J.E. Hernández Uplifts Migrant Laborers through Multidisciplinary Work

This fall has seen the yearslong struggle of railroad unions come to a head. Over 100,000 railroad workers are on the brink of striking to demand better conditions that include paid sick time, the ability to take vacation days without the threat of losing their jobs, and the end to a brutal attendance policy that essentially forces them to be on call. However, what is largely left out of mainstream conversations surrounding this labor movement is the significance of migrant workers, and how the pushback against unions and their demands in favor of “protecting economic growth” is affecting one of the most vulnerable communities.

Mexican-born artist J.E. Hernández focuses on making migrant workers and their experiences visible through his work as a composer, cinematographer, collaborator, and nonprofit founder. As a 2021 American Composers Forum McKnight Visiting Composer, he is currently in the process of creating 80-Ton Forgings: Equalizing Immigrant Workers’ Voices Through Music, an oratorio incorporating interviews held with migrant railroad laborers in Minnesota. Hernández sought out the form and tradition of the oratorio because “the entire point [of an oratorio] is to engage deeply with a spiritual essence and then stay in that space.”

When discussing the workers’ passage into the US, Hernández says, “I kept hearing very similar things about, ‘Well, you know, I was two weeks in the desert. Those last five days, I was one foot in the grave, one foot in this world.’ It became deeply spiritual for every single person as they got closer and closer to the end, along with all the brutality that was trailing behind them.”

J.E. Hernández--Photo by Claire McAdams

J.E. Hernández–Photo by Claire McAdams

The interviews conducted by Hernández – some over two hours long – will become the text for the oratorio, and snippets will be manipulated and used as fixed media throughout the piece. As a former railcar mechanic himself, he is committed to amplifying the significance of the lived experiences of migrant communities. “There are people who go through brutal two-week plus, almost Greek Odyssey tier journeys to (put very brutally and blatantly) be janitors or someone doing landscaping. When I was working as a railcar mechanic, they told us the first day, ‘Two people a year die in this work,’ and I looked at my best friend who was coming into that job with me and said, ‘It’s you or me man.’”

Hernández finds himself not only advocating for and illuminating the realities of immigrant and migrant workers in the US, but also allowing himself to process his own experiences and trauma. This is most noticeable in his profound work Voces Fantasmas, a multi-movement and multi-disciplinary collaboration containing music/sound, film, and dance. Selected from innova Recordings’ national call for recording projects, Voces Fantasmas is the artist’s reflection of and tribute to immigrants detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Hernández spent 60 days in detention at the Houston Immigrant Detention Center in 2013, where he was the youngest detainee. He held onto his memories for nearly 10 years before he was able to speak about them, let alone reflect upon them through this work.

J.E. Hernández: Voces Fantasmas (Excerpt) – Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2021)

“The way that I had coped with it immediately after was to forget and erase… you know that’s inevitably going to collapse,” he says. As a necessity to refrain from being “engulfed by the past,” Hernández combines deep personal reflection from his own incarceration with musical aspects derived from statistics. The research and preservation of the Indigenous Mexican language Nahuatl was also an important addition to Voces Fantasmas. Hernández heard it for the first time from a fellow immigrant he met in detention (who was later deported), and translator Gabriel Payerón played an integral collaborative role in translating Nahuatl in this work.

Out October 7, 2022 on innova Recordings, Voces Fantasmas features sounds recreating prison and immigrant centers by both the performers and media; things like telephone “hold music” heard by immigrants attempting to contact loved ones, and vehicles in motion as they transport migrants from the George Bush Intercontinental Airport to the ICE Detention Facility. innova was a valuable figure of support for Hernández as he navigated ways to push the project forward while treating such visceral work with care “to get that narrative the limelight it deserves.”

Both 80-Ton Forgings and Voces Fantasmas draw on the use of fragmentation and sampling, a technique integral to Hernández’s creative process across mediums. At 17, he first created music inspired by Animal Collective and MF DOOM with a Roland 404-SX gifted to him by his grandmother. Hernández treats his memories, philosophical questioning, quotes from interviewees, and ciphered mathematical data and research as material to be “sampled” throughout his work. “I find sampling to be very powerful. I’m really just engaging with something that I have been doing for a long time.”

While music is his primary mode of expression, Hernández also started creating films while working as an assistant at an immigration law office a year after he was released from detention. He began filming short clips of his commute to and from work, which led to a mayoral candidate discovering his work via social media and bringing him in for the political campaign. Ever since, Hernández has felt comfortable crossing barriers from one discipline to the next in order to communicate very complex ideas and narratives.

Beyond artistic work, Hernández also founded ConcertiaHTX, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting social causes through new and emerging arts. “Our model is entirely substantiated by our collaboration with non-arts organizations so that we can create actual impact,” he shares. He hopes that attendees of their programs will be urged to donate or get involved with the local organizations partnering with Concertia; and that they can “promote this working model as something other organizations can also do successfully in their own locations.”

The goal for me was to relate the human reality which I experienced, and if that can be imparted on an audience that has or has not experienced it – to provide a bridge – that’s my goal. If that happens, that’s everything I could wish for.

The political nature of Hernández’s work is insightful and transformative, calling upon many different audiences to engage, learn, and reconcile a myriad of experiences related to that of American immigrants and sociopolitical issues. For pieces like Voces Fantasmas, his “ideal audience will forever be people who have gone through detention,” though he concurrently believes that people without this experience can genuinely connect with the humanity of the story. “There are so many different political messages to be understood from a situation with many points of view… the goal for me was to relate the human reality which I experienced, and if that can be imparted on an audience that has or has not experienced it – to provide a bridge – that’s my goal. If that happens, that’s everything I could wish for.”

At the same time, he acknowledges the fundamentally inaccessible nature that the arts uphold. “Even just five dollars to park is a prohibitive expense towards the arts. It eviscerates that connection between the value of the art and the individual. It is really a miracle that anyone from communities like these can overcome all of that and get into the arts, because the value just isn’t easily visible or palpable for someone who’s working nine-plus hours a day or if they have a child.”

Hernández wholly maintains that “accessibility is the groundwork” and that it needs to be “broken apart” in order for people like him to be able to engage in and contribute to the arts. He dreams that there will be more artistic work about things like migrant detention – “which has affected over four million people in the almost 50 years it’s been going on”– and that the performing arts community as a whole can make more actionable, material steps towards holding space for (im)migrant communities. “It’s important to know that with this kind of work, I’m trying to shed light on the fact that this [migrant laborer] community is very common – almost ever-present in the American landscape, the American world.”


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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