Musicians from East Los Angeles have a long tradition of using their talents to draw attention to complex social and political issues. Last year, Las Cafeteras, an Afro-Mexican inspired band dedicated to community issues released a politically charged cover of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" on Independence Day. Fellow East Los Angeles band, La Santa Cecilia, accepted a Grammy last year for best Latin rock or alternative recording, and dedicated their win to "the more than 11 million undocumented people that live and work really hard in this country, and that still need to lead a more dignified life."
Another East Los Angeles band that boasts a long history of social involvement is Quetzal, a Grammy-winning act known for churning out an eclectic mix of Mexican and Afro-Cuban rhythms. This isn't a novel concept: seeing well known entertainers taking on social and political issues affecting their fellow Americans. However, Quetzal's latest venture into the socio-political world is of a different kind - it's hyper-localized.
Quetzal is taking on the issue of equitable school funding in Los Angeles, seeking to ensure that east side schools get an appropriate amount of funding that reflects the needs of the students in that community. Under new requirements passed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013, California school districts should expect to receive additional funding for high-need students, and increased flexibility on how to spend those resources. Parents and students from underserved communities like Boyle Heights, on the city's east side, are pushing school officials to put schools on equal footing by increasing access to guidance counselors and mental health services in communities that need them the most. They want to ensure that their voices are heard and their children get those resources necessary for a quality education. Quetzal has joined this call for better student services in response to the recent legislation. With a new song and music video that brings greater attention to the deficits facing schools in Boyle Heights, Quetzal urges that school officials direct funding accordingly.
Perhaps the best part about Quetzal's song is that they didn't write it. Well, not alone at least.
The song, entitled "Lights On," was co-written with a group of Boyle Heights community members, including students, parents, and teachers. Every single lyric is the product of a collaborative effort between the Grammy-winning artists and the community members who live with the realities of inequitable school funding every day. The song reflects concerns over accountability of how new funding resources will be used, and a desire to see those resources directed toward direct student services. These issues were discussed extensively in community meetings, which culminated in a song-writing session and the filming of the music video. The video itself even features local parents and students, highlighting real community members that stand to benefit from a greater allocation of funds.
In the city known round the world as the mecca of entertainment, "Lights On" gives mundane school policy and funding issues the star treatment. The music video also kicks off a grassroots advocacy campaign, led by the Boyle Heights Building Healthy Communities project, to ask for greater educational resources for their community as Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board members prepare for a June review of next year's budget.
These recent changes to education funding policy give LAUSD additional funds for every high-need student in the district. High-need students are defined as students who are low-income, English-language learners or who have learning disabilities. Since a large percentage of east side students meet one or more of these requirements for additional funding, Boyle Heights residents will continue fighting to make sure the school board follows through on allocating these dollars to the students who need them most.
Hopefully, their requests will prove as catchy as their song.