Chicano rock band Quetzal encourages incarcerated youth to open up through songwriting

The members of GRAMMY-winning Chicano rock group Quetzal (who have performed multiple times at Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles and Levitt Pavilion Pasadena) are no strangers to activism. Formed over 20 years ago, the band was born out of the East Los Angeles Chicano music scene with a mission to use music for social change. Quetzal has taken its heartfelt, genre-fusing music to venues of all kind, from small clubs to large arenas—and even to detention centers.

“As a traditional arts practitioner for 20 years, I’ve prided myself on a deep commitment to humanity and community practice,” Quetzal founder Quetzal Flores wrote for the Alliance of California Traditional Arts blog (where he acts as Program Manager) about his motivations behind teaching collective songwriting to prisoners. “Much of my musical trajectory has been tied to struggle, and teaching in prisons is a variation on the same theme.”

Last year, Quetzal band members and husband-wife activist duo Quetzal Flores and Martha González spent a week facilitating a songwriting workshop at the King County Juvenile Detention Center in Seattle. “We’re in a space where community isn’t directly fostered here. People are isolated in different cells,” explained arts educator Stephany Hazelrigg, who helped lead the workshop. 

Participation in the arts can be a powerful tool for prisoners to build self-awareness and connect with their peers. Through their project, Sounds Beyond Barriers, Flores and González, along with four other teaching artists, used a collective songwriting process, originally developed by Chicano and indigenous Mayan activists, to encourage collaboration among youth inmates. The result consisted of three original songs about the unique struggles of being incarcerated. “One of the challenges of being an incarcerated youth is that you’ve probably been told what not to do very often and told what to do very, very often,” said Hazelrigg about the inspiration behind the songs’ lyrics.

The workshop allowed the youth to open up about their individual experiences and take part in a collective decision-making process, inspiring the group to build trust and affirm each other’s creative input. These youth were even able to showcase their work to R&B artist Aloe Blacc, who founded the independent entertainment company Artivist Entertainment with Flores and other community-minded artists to increase arts access and highlight social issues through music. “There’s a lot that you guys want to say—you can say it in your songs,” Blacc said.

Big kudos to Quetzal and the other teaching artists involved in this workshop for inspiring these youth and providing a creative platform for their voices. Want to know more about Quetzal? Check them out in our Meet the Artist video!

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