By 4:30am, the girls were up and dressed, doing chores. Off the main road in Soyapango, a slab suburb of El Salvador's capital city, sits a high-walled compound named for Mary Hope of Christians. It's a sacred fortress in a locale where gang tags should be the country's national flower. This country – so tiny it'd fit in Texas 33 times with some left over – continues to struggle in the aftermath of a 12-plus-year civil war that left 75,000 people dead and thousands more disappeared.
In 2009, safely inside the walls of the compound, Austin singer Gina Chavez struggled to decipher rapid Spanish through the tears of teenage drama. Most of the 800 students went home every day, but those who stayed in the dorm might be orphans, live too far away, or in the case of one student, need a safe haven against gang members trying to extort money. If Chavez, on an eight-month volunteer trip, left to journey to the market, she had to return before 5pm.
One morning, she found a chalk body outline 20 feet from sanctuary.
On a study abroad trip to Argentina five years earlier, working on a journalism degree at UT, the then-nascent songwriter fell in love with Latin rhythms. In 2007, Chavez put out her debut, Hanging Spoons, recorded in her bedroom. The album doesn't stray far from the strumming singer-songwriter mold, except for "Embrujo," a first hint at her future passion for Latin music and tribute to the bustling streets of Buenos Aires.
"Hanging Spoons was definitely a rookie release in the sense that I was just putting out a collection of music so my friends could have it," says Chavez today. "I remember writing those songs in my dorm room."
Not long after that freshman release, Chavez's partner, Jodi Granado, approached the singer about returning to Latin America to do volunteer work. The pair had met locally at the University Catholic Center and bonded through their shared spirituality.
"A practicing Catholic lesbian – it's a pretty small percentage," jokes Granado.
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 – 8:45pm: Gina Chavez is due onstage at the Austin Music Awards. Right now. Problem is, she's still at her official South by Southwest showcase on Sixth Street.
Fortunately, she's only blocks from the Convention Center, and adrenaline from a packed, dynamic performance hastens the singer and her tight fivepiece, all of whom are still breathing hard. The guys in the band finish stuffing the Honda Element with equipment, while Chavez comes to an important realization: She's going to need fresh lipstick.
The 32-year-old singer had been to the AMAs once before. Last year, she scooped up a Best Latin Traditional plaque, ramping up her profile prior to February's up.rooted. Seven years after Hanging Spoons, the beginner's grown up, whether agonizing over a relationship ("Gotta Get") or reliving El Salvador ("Siete-D"). Embracing her Hispanic roots, the Austin native flourishes in bilingual cumbias, body-shaking reggaeton, and Argentine folk.
"I do this a lot to myself," she sighs: "'God, if only I'd been born in Spain, I'd have grown up with Flamenco music and it would be in my blood. I wouldn't have to learn it. I wish this stuff lived inside of me.' On [up.rooted's] 'Soy Quien Soy' [I Am Who I Am], I realized it does. It's an acceptance of who I am and the place where I am."
At the Music Awards that night, Chavez's previous award tripled into Best Latin Traditional, Best Latin Rock, and the biggie, Best Female Vocalist. There were many people to thank.
Armed with a new vision for her sound, Chavez needed two things going into up.rooted: money and a producer. She met Austinite, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Michael Ramos in 2010 when she submitted "Embrujo" to a compilation for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"No, I didn't know how transformative that would be," chuckles Chavez.
Known for his work with the BoDeans, Patty Griffin, John Mellencamp, and Paul Simon, plus his own musical universe, Charanga Cakewalk (revisit "The Zen of Revolution," Aug. 18, 2006), Ramos was the perfect choice to guide Chavez into the first stages of musical maturity. Sharing a studio tunnel vision, the two became instant friends.
"In a lot of ways he feels like a buddy, and at other times he feels like a mentor," says the singer.
In 2012, to help fund the completion of the album, Chavez turned to Kickstarter. The result was four times her initial $5,000 goal. Between her continued work in communications, conflicts with Ramos' schedule, and the regular aches and pains of developing a new sound, up.rooted took a total of four years to complete (see "Texas Platters," Feb. 14).
"It takes an army, and when you don't have an army, it takes a lotta time," nods Chavez.
Of 11 tracks on the new disc, "Todo Cambia" (Everything Changes) is the only cover. Made famous by late Argentine heroine Mercedes Sosa, the song revealed itself to its latest interpreter when she was a student in Argentina. Chavez enlisted local folksingers Eliza Gilkyson and Nathan Hamilton to lend vivid harmonies to the nueva canción classic, then emulated its theme of protest in her own song chronicling the struggles of Mexican corn farmers, "Maíz." Plucking a charango, Chavez lilts in Spanish, one line standing out amongst the others:
"We didn't cross the border/ The border crossed us."
SXSW Saturday, one last set. The throng for Ginger Leigh's Love on the Lawn at Central Market packs the seats in front of the stage and the expansive patio teems with Chavez's friends and family. Her shutterbug dad, Gene, snaps photos.
By 10pm, it's mostly this group milling around the patio, though the singer seems determined to outlast everyone else. Sammy Foster, her earnest drummer, throws his arms around her. Kenneth Null approached Chavez four years ago after a "Chicas del Barrio" show at the ill-fated Jovita's and asked if she needed a bass player. Bespectacled keyboardist/accordionist Brad Johnston joined the band nine months ago, and trumpeter Michael Romero came aboard not long before that. Dont forget percussionist Jerry Ronquillo.
In red, acid-washed jeans and her trusty ankle boots, Chavez shares a salad with Granado. Pausing the conversation to give her father a hug goodbye, she wraps both arms around him and sinks in. They're huggers, this family. Her parents, Gene and Gail Chavez, still live in the same house where they raised two children. Three years older, Tony Chavez has made his sister an aunt twice now. All of this stands in stark relief to what Gina experienced far south of Austin.
El Salvador embodies disparity.
"You could take a bus from our area, and we'd pass through this little shantytown that's literally built on top of a dump," recalls Chavez. "Then you'd get to the other side of the city, up on the hills, and it's Westlake times 100."
Four sisters who attended the school became family to the pair of Austinites, supporting them when the volunteers' Spanish was first finding traction. Basketball, movie nights – anything to give the siblings a break from study and chores and prayer.
During a voluntary English class one Saturday morning, Chavez and Granado asked a classroom full of young women if they wanted to go to college. Every hand went up. Was anyone planning to attend college? Every hand went down.
Back in Austin and determined to continue supporting their "Salvadoran sisters," Granado suggested they start Austin 4 El Salvador to try and send the four sisters, and possibly more, to college. Now called Niña Arriba, the nonprofit supports college seniors Xiomara and Marta and a sophomore named Vanesa.
The second Sunday of Lent at St. Austin Catholic Church is a reprieve from SXSW. Chavez bows her head in prayer. It's the first quiet moment she's had in days.
Settling into the pews of the century-old church are a mix of nuclear families with toddlers in patent leather shoes, bleary-eyed college students, and young professionals in button downs with slicked back hair. Colored light passes through the stained-glass windows onto the white stone walls. The shows, the awards, the interviews, the house guests – it's all on pause now. Ahead of her is prep for a West Coast tour beginning the week following South by Southwest.
There are college students in El Salvador to support, after all.
"Goodness begets goodness," says the Rev. René Constanza, dressed in deep purple robes, launching into a sermon. "Goodness begets goodness."
Copyright © 2015 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.