Judge honors her migrant community at HSO concert

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Juanita Bocanegra grew up working in the fields in Michigan and Texas with her parents harvesting crops.

Even though this work meant transferring between schools each year, her parents and supportive teachers encouraged her studies. She graduated from college and earned her law degree. Last year, she was elected a judge with the 58th District Court in Ottawa County, making her the first Latina, native Spanish-speaking person to hold the office. 

She has never forgotten her roots, and over the weekend she had the opportunity to honor her migrant farmworker community during the Holland Symphony Orchestra’s free concert featuring the acclaimed band Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar.

Judge Juanita Bocanegra poses with members of Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar. (Shandra Martinez)

“My heart is exploding with happiness right now listening to this music, listening to the music that I grew up listening to in the fields,” Bocanegra told the audience. “I grew up listening to this mariachi music at home and in the fields. This is what makes my heart happy. So tonight, I have the honor of being able to dedicate a song to my community, to those migrant farmworkers that are so important to this community.”

The judge asked the migrant workers in attendance to stand, and they were honored by the audience with hearty applause.

She says she chose “El Son de la Negra'' for the tribute song not for the words but for the upbeat, happy sound. 

Important part of economy

Farmworkers are a crucial part of the workforce in Ottawa County, which is the third-highest producing agricultural county in Michigan, behind Huron and Allegan counties.

Ottawa County partnered with HSO to invite farmworkers to the event.

"Ottawa County Dept of Public Health along with many community partners conducted a Migrant Health Survey in 2021, as result, it was shown that  65% of our farmworkers feel connected to the community. Events like the one hosted by HSO ensure that we continue that our workers feel welcome, connected, and valued in our community," says Heather Alberda with the Ottawa County Department of Public Health.

Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar visited Gentex for a pre-concert performance on Aug. 12. (Gentex)

Bocanegra says working in the fields as a child taught her many lessons.

"I learned that no work is beneath you and that it pays to work hard. I also learned that you can't have everything in life, but the things that truly matter you can work hard for them and you can achieve them," Bocanegra said. 

Gentex, which sponsored the concert, invited the Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cuellar to give a pre-concert performance on Aug. 12 at its Zeeland plant in tribute to the successful launch of the company's Spanish-speaking manufacturing lines. 

The Macatawa Area Coordinating Council, which represents area townships, also sponsored the concert, with a grant. 

This is the second year for HSO’s mariachi concert, which last year brought the symphony’s largest audience, surpassing more than 1,500 people. Unfortunately, a rainstorm prevented the concert from being held again in Kollen Park. But the event still went on, thanks to the generosity of M.E. Yacht Restoration, which made room in its cavernous boat shed for the performance. 

The orchestra was conducted by Mark Alpizar, and the concert was titled “Mariachi, Movies, and More.” It included symphonic music from movies such as “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” and “Coco,” as well as music from video games and mariachi music.

The collaborative performance of the mariachi band and the symphony was accompanied by guest artists Ballet Folkorico Sol Azteca in their brightly colored gowns.

Expanding range of HSO music

The initial concert came about through a conversation that Bocanegra, who previously served on the HSO board, had with the organization's CEO, Kay Walvoord. 

“We wanted to bring music that our community could identify with and could enjoy, and what better way to do that than with a great mariachi band?” Bocanegra says.

Despite rain, the concert still went on, thanks to the generosity of M.E. Yacht Restoration, which made room in its cavernous boat shed. 

Walvoord says she has received many emails and personal comments from people who appreciated the concert’s recognition of migrant workers but also the community inclusion efforts. The Consul of Mexico in Detroit, who attended as a guest of Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP) shared with her that he not only enjoyed the Mariachi music but also the movie music he grew up listening to from ET and the video music all ages enjoy.  

“I am so glad those migrant workers in attendance stood and were recognized,” Walvoord says. 

LAUP Executive Director Johnny Rodriguez, Holland Mayor Nathan Bocks and Roberto Nicolas, Consul General of Mexico in Detroit at the concert. (Mayor Bocks)

After last year's concert, a woman approached an HSO staff member to ask if the orchestra could do a similar concert for her Vietnamese community. That request prompted HSO to launch Music Unites Us Project, an initiative to learn more about the community’s musical culture traditions. (The deadline for submitting an application is Aug. 31.) Next summer, HSO is planning a Music Unites Us concert that will feature selected musical groups performing with the orchestra.

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Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.