This Is Where She Belongs
The immigrants are here to stay, to help build America
The immigrants ain't going nowhere, they're here for America
Fighting for a better life
Fighting through the grunge
America remember Ellis Island
We all came here to take the plunge
I hope you understand it.
"I feel a sense of responsibility as an artist, as an immigrant," says Gaby Moreno—Emmy-nominated singer/songwriter, awarded a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist in 2013, among many other accolades—as she describes the sentiments that inspired her decision to record a recent single with Van Dyke Parks, a cover of "The Immigrants." Chosen by Moreno and Van Dyke Parks as an expression against anti-immigrant political stances, the song was written 20 years ago by Trinidadian David Rudder after a 1997 police attack on Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, that took place in New York City.
Moreno herself is proud to be an immigrant herself from Guatemala, and speaks emphatically about being a voice for those who don't have one. "I left my country and I never looked back, but I decided that I would always, always say and express through my music that I am an immigrant, and that I'm proud to be one."
The evolution of Moreno's jazzy blues and soul-imbued folk, which she creates and sings in both English and Spanish, was born during a trip to the U.S. with her parents when she was 13 years old. Having heard the blues for the first time, she took a pile of CDs back to Guatemala to immerse herself in the music, and in the process, fell in love with Chicago blues diva Koko Taylor's voice and music.
Noting that the immigrant experience is transformative, Moreno extends her musical reach to embrace influences she encountered in moving to the U.S. In Los Angeles, her adopted hometown, she discovered folk singer-songwriters from the '60s and '70s like Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, and Harry Nilsson. The city also exposed her to different styles of Mexican folk music, especially son jarocho, an Afro-Mexican genre from the state of Veracruz. She even rediscovered the traditional music of her homeland, which she had taken for granted as a youngster.
Most recently, she has embarked on exploring other kinds of Latin American music, including tango and bossa nova. Some of these newer explorations will be highlighted in an upcoming album in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, a pan-American project that includes music from Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, and Puerto Rico, as well as North America. The results are reflected in Moreno's repertoire; she blends diverse Latin American influences, seamlessly framing them in rock/folk grooves tinged with blues. In doing so, Moreno masterfully creates her own brand of "Americana," sourced from rhythms and melodies from all over the Americas—North, Central, and South.
Moreno believes the story of immigrants is not just one of the gifts they bestow upon their land of destiny, but also one of those returned to their land of origin. Indeed, her homeland is never far from her thoughts and as another part of her musical activism, the singer organized a highly successful series of benefit concerts for victims of last summer's devastating volcano eruptions in Guatemala.
For Moreno, the journey has also included figuring out who she is, defining her voice, and what she wants to express, not just as a message in the lyrics, but also "sonically," and she affirms a belief in evolving with every new album and always taking risks. In her fourth and latest album, Ilusión (2017), nominated for a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album, Moreno's hopeful anthem "Fronteras" ("Borders") proclaims that there is nothing to fear. As her powerful, velvety voice soars and reiterates in the refrain: "And I laugh and dance. It's in my blood. And I dream free. This is where I belong." Because, as she puts it, "I am one hundred percent Guatemalan, and I'll never forget my roots, but I could be anywhere in the world and that's where I'm going to belong."
Catalina Maria Johnson is an international radio broadcaster, bilingual cultural journalist, and music curator. She hosts and produces the radio show and podcast Beat Latino, and is a frequent contributor to NPR Music, Bandcamp Daily, and Billboard.