In Mariachi Music, A Distinctive Yell Speaks To The Soul

 

A screen displays the concert of Mexican folk singer Vicente Fernández in Guadalajara, Mexico, in April, when Fernández announced his retirement.

 

 

Do you know that feeling when a song moves you so much, you just feel like you have to add your own voice? Mexican culture has an answer to that: a cathartic, joyous yell called a grito.

Growing Up Hearing Gritos

Like lots of Mexican-American kids, Contreras and I grew up hearing the adults in our lives performing gritos when they listened to mariachi music at family barbecues, or cheering on friends and family at graduation.

“In my family, my mother and my grandfather, her step-dad, when we would be at family parties like Christmas or something like that, we’d be in the other room playing, we’d hear a really loud grito, we knew the party was on, it just took it to a different level,” Contreras says. “It was the ultimate expression that we were really having a good time.”

I am pretty sure I could identify my tíos and tías by their gritos, and many Mexican-American children begin finding their own grito voice early.

 

Like many schools in Texas, students at Perez Elementary school in Austin have the opportunity to learn and perform mariachi music. Their teacher, Angela Machado, is too busy teaching them chords and song lyrics to teach them gritos. “It is not part of the curriculum necessarily but I know a lot of them do already know how,” she says.

Third graders Leo Garcia, Jose Jaimes, Mario Flores and Angelita Alivter Cardenas show me their gritos. They sound like lion cubs learning how to roar.

If they want to keep working on their gritos, these kids may have a chance in college. Ezekiel Castro is a lecturer at the University of Texas Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music. He is also director of the school’s mariachi ensemble and teaches about mariachi culture. The grito is an important part of that.

“The Mexicans are very emotional people,” says Castro. “When they hear mariachi music, whether it’s because of sorrow or because of joy, they do these gritos, these yells.” Castro says his students do a much better grito than he does. “Some people are just exquisite with it. Others, you know, we just do the best we can.”

Gritos aren’t just emotional; they’re political. One of Mexico’s founding fathers uttered the first documented grito in history when he declared the war for Mexican independence. The president of Mexico does a more formal grito every year on that anniversary, as Enrique Peña Nieto did in 2015.

Grito 101

Laura Gutierrez teaches Mexican performance studies at the University of Texas. She says gritos are complex expressions. “They’re like small narrative capsules, without the narrative that are full of layers of emotion,” Gutierrez says. And belting out a greatgrito feels really good. “When you finally release the last gasp of air, there’s relief,” Gutierrez says.

Video producer Kathryn Gonzalez rediscovered the grito at a 2014 Day of the Dead party in west Texas. “I was the only brown person at the whole party,” Gonzalez says. “There was a little conjunto band and I was so moved, I don’t even really honestly remember the song, but I was compelled to do a grito.”

But there were two things stopping her. “I thought well, A, I don’t know if anyone here would know what that was and why I was doing it,” Gonzalez says. “And B, I thought I don’t really know if I know how to do a good grito, like I’m not sure that I could pull it off.”

So Gonzalez teamed up with a developer friend and created the Grito App.

“You scroll through the different sounds, each sound has its own screen. You can learn a little more about the grito, you can share the grito, you can save it to your videos and just kind of text it or email it around,” Gonzalez says.

Since mariachi music is less popular among newer generations, not that many young people know how to do a good grito. Castro says that’s no reason not to try. “Everybody has their own individual way of doing gritos,” he says. “It’s a great expression.”

Growing Into Gritos

Felix Contreras tried to do a grito when he was a college student at Cal State University Fresno in the late ’70s. His friends would have grito contests after a long night. “It was pathetic. I thought, ‘Ugh, I definitely won’t be doing that again.'”

And even though his alt.latino co-host Jasmine Garsd has been trying to get him to do a grito on-air, Contreras says he won’t do it. “You have to not be afraid to be the subject of attention in a small world,” Contreras says. “You have to use the front of the diaphragm, full of gusto, and release anguish and joy from your soul to do a successfulgrito.”

