Proud Yaqui Gabriel Ayala is multi-layered yet simple…
I was thrilled to have a front-row seat at a recent performance by Gabriel Ayala, award-winning, internationally known and acclaimed classical guitarist. He played for Pope Benedict XVI at the 2012 canonization of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (the first Native American to achieve sainthood) as well as at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration. And he has shared the stage with Motown living legends The Four Tops, The Temptations, Richie Havens, and many others.
Gabriel is at the same time a complex, multi-layered and yet simple individual. He describes himself as a proud Yaqui Indian … an activist on behalf of Native American and other human-rights issues … and as a classically trained guitarist. Not only is Gabriel a virtuoso guitarist, a great interpreter of Bach, Vivaldi, and all the masters, he is a great composer. He created his own musical genre, JazzMenco, a fusion of jazz and traditional flamenco. And he has great stage presence, keeping the audience engaged with stories about his life, his activism, and the trials and tribulations he experienced as he built his career.
Although Gabriel has received many awards and is internationally acclaimed, humility is a prominent character trait. In an interview with a New Mexico newspaper, Ayala noted that, “When I’m at ceremonies, I cut wood just like anyone else and when it comes time to pray, I’m there, just like everyone else who prays for a better tomorrow.” (Ruidoso News, “Gabriel Ayala of the Yaqui will perform Feb. 17 at Sacred Grounds,” Feb. 12, 2018) Gabriel’s humility comes from his upbringing. Raised by his grandmother on the Pascua Yaqui reservation outside of Tucson, Arizona, he owned only one pair of shoes at a time, which he took off after school so as not to wear them out. With 16 aunts and uncles on his mother’s side and 11 on his father’s side, and 100 first cousins, Gabriel says he may have been poor regarding material things, but he was a millionaire when it came to family.
His humility also is evident in where he performs. I did not see him perform at a high-priced fancy venue. Rather, I saw him at the Barrio Hollywood Art Show and Open Mic in the El Rio Neighborhood Center.
Ayala performs at an historic center…
It’s fitting that “proud Yaqui” Gabriel Ayala performed at the historic El Rio Neighborhood Center. This center is the product of a long struggle of the Chicano community against the City of Tucson, a struggle rooted in our community’s quest for self-determination. The city (via the Mayor and Council) had promised to build a community center in Barrio Hollywood and Barrio El Rio but then reneged on its promise. The community (under the auspices of the El Rio Coalition and the banner “El Rio for the People”) took the city to task over this betrayal, and after months of pickets, marches, rallies, and confrontations involving arrests, the community won, and the El Rio Neighborhood Center was built right where Barrio Hollywood and Barrio El Rio intersect. The Old Pascua Yaqui Village community was an integral component of the “El Rio for the People” movement. [I was involved in this struggle and was arrested several times during the struggle.]
True to its activist history, Barrio Hollywood has a robust neighborhood association that continues to fight for the well-being of the barrio residents. The association sponsors an annual Art Show that highlights barrio talent as well as a monthly Open Mic at which barrio residents and others can recite poetry, perform musically, etc. This year they combined the Art Show with the Open Mic. Gabriel was one of the Open Mic performers. He explained that he has a deep affection and respect for Open Mics because that is where he performed when he started out and was building his career. Thus, he still performs at Open Mics associated with causes and groups he supports.
Ayala stands with the water protectors…
Gabriel is also an activist, in the true sense of the word. He doesn’t just perform to help organizations raise money for their causes. He gets out on the picket lines, the marches, etc. For example, he was an active participant in the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota in 2016. Thousands of people from over 200 Indian tribes converged to protest the plan to build the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which would destroy sacred sites on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and pose a danger to the reservation’s water supply. In a 2017 interview Gabriel described how the protesters (the “water protectors”) were chased by helicopters, pepper-sprayed and arrested (Sam Itza, “World famous Native American Musician, Activist, Artist, Gabriel Ayala,” YouTube, Scottsdale, AZ, May 31, 2017). During his recent performance at El Rio Neighborhood Center, Gabriel described how the water protectors persevered even in the snow and freezing temperatures and the sense of family that prevailed in the tents as the water protectors relaxed in the evening and prepared for the next day’s protests.
[In a previous blog I described how security guards working for the pipeline company attacked the water protectors with dogs-journalists captured film of attack dogs dripping blood from their mouths … See: http://latinopia.com/blogs/political-salsa-y-mas-with-sal-baldenegro-9-11-16-hypocrisy-alive-and-well/]
Love your children … Honor your elders … Respect your women…
I met Gabriel in the mid-1990s. I was then an Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Arizona, where I founded and oversaw the Chicano/Hispano Student Resource Center. Gabriel had just come on campus as a graduate student and was trying to navigate the waters of the institutional bureaucracy. He sought me out for advice and became a “regular” at our center. He earned his Master’s Degree in Music Performance in 1997, and since then, besides performing and cutting records, Gabriel has taught at all educational levels, from elementary through college and is a motivational speaker at schools and other venues. Gabriel is multi-talented: he also crafts Indian jewelry and creates mixed-media art. He imbues his students-and others with whom he interacts-with what he calls his mantra: Love your children … Honor your elders … Respect your women.
Gabriel personifies why the Yaquis are so important in and to our community. The Yaqui Nation is bifurcated, with its Mexican portion concentrated along the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora and its American portion concentrated in Arizona, particularly Tucson, the tribal government seat. Since the 1500s, the Yaquis fought the Spaniards, and later the Mexicans, who tried to gain control of the Yaqui’s fertile and mineral-rich land. As a consequence of the Yaquis not giving up their land, a fierce persecution campaign was waged against them in the late 1800s. It was during this period that large numbers of Yaquis, fleeing persecution, settled in Arizona, notably in Tucson, where they established what came to be known as Old Pascua Yaqui Village. In 1978, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona became federally recognized, and the Pascua Yaqui Reservation officially came into being.
The Yaquis are a huge cultural and economic force in the Tucson-Southern Arizona area. Their Easter ceremonies draw tens of thousands of people to Old Pascua, to Barrio Libre (another Yaqui community), and to the Reservation. With its two casinos, Resort hotel, and professional-grade golf course, the tribe’s economic footprint is immense. The tribe employs hundreds of people, who stimulate the local economy by way of purchases and retail taxes, etc. and purchases goods from local vendors, which also generates tax revenues and supports many local jobs. The tribe also contributes generously to local schools and non-profit organizations and projects. Indeed, Tucson is fortunate to have the Yaquis in its midst.
Many of us (including my good self) in this part of the world are of Yaqui heritage. Thus, our hearts soar with pride when we see a Gabriel Ayala, one of our very own, asked to play for the Pope and for a U.S President, and when he is a featured performer at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (New York City) and at the National Museum for the American Indian (Washington, D.C.), and when he is the featured performer at the “Festival Internacional de la Guitarra Académica” in Venezuela. And our hearts soar even higher when an artist of this caliber plays at the El Rio Neighborhood Center at the intersection of Barrio Hollywood and Barrio El Rio. c/s
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com> Photos of Gabriel Ayala by Jonathan Salvatierra and used with his permission. Photo of Yaqui village in public domain. All other images copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc.