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Agustin Lira

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Agustin Lira co-founded El Teatro Campesino to unite and inspire his fellow farm workers. His work has appeared on numerous recordings and in theatrical productions and film. Bethesda, Maryland, 2007, photograph by Alan Govenar
Agustin Lira, courtesy Agustin Lira
Agustin Lira, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Alan Hatchett
Agustin Lira and his band, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Agustin Lira, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart
Agustin Lira, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Alan Hatchett
Agustin Lira, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, photograph by Michael G. Stewart

Agustin Lira, born in Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico, has been an activist through music and theater since he became a volunteer for the United Farm Workers union in 1965. His work reflects his experiences as an immigrant struggling against prejudice in his adopted homeland.

When Lira was a year old, his family moved to Ciudad Juarez. While his mother worked across the Rio Grande in El Paso, Texas, he was raised in a loving environment by his grandmother, aunts and uncles. Music came into his life early, and he recalled singing popular songs of the day with his Aunt Petra as they washed dishes together.

When Lira was about 6 years old, he moved with his mother to Lordsburg, New Mexico, where he encountered racism while attending first grade. Because he spoke only Spanish, he was whipped and thrown into a closet and had his mouth washed out with soap. “That made me into a tremendous rebel, because I wasn’t going to let these people push me around,” he said.

After a year in Lordsburg, Lira moved with his mother and siblings to the San Joaquin Valley of California, where they followed the crops, then settled in Selma. In high school, he sang in a quartet and in the choir and performed in operettas and plays. He also studied art and became a champion tennis player.

Lira’s mother died about the time he graduated from high school in 1963, and he spent a couple of years feeling lost, trying to find himself. Then he heard that the United Farm Workers union, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, was looking for volunteers and would provide food, clothing and training. He joined the UFW at its headquarters in Delano, California, and became involved in its bitter strike against grape growers. He and fellow volunteer Luis Valdez started the troupe Teatro Campesino to dramatize the issues and educate the workers. They worked on material after a full day of activities that began as early as 4:30 a.m. “So it was all done with nothing but raw energy and sacrifice, too, also,” Lira said.

The performers created their own simple backdrops and props such as a pig mask to depict particularly brutal growers. Initially, the troupe performed only for other farm workers, but as it became better known it performed in San Francisco and other California cities and made fund-raising tours to Texas and other states. In the late 1960s, Teatro Campesino appeared on television in New York and at the Newport Folk Festival. The group won major awards and was profiled in national publications. The group’s widespread recognition, Lira said, caused jealousy and rivalry that led to its separation from the UFW within a few years, though he maintained an association with the union. Lira has continued to perform, record and organize theatrical troupes. “I spent a long time going into different communities and either teaching music or theater or both at the same time, and the goal was always to teach people, to try to have a perspective, to get involved, to change things, to voice their opinions,” he said.

Lira’s music reflects his diverse background. When Chavez asked him to write a song for the 1966 union march from Delano to Sacramento, Lira enlisted the aid of many of the talented musicians he had met in the union struggle and adopted a rhythm learned from a farm worker for the march, “La Peregrinacion” (“The Pilgrimage”).

Though he’s written other types of songs, including love songs, Lira said, “it’s true that a lot of my music does reflect the struggles of many people in this country. I wanted to make American conscious of the treatment of these individuals.”