Contreras has found himself listening to more mariachi music over the years. “It’s an acquired taste as you get older, you experience life’s heartbreaks and joys, the lyrics and the recitations and the performance resonates in a different way,” Contreras says. “It has all the secrets to life in the lyrics. You don’t know that when you’re in your twenties.”

“By the time you hit your forties, Chente knew what he was talking about,” Contreras says. And you might feel inspired to try out your own grito.

Wanna have a tantrum and smash something? Be her guest

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Check out the full story on Marketplace.

 

It’s a tough time to be in Houston right now. Ninety-degree weather, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the oil and gas sector has been stagnating for the last 18 months. Eighty thousand people have gotten laid off, including Shawn Baker.

“I didn’t see it coming at all, not one bit, and I was very devastated, and I’m still very bitter about it, very bitter,” Baker said.

She took that frustration and decided after 25 years in the oil industry to finally become her own boss. She started a company called Tantrums LLC.

She bought a warehouse and converted it into five small rooms she fills with defunct electronics, glass bottles and anything that will break. For close to $3 a minute, she’ll help you pick out a tool, like a sledgehammer, a baseball bat or a lead pipe, and let you destroy everything in the room.

Television sets are available for trashing.

Television sets are available for trashing.

“Everybody’s had enough at some point of their day or their life or whatever, and so when you come in here, you can be as aggressive as you want in the privacy of your own room. You can let it out or whatever it is you’re in here for, and you don’t have to clean up,” Baker said.

Baker got the idea for the business a few years ago when she saw a few guys beating up some furniture behind a bar.

“I just thought it was genius,” Baker said. “I could see me doing it.”

There’s not much Baker can do about the downturn in oil and gas, but she feels she can help people cope.

“There’s a lot of stress in this city because we’re the energy capital, and there are lot of layoffs happening,” Baker said.

One of her customers, Lance Nolan, is a mid-level manager at a drilling chemical company outside of Houston. Work’s been tough lately.

“We actually had a fracking division and we had to shut it down, had to lay off 35 people the other day,” Nolan said.

That’s why Nolan’s wife, Holly McClellan, decided to bring him to Tantrums LLC as a surprise. They both work in oil and gas, and they care for Porter, their 10-month-old daughter.

Before Nolan starts smashing his room, Baker leads him to the safety equipment.

“The face masks are optional, but you have to wear safety glasses and you have to protect your hands, and [wear] closed-toe shoes and long pants,” Baker said.

Lance Nolan smashes into a TV. When he’s not pulverizing electronics with a sledgehammer, Lance Nolan is a mid-level manager at a drilling chemical company.

Lance Nolan smashes into a TV. When he’s not pulverizing electronics with a sledgehammer, Lance Nolan is a mid-level manager at a drilling chemical company.

Pulverizing electronics and glass objects is relatively safe, Baker said. Every so often customers walk out with cuts and scrapes, which they wear as badges of honor.

Entire offices, as well as couples and friends, come in here for team-bonding activities. If you give her some advance notice, Baker will even set up a themed room for you. A few weeks ago she had a teacher who wanted a replica of his classroom. When he walked out, Baker was surprised to find the room intact.

It turns out the teacher just wanted to scream.

Sledgehammer in hand, Lance Nolan has 15 minutes to smash a room full of glass bottles, an orange schoolroom chair, a bunch of porcelain knick-knacks and a giant TV.

When his session is over,  Nolan comes out drenched in sweat, with a big smile on his face.  He’s out of breath, but he feels good.

His wife tells him next time, it’s his turn to watch the baby. She wants a turn with the sledgehammer.

Mexican American Textbook Wars in Texas

Textbook

Get the full story on NPR’s Latino USA.

In Texas, where half of all public school students are Latino, the State Board of Education (SBOE) is in the process of approving a new Mexican American studies textbook. The proposal for the textbook was approved two years ago after a petition for a separate curriculum for Mexican American studies was denied in 2010.

