Carrying the Voice

Outside Cristo Rey Jesuit High School last Saturday, the night air was warm and quiet, barbecue wafting from porches in this residential corner of Pilsen. The Cristo Rey cafeteria, however, was awash with color and light. Brightness spilled onto the sidewalk around the building and a quick drumbeat punctuated the silence.

Inside, members and supporters of the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America had gathered to celebrate the organization’s twentieth anniversary. During a break from the music, founder Gary Cozette addressed the crowd. He detailed some of the accomplishments of the organizations–human rights and peace-related endeavors, including opposition to CAFTA, international accompaniment, support for refugees and internally displaced peoples, and resistance to the School of the Americas.

The tone was overwhelmingly celebratory, with Cozette urging the crowd to make frequent visits to the wine table in the back of the room. He did not miss the chance, however, to stress the enduring urgency of human rights advocacy in countries such as Honduras, Colombia, and Cuba. His voice turned serious as he explained that their musical guests, Ecos del Pacifíco, had been forced to flee their native Colombia. Prior to becoming refugees, the four-person ensemble hosted a weekly radio show endeavoring to bring Afro-Caribbean culture and human rights abuses to the public eye. Now they sat straight-backed behind him, wide smiles and vibrantly colored costumes seeming almost at odds with their painful journey.

Cozette’s address ended on a note that was both somber and hopeful. He explained to his attentive listeners that they were the portavoces for the oppressed of Latin America. While portavoz is most often translated as spokesperson, Cozette noted that it literally means “carrier of the voice.” Looking earnestly out at the attendees, he proclaimed, “You carry the voice for the poor of Latin America.”

Later, speeches finished and thank yous made, the music began anew. As the female vocalist’s hips swayed subtly to the beat, Cozette joined the old folks, parents, and children in the center of the dance floor. The founder and his flock shimmied and grooved. The task laid out for them–“carrying the voice” across community, language, and cultural boundaries–was anything but small. If the dancer’s effusive joy was any indication, however, CRLN can look to at least 20 more successful years to come.