Artist Spotlight: Activists Leo and Kathy Lara

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Leo and Katy Lara have been performing in the Midwest since 1979. How did these two talented musicians meet and what keeps their creative drive going? Read all about it in their Artist Spotlight!  

Hello Leo and Kathy, thank you both so much for taking time out of your insanely busy schedule to chat with me. First off, can you tell us a little about both of your backgrounds and what art form you teach and perform?

We are Leo and Kathy Lara, a traditional Latin-American musical duo who have been performing and educating audiences of all ages across the Americas and in the Midwest, where we live.

When did you both first become interested in music? When did you two start performing together?

Leo: As a teenager, I was a musician and political activist in Quito, Ecuador. I joined a collective of artists, actors, musicians, playwrights, dancers and poets who were concerned with the loss of our cultural identity due to foreign cultural invasions, such as from the United States and Europe. So, following in the steps of Violeta Parra, we went to the countryside to investigate and learn customs and traditions from the rural towns, many of which had existed in pre-Incan times. We brought back these traditions, stories, and art forms to share with others in the city. Also, as an Afro-Ecuadorian person from a working class background, I was very aware of the inequalities communities faced across Ecuador. So, working toward social justice has been my life’s work.

 Performing in 1993

Performing in 1993

Kathy: I was an educator and musician originally from Ely, Minnesota. I met Leo when I was volunteering at El Centro del Muchacho Trabajador [Center for the Working Child] developing a music program for the shoeshine children on the streets of Quito. We married and eventually moved to the Midwest where we saw a great need for our voices to be heard.

We believed that traditional music carried the cultural messages of Latino life and values and brought to light common themes of struggles for social justice.  We immediately found educational, cultural and political stages on which to disseminate Latin American Traditional music and its powerful messages. Our purpose was to create a cross-cultural experience for the diverse audiences and build bridges of cultural understanding.

You work in a wide variety of programs, from doing touring performances in libraries across the state to weeks-long residency programs in schools. Do you have a program type that you enjoy the best? Which one challenges you the most?

We are really proud to connect with and play for diverse audiences. We performed at many venues such as museums, libraries, radio programs, TV, clubs, churches, hospitals, schools, universities, and political rallies. We also played at many fairs and just about every folk festival in the Midwest. One of our career highlights was participating at the International New Song Festival in Quito, Ecuador that included Sweet Honey in the Rock, Holly Near and Pete Seeger.

We have reached audiences at political events, such as the Rainbow Coalition with Jesse Jackson, Artists against Apartheid with Angela Davis, Take Back the Night/Rape-Free Zones at the University of Minnesota. We enjoy scholarly venues as well: we are frequently asked to speak at symposiums and to conduct lectures at colleges and universities.  

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We have also joined groups in our community to support and collaborate with other artists, such as the Victor Jara Memorial Fund and the Resource Center of the Americas.

We worked hard to create new venues to enrich our region with international groups and rise up local talent. For example, Leo co-founded the Minnesota Committee for New Song that brought renowned Latin American Musical ensembles and poets (Chilean group Inti-Illimani, Mexican artists Los Folkloristas, Uruguayan poet Edwardo Galeano, etc) to Minneapolis/St. Paul. These events also featured national, regional and local artists such as Meridel LeSeure, Pete Seeger, Jay Red Hawk, Mitch Walking Elk. The New Song concerts, being grassroots produced, created connections and bridged our own numerous and diverse communities in the cities area. Leo also founded La Pena in Minneapolis, which was a Latin American style coffeehouse where monthly programs of music, poetry, art and stimulating conversation concerning the various socio-economic and political issues of Latin America were presented.

All this was accomplished while Leo worked by day as a metal spinner and I as a Minneapolis teacher! And, all was done while raising our five beautiful children!

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What do you hope participants of your programs learn?

Besides being exposed to and enjoying the beautiful sounds, rhythms and unique instruments of Latin America, our participants learn about the rich influences of Latin American music, with its Indigenous, European and African roots. We weave our musical selections into stories to make Latin American music and traditions come to life and give the songs a cultural context so as to show the function and purpose of musical expressions and traditions.

We hope that while learning about Latino cultural traditions, the participants will begin to analyze their own cultural traditions and identity. Ultimately, this experience should bring about awareness, understanding and acceptance of diversity in our communities and in our world. We wish for our participants to cross over these bridges of cultural understanding and take an active role in creating a more just and peaceful world in which to live.

Have you been working on any new projects lately?

Yes! We are always working on new elements to our program called, Musica, Lengua y Cultura. Folklore is not stagnant – it is not an exhibit in a museum. Folklore represents peoples’ everyday life and is alive. It is constantly changing and evolving. Cultural traditions are the expression of this daily lifeway, passed on from one generation to the next. Also, the political contexts of the Americas are changing: immigration, environmental concerns, financial crises, and urbanization. We constantly research cultural traditions, travel, gather new material, collect artifacts, learn new songs and incorporate these findings authentically into the programs that we present to our audiences. Therefore, our program is continually evolving to reflect tradition and social change.

Now that Kathy has retired from the school district, our “new” project is dedicating more time to touring and doing more school residencies. We have been so lucky on our recent tours, sponsored by the Minnesota Legacy Fund, Minnesota libraries, and COMPAS, to reach new audiences beyond the cities.

We are also working on a new book project that will inspire teachers to incorporate culturally relevant practices and pedagogies in a Spanish bilingual setting and beyond.

You have been on the COMPAS roster for almost 20 years now. What’s it been like to be a part of COMPAS?

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We are so proud to be represented by COMPAS. We appreciate its dedication to the artists and its determination to get the arts into the community where it belongs! We have always felt respected and supported by COMPAS. We are fortunate to have been the recipients of Teaching Artists of the Year award and of many grant opportunities.

We have benefited from the professionalism at COMPAS. For example, we were impressed with the detailed Library Tour arranged for us this year and last fall. This exciting opportunity gave us a chance to cross our beautiful state to share the Latin American cultural and music, many times to Minnesotans who had never encountered it before. We were very enriched and rewarded by the rural audiences: our interactive performances inspired them to share powerful stories that reflected their own deep cultural roots, traditions and identity. COMPAS knows that these kinds of experiences are vital for all our communities.