Sounds of Oaxaca

Jessica Hernández ’10 puts her UCR music degree to work as the co-director of the Mexican philharmonic band founded by her father and uncle.

By Sandra Baltazar Martínez

Sousaphones help give Oaxacan philharmonic music its characteristic brass sound.
Photos by Kurt Miller

As a 2-year-old, Jessica Hernández always held her father’s hand as they walked into his band rehearsals.

She would sit quietly at these lively gatherings, which usually took place in a band member’s garage or backyard somewhere in Los Angeles, as the sounds of his clarinet grew louder. They blended with the trombones, sousaphones, trumpets, and cymbals that characterize the traditional Oaxacan music played by the Lynwood-based group, known as Banda Nueva Dinastía de Santiago Zoochila, founded by her dad and uncle in 2001.

Shaped by these experiences, Jessica knew only a few years later that music would always be part of her life. By the age of 9, she was playing the clarinet too. In high school, she joined marching and jazz bands, and played in the Tournament of Roses Parade in 2005. Her dad drove her from Lynwood to Pasadena for several months, making sure she didn’t miss any rehearsals.

“At some point, I discovered there was no other thing that I could be so passionate about than music,” said Jessica, 29, who graduated from UCR in
2010 with a bachelor’s degree in music.

That passion, and the Hernández family’s legacy, lives on in Banda Nueva Dinastía. After joining the band as co-director in 2009, Jessica now serves alongside her dad, Porfirio, 54, and uncle, Moisés, 45, who both played in a band in the Oaxacan city of Santiago Zoochila as kids.

The Hernández family, from left: Porfirio, Vilma, Gloria, Jessica, Karla, Moisés.

Banda Nueva Dinastía is one of several Mexican philharmonic bands that have had a profound presence in the Latino community in Los Angeles. Most were formed in the late 1980s and ’90s by immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, whose music is known as Zapotec due to one of Oaxaca’s native languages.

In addition to providing a cultural connection to their homeland, the bands aim to recruit young people from the community, creating opportunities for Latino youth to appreciate and play music in neighborhoods where many children no longer have access to music classes at school. The band has 32 active members, 25 of whom are under the age of 18. During holiday breaks, that number can balloon to 50 as college students return home.

When Porfirio and Moisés arrived in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago, they yearned for their traditional Oaxacan music and instruments. They started off by playing in other bands around Los Angeles, and eventually established one of their own in 2001.

Banda Nueva Dinastía plays a number of events throughout the year, including community gatherings and fundraising events in which the money goes to support the band, and also fund educational and church functions in Oaxaca. In December, the group participates in a local version of the Mexican Christmas procession known as “Las Posadas,” a nine-day re-enactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem that sees the band walk and play from house to house in Lynwood.

The band has traveled to Oaxaca three times since its founding, allowing many young band members to discover their parents’ hometowns for the first time. Others got the chance to meet their grandparents and great grandparents in person.

Banda Nueva Dinastía has 32 active members, 25 of whom are under the age of 18.

But now that she’s one of the band’s co-directors, Jessica wants to make the group’s upcoming 2020 trip even more memorable. In the past, the musicians have only performed in Santiago Zoochila, the pueblo in rural Oaxaca from which most of the band members, or their parents, hail.

This time, Jessica is making arrangements for Banda Nueva Dinastía members to showcase their skills in Mexico City and Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of Oaxaca.

Generation Fugue

Music, and philharmonic bands, have been a powerful force for the immigrant community in Los Angeles. However, performing music in Oaxaca was traditionally an occupation restricted to men, and that didn’t change until the 1980s among Mexican immigrant communities in the United States.

Jessica’s sister Vilma, 21, a student at UC San Diego, has also joined Banda Nueva Dinastía along with her cousin Karla, also 21, who expects to graduate from UCR this spring with a degree in sociology.

“Here, we broke the ice,” Porfirio said. “I’m so proud that my two daughters and my niece are in the band with us.”

And the number of females taking up Oaxacan music is growing, said Xóchitl Chávez, an assistant professor of music at UCR who has researched these groups for more than a decade.

