Pass It On!

Pass It On!

The Journal of the Children's Music Network

Honoring the Farmworkers in Poetry and Song

by Suni Paz

Since 1984 I have had the joy and privilege of collaborating with Alma Flor Ada, an internationally known poet and writer of children’s stories. She has entrusted me with developing, writing, singing, and recording the musical versions of her poems and stories.

Alma Flor Ada is Professor of Education and Director of Doctoral Studies at the University of San Francisco. I work as a performing artist, so in a different way, I teach people, too, through the songs I sing, many of which are story songs. Both Dr. Ada and I attend conferences of educators, and it was at one of these that we first met. She was familiar with some of my music and mentioned her desire to have me set some of her poems to music. Some months later, she visited New York to show me her work. I was delighted with her poetic language. It seemed to me that her poems carried music within them and it was up to me to bring it out. Thus started our collaboration, which continues to this day.

Although some may believe that collaborating with others is a hard thing to do, I have to say that, with Alma Flor Ada, I have found minimal trouble. On the contrary, I have learned intensely and grown professionally in every way, as a person and as a songwriter. I think this is due to the fact that Dr. Ada and I have held great respect for one another. For example, whenever I have suggested any changes or adjustments to her lyrics, she has assured me that I need not consult her in these matters. However, out of respect, I have always asked her opinion and explained to her the reasons for the needed changes. I have come to learn that I can count on her never objecting.

During most of the 15 years of our collaboration, I lived in New York and she in San Francisco. We saw little of each other, but we discussed lyrics over the phone, by fax or letters, or when we got together at conferences and presentations. One of these gatherings was where we began discussing our desire to write about the farmworkers.

As a young woman, I had firsthand experience of the hardships of farming. When I got married and had my first child, we moved from Buenos Aires to the province of Entre Ríos. There, my husband and I ran an Angora rabbit farm, and, to make ends meet, we had to raise our own food. Plowing, planting, tending, and harvesting was very hard labor, and we could not have succeeded in feeding ourselves but for the generosity of an experienced neighbor—a farmworker—who lent us a hand in the fields and gave us very good and sound farming advice. Not only this, but he made a gift to us of part of his own rich harvest. So I give personal thanks to his memory.

Many readers will also remember the height of the farmworkers’ struggle in California, led by César Chávez. We held national cam­paigns to raise consciousness about the plight of the farmworkers and to convince people of the need to boycott grapes until the campesinos’ needs for just wages and a more humane life were met. I used to open some of these conferences by singing a song about the farm­workers.

Alma Flor Ada and I shared the desire to educate children about the farmworkers, and this resulted in our working together on Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet in Spanish and English. It is a book of poems Alma Flor wrote about the farm­workers’ lives, and I was delighted to be invited to set her poems to music. I proposed the use of a variety of rhythms from throughout the Americas, as a way of honoring the farmworkers from various latitudes. Thus, I used rancheras and corridos (Mexico), sones (Venezuela), chacareras and gatos (Argentina), and guarañas (Paraguay), as well as other sounds that suggested the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica. We wanted, through poetry and music, to honor the lives of all the campesinos who feed us through hard, patient, and badly rewarded labor.

Gathering the Sun is an alphabet book that gives, as an example for each letter of the alphabet, a cultural concept that is important to Latino communities throughout the Americas. Each concept is described in poetry and is depicted with an illustration. Thus, the ­letter M stands for México, represented by a two-page illustration of the Aztec calendar. The letter Y stands for Yucatán, and the Mayan monuments are depicted on that page.

The illustrations were done by Simón Silva, an artist born of farmworkers. As a child Silva used to help his father with planting and picking the crops, and this accounts for the deep feeling that permeates the colorful illustrations depicting farming, family relations, and father-and-son closeness. Throughout the book, we see tender scenes of a father coming home after a hard day’s work, embracing his son; a young boy learning from his mother how to cook and how to make tortillas; a father reading to his daughter; a young girl working in the fields. These are all pictures from the daily lives of farmworkers.

If we think about it, we’ll realize that the lives of the campesinos have gone mostly unsung, though at times their sufferings and sacrifices have been documented. There are few songs that honor them, thank them from the heart for all of their doings on our behalf, or express to them how proud we feel for being part of their human family. Gathering the Sun was intended to do just that and more. “Farm Workers” is one of the songs I composed using Alma Flor Ada’s poetry from the book. It expresses our feelings and the feelings of those among us who are conscious of and thankful for the farmworkers’ gifts, the fruits of their hands. It acknowledges, “I will grow stronger and kinder as I eat what you have grown.”

Another song, the one for the letter C, is dedicated to the memory of César Chávez. It speaks of the legacy he left behind by telling how his example and his words “sprout anew in the field rows as seedings of quiet hope.” I have often felt very grateful to Alma Flor Ada, for this opportunity to sing to children about César Chávez. Some months ago I was invited to sing in an assembly at an elementary school that carries his name. During the presentation, I discovered that many of the children knew surprisingly little about this remarkable man who had dedicated his life to the farmworkers’ struggle and lent his name to their school. I want to believe that singing this song and showing the illustration that so lovingly depicts him, on that day made César Chávez’ memory indelible to those children, teachers, and parents.

Many children are made to believe that pride is a negative thing, so, in concerts, when I ask them if they are proud of being who they are (Argentinean, Mexican, and Latinos in general); they invariably answer no. With the song “Orgullo/Pride,” we may be able to open a discussion of what pride is all about and how important it is to be proud of getting good grades, speaking more than one language, having grandparents, being born of a foreign family—being proud of who we are. In the song we can express these feelings:

I am proud of my own family,
I am proud of my own language,
I am proud of being who I am.
I am proud of my own culture,
I am proud of my own people,
I am proud of being who I am.*

Many times we take for granted the bounties of the earth and forget to be grateful for them. If we think about it, we may remember that, around the world, not every child has access to them. Then we may want to be thankful for what we have. What better way to say thank you than with a song? The letter G stands for gracias, or “thanks.” It expresses gratitude to the earth and to the elements, such as the sun, wind, and rain, for all the delicious fruits we enjoy.

This project has warmed my heart and made me proud. With it, I have fulfilled a dream I held within me for a long time, to thank the farmworkers in poetry and song for their wonderful labor and to show how honorable is this profession and how deserving of honor are those who dedicate their lives to working in the fields.

* The translation of Alma Flor’s poem, as it appears in the book, is somewhat different from this. When I wrote the song, I modified the original translation, to make it more singable. The poem “Orgullo/Pride” and parts of other poems are reprinted in PIO! by permission of Del Sol Books, Inc., publishers of Gathering the Sun: An Alphabet in Spanish and English. We thank them for their generosity.