Interview: The folky and philanthropic Gina Chavez

The Spanish culture runs deep in the heart of Texas and Latin-folk singer/songwriter Gina Chavez is taking it all in. Despite her Mexican blood, Chavez claims she grew up a “gringa” in Austin, Texas. However, Chavez proves that she has grown otherwise with her passionate interest in the Latin culture and community. With a few trips abroad, almost a year in El Salvador, a brand new charango, and brilliant compositions, Chavez is representing the city of Austin and the Latin community very well.

Gina Chavez was honored on February 23 by the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) by featuring Chavez’s latest single, “Miles de Millas” in ACVB’s tenth compilation CD. The quirky Latin-folk-rockstar took the time to sit down for an interview at the ACVB CD-Release Party at The Parish, providing insight on what her future looks like, musically and from an activist’s standpoint.

Promo photos by Gene Chavez.

Tell me about your journey to Austin. How long have you been here? Why not L.A., Brooklyn, Portland, Seattle, etc?

Chavez: My journey here in Austin began when I was born. I’m from Austin, and I have lived here all of my life. I went out of the country in 2003 while I was at UT, and I did a study abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then I did a few other study abroad in Vienna, Austria and Grenoble, France. It wasn’t until I came back from those trips that I actually got it– I didn’t understand why Austin was so cool, but after those experiences, I realized how great Austin is. Austin has everything; whoever you are, you’re going to fit in. It is a great city.

How did you hear about your song “Miles de Millas” making the Austin Music Volume 10 Compilation? How does it make you feel to represent the city when so many other great artists that submitted their music did not make it?

Chavez: I’m pretty good friends with Rose Reyes. She is amazing. The ACVB is incredible at not only promoting Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” but also at supporting their artists in that promotion. There is a group called W.I.M.P.S (Women In Music Professional Society), they hold a meeting once a month, and I got to know Rose Reyes really well through that organization. She had mentioned that ACVB was taking submissions for their tenth CD, and so I gave her my latest song, and she loved it. It really is an honor. Austin is one of those towns that is very spoiled because of the amount talent we have. In a sense, it is great as a musician because you can really hone your craft here, but it is also hard because you can go out any night of the week and be blown away and go home and be like “I’m never going to be a musician!”. It is a tough act to follow, every time. I feel really blessed they liked the song enough. I love promoting Austin. I mean, Austin has promoted me so much it is a pleasure to be able to give back.

Your music seems to embody the essence of Latin culture; “Embrujo” is written in the style of Traditional Argentinian Folklorico; would you mind explaining how you were able to incorporate this style of music into your own?

Chavez: I’m on that journey right now. I have always felt drawn to my Latin heritage. My father’s side of the family is from Saltillo, Mexico. I have never been to Saltillo, I have only been to the ‘frontera’, to the border. I started that journey when I went to Argentina in 2003. I was at this place that was kind of a bar/restaurant, and it was packed, and was loud. A band got up on stage and started playing a traditional folklorico rhythm, and everyone stopped what they were doing. I asked my friends what they were doing, and then I decided to write a song in that rhythm and bring it back to Austin– not really with the intention of making my music Latin, but that song– people just love it, even if they don’t understand the words. I guess I have taken note from my first album what songs people really gravitate towards, and the Argentinean folkloric rhythm is something that has not gotten old. I’m moving in that direction now and really figuring out how I balance everything with that culture.

How do you believe you have grown as an artists since your debut album, Hanging Spoons, was released?

Chavez: Oh, wow, a lot. I think it is interesting doing this as a career. They always say you have 10 years to write your first album, and then you’ve got two years to write your next one. That really is a tough journey, because when I came out with my first album, it was really at the prodding of my friends and family, and it was a reluctant thing, and I really hated promoting myself. Now, I have come full-circle, realizing if you are not your number one fan, no one will be; if you are not promoting yourself and pushing yourself no one is going to– and so those have been hard lessons to learn, but in Austin, the cool thing is that we have such amazing support networks, like Austin Music Foundation and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. These amazing supports allow us to pursue the crafts. There is a lot of work to do, and it is “how do you balance business and creativity so that one is not taking over the other.” If you don’t work to get gigs, you won’t have a stage to play on, and if you don’t work on creating new music, you won’t have anything to play on that stage. So, it is a balance.

Growing up, who was your strongest influence in preserving your Latin-American culture?

Chavez: Growing up, I didn’t have much of an influence of Latin-American culture, which might be why I now strive so hard to find it. I guess my grandmother had grown up in a time where it was not okay to speak Spanish, so as a result, she did not teach my father how to speak Spanish. He says he speaks enough Spanish to fool the ‘gringos’, but he really doesn’t speak it too well. I took a lot of Spanish in school. As far as the culture, I believe it was my grandmother– I miss her dearly, she passed away when I was thirteen, before I could really understand what a resource she was– I grew up a cholita, a gringa.

Would you mind telling us about “Austin 4 El Salvador”?

Chavez: I was in El Salvador for seven months, doing mission work from September 2009 to June 2010. I lived with nuns and worked with girls age 11-20. I was there for 8 months. I wanted to do some work where I would really get to know people– it is really difficult to get to know someone just over Spring Break mission trip, or a Saturday here and there– it was really fun to get to know all of the girls. We basically lived in the school, and there 18 girls that were in the boarding school and 800 girls that were in the charter school. So, we taught English there. When my friend and I got back we decided we wanted to continue the mission, and while we were there, we  talked to the girls about who wants to go to college, who can go to college, who has to work for five years before they can go to college. Everybody wants to go, and it is really affordable by our standards, but not by there’s. Ultimately, what we did was create Austin 4 El Salvador, it is a foundation to help girls to go to college. The organization itself is funded through Vides, which is the program through which we went. Vides handles the money and it is 501c3 and non-profit and everything. When I got to Austin, we did a fundraiser, but it is not very expensive, but it is still very expensive to afford by myself. What we want is monthly donors, at 10 dollars, or 20 dollars; it costs about 230 dollars per month, per girl, to send the to a private Catholic University. The expenses pay for absolutely everything, food, pencils, education.

What inspired you to go to El Salvador? Was this a spontaneous adventure?

Chavez: In a sense, it was kind of a selfish sense, it was to continue my education of the Latin culture, I love it. We went through Vides,and had heard of it being a good organization. I am Catholic, and the idea of living with nuns was cool to me. I said I wanted to go to a Spanish speaking country, and Vides decided El Salvador. We were in Soy Apango, home of the Mara Salvatrucha  gang, which is one of the worst gangs in Central America, if not the world. We were safe, we were smart, it was very safe there. We were kind of on lock-down with the sisters. I’d been wanting to do mission work where you really can put yourself out there. THe hardest part was really stopping my life here in Austin– who’s going to rent my condo? how am I going to continue to pay bills?– really stopping your life is so hard. The rest of it was a tough transition, but the support from people was really amazing.

I read that you had a custom-made charango from your visit in Soyapango. Aside from being used in your latest single, will you be using more of this instrument in an upcoming album?

Chavez: Yes, definitely. It is an amazing instruments– they call it ‘the ukulele of the Andes’ . It is tuned very similarly to a ukulele, and it is set up sort of like a mandolin, with ten strings, and they  are doubled strings. It has a lot of noise for being such a small instrument, and it’s very cool.

Chavez in El Salvador

It is prevalent that you are live out strongly two personas: You are a Latina Indie-folk artist and activist; are you currently working on any ideas to integrate both of your lifestyles?

Chavez: I guess Austin 4 El Salvador is kind of that. I guess you can call it ‘activism’, but we’re basically just trying to support girls that we love. I find that so much of the world is so disconnected these days, so it is about bridging those gaps. My journey to El Salvador is probably the best I could do for my fans. I sent out weekly emails, telling everyone about what we were doing, and my fans loved it. Trying to bring people together, bridging those gaps it is “hey, we are really only  couple of miles away” but we really have no clue of what the rest of the world lives like. So, that was really encouraging to see my fans love that. Austin 4 El Salvador is an effort to bridge those gaps. In my mind that is what activism really is, getting to know somebody that is on the other side. There is a group that I work with that I love, it is called Workers Defense Project. They advocate for low-income workers, especially construction workers, and typically immigrants. They are building our cities and we treat them like dirt. Our society is built such that we see them as aliens and outsiders, as people that are taking something from us, but these are the people building our homes and businesses that we work and live in. The fact that we live in Texas, and there are so many immigrants from the Latin-American countries, I guess I feel very drawn towards them.

You released your latest single, “Miles de Millas”, in November. What is your next conquest in terms of music? Plans for the rest of 2011?

Chavez: I desperately need a new album. “Miles de Millas” was recorded with Michael Ramos– he is the front-man for Charanga Cakewalk, he is incredible– he and I produced “Miles de Millas”. That was an effort for me to, again, start on that Latin-folk journey, and I would really love to do a full-length album with him, it is just a matter of fundraising. We have a couple of fundraising projects going on. I’m looking at things like kick-starter to try to raise money. I would love to be recording very soon, and putting out an new album in 2012.

Listen to Gina Chavez below, including “Miles De Millas” from the ACVB’s Austin Music Volume 10 compilation:

Annar Verold

Annar Veröld’s is studying Journalism and English Writing & Rhetoric at St. Edward’s University, and she avidly writes for Red River Noise. Though, born in Houston, Annar basks in the glory of Austin. The people, the culture, the music, the energy—it all fascinates her, and she has a profound adoration for the brilliance that resonates throughout the city.

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  1. music fan says:

    Great article, great musician, great person!