Words by Audrea Diaz
Photos by Joshua Kamnetz
It’s a couple of weeks after Mayor Adler officially proclaimed April 2nd Gina Chavez Day. She’s off the stage, and off the pedestal – trading in her contacts for wire glasses, and prim dresses for Bermuda shorts. There’s no one to entertain, and no one to impress – no one to even advocate for, except maybe herself.
2014’s Up.Rooted, her crowd funded second LP, is at the forefront of critic’s radars; she has the sound bite perfected: A bilingual journey of reclaiming her lost Latin roots through music, and it’s working. But Gina struggles with this notoriety, struggles to accept love.
“I’m privileged and I know that,” she says. “I beat myself up about it. The biggest piece of my acceptance, is allowing myself to be loved” – something Gina’s trying to convince herself that she deserves. “You think you’re being humble by saying, I don’t deserve it; instead the humble thing to do is say, I have been given a gift, and I wanna use it.” But she hasn’t always wanted to.
It’s been seven years since her predominately folk Hanging Spoons debut, five of which were a creative dry spell of gigs and recycled material, albeit nourished by networking and 2009’s Live at Ruta Maya – where her drummer Sammy Foster started playing, a brother in their close knit band.
“It was something I loved watching,” he says, they met when he was backing St. Theresa’s church choir. “People are praying or going in to receive communion, but then she starts to sing, and everybody looks over. She can pull everyone’s attention away with her voice.” And if that voice gets too loud in her head, her faith is steady — even when she fought it, after feelings surfaced for her now partner Jodi Granado.
“I needed some kind of validation from the church, because the idea that I could be gay was out of the question,” she says, deciding to seek council from a nun who asked Gina to discern her sexuality. “That was a turning point for me, because I felt I could start telling people; and I wasn’t afraid, because if they had an issue — that was their problem with God, not mine.”
Still, she was doubtful. Emotionally spent, in a self-sabotaging cycle of guilt, career stagnation, and the dichotomies she could no longer bury: Gringa/Latina, Catholic/Lesbian, advocate/ally – the period in between Up.Rooted. “You have to be both, and either, and all of it,” Gina says, trying to figure out where her identities meet together as one.
“I feel so, exactly where I’m supposed to be; and at the same time, I’m not quite sure exactly where I’m standing. You feel grounded, and kind of flailing at the same time.”
“I want my music to be a bridge,” she says, referenced by the line in her calavera cover art. “That’s where peace begins, is when people can come together on the same footing.” There’s a solid pathway in her relationship.
“That’s the one area in my life, and in her life, that we both feel safe and comfortable to be ourselves; that we do allow ourselves to be loved.” says Jodi. “It’s probably one of the first times in Gina’s life that she hasn’t assimilated into the majority.” Jodi’s there to ask the questions Gina isn’t necessarily ready to answer: “How does she get to a place where she can have time to confront that?”
“I feel guilty being creative, and that’s something I need to get over,” Gina says – her bridge is patient, waiting to be crossed.
There’s a key gently laced around her neck; its gold link, turquoise beaded chain shines in the light. A Valentine’s Day gift from Jodi, it’s a statement piece, complex and raw in emotion – the scope of her talent.
As a social worker, Jodi’s mindful that her career encompasses much of Gina’s own passion for advocacy, the concrete undertone of Up.Rooted.
“She hurts for people that have experienced injustice, because the reality is she doesn’t face a lot of those things,” says Jodi. “That’s the way she can be with them in solidarity…Every opportunity pushes her further, that says, this is the direction you’re going, and don’t fight it.” Surrendering, however, is a peace Gina hasn’t learned to trust.
“Maybe I’m just scared to dream,” she says. “With Jodi, we put our relationship to God: If you want us to be together, forify it; and if you don’t, break it apart. And constantly, we were being fortified.” This is perhaps most evident with the couple’s joint scholarship fund, Niñas Arriba, an extension of their mission work in El Salvador. A collective benefit for Arriba was held on Saturday, April 11, at Stateside Theater — where Gina’s headlined before.
“It’s in those moments like Saturday night when I realize, that was uncomfortable for me last year, and on Saturday, it wasn’t – ‘cause I’ve been there. I remember so much more, because I was present.”
And so are Gina’s parents, mostly for every show. She inherited their spontaneity and love of travel – studying abroad in Argentina, where she heard the region specific Chacarera; a defining moment influencing her fusion of multiple Latin genres, and the exploration of her biracial ethnicity.
“I don’t know that I would have really dived into that part of my heritage if it weren’t for music…Music was the door,” said Gina. “Yes, I claim that I’m a Latina, but I’m still learning what that means. I’m still learning the language — I wanna earn my place in that community; I don’t just wanna be accepted, because I have the last name Chavez.”
Gina’s father, Gene Chavez, is a second generation Mexican-American from the largely Hispanic Southside San Antonio. He was raised amongst the American Dream, where Spanish wasn’t encouraged. “I don’t have that drive that Gina has to go after and get it,” says Gene. “Her making the effort has made us get into it more; we’re gonna enjoy the ride that comes along.” She’s saved them a spot on “Siete-D,” Austin Music Awards’ Song of the Year.
Gene’s a storyteller like his daughter, vividly remembering her initial decision to pursue music: “We took her to see a Toni Price show, when she was about 17…she comes home and says, hey dad – don’t you have a guitar?” It’s been passed down like folklore, reshaped, and retold by the press.
Toni Price is something of a legend herself. After playing SXSW in 1989, she found a home, and a loyal following every Tuesday night at the Continental Club.
“I listen to all the great singers, and I steal whatever I can use,” Price says, as her house band tunes up. “It’s called the folk process – handing down songs; handing down ways of singing; that’s how music is shared down through the times.” So does she have any advice for the next generation? “You should sing, because your soul needs you to; awards and all that are nice, but you know if you’ve touched somebody’s heart.”
“Trust your instinct; trust your talent,” she adds for good measure. “And go and find musicians that are the same level, or better. I like to keep great ones around me.”
Enter Up.Rooted’s producer Michael Ramos. “He was so integral into helping me find my sound, and be able to capture it in a way that stays true to who I am,” says Gina. “And at the same time, Michael understands Latin music — which is key.”
Ramos is an industry veteran, contributing instrumentals to mainstream acts, and celebrated for his conceptual group, Charanga Cakewalk. “Latin music differs from other genres in that it is body movement oriented. At the same time, it soothes your soul,” Ramos emailed; “what better thing is there than to have all that going on at the same time.”
She’ll cross that bridge when she gets to it.
“My roots were essentially uprooted, as in torn out of the ground and left to die — culture beat it out of us,” says Gina. “Latinos are perseverant, Latinos are hopeful; Latinos are survivors, and I think there’s a big part of me that hopes there’s some of that in me too.” And there is, all she has to do, is turn the key.
Catch Gina and her band, before she heads out to Toronto, this Thursday June 11 at The ABGB; in a fundraiser for Project ATX6 — a group of local musicians who will represent Austin at international festivals.