“The official curriculum in the state of Texas underrepresents and misrepresents the historical presence of Mexican origin people in this country as well as women and African Americans,” said Emilio Zamora, a professor of Mexican American history at the University of Texas at Austin.

That’s important, because Latino students who learn about their cultural history are more likely to graduate from high school, according to a University of Arizona study in 2015. In the United States, the dropout rate for Latinos is almost three times higher than it is for non-Latino whites.

Only one textbook has since been submitted for review, but it has attracted scrutiny for its contentious handling of Mexican American history. Zamora fears that it will cause more harm than good.

“It was very offensive that they would select people that are not trained or professional historians in the field of Mexican American history,” he said.

The textbook has been submitted by a new company called Momentum Instruction.

Cynthia Dunbar, a member of Momentum Instruction who also served on the SBOE in 2010, says her company hired authors who could review the history fairly.

“They did not want a biased or a skewed viewpoint, they did not want liberally biased, but neither did they want conservatively biased. They wanted people who were willing to just go out and exhaustively review every side of the issue,” she said.

Texans have until November to submit comments about the book, at which point a committee will review them and make recommendations to the SBOE. If recent history is any indication, it’s going to be a big fight.

Unemployed Oil Workers Find New Home in Solar Industry

Eighty thousand workers have been laid off across the country as the price of oil has plummeted. In Texas, some out-of-work rig hands, pipe fitters and engineers are finding employment in solar energy.

David Webster has been managing the Mission Solar warehouse in San Antonio since February. Before finding work in the solar sector, Webster spent 10 years shipping oil out of rigs all over the world. Now, he makes sure that the solar panels are packaged and distributed to customers across the U.S.

Transitioning to solar energy was an adjustment.

“Learning about the different types of [panels], learning how the whole process works, that was a learning curve,” Webster said. “The warehouse portion and the management people, not so much.”

Something else that’s different about his new job — the money. “Over a year’s period of time, it’s about half,” Webster said.

Mariela Cruz, a hiring manager at OCI Power, said that a 50 percent pay cut is pretty typical for people transitioning from oil and gas to solar energy.

“Not to say that we don’t pay well or anything like that, but definitely we know that there is a pay differential for those employees,” Cruz said.

An entry level job in solar pays about $50,000 a year. At the peak of the oil boom, rig hands could be making six figures. But warehouse manager David Webster said it was a hard life. Spending 28 days on the rig and 28 days off took a toll on him. The recent uncertainty in the oil market convinced him to take a pay cut.

“The stress of not knowing if you were going to get laid off, that was worse,” Webster said. “I don’t have any stress here.”

The recent downturn in the oil market has made solar energy jobs more attractive. When Mariela Cruz posts an opening for a solar technician, for example, she gets about 100 candidates, of which 25 percent come from oil and gas. Her challenge is to weed out those who will leave once oil prices go up again.

“You can generally tell that they’re trying to make a different transition, that they maybe are tired of the ups and the downs,” Cruz said. But she says some people are less genuine.  “There are some that will actually candidly tell you, well, I’m only looking for something until the market changes, and you’re like okay, thank you.”

The Solar Foundation says Texas will add 900 solar jobs this year. That’s about one percent of the people who recently got pink slips in oil and gas. John Tintera is with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. He says there’s no way this new industry can absorb all of those displaced workers.

“We’re simply not seeing solar having that level of employment,” Tintera said. “If solar continues to grow then I think at least a 20 percent coverage would be something that would not surprise me if I saw that figure in the future.”

But for now, hiring manager Mariela Cruz says getting a job in solar energy is more competitive than ever. She has one bit of advice for oil and gas workers wanting to make the transition: don’t pretend to be a tree hugger and all about renewable energy after a whole career on oilfields.

