A little guitar from Veracruz could save the Chicano movement. That little guitar, the ukele-looking jarana, is turning up more and more in the hands of young men and women at Mexican American cultural centers and political protests in Southern California. It's the centerpiece of son jarocho, a zydeco-paced music from the gulf coast of Mexico that's the blending of 500 years of Spanish, indigenous and African rhythms.

Jarana players dodged LAPD rubber bullets at MacArthur Park two years ago. They kept up the spirits of the South Central farmers. Rage Against the Machine front-man Zack de la Rocha strummed a jarana four years ago alongside some young Veracruz musicians at a LA County Museum of Natural History concert.

One of the outposts in L.A. for son jarocho is the guitar strings-making company Guadalupe Strings. The owner, 27 year-old Jacob Hernandez, had a rent party on Saturday at the El Sereno shop that showed how the music's serving as a bridge for Chicano and Mexican musicians.

Jacob played percussion for Domingo Siete, the L.A. band that's close to Quetzal, arguably the heirs-apparent to Los Lobos. Many of the musicians in the Quetzal-Domingo Siete crews have gone to Veracruz many times in the last decade to soak in the music, watch a new generation of musicians learn son jarocho and to watch how entire towns celebrate the music in large fandangos, or town festivals, that go into the morning. They want music to have the same effect on Chicano neighborhoods in Southern California.

Story continues below

To understand son jarocho's impact on L.A. Chicanos, think about what an 18 year-old must have thought in 1962 seeing Bob Dylan, a young, charismatic musician playing the folk music of an older generation. Bands in L.A. like Quetzal, Domingo Siete and other more traditional son jarocho bands are making relevant again the music of the parents and grandparents..

26 year-old Alfredo Herrera strummed his jarana at the rent party. He's got a lot of street cred around these parts because he's a direct link to Veracruz son legends Mono Blanco, from which he took lessons when he was still in elementary school. Alfredo played in L.A. for the first time six years ago and was blown away by the big city and by how important Mexican music and art was to the Chicanos he met. In Mexico, he said staring down the glasses sliding down his nose, traditional art forms like son jarocho have been on the losing end of an attack by television and popular culture. It's not getting any better these days, he adds, the new party in power, the PAN, is shifting a lot of federal funding for culture to private enterprise and corporations, leaving independent art making high and dry.

The lyrics of one of the songs Herrera played with his band Pa Sumecha talked of American soil as the "carnada" or bait for people in Mexico. The high price of emigrating from home is not always clear, they sang to about 35 people in the dimly lit audience. It's the age old lesson of immigration, now sung to the accompaniment of a new instrument, the little guitar that's becoming a big instrument for Chicanos.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading