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Every week, an eclectic group of all ages and ethnicities gathers in a cramped community center in Mount Pleasant. By day, they are lawyers, students, activists and translators, but by night, they are jaraneros, learning and playing traditional folk music from Mexico's Caribbean coast.
“Once you're exposed to these traditions it’s hard to be without them,” says human rights lawyer Salvador Sarmiento, one of the founders of the music collective Cosita Seria. Sarmiento grew up listening to and playing traditional Mexican son jarocho music in Santa Ana, California, and he brought it with him when he moved to D.C. His co-founder, D.C. native Anna Duncan, explained the meaning of the group’s name.
“Cosita Seria literally means ‘a little serious thing,’” she said. “We’re not a band, we're a project around getting people together and learning this music, but at some point we needed something to call it, so we could invite people to come join us! I think ‘Cosita Seria’ captures that we don't take ourselves too seriously, that we're also about having fun.”
The group started breaking out their instruments at parties and at jam sessions in Malcolm X park, drawing in both seasoned musicians and people like husband and wife Priscilla Rodriguez and Kilof Legge, who had never held a string instrument in their lives.
Rodriguez described her first taller, which means workshop in Spanish: “We just started strumming without notes, and even that was difficult! Then after two or three sessions, we started with the notes. We did do and then sol. We did it for one minute and I felt in communion. It was so beautiful.”
Her husband jumped in: “We were all playing together, and you get to this magical place where you feel like your soul is soaring to heaven. That kind of feeling that you belong to a community, we all need that. How many of us feel completely lost in this city?”
Priscilla is from Mexico City and Kilof was born in Lebanon and grew up in England and Ireland. They both said joining the Cosita Seria music collective gave them a sense of belonging.
“I don't have any family besides my husband here,” she said, “So it’s been so beautiful to see the support you can have from somebody that you don't actually know. It’s like wow, you adopt a family! And also, now I'm feeling more proud of being Mexican because I’m learning this beautiful tradition.”
The son jarocho genre comes from a blending of cultures in Mexico’s state of Veracruz dating back to colonial times. African slaves, indigenous peasants and Spanish colonizers all contributed to the music's percussive rhythms, rhyming stanzas and call and response structure. Salvador Sarmiento says the current makeup of the DC group, with its collective Mexican, Salvadoran, Colombian, German, Peruvian and Washingtonian heritage, is a natural continuation of these origins.
“Cosita Seria is from a tradition of folks that have always come from the periphery,” he said. “A lot of folks that live in Washington, DC and have lived here for a long time, they find themselves on the periphery of their own city. Our members are in a city that’s the center of power, but many of us are immigrants or from immigrant families that are fighting against that center of power.”
Like Sarmiento, who works for the immigrant rights group National Day Labor Organizing Network, many of Cosita Seria's members are activists. When they aren't playing for fun, they can be found strumming and singing at demonstrations around DC focusing on workers' rights, immigration reform, tenants’ rights and other issues.
Rodriguez, an environmental lawyer with Earth Rights International, said she began to notice a difference between how brushed off or ignored regular marchers and protesters and how people reacted when she and the other jaraneros played and sang protest songs. “Literally everyone looked at us, and then they smiled!” she said. “And I felt very powerful, and very proud.”
For these rallies and marches, Anna Duncan explained the group’s members adapt traditional songs hundreds of years old so they speak to current realities.
“It’s a constantly evolving genre,” she said. “Each son has an infinite number of verses and people are always writing new verses about all different things. That’s one of the things that lends itself to talking about what’s happening currently. So people are using the music and the culture to draw attention to a really critical issue: the horrors of our current immigration system and the border and how it separates people in both a political way and a very real, physical way.”
Even for the group’s members who don’t work for activist non-profits, like Kiloff Legge, taking the music to the streets makes them feel engaged and energized. “Especially if you live in a super powerful city like DC, it’s very easy to become cynical,” he said. “Most of us somewhere have this hope that things will be a bit better. But I think a lot of us have become cynical and don’t see the hope, and what we need is food, to drive us and move us forward, and music is probably the single most powerful motivational food we have as human beings.”
D.C. is a transient city. Several members of Cosita Seria have moved away over the years, but new ones have always taken their place. The jaraneros of Washington DC say they're confident this tradition from the hills and beaches of Mexico will live on in the neighborhoods of the nation’s capital.