“In the last 10 years, there are now more women leading the bands,” Chávez said. “The most visible representation of female musicians is in the youth bands, where they can range in age as young as 5 or 6 to married women playing alongside their children and husbands.”

Yet despite these positive trends, most of Jessica’s friends and family frowned upon her decision to build a career in music.

“The one person who never had that doubt in me, who never questioned me, was my father,” Jessica said.

Porfirio said he’s proud of what the female musicians in his family have accomplished in the community.

“They are young and have become role models for the kids who didn’t have anybody to look up to before,” Porfirio said.

The mixing of generations within local bands, Chávez said, has allowed Mexican communities in Southern California to simultaneously preserve their heritage and adapt to their American surroundings, all while creating new types of art.

“Having multigenerational bands has contributed to the preservation of the Oaxacan culture in the Los Angeles area,” said Chávez, who produced a short documentary film in 2015 called “Booming Bandas of Los Angeles: Oaxacan Women and Youth as New Cultural Bearers of Philharmonic Brass Bands.”

Xóchitl Chávez, an assistant professor of music at UCR, studies the role of females in Oaxacan philharmonic bands.

“There is this bimusicality, bilingualism, and biculturalism happening,” Chávez added. “Kids are creating improvisational dance and music, and playing at jazz cafes … they are incorporating both of their worlds.”

Jessica said Oaxacan philharmonic music has not only brought her family closer together — but also helped to define it.

“Some people say the music is in our blood,” she said. “Music to me is culture, family, tradition.”

Classical Training

When Jessica started researching colleges in her senior year of high school, she knew she had to choose a school with a music program that would be a good fit for her.

“My dad … came with me for the audition when I was applying to UCR,” Jessica said. “It was scary and a bit nerve-wracking, but I knew that no matter what I would be fine because my dad was waiting for me outside.”

Ultimately, she decided to enroll at UCR due in large part to the staff and faculty she met during the audition.

“I felt the love; I really felt back at home,” Jessica said.

However, she acknowledged the first
year was a challenge. As a first-generation college student, she continuously questioned her skills and abilities, especially in music theory. But she soon adapted to the rigor of college academics and studied harder, familiarizing herself with Beethoven, Mozart, and the other classical masters.

She also continued playing with Banda Nueva Dinastía. The band even traveled to UCR for her senior recital, marking the first time many of the
young members had set foot on a college campus.

This fact didn’t really sink in for Jessica until she stood up at her graduation dinner in cap and gown to thank the family, friends, and neighbors who had gathered to celebrate her achievement.

“It hit me that I was the first, and that many coming after me will be the first too,” Jessica said.

Since graduation, Jessica has worked at nonprofits focused on music education, and also in the music finance field. She’s expecting to complete her master’s degree in accounting in the spring of 2018. For now, she has created a spreadsheet to keep track of how many Banda Nueva Dinastía members attend college, graduate, and build careers. Jessica said she’s sure the correlation exists, but it’s never been kept in an official manner. She hopes the information can help Banda Nueva Dinastía seek grants or other opportunities to support music programs in her Lynwood neighborhood.

Reprise

In January, Banda Nueva Dinastía came back to campus with three other bands for the inaugural Oaxacan Philharmonic Bands Audition, a friendly musical battle organized by Chávez during which audience members were treated to a three-hour outdoor performance that bellowed with the vibrant brass sound characteristic of the genre.

The music theory, technique, and teaching skills exhibited by Jessica during the show were all cemented at UCR.

“This is a reflection of myself, and of UCR,” Jessica said immediately after the
show, which also featured her father, uncle, sister, and cousins. Her mother, Gloria, stood proudly in the audience.

Before the musicians left the stage, Porfirio, who shared the conductor’s box with the other Oaxacan band directors, took the microphone and thanked university officials in Spanish for the opportunity to perform.

“The advice I always give my daughter: ‘Teach what you know,’ Porfirio said as his daughter stood just a few feet away, listening intently. “Teach people, children, because one day we are going to leave this earth, and you don’t want to keep the knowledge; you want to share it.”