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Kansas City Musician Enrique Chi Says 'Immigrants Are Beautiful' Shouldn't Be Controversial

Paul Andrews
Enrique Chi, photographed at the old Mexican-American Union Hall on Kansas City's West Side.

Enrique Chi, frontman of the Kansas City-based band Making Movies, has had a busy year.

The band released its second album, “I Am Another You,” last spring. Produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, the record made it to #3 on Billboard's Latin Album chart.

And music star Ruben Blades proclaimed their music “excellent” when he was interviewed on the red carpet during the Latin Grammys.

This moment seems a long way from Chi's childhood in Lee’s Summit.

He was born in Santiago, Panama, and moved to Kansas City when he was six. His parents had heard that Kansas City was a good place for raising a family; they had also heard about a great English as a Second Language teacher in Lee’s Summit.

Moving to Lee’s Summit was a bit of a shock for Chi. Because he didn’t know English, he had to rely on other people’s body language and the sound of their voices.

“That was a survival skill for me,” he told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “I also think it helped me develop musically, because that’s the space where music comes from.”

Looking back, he felt isolated and segregated in the community, especially since he and other immigrant kids had to take a separate bus and had to leave class for their English lessons.

One bright spot was his ESL teacher.

“It’s an amazing lesson for anyone how one person can have such a huge impact, especially on a child’s perception of the world,” he said.

She didn’t speak Spanish, but she “spoke his language.” She played with him to teach him English, and she visited the immigrant families at home at night to help them fill out paperwork.

“(It had) nothing to do with her job," he said. "It was just part of her heart.”

Later, as an adult, he played a gig at Mattie Rhodes Center on Kansas City's West Side. Living in Lee’s Summit at the time, he didn’t realize there was a big immigrant community in Kansas City.

Through that show, he met brothers Juan-Carlos and Andres Chaurand, who would become his band mates (the band also includes Chi's brother Diego).

Now, Making Movies runs a summer music and songwriting camp at Mattie Rhodes, which they’re turning into a non-profit so it can expand to a year-round program.

Last spring's “I Am Another You” was partly about his cousin’s immigration struggles, and the racism that his cousin faced in Panama because he was half-Venezuelan. People called it a protest album, though, so Making Movies decided to make “You Are Another Me,” an EP featuring covers of protest songs from different generations.

During a trip to Memphis to record the EP last fall, they visited the National Civil Rights Museum. It was around the time the Trump administration announced plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

"That weighed so heavily with us because we know so many young people in that position," he said.

They channeled their frustrations into the album, such as changing one of the songs, "De Paisano A Paisano," from its original upbeat sound to one that's more melancholy.

"That's what we're trying to say: If you've never been in that situation and you can't exactly feel these feelings, perhaps music can help you realize what it might be like to be in those circumstances," Chi said.

They named last fall's tour “Immigrants are Beautiful,” and gave free tickets to undocumented kids.

“People kept saying, ‘Why did you name your tour something so controversial?’” he said. “And that, to me, is screwed up in and of itself: that that sentence is controversial.”

Chi said he believes all mankind is the product of migration, immigration, movement and change. If you’re a human being, he said, you have immigrant ancestry — and ancestors who have committed genocide, who were brilliant, who were maybe evil.

“When I’m saying ‘immigrants are beautiful,’ I’m saying the human story is beautiful in its darkness, in its struggles, in its passion,” he said.

“I find it fascinating that people are so afraid of this word," he added. "If you look back a couple of generations, your family immigrated from somewhere.”

Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at jen@kcur.org and follow her on Twitter @JenChenKC.

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