Few Latin artists mobilize for immigration reform

Fri Jun 6, 2008 7:46pm EDT

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MIAMI (Billboard) - "Podemos con Obama," an all-Spanish-language video in support of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, features more than 20 Latin music acts saying things like "Obama is different" and "Obama is the future."

But buried among them is a more pointed comment from Spanish musician Alejandro Sanz: "We need immigration reform."

In the past year, Latin acts have increasingly expressed vocal support for a wide array of causes, from the eradication of child exploitation and poverty, peace efforts in Colombia and environmental issues.

Amid this newfound activism, one cause has been absent: support for immigration reform in the United States.

The omission is glaring, not only because so many Latin acts that are now citizens of this country initially came here as illegal aliens, but also because many of the people who support their music are here illegally and under siege. Indeed, fear of immigration crackdowns have had a direct impact on Latin concert attendance and album sales, according to promoters, managers and retailers.

Why then haven't Latin artists mobilized behind these issues?

"It is not as common for Latino artists to speak out on political issues as much as Anglo artists," says producer Andres Levin, who conceived and produced the Obama video. It's not that acts don't support immigration reform, he says. "I think they haven't found the vehicle to do so."

While many figures in the Latin music industry say they favor immigration reform and sympathize with the plight of illegal immigrants, not many have organized broader efforts to back these causes, although several have written songs that touch on the issue.

"Speaking out on the issue means having the courage to take on a lot of social and political responsibility and maybe it is something artists are not prepared for," says Julie Garza, program director for WYMY (La Ley) Raleigh, N.C.

Among the exceptions: Univision Radio personality Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo, who was central in organizing mass marches in 2006 in Los Angeles, Miami and other U.S. cities, drawing the participation of Los Tigres del Norte and other Latin acts.

Another exception: Latin Christian singer Marcos Witt, who last year gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, getting the word out via YouTube, radio, press and his own shows.

Encouraged, Witt approached between 10 and 15 major Latin acts that were touring at the time, and asked if they too could ask fans to sign petitions asking for immigration reform during their shows. All said yes. But when the time came to actually get the job done, not a single one came through.

"I don't think it was malicious," Witt says. "But I was disillusioned. I think it was really a lack of empathy with the plight and pain that illegal immigrants are feeling now."

An example of that plight: On May 12, immigration agents arrested nearly 300 workers at an Iowa meatpacking plant, the largest single-site immigration raid in U.S. history. For the first time ever, 270 of those arrested were sent to prison to serve sentences prior to being deported, leaving children and families in the lurch.

"As Latins, the effects of these raids is clear," Witt says.

On his end, Obama video producer Levin says he plans to make shorter, concentrated pieces that tackle some of the issues mentioned in his video.

Obama and Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain all voted in support of the immigration reform measure that was defeated in Congress last year. Witt supports McCain, who was the sponsor of the original 2006 immigration reform bill that was passed by the Senate but was blocked by a House-Senate conference committee.

Reuters/Billboard

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