The notes emanating out of two violins, two violas and two cellos were not always meant to soothe. Houston composer J.E. Hernández wanted chaos, a “ferocious sound,” as if the chords were about to snap. A breaking point.

After spending 60 days in an immigration detention center in his early 20s, Hernández couldn’t help but think about the many migrant stories that get lost in the system, stories that many times are hidden because of the negative stigma and shame attached to them.

Houston composer J.E. Hernández
Composer J.E. Hernández works with the musicians during rehearsal at Garza Studios, Thursday, June 15, in Houston. (Nicole Hopwood for Houston Landing)

So Hernández commissioned a sextet of musicians and a company of dancers to tell some of these stories musically last week at the Post X Atrium in a piece he called “Desert Shelter,” the second completed work in a trilogy focusing on the migrant experience. 

He hoped the harsh music of the musicians and the disjointed movements of the dancers showed the struggles that hundreds of migrants face each year in their journey across the Sonoran Desert.

Now, charitable grants totaling $1 million aim to help Hernández and other artists of color continue telling such stories.

Hernández, 30, is among the first 25 artists to receive grants from the “Artists Award,” which was created by the BIPOC Arts Network & Fund, known as BANF

BANF – a five-year initiative that began in 2021 with the purpose of supporting artists and organizations “that promote, preserve, and celebrate Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other communities of color”– recently announced a $6 million investment for artists of color and organizations that help communities of color through the Ford Foundation’s Cultural Treasures program.

BANF set aside $1 million for the Artist Awards in which 50 artists will each receive $20,000 in grants. The other $5 million will go to Houston Cultural Treasures to provide operational grants ranging between $100,000 to $500,000 to local arts organizations impacting communities of color.

The grants have few strings attached, other than artists agreeing to take part in an 18-month learning community. The funds are intended to compensate artists who often receive little-or-no pay for their work.

“I need to make this work not just because I want to satisfy my artistic urge, my artistic need, but because I want to shatter this cycle of shame into a billion pieces and say that this is normal,” Hernández said.

A deadly crossing

Hernández was brought to the U.S. by his mother at the age of 11 and has made Houston his home since then. After being detained and granted stay, he fought to move on with his life and, graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in music composition. He eventually became a U.S. citizen and created the nonprofit CorcertiaHTX to support social causes through art. 

But the shame attached to being an immigrant and to his experience in the detention center was hard to shake, he recalls, until one day when he decided that people impacted by immigration also deserve to have their stories told.

From those who crossed the Sonoran Desert, Hernandez heard of human remains found in “nichos” or small holes in the ground where people seek shelter from the elements. Some migrants spend about 20 days walking across, their bodies and minds forever impacted by the ordeal.

“You cannot go through something like that physically and not have issues for the rest of your life,” Hernández said.

He also heard the story of two men tormented by the memory of having to leave an elderly man behind when he could no longer keep up with the group being led by a coyote, or smuggler. The older man could not climb down a hill and told everyone that was as far as he could go, they recalled.

The deadly desert crossing between México and the U.S. normally reaches temperatures between 104 and 120 degrees. It covers the border sectors of Yuma and Tucson, Arizona, and El Centro, California, which saw one of the deadliest years in 2021 when about 153 migrant deaths were reported by federal officers. 

Before holding the third and final Desert Shelter performance at the Post X Atrium last week, Performing Arts Houston commissioned the piece for the Wortham Theater Center. It is the second piece in a trilogy that focuses on the experiences of migrants Hernández either met in detention or interviewed through previous work with the American Composers Forum.

The piece took over two years to complete, and while Hernández went with no pay for most of this time, another grant allowed him to earn $5,000 for the piece. This was good pay compared to the $2,000 he got for about two years worth of work for the first installment of the series, titled Voces Fantasmas.

“Even though (the grant) is a nice sort of pillow, I’m still falling full speed constantly to make ends meet,” Hernández said. “But more than anything, for me it is an investment into a future, because no matter what I will keep giving to Houston.”

  • Artists from NobleMotion Dance in Houston
  • Lauren Serrano, of NobleMotion Dance, runs in place
  • Henna Mohamed, at center, along with other musicians
  • Maura Tuffy, maestro, leads musicians during a performance at The Post

$1 million for artists

The applications for the second cohort of artists will open between the summer and fall of 2024, and the organizations that will be part of the Cultural Treasures program will be announced this November. 

The Ford Foundation launched the Cultural Treasures program in 2020 with an initial investment of $50 million, which grew to $156 million with the help of other national philanthropic organizations. This is a national and regional vehicle to financially support and stabilize nonprofit organizations led by and serving artists of color – Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous.

The need in Houston is evident to Sixto Wagan, project director with BANF, who has also led and directed similar endeavors, including the Center for Art and Social Engagement at the University of Houston. 

Artists are encouraged to apply for grants, he said, but many times these grants come linked to a project that could cost the artist more than the amount awarded.

“What are the hoops that everybody has to jump through in order to take the money, which is never generally enough to actually do the thing?” he asked. “What opportunities does that mean that we can no longer take because we’re focused on this project?”

The overarching question for Wagan and the team of 11 members of the BANF steering committee, was, “How can we do better than what we had done before?” he said, and the need was evident in the nearly 400 applications the organization received from local artists seeking this no-strings-attached award.

Interdisciplinary artist Monica Villarreal was one of those applicants and an awardee. After more than 20 years in the arts scene, Villarreal still considers being a full-time artist a dream. She currently juggles responsibilities as a single parent, a full-time employee, and her work as an interdisciplinary artist and community organizer.

“There’s not enough hours in a day,” Villarreal said. “Sometimes things are being sacrificed, you know; Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m the best parent, or sometimes I don’t feel like I’m the best organizer, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m the best artist.” 

‘Our art is in the shadows’

Villarreal is the founder of the arts collaborative Creative Women Unite, and is an instructor and leader at Danza Azteca Taxcayolotl, a cultural dance group that teaches and practices traditional indigenous dances and ceremonies. She is also the co-founder of a new arts collaborative space called Xochipilli Collective, which is in the early stages of launching.

After 17 years devoted to perfecting the craft of Danza Azteca, Villarreal said there is not a chance she’ll ever leave the practice. There is an important cultural and spiritual component to each ceremony, she said, which provided her and her family healing and wants to offer it to others.

Tony Diaz, a Houston writer, activist and political analyst who also serves on the BANF steering committee, said limiting this grant to established nonprofit organizations serving communities of color would risk leaving out many artists like Villarreal and Hernández.

Many of the artists in these communities are undocumented, many have full-time jobs, many have families to take care of, he said. These issues of access and inclusion were important when developing the $1 million grant which was open to anyone regardless of citizenship status, applications were received in several languages, and could be submitted in video or audio formats.

“Our art is not documented, our art is in the shadows, and today I trust BANF to lead the way to quantify us,” Diaz said. “Some folks have never been paid for their work. It’s really beautiful to see our gente, or people, having these breakthroughs.”

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Danya Pérez is a diverse communities reporter for the Houston Landing. She returned to Houston after leaving two years ago to work for the San Antonio Express-News, where she reported on K-12 and higher...