Agustin Lira was born in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico. At the age of seven, he moved with his family to California in order to follow the crops with fellow farmworkers through the San Joaquin Valley. When he was 19, he co-founded El Teatro Campesino, realizing the power of artistic expression in uniting and inspiring the farmworker communities. His powerful singing and socially relevant lyrics served as the voice of the Chicano movement. Lira blended Mexican song traditions such as ranchera, huapango, and bolero with Anglo folk and popular musical forms to create works that are sung to this day. Hugo Morales, founder of Radio Bilingue, a Harvard Law School graduate and MacArthur Fellows, says of Lira and Cesar Chavez, "As a young student they inspired me to study, do my homework and do well academically so that, as the only farmworker in my class who was on a college track, I could later help my farmworker brothers and sisters." Lira was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival in 1968 and 1969. After leaving Teatro Campesino, he continued to work in music and theater and formed the musical group Alma. Lira has appeared on numerous recordings and has written songs featured in theatrical productions and film. Previous recognition of his work includes the Latino Legends of the 20th Century Award from the Central Valley Mexican American Association and the Local Hero Award from Valley Public Television. Also, for the past 42 years, he has taught theater, music, and/or creative writing in academic, community and arts organizations throughout California.
NEA: I want to congratulate you on your award. How did you feel when you heard the news?
MR. LIRA: I was very surprised. It caught me off guard. I thought it was a long shot because there are so many talented people involved and gifted individuals nominated. I'm very happy.
NEA: Could you tell me about some of your earliest memories with music and why you were attracted to it.
MR. LIRA: I've had a relationship with music all my life. I grew up in Juarez, Mexico and as a child of four, five, six years old there was music all around me. I was very attracted to it, but I was still a child. I didn't really get involved in music until high school where I joined the choir. I also sang in a quartet in school. And I was involved in operettas and school plays, in senior plays, and things like that. High school is where I got started in music and theatre.
NEA: And who were your mentors or influences?
MR. LIRA: Because I grew up in Mexico, I was really affected by the Mexican singers Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete and all the different singers of that period. I would hear their music on the radio and my Aunt Petra would sing the songs to me. We would sing the songs together while washing dishes.
NEA: Your music has been called an instrument of social change. Can you speak more about the power of your music in this respect?
MR. LIRA: My intent with the music, first of all, is to educate people to a particular problem. The idea is to inspire, to tell people not so much the information but the feelings involved in a song. I want to get that over to the audience so they can feel the emotional content of the message. It isn't just the words, it's the whole presentation.
I joined the United Farm Workers in 1965 as a full time volunteer and that's when I first got involved in writing songs. A lot of these songs were written very quickly, reflecting on the picket line activities and the events that had taken place all day long. And our theatre, Teatro Campesino, would play the Friday night meetings. We played music and performed short skits.
NEA: Does this kind of material still have an impact?
MR. LIRA: Theatre has always had a magical draw on people. And it has the same effect today as does the music. And what's really so wonderful about the arts is that they're fresh. And depending on how you use them, they really have an impact. That's why I turned to the arts as a young kid in high school. I've always loved painting and all those different things. When I went to California in '65 many doors opened for me, many possibilities. I had a really full range of experiences in which to be involved in. I grew to become a man in a very short period.
NEA: You mix traditional Mexican and Chicano musical elements with more American or pop elements. Are you doing that to appeal to the American market?
MR. LIRA: I sometimes write songs entirely in English. I write some songs entirely in Spanish. Sometimes they're mixed. I write the music depending on the issue or the audience. For example, I wrote the song called, "I Have Been Here Forever" in English. I don't think it could be written in any other way, not even in Spanish. It would have to have a different type of rhythm.
The mixing is very important because all these different genres are really rich and they deserve to be mixed and changed, just like colors. I don't want to get stuck in one genre, write one type of song. I don't mind that people label my music as movement oriented, because it is. That is the full intent. I really want to educate people about what's going on in our communities and I use songs and theater to do that. A lot of work goes into putting together a song or a theatrical piece. And, usually, the viewpoints are the sentiments of the people.
The music has to have a universal quality if it's going to last. And it doesn't matter in what language it is, because I really firmly believe that music will cross that hurdle.
You know, I wanted to improve music, overall. I wanted to approach it from different perspectives. I wanted to make it fresh and to last. Those are the principals that I use whenever I sit down to write a song. If I don't think it meets the criteria, I won't look at it. There are songs that I've taken up to a year to write one song for a particular issue. I don't want to copy what's out there. I want to invent and create new different perspectives and visions to represent different types of people. My inspiration comes from my past, my study of history and a cold, long look and stare or glance at today's society and the changes that it needs.
NEA: What would you say are the dominant themes in your art work?
MR. LIRA: The themes have to do with struggle. The plays I work on, for example, are usually about strong, powerful women in history who have been negated or forgotten in history or by the textbooks. We just finished a production about Emma Tenayuca, who was a labor organizer in the 1930's and a figure no one really knows about. We did all kinds of research to bring that play about. A tremendous amount of work went into it. It was a community presentation - most of the people who performed in it had never done theater. It took one year to put the whole thing together. But it was beautiful. It was a wonderful presentation.
What inspires me is the hope in people's eyes and the fact that there are many people in our communities that have been totally forgotten by an educational system and by everybody else. They're looking around for different things to do, positive things to do. And hopefully I'll be able to find some of these individuals.
NEA: I know you do a lot of work with children. How do you see that fitting in with your activism?
MR. LIRA: It fits very well, because the arts are used as a springboard to get people involved and to speak out. Music is very vocal and so is theatre. I work with all different age groups, not just children. But I like to work with children because the children represent our future. It's a wonderful opportunity to pass on the arts to them. And it gives me a certain number of years to instill certain principles, like discipline. I'm not so much interested in them becoming wonderful musicians as I am interested in them becoming good, solid individuals who will know what to struggle for in life.
NEA: What is the one thing that you're happiest having done in your career?
MR. LIRA: I don't think there's one specific situation. But being involved with the United Farm Workers gave me a real start. Up until that time I really wanted to join the Army because there were no opportunities in my communities. The only way I could get an education was to join the Army. Luckily, for me, at the time I was not a citizen. And I happened to pick up a newspaper about the UFW having started a strike. I went down there, and the rest is history.