“After you’ve done [oil and gas] for 20 years it’s kind of hard to say,” Cruz said. “Can I really take that with a grain of salt or not?”

Cruz hopes that the people she hired this year will stay on board, even when oil prices go back up.

Latinitas Gets Girls into Tech

Latinitas

Get the full story on NPR’s Latino USA.

Out of all the people earning bachelor’s degrees in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), just eight percent are Latinos. That number shrinks even more when you look at the number of Latinas (female students).

Alma Benitez was one of those Latinas trying to break into the STEM field, but she faced more obstacles than the prejudice she faced being a Latina: her family hid her college acceptance letters because they didn’t want her to leave home for college. With pressure from inside and outside the home, Alma found support in Latinitas, an after school club for Latinas in Texas that encourages young Latinas to get excited for science, with the hopes that they’ll grow up and pursue a career in STEM.

Reporter Brenda Salinas gives us a glimpse at the particular struggle Latinas face in the world of STEM. She speaks with Alma about her struggle to pursue her dreams, and with Laura Donnelly, the founder of Latinitas, who’s also a Latina computer scientist.

 

For Entrepreneurs, Pitching To Pint-Sized Sharks Is No Child’s Play

Check out the full story on NPR.img_0427edit_custom-c7ecf8aeb9159a2338e4bf4ad625483219f1971d-s800-c85


A few weekends ago, Texas entrepreneur Regina Vatterott stood in front of 50 people on the top floor of a startup hub in Austin. She was there to pitch her smart pill box company, EllieGrid, to a panel of six judges.

“If you or your dad or mom has to take medications at breakfast, at breakfast time, the three compartments light up, and you would take, let’s say, two from this compartment, three from this compartment and one from this compartment, and it also sends you notifications on your smartphone so you can track it all online, too,” Vatterott told the judges.

It was like Shark Tank — the reality television show where entrepreneurs take turns pitching their companies to a panel of investors — but with a twist.

This panel of “sharks” is made up of kids.

Welcome to Pitch-a-Kid, where kids and entrepreneurs can learn from each other.

Regina Votterott won over the Pitch-a-Kid judges with her idea for a smart pill box.

 

Unlike the entrepreneurs on Shark Tank, Vatterott’s goal isn’t to get investors — there’s no cash prize at Pitch-a-Kid.

Still, it’s hard fought: Each entrepreneur at the first Pitch-a-Kid event has 5 minutes to present and up to 8 minutes of questions from the judges. And the kids are asking some tough questions: How do you make money? How are people going to pay for it? Do you provide a warranty if it breaks?

The judges hear six more pitches, including a social media network for books and a subscription “sock of the month” company idea.

Anicia Moncivais, the judge coordinator, is a 12th-grader; the five other kids are third- through sixth-graders. They turn in their score sheets and then deliberate.

“The judges have spoken,” intones Piers Powell, one of the judges.

Mike Millard, a co-founder of Pitch-a-Kid, announces the winner: Regina Vatterott’s company EllieGrid, the smart pill box maker.

Vatterott says she was a little nervous before her pitch.

I didn’t know if they understood the grand scheme of how important medication adherence was, but they really seemed to get it, they didn’t even ask questions about that,” she says.

Audrey Millard, daughter of Mike Millard, Pitch-a-Kid judge and co-founder, says she definitely held back.

“My dad was telling me in the car, like, how nervous these people were, and how they’re, like, I don’t know how to explain this in a kid-friendly language, oh no what will I do if they don’t understand me, and stuff like that, so I decided not to go too hard on them,” the 9-year-old says.

“About a year ago, I was doing a website with my daughter, and she asked me really tough questions,” Millard recalls. “She said, who’s the website for, how are they going to know about it, and what I realized was that they were nonfiltered, honest questions on how to be successful.”

In other words: If you can’t explain it to a kid, you probably aren’t ready to talk to investors. And just because the judges are small doesn’t mean they don’t take their job seriously — including what they were going to wear.

