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Mexican Music Project: Partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts documents music in Idaho communities

Damian Rodriguez performing
Photo by Steven Hatcher

One of Steven Hatcher’s first discoveries when he became the director of folk and traditional arts at the Idaho Commission on the Arts was a record on a shelf, “Soy Mexicano,” a collection of traditional Mexican music from Southern Idaho recorded in the 1980s. The discovery sparked his interest in updating the collection with a new survey of Idaho bands.

Hatcher and a small team of folklorists spent a couple of years researching Idaho’s Mexican music scene and came up with a list of performers. When it was time to document them, Hatcher reached out to Alicia Garza for help. Garza is a professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages and the founder of Casita Nepantla, a space in the Student Union Building devoted to Hispanic/Latinx art and culture. Garza looped in Greg Martinez, director of the university’s Center for Multicultural and Educational Opportunities, and Rulon Wood, an associate professor in Boise State’s film program. The center, with Casita Nepantla, donated money to the project. Wood connected Hatcher with then-students Sophia McNeil and Andrea Carrizales to help make audio recordings and videos of the musicians.

Hatcher, McNeil and Carrizales spent the summer of 2019 traveling the state. They filmed 20 bands and interviewed musicians at quinceañeras, in bars, backyards, churches and on front porches. Subjects ranged from single songwriters to a 22-piece youth mariachi band. Music styles included banda, Tejano, norteño and other regional blends.

The project was a natural fit for the university, Garza said. “Boise State’s support shows that the university is invested in the Latino community and its culture. And our students got first-hand experience in film and exposure to a diversity of Latino musical traditions.”

The project, Hatcher said, “expanded the range of the Idaho Commission on the Arts – from the artistic to the scholarly side. We couldn’t have done it without Boise State.”

On the road

Sophia McNeil graduated in 2019 with a degree in theatre, a dance minor and a certificate in digital media. Her mother is from Mexico City. McNeil grew up a part of Boise’s Mexican community. Her jobs for the Mexican Music Project included operating cameras, helping Hatcher with interviews and setting up the filming schedule.

Sophia McNeil

“I made a lot of calls to band members,” said McNeil, who speaks fluent Spanish. “My mom treats people in the Mexican culture as family, so when I called, I talked to people like they were my cousins.”

The project helped her connect to a part of her own culture she hadn’t known, she said.

“The people we filmed, for the most part, had integrated music into their lives. It was a whole perspective I hadn’t considered about bands. For them, performing might be singing for Sunday Mass. But they practice two or three times a week. They go for it, and the community encourages them.”

McNeil now lives in Los Angeles. She was a production assistant for student films at the American Film Institute and a background actor on the television series “Euphoria,” “The Flight Attendant,” and “9-1-1.” She works for the Screen Actors Guild.

A mutual benefit

The Mexican Music Project gave students a chance to work outside the classroom and focus on documentary film, Wood said. “Students do projects like this and realize they’re part of the community. In reality, the university has a lot to offer Idaho communities, and they to us,” Wood said.

Listen in

Now in the fifth year of the Mexican Music Project, Hatcher is making a CD of the music recorded in 2019 and producing short films of the bands available on the Idaho Commission on the Arts YouTube channel.

A new project

In 2022, the Folk and Traditional Arts program at the Idaho Commission on the Arts partnered with Special Collections and Archives at Albertsons Library to create the Idaho Folklife Collection. The collection includes audio recordings, videos and photos documenting Idaho’s cultural traditions. Boise State will house the growing collection.

Musician, arts fellow Damian Rodriguez

Musician Damian Rodriguez, from Paul, Idaho, is an Idaho Commission on the Arts 2023 Folk and Traditional Arts Fellow and is among the Mexican Music Project’s featured musicians. A former journalist and vocational rehabilitation counselor, Rodriguez performs as a soloist and with his band, Tejano 208. He noted the roots of the Mexican Music Project in the work of celebrated ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who spent decades collecting music around the world, making the first recordings of musicians Muddy Waters, Leadbelly and many others.

“If he hadn’t recorded it, we wouldn’t have the knowledge of that music,” Rodriguez said. “With projects like the Mexican Music Project, we keep the music and our heritage alive.”

By Anna Webb

Valeria Montelongo: The fine art of subtitles

Montelongo, a 2022 graduate from American Falls, Idaho, left Boise State with degrees in biology and Spanish. She is one of the students working with the Idaho Commission on the Arts to oversee subtitles for the Mexican Music Project films.

The commission uses a transcription service, but the service can’t always pick up conversational slang and nuances. In some cases, there are no direct translations for the names of Mexican instruments and other terms. Montelongo steps in to make sure the subtitles are accurate. She’s glad her work is helping musicians reach a larger audience.

“The ICA is putting a spotlight on my culture,” she said.

Montelongo is working in a veterinary clinic and plans to become a certified medical interpreter.