, seeing women in rags with no legs begging for food or money.
“I told my dad, ‘Is there really a God?’ ” she said. “That was the awakening for me.”
“Quihubo raza!” — “Hello race!” — is the first song Wells Solórzano heard of Lira’s, about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American war in 1848. She and some friends sang it during a UFW boycott.
“That’s one of the first times I realized that music really makes you braver,” she said. “The louder we got, the braver I felt.”
A couple months later, Wells Solórzano met Lira. She dropped out of college shortly after in 1975 to join El Teatro de la Tierra, the nonprofit Chicano theater company Lira helped start in 1971. He taught her to play guitar and act, and they have collaborated ever since.
Together Lira and Wells Solórzano went on in 2000 to form Teatro Inmigrante, a community music and theater group they still operate in Fresno.
Last year, California Endowment hired them to put together a play about disparities that challenge teens in the Valley. Lira wrote “The Conscience of a Bully,” a comedic and satirical play about bullying performed by Fresno youths.
Lira said everyone needs an outlet to air frustrations with the world and speak out against injustice. Art has been his, and working with young people is his way of paying it forward.
“Music, and theater, has kept me in this world,” he said. “It has saved me.”