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July 22, 2009 > El Grupo Lempira, a hidden gem

El Grupo Lempira, a hidden gem

By Simon Wong

El Grupo Lempira worked their magic at Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church, Hayward, on July 9. The evening's entertainment celebrated the opening of a coffee shop to mark the Hayward Day Labor Center's second anniversary.

This group of Honduran musicians consists of three guitarists, and an accordionist on vocals. Augustine, the accordionist, played professionally with a quartet in Honduras. He is also an accomplished guitarist, bassist, violinist and banjo player.

What is remarkable is that Augustine is self-taught and plays by ear. Listening to the radio, he learned to play several instruments and has taught his son and cousin, who are fellow band members, to play the guitar. Incredibly, he has the lyrics and arrangements of more than 400 songs committed to memory, including his own compositions.

"We received a small grant from the San Francisco Foundation through their Faith Initiative. The latter supports religious organizations that are active in the community with specific projects that don't involve proselytizing," stated Betty DeForest, Executive Director, South Hayward Parish.

Founded in 1964, the South Hayward Parish (SHP) was originally a coalition of three faith-based communities that provided a voice for those who were ignored or had limited access to services. SHP now consists of seven congregations of different denominations. In this case, the term "parish" refers to neither an ecclesiastical district nor a church with its own field of activity but is the formal name adopted by the non-profit coalition.

SHP developed a family-crisis counseling system when such services did not exist; it was free. The coalition helped establish rent control and transformed Weekes Park into a safe place for families. SHP members have also fought discrimination by welcoming neighbors and the marginalized into their homes.

45 years later, SHP operates a food pantry and Hayward Day Labor Center. The Parish also has a Community Action Network program run by Program Director Sara Lamnin.

"Since the Day Labor Center opened two years ago, we discovered a wonderful group of musicians exists among the workforce," said DeForest.

"Site manager Carla Dardon celebrated her birthday recently. Some of the day laborers arrived with instruments and began to play. This is El Grupo Lempira," explained Rev. John Wichman, Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church.

"They have natural musicianship. Their impromptu performance exemplifies the survival mindset of refugees and immigrants who survive the best they can with whatever skills they have and whatever work they can find.

"These gifted musicians have a skill that benefits everybody. Over the years, we've talked about creating a venue at which to promote local talent, so the two ideas came together. Contrary to popular belief, most of Hayward's Latino/Hispanic population is from Central America and not from Mexico. El Grupo Lempira is representative of the City's population so there is a local audience," said Wichman.

"Musical skills are difficult to market if you don't speak the language. There are no employers hiring day laborers to play music. Venues in Hayward and the Bay Area host open mic events and hire musicians. The coffee shop is a way of connecting performers with the wider community," added DeForest.

In Honduras and Guatemala, many of the men made a living as subsistence farmers by selling surplus produce. Agricultural conglomerates and cheaper US imports destroyed their livelihood. Local agricultural support services also disappeared.

Given the language barrier and no promise of employment in the US, their decision to leave behind loved ones was borne of desperation.

Registration with the Day Labor Center protects them and employers. All workers in California have recourse to state labor laws if they are not paid for their work. Employers should also be aware of their obligations when hiring permanent and occasional workers.

Some men have worked, not been paid and abandoned across the Bay or in San Francisco without transportation. Some have been mugged, exploited in other ways or are hate-crime victims. The language barrier means such incidents go unreported. Hayward Police Department has organized workshops in Spanish to explain the complaints process. The City wishes to maintain public safety.

Hayward's day laborers donate two hours of community service weekly. Consequently, the men have garnered lasting goodwill from community members whom they have assisted through their own initiative and ability to build relationships.

Members of the day labor center have suffered indignities but their spirit shines bright. They study English at Hayward Adult School to improve communication and prospects and field a 12-team soccer league. Given that Hayward is fortunate to have men who wish to work and community members who value and respect them, there is hope for the future.

The band will perform twice a month at Westminster Hills Presbyterian Church, 27287 Patrick Ave, Hayward. Call 510 782 5795.

To hire El Grupo Lempira for functions, contact Hayward Day Labor Center, 680 W Tennyson Rd, Hayward or call 510 782 9675.

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