Before the event, Audrey says, she researched how to look “businesslike.”

The kids in the panel and in the audience got an introduction to the startup culture, and the entrepreneurs practiced addressing some of the issues they need to think through for their business model to succeed.

The next Pitch-a-Kid event in Austin is scheduled for July 30.

West, Texas Reacts to Shocking News

Get the story on KERA.

The people of West had spent three years coming to grips with the fertilizer plant blast that killed 15 and leveled part of the small Texas town. Then came Wednesday, when Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives special agent Robert Elder said the agency is investigating the incident as a crime.

 

Stem Cell Therapy For Pets

Get the full story on PRX

Scientists discovered how to extract stem cells from human embryos in the early 2000s. Stem cell research got many people excited but there was a lot of controversy and suspicion surrounding this breakthrough. We haven’t heard much about stem cell research since then, but there are some medical professionals are using the technology: veterinarians.

More than 12,000 animals have been treated with stem cell therapy in the U.S. since 2004. The trend started with racehorses but is now available to domestic animals.

The industry is worth $20 million a year – that’s small compared to the $2 billion dollars Americans spent on pharmaceutical drugs for their pets in 2014. But the industry is expanding fast. There are three companies offering stem cell therapy for pets. A new facility opened in New York in August.

Tony Yuan owns a company called Mobile Stem Care in San Antonio. He says business is good because a lot of people are willing to spend serious money on their pets.

Roger Burton is one of his customers. A long-time hunter, Burton noticed that his Lewellin Setter, Reece, was limping out on the fields. He had never really thought about stem cell therapy for animals, but his doctor convinced him that the risks were minimal.

Burton was impressed with the results of the treatment. “Since the next day I have not seen her struggle at all, this is one happy dog,” Burton says. “She was on two forms of pain reliever, we just took her off of it and all I saw was progress.”

Burton paid upwards of a thousand dollars for the treatment. “I haven’t run across a situation yet where I haven’t done a procedure because of cost,” Burton says. HIs veterinarian, doctor Rachel Smith says she’s never seen patients so willing to spend money on their pets – just think of memory foam dog bed and pet health insurance.

Tony Yuan says that sentiment translates into medical procedures, so the margins for animal stem cell therapy are good. He says it would take him about $20 to bring stem cell therapy to humans.

Doug Frantz teaches bio-medical engineering at the University of Texas San Antonio. He says it will probably be another 10 years before humans can be treated with this type of therapy – and that’s a good thing.

“There’s a lot of regulations when you’re making that jump from veterinary medicine to medicine for humans,” Frantz says, “You really don’t have to have that regulation for animals because the FDA is not really interested in regulating those to that level.”

For the FDA to approve a drug or medical procedure for humans, it has to be better than the existing gold standard. For animals, the procedure has to just be proven safe. Scientists around the world are running hundreds of clinical trials proving the effectiveness of stem cell therapy in humans – and that is going to take a while.

That doesn’t stop people like Roger Burton from daydreaming about getting the same procedure as his dog. “I have a torn meniscus in one of my knees and I would love to have it done today,” Burton says.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon without FDA approval.

 

Is There Room For Another Fitness Tracker? Texas Firm Is Counting On It

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I did two versions of this story, one for NPR and one for the Slack Podcast.

Here is the NPR version that aired on Black Friday:

For startups the first holiday shopping season may help to make a business. Texas entrepreneur Peter Li has much at stake on Black Friday as he tries to gain a foothold in the wearable fitness market.

And here is the Slack version, it’s much more focused on the entrepreneur.

For startups the first holiday shopping season may help to make a business. Texas entrepreneur Peter Li has much at stake on Black Friday as he tries to gain a foothold in the wearable fitness market.

 

 

It’s been a great learning experience to do versions of the same story for different outlets. It’s really helped me understand that there isn’t some ideal way to do a story – it’s all dependent on the editor and what they want. Being able to adapt to different editors is a great skill for any reporter.