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DACA recipient, educator recalls production process that resulted in Grammy

| Thursday, January 16, 2020

Juan-Carlos Alarcon is a DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, recipient whose long-held dreams of creating music were manifested in “American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom,” a studio album by the John Daversa Big Band, recorded with more than 50 singers and musicians who hold DACA status. Alarcon spoke to the Saint Mary’s Department of Music about his contribution to the Grammy award-winning CD Monday.

“[Dreamers] work among you,” Alarcon said, “We’re friends. If you were to see me somewhere else, you wouldn’t know that I learned English or that I’m from another country. You wouldn’t know my immigration status unless you asked.”

A native of Puebla, Mexico, Alarcon moved to the United States with his parents when he was eight years old.

“I didn’t know any English,” he said. “Like zero, none whatsoever.”

At the time he enrolled in school, Alarcon said he had no specific plans for the future but felt particularly drawn to music.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to be a musician and have some sort of musical knowledge, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be.”

However, this reality changed after one of Alarcon’s teachers showed special interest in helping him acclimate to a new language and learning environment, he said.

“My teacher would pull me out for 10 minutes every single day,” Alarcon said. “She would stay after school, she would come in early, and she would sit with me and explain to me the difference between a glove and a mitten or a watch and a clock. And I said, ‘You know what? I think I want to be a teacher.’”

This realization later inspired Alarcon to study music education at Indiana University South Bend, of which he is a recent graduate, and to serve as a student teacher at local schools and musical organizations in the South Bend and Elkhart communities.

“There’s a lot of things that I’ve done, and it’s all because I love children, I love teaching, I love the arts, I love music and I love music education,” Alarcon said. “It’s challenging, hard work, but it pays off.”

As one of approximately 700,000 DACA recipients living in America today, Alarcon said he has endured challenges over the years. Before receiving DACA status, Alarcon said he could not legally work or drive and would not be granted federal financial aid for college.

“From its inception, DACA was criticized [by] members of the right that it is unconstitutional and an improper use of executive powers or amnesty,” he said. “But DACA changed my life.”

Prior to receiving DACA status, Alarcon said he planned on returning to Mexico after graduating from high school. However, he soon learned he would be allowed to attend a public university and was invited to apply to Indiana University South Bend.

He attended the University for two semesters, but was forced to step away from his education in the summer after the Indiana State House of Representatives introduced a bill that would not allow him to remain at IUSB. Alarcon then served a two-year mission through the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“During that time, I said, ‘Everything happens for a reason. There are things to learn everywhere.’”

In 2012, Alarcon was granted DACA status and was given to a social security number, as well as the opportunity to apply for a driver’s license and “come out of the shadows,” he said.

Five years later, when President Donald Trump’s administration announced its plans to terminate DACA within the following year, Alarcon said he and others felt their hopes shatter. Salvador Perez-Lopez, a clarinetist and friend of Alarcon, wrote an opinion piece voicing these concerns, and it was published in the New York Times.

Kabir Sehgal, one of the producers of the “American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom,” read the piece and invited the author of the article to join his then-budding project. Perez-Lopez agreed to contribute to the CD, and as the group was searching for an organist with DACA status, asked Alarcon to participate as well.

Alarcon said he agreed to contribute to the CD over the phone, in the middle of a piano lesson, and from that point the project began to develop very quickly. Spotify and Apple Music agreed to sponsor parts of the production process, and the University of Miami had donated a recording studio for the musicians to use while students were away on spring break.

“The recording experience was lots of hard work, but it was so fun,” Alarcon said. “In the album, there are 53 different Dreamers who participated in the whole project from 17 different countries, which was just amazing.”

The CD was released in September, and Alarcon said he later learned it had been nominated for Grammy awards in three different categories — “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album,” “Best Improvised Jazz Solo” and “Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella” — through Facebook.

“It was just such a humbling experience to have that and to be a part of that,” he said.

All 53 Dreamers were asked to attend the Grammy Awards ceremony, an invitation Alarcon said felt like the rewarding result of years of hard work.

“I’m a big believer,” Alarcon said. “You work hard, and whether you call it God, whether you call it luck, whatever you want to call it, things just line up.”

Alarcon passed around his framed Grammy Awards ticket and described the ceremony itself, including attendees in beautiful gowns and tuxedos devouring McDonald’s burgers and fries in between musical performances.

When the CD won in all three categories, Alarcon was able to accompany the group in accepting the award, a moment he said was both gratifying and humbling.

“This isn’t your award,” he said, recalling his thoughts while onstage. “This is for the team. This is for the teacher who a long, long time ago sat outside the classroom and told you the difference between a glove and a mitten and a clock and a watch. This is for your community.”

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About Maeve Filbin

Maeve is a senior studying political science and economics at Saint Mary's, as well as Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame. She serves as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Observer, and thinks everyone should support student journalism.

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