18 Dec 2015

Will you do the Fandango?

Will you do the Fandango?

Author: Bonnie Hughes  /  Categories: Arts, Campus  / 

When you speak to Heritage student Yesenia Hunter and hear her long list of accomplishments, you might wonder what to start talking to her about first.  She is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, a mom, a wife, an illustrator and a linographer, an author, a musician, a teacher, a poet and a public speaker.  Even though these different roles appear to propel her in many directions, they originate from a single source:  a passion to understand and express her cultural identity, which she believes leads to wholehearted living.  Everything she does, in her work, the community and her studies, is dedicated to helping others in the Yakima Valley make that connection, too.

Finding Her Historical Self

Hunter immigrated to the United States in 1980 and traveled with her family as a migrant farm worker.  Like others who left their birthplaces, she felt there was an interruption in her history that led to a disconnect with her Mexican culture.

Even though she spoke Spanish every day, it was utilitarian and devoid of warmth and feeling.  That changed when she discovered Son Jarocho, a folk music that originated in Veracruz, Mexico, and has Spanish and African influences.  The collaborative music, which relies on a cast of community performers who play together, creating the music as they go, utilizes unique instruments and lyrics as well as rhythms created through dance steps that are stomped on a wooden platform called a tarima.

"I've spoken Spanish my whole life, but the love language part of it was lost," explained Hunter.  "If I wanted to have a warm, deep conversation in Spanish, there were bits of language missing.  The poetry {of Son Jarocho} filled that gap.  By learning the language and the music, I realized I had found a way to connect to my historical self."

Discovered Son Jarocho at Seattle Fangango Project

Hunter and her husband, James, attended their first Son Jarocho workshop through the Seattle Fandango Project in 2009 while they were living in Seattle.  She was immediately taken with how it connected her to her heritage.

"The language is so colloquial, and many times I would think, 'That's something my mom would say to me!'  The music touched on everyday conversations.  It talked about falling in love and about being hurt.  There was a depth to the music."

It wasn't just the organic pulse of the music that drew her in.  It struck her that the rhythms of her life had begun to change, and the spaces in which she met with other community members to join in the fandangos, which are the community gatherings in which the music is created, played a key role in that transformation.

"Sometimes a physical space is just a space.  But spaces can help us let our guard down so we can build connections and find pieces of our identity.  There was a space created for me as a mom.  I could bring my kids with me and give of myself.  Now I'm interested in creating those opportunities, and that's an overarching theme in my art, scholarly work, books and everything that I do.  It's a passion for me."

Passion to Create Spaces That Build Community

This passion, to create deliberate spaces to build community, is woven into every corner of her life.  As she wraps up her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies at Heritage with a focus on cultural studies and social policy, she is already working ahead on her graduate thesis on rhythmanalysis, which is a study of how people interact in communities and social spaces.

"I'm privileged to be part of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship,"  Hunter said.  "It affords me to access to additional research opportunities I wouldn't otherwise have.  I'm acquiring so much information, but it's important to me to translate that research into something helpful and practical."

In addition to being a full-time student at Heritage University, in November Hunter became a speaker for Humanities Washington, a nonprofit organization that seeks to facilitate cultural understanding and education. Leading participatory workshops on fandango and Son Jarocho, she has presented this rich music to a variety of audiences.  She and her husband are also leaders of the Yakima Fandango Community, which they founded when they moved from Seattle.

Family Affair:  Music and Art Is Part of Who They Are

In addition to her widespread community work, Hunter has written two children's books.  She continues to create her own art, too, inspired by the Son Jarocho verses.

Hunter is quick to credit her family, and particularly her husband, as the reason she is able to extend herself so far into the community and balance her role as wife, mother, student and artist.  Supportive of all of her endeavors, James himself is an accomplished professional bass player and one of the few musicians in the Pacific Northwest who can play the leona, a traditional San Jarocho instrument.

"James is the lead in our music," added Hunter. 'He is an incredible musician and a strong instrumentalist.  I couldn't so anything I do without him."

Hunter also has four children who have embraced the arts as well. Her tow teen daughters, Amaris and Deja, are already performing in cover bands around the area, and her youngest daughter, Ellah, is a published author of a bilingual children's book, titled The Book of Love/El Libro de Amor.  Hunter laughs as she admits that her son, Aeden, is more reluctant to participate in the family's musical expression, but can often be bribed with the promise of food!  He is, however, an avid runner, and enjoys asking questions and exploring new knowledge.

When asked why Son Jarocho has had such an appeal and transformative power in the communities where it is performed, Hunter offers, "It's a new and different way to spend time with others, and the music is so interesting.  It's beautiful."

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