May Day band instructors and Case San José youth rehearse “La Frontera” at the Ira Freeman Center.
Interview and photos by Jason Vrabel
Since November 2018, Case San José and the May Day Marching Band have been collaborating on a new music program that they’ll perform at PIttonkatonk on May 11. This Pittsburgh-based partnership began along the border wall in Arizona. Pittonkatonk provided funding for the band to travel there and perform during protests. Since then, the two groups have come together every weekend to write and perform new music commissioned by Pittonkatonk. Downstream sat down with Christina Acuna Castillo of Casa San José, and May Day band member and co-founder, Scott Gibson, to discuss their new program. Castillo and Gibson shared their experiences in Arizona and described the important role youth are playing in this new collaboration.
What is Casa San Jose and what is your involvement with it?
Castillo: Casa San José is a Latino resource center in Beechview that advocates for the human rights of all immigrants and all people. I do many things there, including being apart of the rapid response team and working with the youth. As well as design and vision making.
Gibson: My connection to CSJ is through the band. We’re called the May Day Marching Band, but one of the events that CSJ has put on for many years is the May Day Immigrant Rights March, which we’ve always participated in since the beginning.
“I wrote a song called “La Frontera” and sang it to one of the trumpet players in the May Day band.”
How do you describe relationship between CSJ and the Beechview neighborhood where it’s located?
Castillo: Where it’s located is an important place to be. There are a lot of immigrant-owned restaurants and artwork created by our youth on our streets, like painted wooden panels on abandoned buildings. I hear from many in the community that Casa is a home away from home — a place where they feel safe, where they can go and won’t be judged, and will get the help they need. It’s a place for them to grow and learn. We don’t have all the answers and neither do they, so we come together to figure out what’s best for our community.
Tell me a bit about the May Day Marching Band.
Gibson: There’s no fast way to describe what it is, but it’s a model that exists in small pockets of places, but isn’t all that common. We’re not your average working band, or ordinary marching band. We exist as a collective of people who come together to support the work of specific organizations and movements within the city. We call it an open and democratic marching band, and we welcome anyone who wants to participate. We have a clear mission around doing social and racial justice work.
How long has the band existed?
Gibson: It’ll be 10 years this May Day. I started it with some of my friends who I was involved with in another band at the time.
When did you get involved with the band, Christina?
Castillo: About two years ago, I wrote a song called “La Frontera” and sang it to one of the trumpet players, Cable Gamble, in the May Day band. He composed a musical composition for the song and now the band plays it.
Gibson: It’s our signature song at this point.
Castillo: Yeah, people love it. We sang it at the border. We sing it all over Pittsburgh. Our kids know it by heart.
Does social and racial justice define what the band is about? Do you consider yourself a protest band, or activist band? Or do you not put a label on it?
Castillo: It’s movement music. It carries tunes, soul, and memories of movements.
Gibson: Early on that’s how we envisioned it working: going to protests. An activist-protest band doesn’t deeply describe where we’re going, but we do play a lot of protests and marches. There are more ways that we can support these movements of Pittsburgh, and we’re actively growing and learning about ways we can integrate ourselves more deeply.
“Our band is super democratic, so people bring to it a lot of different experiences.”
Where do your songs come from? Do they have origins in past protest music, or are you mostly writing new songs?
Gibson: With this project we are more integrated with our allies and we’re creating in a more collaborative way. Our band is super democratic, so people bring to it a lot of different experiences. In general, we vote on what songs to do. We don’t want to do just any party jam. We’re really interested in certain global influences. We have a lot of songs from all over the world, even if they’re not all protest or political songs. It’s so incredibly eclectic. We don’t have a whole lot of songs that someone in the band wrote, but we’re developing more and more of them.
“The youth have been able to come together and learn music and the songs that are special to them.”
Can you describe the involvement of youth in creating and performing this music in more detail?
Castillo: Our project started after the May Day band joined Casa San José and its youth to travel down to Nogales, Arizona, to protest the border wall in November 2018. When we got back to Pittsburgh, our youth wanted to start a music program with the band to learn their songs, and to teach the band new songs, too. We’ve met every Saturday since.
The youth have been able to come together and learn music and the songs that are special to them. They’ve designed a program for immigrants, refugees, and youth of color who have experienced or witnessed militarized violence. This means youth who’ve had fathers taken by ICE or have had men in their families murdered by police, or whose family fled their continent because of U.S. intervention. It feels important for us to bring our youth of color together, from different backgrounds, so they can say to one another, I understand your pain and I’m with you. This program intentionally brings together youth who have experience trauma, to not only recognize that our pain is interconnected, but also that our healing can be too. The African, Latin, and English music we play facilitates that.
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Casa San José has organized several trips to the border. Tell me more about the most recent one you mentioned.
Castillo: We’ve organized this trip to participate in the School of the Americas Watch protests and national conventions for three years. The first year we took about twelve people, and about 30 the second year. Last November, we took 53 people, including immigrant families, youth, allies, and the band.
Gibson: May Day is about 40 or 50 people, but for any given performance we typically play with a subset of about 15 to 20 people.
