‘Kids, let’s face it — they can be a tough audience’: Hancher to kick-off youth programming with Gina Chavez

Kids Club Hancher: Gina Chavez

Strauss Hall, Iowa City — Saturday, Feb. 1 at 2 and 5 p.m.

Gina Chavez — by Lisa Donato

Musician Gina Chavez is a study in synthesis. In a story familiar to many multi-ethnic Americans, she didn’t always have meaning or identity convenient to her. But she has made a life and a career of creating meaning, of pulling disparate elements in her life into communion with each other.

“I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish,” Chavez, who is known for her bilingual, Latin-infused folk-pop, said in a recent phone call. “I’m half Mexican, half Swiss German; I’m a third-generation Texan … I didn’t grow up around my Latin roots, other than going to mass with my grandma every now and then.”

It was on a study abroad trip to Argentina during her junior year of college that she first discovered her love of Latin music, and she’s been weaving it together passionately and indiscriminately ever since.

“As I travel I just kind of get to be a sponge and pick up the things that lo que me llama, like in Spanish we’d say: what calls to me,” Chavez said. “‘Hey, I like that rhythm; hey, I like that; that sounds cool.’ … I do feel like I can connect with my Latin roots, but my Latin roots are bigger than just Mexican roots.”

Her enthusiasm is contagious, whether her smooth voice is singing or laughing. It’s no wonder she draws a steady stream of supporters from across a wide spectrum. Collaborators on her first studio album, 2014’s Up.Rooted, include Austin’s Tosca String Quartet (who have also collaborated with artists from the Dixie Chicks to DeVotchKa) and folk royalty Eliza Gilkyson. And it’s clear why she was Hancher’s pick to kick off their brand new Kids Club Hancher series.

Hancher’s former education manager (her last day was Jan. 16), Micah Ariel James, was inspired to develop the Kids Club Hancher series thanks to a performance she saw Chavez give at the International Performing Arts for Youth conference last year. Club Hancher has been around for several years, since just after the flood, James said, when Hancher programmers took to satellite locations such as The Mill to provide intimate experiences where audiences could sit and eat while they watched.

“When [Chavez] performed, I got the idea of doing Club Hancher, but kind of expanding it out to our younger audience,” James said. “I think that’s always been an important thing for Hancher: reaching audiences of all ages and all backgrounds.”

The series lifts many of the same elements of Club Hancher, but shifts the customary two performances earlier in the day to accommodate kids’ schedules.

“It’s a new territory for us,” she said. “Obviously, we have done family programming—but so far in the new building it’s largely geared toward theatrical offerings and movement offerings.” This trial run will give staff the ability to evaluate its impact.

James leaves for her new gig at the University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts before this show, and she won’t get to see her efforts come to fruition. But she’s confident that the Chavez shows will launch this into something great.

“Hancher has a really strong team, and youth and family programming is high on the priority list overall. So I know that I’m leaving it in good hands and that good things will continue to come,” James said.

Although Chavez says kids shows are “outside of what we typically promote,” she and her band have a long history of playing in that world. Navigating between youth and adult performances is just one more synthesis for Chavez, who is always integrating her experiences into the broader fabric of who she is.

Between the band’s time as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department (“we traveled to 12 different countries, and a lot of the time we’d be doing daytime shows with kids and evening shows geared toward adults,” she said) and the influence of bandmate Michael Romero’s kid-focused side project, the Mr. Michael Group, Chavez and company have a lot to draw from when they perform for kids. But it’s high stakes, Chavez jokes.

Gina Chavez and her band in Costa Rica. — by Spencer Selvidge

“Kids, let’s face it — they can be a tough audience. They’re not going to hide how they feel,” she said. “Kids don’t care about my songs. They want to hear the songs they know … They’ll tell you if they’re into it or not, just by their faces.”

Chavez is consistently focusing on the experiences of those around her. Giving back to the world community is central to her work.

“It’s great to have an audience; it’s great to see your name in lights. But for me there’s always needed to be something else. It can’t just be about me,” she said. “And so the idea that I can use my platform, use the stage, use the microphone for something beyond myself feels necessary.”

Part of that is Niñas Arriba, the college fund for teenage girls in El Salvador that she started with her now-wife, Jodi Granado, about a decade ago. Through benefit concerts, they have raised sufficient money to give four young women a college education and a paid internship at El Salvadoran nonprofit Glasswing International. There are two more about to get started.

“It’s the thing I’m most proud of,” Chavez said. “I always feel like, ‘Oh, you have to make it big and then you can do good for the world.’ No. You can do good for the world now. Right here.”

Part of it, also, is Chavez’s dedication to sharing her experiences integrating two other facets of her identity: her existence as a queer woman and her Catholic faith. She speaks about that with audiences, she said, “mainly for the purpose of showing that we don’t have to fit into some box that the world prescribes for us.”

“When I say that I’m queer and Catholic and go to mass with my wife, a lot of people are like, ‘How does that work?’ But on some level it does work, and it’s because we’re all multifaceted,” she said. “All of us understand what it’s like to not fit in, to not belong and to feel like we have to change some part of ourselves in order to do that. If we’re lucky, if we’re blessed, we figure out that that’s not actually how we belong.”

It’s all part of the work of synthesizing identity. “How we belong is by really loving who we are at our core and being that person in the world,” she said.

Chavez wants us all to know that “we’re all just called to be ourselves,” she said. “And whether that’s to a 5-year-old or a 50-year-old or any 85-year-old, we’re all just kids at heart. I think the message is the same; we just put it in a slightly different package depending who our audience is.”

Genevieve Trainor has an incredible amount of faith in the youth of today and the capacity of music to galvanize them — and us. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 277.

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