Bibliography “Alma: Agustin Lira and Musical Group Alma.” Music Review. La Voz de Uvalde County. (October and November 1999): 15.
“Agustin Lira: ‘From the Fields to a New Beginning.’” Mapa Press (Premier Issue 1984).
“Agustin Lira y Alma.” El Seminario (7 July 1994): 10.
“Assembly member honors outstanding Latino leaders.” Vida En El Vale (September 24-30, 2003).
“Concierto de Agustin Lira Para Protegera ‘Chicanos’” Novedades (17 de Octobre de 1989): 3C.
Esparza Loera, Juan. “History of immigrants told in art.” The Fresno Bee (February 24, 2003).
“Farmworkers’ songs, poetry of 1960s to be heard this weekend.” Los Angeles Times (April 25, 1990).
Gonzales, Juan. “Record Review: The Heart and Soul of Agustin Lira.” El Tecolote 14.6 (April 1984).
Gonzales, Patrisia, and Roberto Rodriguez. “Fresno trio uses music to serve humanity.” The Fresno Bee (May 11, 1998): B4.
Hale, David. “Ideals of Cesar Chavez live on in the ensemble Alma.” The Fresno Bee (August 22, 1993).
Hale, David. ‘We shall overcome’: Alma continues to battle for ‘better working conditions.’ The Fresno Bee (August 11, 1991).
“Heroes and Legends Comes to Fresno.” A Community Alliance (October 2005).
“Latino Legends Honored.” Vida En El Valle (April 2-8, 2003).
Maceda, Elda. “La voz de los chicanos sono en la Universidad.” El Universal (16 de Octubre 1989).
Lee Ziner, Karen. “Songs born to boost Chavez-led workers ring out at URI.” The Providence Journal (October 12, 2006).
Mayhew, Don. “Tamejavi Festival mixes it up on the cultural front.” The Fresno Bee (April 26, 2002).
McClatchy, Will. “Group’s Cuba visit tests U.S. travel ban.” The Fresno Bee (July 28, 1994): B2.
Medina, Bolissa. “Music in the Face of Difficult Times: Encuentro del Canto Popular Celebrates 22nd Annual Music Festival.” El Tecolote 33.23 (Nov. 19-Dec. 2, 2003): 1+.
Medina, Michael. “Agustin Lira: Farm workers’ struggles spawn playwright/actor/singer/songwriter.” El Observador (September 29-October 5, 1993): 1+.
Mink, Eric. “Film documents fruits of Chavez’ labor.” New York Daily News (September 1, 1997).
Pollock, Dennis. “FSU festival will celebrate the Valley’s hidden talent.” The Fresno Bee (March 13, 1992).
Pollock, Dennis. “Album Reviews: World Music of Struggle, We Shall Overcome.” The Fresno Bee (August 30, 1991).
Ramirez, Laura Beth. “Citybuzz: They Call Them Heroes.” Fresno Magazine (October 2006).

Discography Lira, Agustin and Patricia. Songs of Love and Struggle. Lira/Wells Production 1994.
Lira, Agustin. From the Fields to a New Beginning. Ambiente Records 1983.
___________. The Best of Broadside: Anthems of the American Underground (1962-88) Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2001.
___________. Best of the Latin American New Song Festival Live. Accion Latina 1991.
___________. Best of the Latin American New Song Festival Live. Accion Latina 1982.
___________. Huelga en General and El Picket Sign. Thunderbird Records 1966.
___________. I Have Been Here Forever/Siempre He Estado Aqui. Lira/Wells Production 1998.
___________. Rolaz De Aztlan: Songs of the Chicano Movement. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 2005.
___________. The Time Will Come. Broadside Records 1967.
___________. Viva La Causa! Songs and Sounds of the Delano Grape Strike. Thunderbird Records 1966.
___________. We Shall Overcome, World Music of Struggle. Columbia/Folkways 1991.

Watch

Agustin Lira, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Agustin Lira, 2007 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Bethesda, Maryland, courtesy National Endowment for the Arts


Listen

Agustin Lira, 'La Revolucionaria,' Canciones De Amor Y Lucha, A Lira Wells Production PW6974

Agustin Lira, 'Hasta Siempre,' Canciones De Amor Y Lucha, A Lira Wells Production PW6974

Agustin Lira, 'El Inmigrante,' Siempre He Estado Aqui, A Lira/Wells Production PW6975

Agustin Lira, 'Juarez No Debio Murir,' Siempre He Estado Aqui, A Lira/Wells Production PW6975

Agustin Lira talks about his childhood, interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira answers the question 'What did you do after you left high school?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira discusses the problems of immigration today. Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira answers the question 'What kind of music are you writing?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira answers the question 'What was the mission of Teatro Campesino?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira answers the question 'How do you think theatre can alleviate social problems?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira talks about his life after Teatro Campesino. Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira talks about the backdrops used in his theatrical performances. Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007

Agustin Lira answers the question 'What are you doing now?' Interview by Alan Govenar, Bethesda, Maryland, September 17, 2007