Musician Gaby Moreno creates community through language at Scripps College performance

A women strums a guitar with a man playing the drums behind her.
Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno performed at Scripps College Feb. 13. (Zoe Cowan • The Student Life)

As people filled Scripps College’s Garrison Theater last Thursday, sounds of Spanish and English wove together, filling the theater with a quiet commotion. The audience resembled a true community gathering, featuring people of all ages shaking hands, hugging and introducing themselves to one another. 

Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno walked on stage, and as if by magic, the audience went silent. Moreno picked up her guitar, adjusted her microphone and began singing. 

Held Feb. 13, the Scripps Presents concert commemorated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the 7Cs’ Chicano Latino Student Affairs, a celebration organized in partnership with Claremont Graduate University’s LatinX Graduate Student Union. 

Marissa Hicks-Alcaraz CGU ’22, a member of the student union, said the programming, with its large crowds, serves as a vehicle for community building.

“These programs give us an opportunity to all get together and celebrate the Latinx voices in the community,” she said. 

In her ten-song set, Moreno played music spanning the genres of blues, folk, soul and jazz. At her invitation, the audience enthusiastically sang along during the chorus of the most famous song she performed, “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.” 

Moreno’s diverse music allowed listeners from different backgrounds to engage in her performance. Spanish speakers and English speakers — fans of blues, soul, folk and jazz alike — could all find something that speaks to them in her music. Her ability to reach out to a variety of people influenced the LatinX Graduate Student Union’s decision to bring Moreno to campus, Hicks-Alcaraz said.

“I was really drawn to that aspect as a way to try to challenge this idea that Latinos are just one-dimensional,” she said.

After the concert, Moreno sat with Hicks-Alcaraz and Scripps associate professor of Chicanx-Latinx studies Martha Gonzalez to answer questions from audience members.

Born in Guatemala, Moreno moved to Los Angeles in 2001 to pursue music. During the Q&A with the audience, she described her process of finding her sound and style when she arrived in America, expressing the immediate pressure she felt to define the music she would create. 

“It wasn’t that easy to figure out what kind of artist I wanted to be, because I really wanted to just sing in English, and I loved blues and jazz and soul so much, but [singing in English] had a more conservative, authentic image.”

Moreno reconnected with her love for Spanish and Latin American music when her move to the United States eventually forced a reckoning of language. 

“It wasn’t until five years after I moved here that I started appreciating the music from Latin America,” she said. “I said, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing? How can I deny my roots and where I come from?’ And so, I started finding myself in Spanish.”

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Audience members asked Moreno to describe her music in its current form, to which Moreno answered pensively, “I think it boils down to folk-soul … Spanglish folk-soul.”

Moreno’s music is rooted in Latin American culture, but it also speaks to the experiences of Latin American people living in the United States. Moreno said that many of her songs speak to the immigrant experience, citing works like “Ave Que Emigra,” which describes her journey from Guatemala to America. 

Moreno was excited to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chicano Latino Student Affairs, explaining the ability of strong student communities to empower and inspire Latinx students.  

“I think these spaces are always important to have, so we can always celebrate our Latin culture, empower other Latin people and inspire each other,” she said.

After the show, a crowd of students and community members waited in the theater lobby for Moreno to sign albums and take photos. Many resonated with Moreno’s work and her sprawling life story, eager to cite specific favorites.

“There was a song that specifically talked about her journey from Guatemala here, and me being born in Guatemala and coming here, I very much related to that,” Sara Reyes Noriega PO ’21 said of “Ave Que Emigra.”  

Several students noted Moreno’s political relevance as an artist and ability to speak — and sing — on behalf of a movement.

“I was really drawn to her newest album, ‘¡Spangled!’” Hicks-Alcaraz said. “That is really … what I see as a protest album [resisting] the rise of xenophobia, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment.”

Kenia Garcia-Ramos PO ’23 is eager to know what’s next for the artist. 

“I know some of her recent music is more politically motivated, and she’s really big on immigrant rights. I want to know what she’s planning on doing, especially surrounding the recent election and all of that rhetoric that’s going [on].”

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