As a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic growing up in the Bronx, Dairanys Grullon-Virgil learned English by listening to the early-Aughts hard-rock band Evanescence, but the romantic ballads of bachata kept her connected to her roots. Music was her lifeline, to her old and new homes. Now, as the co-founder of the new Mi Gente! Latinx Music Festival, Grullon-Virgil wants her neighbors to feel that same connection. “I used to look at events like Afropunk or Afro-Latino: You always would have to go to Manhattan, Brooklyn, or Queens to get that kind of experience,” she says on a call with the Voice. The young activist was inspired by the way those festivals create dialogue and teaching moments, within and outside a community, through music. She just wanted it for her home borough.
Along with the Bronx painter Laura James, she created a one-day free event to highlight artists who, like her, use music to connect with their cultures and local communities. But the organizers also wanted to “honor women in the diaspora,” says Grullon-Virgil. Accordingly, all the acts in the lineup for this inaugural year are fronted by or composed mostly of women; using the gender-neutral term “Latinx” in the title goes a step further to recognize the contributions of gender-nonconforming people and signals that the festival is a safe space.
Considering the natural relationship between community-building and women’s agency, the lineup was easy to assemble. The booking philosophy is most clearly represented in Legacy Women, a group that uses Puerto Rican bomba, Dominican palo, and other drumming traditions to connect women across generations and heal trauma. Some of the women, for instance, have written songs about their experiences of domestic violence. “It’s empowering to be connected to your cultural practices,” says the group’s Bronx-born founder and director, Manuela Arciniegas. “We share our version of history through the drum [and] use our music as a vehicle to talk to other women in the community.”
The lineup also honors specific heritages. Victoria Tapias sings with BullA en el Barrio, a group that performs bullerengue, a traditional Colombian style of music and movement created by Africans enslaved in Latin America. “It began as women gathering to sing and dance together,” Tapias explains, usually with drum accompaniment. “It’s a cultural manifestation of how people lived and celebrated life in the Caribbean and Urabá regions of Colombia, where bullerengue started and is still very much alive.” Though most members of BullA en el Barrio are Colombian, few had encountered the genre before joining the group. So, she says, “bullerengue unites us and allows us to get to know each other in a different way.” She says the experience has been “magical for all of us.”
Regardless of style or genre, it can be hard for women to find a space to perform their music. Mi Gente! is attempting to buck that trend, according to Dominican-born Bronx resident Andre Veloz, who will perform her own bachata compositions at the festival. “For women to get gigs is hard, and [Grullon-Virgil] is making a very powerful stand for more women to go on[stage],” the singer-songwriter says. “It’s everything that people take for granted: the Bronx, women. It’s a very interesting recipe right there.”
It’s not that the borough is a cultural wasteland — far from it. Hip-hop originated in the Bronx, and the Casita Maria community center has offered arts education for eighty years. There are already free concerts, too: Bronx SalsaFest, SummerStage events, and an annual show from the New York Philharmonic. But the calendar remains sparse, particularly when it comes to a festival that Bronx residents can truly call their own. According to James, the response to Mi Gente! from within the borough reveals a community hungry to create culture for itself: As soon as the festival was announced, artists flooded the organizers with requests to play. “People are very interested,” she says, “and want to see this type of thing happen in the Bronx.”
Veloz agrees that Bronx residents, many of whom are working-class, have an unmet need: “There is so much going on with just surviving and working and bringing food to the table, but that shouldn’t mean we are starved for art, too.”
Mi Gente! Latinx Music Festival takes place August 20 at the Point Campus for Arts and Environment (1399 Lafayette Avenue, Bronx). More information at migentelatinxmusicfestival.com