When I shared the news that I was invited to teach music at a California state prison, it generated different reactions among my acquaintances. Some were worried for me and expressed it through nervous laughter, however for the most part, I received positive support for my new adventure of becoming a jarana and son jarocho teacher in a prison. I decided not to do any internet research of what that meant, but I did pay attention to the testimonies of the people who I know had worked in correctional facilities.
Day One: 4:30 AM. Los Angeles, CA. Coffee, breakfast, lunch, snacks, jaranas, a full tank; everything ready to drive the three hours on the freeway to Corcoran State Prison. Intrigue, emotion and numerous plans.
First security check point at the entrance of the complex: hand over driver’s license and state the reason for your visit.
Second security check point at the office at the entrance of the prison: exchange your California driver’s license for a correctional ID; inspection of the objects/instruments, check the style and color of clothing; entry time.
Third security check point once you pass the automatic gate and the tunnel with magnetic doors: make sure that the photo in the correctional ID matches the person carrying it.
Fourth security check point after entering Yard B and crossing the automatic door guarded by an armed tower guard: write down the time of arrival, the place to intend to visit and sign; you are also subjected to a second review of the style and color of clothing, receive an emergency pager.
Finally, we arrived at the gym, which we transformed into a space for traditional arts for the following six hours; a cold and clean art hall with guards and a sharpshooter on a catwalk, marked with clear signs that say, “No warning shots will be fired,” that in some way keeps you calm but at the same time makes you constantly anxious. After we arrive at the gym, the participants are brought in. They are released from other duties to attend the new program, which means that some are able to make it, others not. Finally, the thick and heavy metal door opens; a cold wind leaves the gym and a group of men dressed in blue come in.
Three different traditional arts workshops are offered at the same time in the same place. The inmates approach us with enthusiasm and with plenty of respectful questions; some are still deciding which workshop to join, others have made up their minds. Some greet us with a handshake, while others just acknowledge us with eye contact. While greeting us they share questions and comments: “Are these ukuleles?; How do you tune them?; Are you going to teach us how to play?; Why eight strings?; I’ve never played; I play the guitar, can I bring it?: We even welcome a smiling, young student whom I will never forget because he looked just like the high school kids that I teach in Los Angeles. He asks: “Have you ever been in prison before?” When I answer with a hesitant, “No,” he responds with, “Well, then welcome to prison!” We all laugh and I thank him and try to imagine what brought him to prison at such a young age; he should be in school… Regardless, he seemed to be well adapted to the regime, so I limit myself to responding to his questions without prejudice. During this personal welcome, that same student also notices that the espiga (plectrum) that I use to play my requinto (which looks like the arm of the frame of glasses or the handle of a plastic spoon) resembles the knives that inmates manufacture in prison. We laugh again, but this time, my laughter is reserved and thoughtful.
During our first half day at the prison we thought that we had learned how to get along with the administrative staff, the guards, and the inmates. However, in the course of several weeks, we realized that many attitudes changed and we really hadn’t learned anything; this was just the first encounter.
In one of the classes, the guitar players came to class really excited and motivated. We noticed this and reminded ourselves that every class is different and that as teachers we need to be sensible and responsive to the students. At this point, we had gained their trust, therefore they were not only more open in the way they played but even with the jokes that they made amongst the group. That day, it was Quetzal’s turn to support and surprise the group. Noticing a group of students playing, Quetzal asked, “Let me hear, what are you playing?” One of the students immediately reacted like a scolded child and responded, “Nothing.” But neither Quetzal nor I gave up. We tried to replicate their tune with our instruments. In a matter of seconds, we had followed along with their song, much to their surprise. Then their reaction was, Look at that, we were just playing and they were able to play the same tune and it even sounded like a real song! Quetzal didn’t let this opportunity go by and he transformed that idea into an original song. That was the beginning of a composition class, where we used the same melody they had created and built upon it with harmonized chords and a bridge; it only needed some verses. There were Latinos, Whites, and African Americans playing the cajón, guitars, and jaranas, clapping and singing. That moment was genuine and unexpected, a shot that passed through all of the souls in the gym, from the intern who was responsible for cleaning the gym to the tower guard dozing off in his cage.
We traveled many miles both at moonrise and sunset. We crossed mountains and fog. We renounced our civil liberties every Monday in order to liberate a few inmates for a little while. We went far; we took them way beyond the gray high fences. I will never forget the way and tone in which they asked us how our week was, and more importantly, the intensity with the way that they received our answers, like they were making it their own answer, at least for a moment, I think it was their answer. The way they said goodbye and wished us a safe return home. How grateful they were for our efforts and because they knew we were doing it for them, not for us. They are not used to this type of treatment; they don’t expect it and we were able to give them back part of their humanity wrapped in art. I hope we have contributed something positive in the prison culture, and I wish that they will be able continue practicing what we taught them because I am convinced that the correctional institutions are full of wise and talented people.