Castillo: We’ve been taking this trip to learn about the border communities by hearing their stories. We’ve developed a relationship with the family of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16-year old boy from Mexico who was shot and murdered by border patrol. Last year his murderer was found not guilty. We try to always keep his spirit and his family in memory, and we spend time with them when we’re there. Last year we supported them throughout their court case.
“We were there when the trial went to jury. We were able to perform in front of the courthouse, playing for the family and supporters.”
Gibson: When José Antonio’s family was searching for justice, we were there when the trial went to jury. We were able to perform in front of the courthouse, playing for the family and supporters.
Castillo: Some of our youth went upstairs to witness the trial. Four or five of them stayed up there for an hour or two. They came down and were a wreck because of what they heard. The family came down and shared a few songs with us.
Where you able to bring that back with you, the impact of the experience, and incorporate it into the music?
Gibson: My experience there with the whole Pittsburgh contingent was that not everyone in the band knew all of the people coming with Casa San José, but lot of us got to know one another. We played a lot music that weekend. We danced together and connected. That was the moment when a lot of the youth realized they wanted to participate and be a part of this band.
Castillo: One reason why we were able to do this is because the trip was supported by Pittonkatonk. It was also supported by Mixtape, the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, and others who thought it was worth giving to.
Gibson: May Day’s experience and involvement went far beyond the trip because it was a full year of fundraising. We played benefit shows every month and sold food on the street. It was a long-term commitment and it’s beginning to transform our organization in incredible ways, simply by being more involved in this long-term project.
Where there other bands or musicians playing at the border when your were there?
Castillo: There were other people playing music, but not brass music. There were people playing ukuleles and guitars, along with some other kinds of performers.
Gibson: The family of José Antonio had a vigil at the site where he was killed, and we were able to play a significant role in that. And we thought, okay, this is how we see our role in the movement. We provide music, we do this thing. How can we appropriately integrate that into the events and the things that make people feel connected.
“The program is going to focus on the humanity of black and brown youth.”
Pittonkatonk is a coming up on May 11. What can the audience expect to hear from the May Day Marching Band, especially with this partnership with Casa San José?
Castillo: The program is going to focus on the humanity of black and brown youth. The humanity that is stripped from our children is the same humanity that this program is striving to remind the kids of. We’ll sing Spanish songs of migration, African songs of welcoming each other, and English songs of silliness and laughter. One of the core values of this program the youth have set is that we need to show up for each other. We need to protect and celebrate each other. We need to be proud of each other and the communities we build.
Gibson: I think that’s the big thing. It’ll be a snapshot of the progress we’ve made to connect our marching band more deeply in the movements we’re working with. We’re open and can bring in as many people as we want, so this is a significant project for us to have youth be a part of the band, to learn instruments, to participate. By May, we’ll be able to display a snapshot of where we’re going.
Castillo: Every Saturday, the youth are able to learn in non-traditional ways that are outside the education system; and believe me, they learn quicker when they are able to learn the way they want to. They create their space, set the boundaries, and direct almost every aspect of the program. It’s a beautiful thing to see. We hope this program can serve as an example that solidarity for youth doesn’t always have to be in the streets. It should be in the streets, but also in their neighborhoods and homes. As a group, we’ve talked about what solidarity means and how we can act on it with this program. For us, it means to love and support each other everywhere we are, and to never forget that we are all worthy of that love, of life, and of joy. We’re excited to share that with folks at Pittonkatonk this year.
What do you see as the value of Pittonkatonk in Pittsburgh. Why does it matter to Pittsburgh and the issues the city is facing?
Gibson: I wish I had a day to think about that. One thing I value in is accessibility. I have to make the caveat that, as a white person, Pittonkatonk feels very accessible to me. It’s free and doesn’t have any corporate sponsors. I think the mission Pete [Spynda] has to broaden that accessibility into other marginalized cultures, and emphasize the movement aspect is super applaudable. I think the direction he’s trying to take this is good. I hope it continues to radicalize.
Castillo: One of the things I’m excited about is the bands that are performing; it feels very international and borderless. It taps into this idea that another world is possible, but only if we work towards making it. The work Pete’s doing and the narrative he’s creating is super important work that is amplified during Pittonkatonk, but doesn’t stop there.
What else do you want people to know about Pittonkatonk and your role in it?
Gibson: Pete picked this time of year because he wanted to throw something else into the mix of these things we’ve traditionally organized around, which is May Day. The May Day Marching Band has its origins in the Polish Hill neighborhood, in the immigrant march. Pittonkatonk is another part of that tradition. I look at it as my festive holiday period of the year. Maybe Mardi Gras is the best parallel because there are a lot things that celebrate our community in different ways. Pittonkatonk is part of that for me.
Castillo: The ability for these kids to be on stage, to be the focus in a crowd of thousands of people, yelling and singing, “Migration is movement and movement is human.” Or about how they want to heal the land, open the borders and set a lot of people free. It’s about singing about welcoming folks, and creating communities that grow and change in a beautiful way, not a hurtful way. The ability for them to do that at such a young age feels like an important piece of this program and Pittonkatonk itself. It shows how much things have changed for kids to be able to do that and for a crowd to listen, and maybe catch on, too. It feels heavy.
Gibson: It feels like future leadership.
Castillo: For sure.