There are countless mediums and forums for artists to honor their history and culture. Mexican folk singer, songwriter, and performer Azul Barrientos does so through her music.
Hundreds of people gather at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center every month to hear Azul's unique, diaphanous voice at her show, Noche Azul de Esperanza.
As the Esperanza's artist-in-residence, she has hosted the show since 2007. She uses music, videos, and storytelling to tell engaging history lessons about Mexican and Latin American composers, musicians, and artists. Each performance is a unique treat for those in search of immersive experiences in Latin American culture.
Old-timers come to reminisce about the music they grew up with. Young couples steal kisses between performances. The warm, intimate occasion is unique to places like San Antonio, a U.S. city where Latino culture, history, music, and art converge on a daily basis on the streets and in cultural institutions like the Esperanza.
Azul is an embodiment of this convergence. She uses her music – her vocation – to preserve her Mexican heritage.
"Singing is such a direct way of communicating something that you can not communicate in other forms. It's so powerful to me," she told the Rivard Report earlier this month. "Mexican folkloric songs, or any folkloric songs, (are) really what come out of me."
The Mexico City native moved back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. in the late 2000s, the road to the U.S. paved with curiosity and a need "to explore what was happening with my life," she said.
She decided to stay in San Antonio in 2007 to pursue her music at the Esperanza, where she could sing, perform, and preserve her culture professionally. Singing is a part of who she is, she said. It's her connection to history, de sus ancestros, the sad stories and the cheerful ones.
Over the years, Azul has gained a loyal following of admirers who attend every single show – or at least try. Her mother, Cuca Morales de Barrientos, has performed with her several times.
"Mi familia es producto de la revolución Mexicana, y dentro de esa guerra fue mucho sufrimiento y mucha pobreza. Mi familia viene de mucho dolor. Yo creo lo que mas veo es dolor. Y creo que mucha de ese dolor es transmitido por generaciones," she said. "My family is a product of the Mexican Revolution, and during that war there was a lot of suffering and a lot of poverty. My family comes from a lot of pain. I think what I see the most is pain. And I think that a lot of that pain is transmitted through generations."
At her last show on a balmy July night, Azul told the story of the Mexican bolero – a genre of slow-tempo Latin music – and payed homage to the songs, composers, musicians and singers in the genre. Dressed in a long silver dress with pink and purple flowers on it, her hair tied up with pink ribbon, Azul and her crew of three musicians on percussion, bass, and keyboard serenaded 230 people, a sold-out show. Short video clips portraying the composer or musician's history prefaced each musical performance.
"A lot of (the featured artists) are women making music who we don't hear about and that's one of the things that my focus is on right now," she said.
Each show requires special preparation, Azul said, but "I know that what I'm doing and the library of songs that I can offer the audience is something that they can connect to their ancestors." All of the work is worth it when someone, "con cabecita blanca," comes to her after the show and reminisces about the songs she performed.
"I've learned now through the years that my thing is to connect with people (through my music)," Azul said. "If I don't connect then I feel like my purpose is not really there."
The singer's passion for music likely came from her family. Her father used to sing in his barrio for his neighbors, and her brothers grew up playing classical piano. They couldn't shake the mentality of playing music only as a hobby, and never as a profession. It stopped all of them from pursuing music as a career, she said.
But not Azul.
"(I was) like, 'you taught me how to play piano since I was 3 and a half, and (I listened) to you guys play music all the time – how did you not realize I was going to become a musician?'" she recalled, laughing. And if you've heard Azul perform, you'd wonder the same thing.
Graciela Sánchez, Esperanza executive director, said Azul fit perfectly into the nonprofit's programming. Part of the cultural center's mission is to "support the voices of women and girls and lesbians and LGBT folks," Sánchez said. Azul's music strays far from "the top 20 (songs) you hear over and over.
"She doesn’t go there, she kind of continues to expose the community to new stuff even though it could be older (music)," Sánchez said. "She challenges the audience, and that ability to teach is something unique and I think people enjoy that."
Azul was born in Mexico City, but identifies as both Mexicana and Chicana. She embraces the mezcla of culture and history from which she comes – the indigena, the Española – and reflects that in her music.
"Dicen muchos filósofos que si no recognizes tu historia, no puedes reconocer tu presente. No puedes sobrepasar tu historia y seguir en una manera fuerte de una manera proud. Entonces yo creo que para mi lo que yo estoy tratando de decir históricamente en el folclor es que ... lo importante siempre mantener esa capacidad de reconocer nuestra historia para proyectar lo que sigue," she said. "Many philosophers say that if you don't recognize your history, you can't recognize your present. You can't bypass your history and continue in a strong, proud way. So I think for me, what I'm trying to say historically in folklore, is that it's always important to maintain the capacity to recognize our history in order to protect the history that's to come."
For Azul, singing is a form of activism.
"We have forgot about the times where singing folkloric music was an act of rebellion," she said. "Many musicians got persecuted and even killed for it, but I think anything that threatens the continuity of culture is activism."
Top image: Azul Barrientos is the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center's artist-in-residence. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.