A band of day laborers sings for the detained.
I stand at your gate, and the song that I sing is of moonlight
I stand and I wait for the touch of your hand in the June night.
The roses are sighing a moonlight serenade.
The stars are aglow and tonight how their light sets me dreaming.
— “Moonlight Serenade,” lyrics by Mitchell Parish
Since the late Middle Ages, a serenade has required a few key ingredients: someone in love, a beloved, and a love that is unrequited, en route, or in the air. You need a voice to sing a song, and if it were still the Middle Ages, you’d need a lute, but now an acoustic guitar will do. In Mexico, where the serenade continues to live its most vibrant contemporary life, it’s usually delivered by a mariachi of plucked strings, caressed violins, and chirping trumpets. A serenade also requires physical distance — the lover who is separated from the beloved, divided by position or place. The lover is down on the street. The beloved is up on the balcony. The serenade has always needed a wall.
The Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles is a towering ten-story slab of imposing concrete and razor wire. Its façade is pocked with small slivers of windows; behind them, men and women are locked in cells, many from Central America and Mexico, picked up for having the wrong papers, for overstaying visas, for driving without licenses. Some will be held for weeks or months awaiting trial; others are about to be deported. This detention center, like the other 197 scattered across the United States, is a factory of limbo and removal, dislocation and loss.
One evening last year, on the sidewalk below the detention center’s northern wall, a group of musicians had just finished playing a set. The band, Los Jornaleros del Norte — The Day Laborers of the North — is made up of former and working day laborers. They are the unofficial house band of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, an alliance of immigrant-rights organizations headquartered in Los Angeles. The band generally plays cumbias and norteñas, the evergreen genres of working-class Mexican and Central American immigrants. Los Jornaleros are as comfortable with an accordion as with a programmed synth and as skilled at making a crowd dance as they are at making it cry. When they’re not playing immigration marches, protesting in front of City Hall, or leading songwriting workshops for other laborers, they are performing at the foot of the detention center, sending their songs up to jump the gate, to scale the wall, to bend the bars.
The idea for the band began in 1996. Omar Sierra was in the parking lot of a Kmart in the City of Industry, where dozens of immigrant day laborers were in line for free HIV and STD tests at a mobile health clinic. Sierra had a tourniquet around his arm when the Immigration and Naturalization Service launched a raid. He took off and made it home — relieved but scared and angry that so many like him seemed to be always on the run. He wrote a song about it, the bare-bones ballad “Corrido de Industry,” and shared it with Pablo Alvarado, a musician and immigrant-rights organizer he knew from the street corners and work centers. “I’m tired of singing,” it went, “hoping la migra won’t come after us again.”
This history weighed heavily at the detention center that day as the band members were packing up their instruments. One of their singers, Omar León, noticed a woman standing nearby with two young kids, holding balloons and a poster board that read “Te queremos mucho, te extrañamos” — We love you so much, we miss you. León introduced himself. The woman told him that there was a moment every night when the detainees walked through a security area near the sidewalk. She brought the kids here so they could wave to their father, and he could glimpse his children. “To hell with the damn north,” she said in Spanish, “to hell with this country.”
When León heard the woman’s story, he remembered being a child in Mexico in the late 1980s, apart from his own parents. They had to leave him behind when they first came to the U.S. He headed north a year and a half later to meet them, crammed against the floorboards of a car that crossed the border at Tijuana. He remembered shoes digging into his neck. Not breathing. Not feeling his legs. Thinking he would die.
León went home and wrote a song for the woman and her children, “Serenata a un Indocumentado” — “Serenade for an Undocumented Immigrant.” León gave the song to his band mate Loyda Alvarado to perform, so that her voice could become the grieving mother’s: “Wherever you go I will follow,” she sang. “What is the point without you?” They went into the studio and recorded a single, which got played on L.A. radio. Day laborers heard “Serenata” at job centers, the mother’s story not far from any of their own, just one more story in a city full of the separated and the detained and the gone, a city full of love that is still in the air.
The next time Los Jornaleros played in front of the detention center, they performed “Serenata.” As the glow of security lights took over for a setting sun, their performance followed all the rules of a classic serenade. They were down below, singing up to a window. There was a wall. There was a gate. There was distance. “Although you’re imprisoned,” Alvarado sang, “someone who loves you is singing.” One by one, the detention center’s cell windows began to light up, blinking on and off in time with the music. The windows twinkled like dreams illuminated, like stars aglow, like moonlight.