Seventeen-year-old Xochitl Morales has been surrounded by music since she was in the womb.
“It’s eat, breathe, sleep mariachi,” she says, as she points out trophies and event posters in her family’s music studio.
On the California mariachi scene, everybody knows the Morales family of Delano. Xochitl’s dad, Juan Morales, played with mariachi superstars Los Camperos; Xochitl and her sister played at Carnegie Hall earlier this year with Mariachi Mestizo.
She's well versed in just about every instrument in the mariachi, and she even gives violin lessons to kids, like 3-year-old Damian Martinez.
To teach him how to hold his instrument, she marks his fingers with a pen.
"What do we do with the dots here?” she asks. “Put our fingers right there and then right there,” Damian says, as he wraps his tiny hand around the bow.
"There you go!” Xochitl says. "Now play 'Miss-iss-ipp-i hot dog.’” He squeaks along to the rhythm of the words.
Xochitl is headed into her last year of high school, and during the summer she spends much of her time here in the studio, either teaching or rehearsing with her mariachi group.
But while Xochitl’s days are filled with music, she spends her nights writing poetry.
Her writing got national attention last year when she starred in a YouTube video produced by BuzzFeed. In the video she stands against a white backdrop, wearing perfectly drawn black eyeliner, braces and a T-shirt that says “poet."
“My first language was Spanish learned from sweet stories told by my papi at bedtime,” she recites. “My tongue, a formation of the stardust of my heritage, an intertwined galaxy of rolled R’s and the Pledge of Allegiance.”
The video has over 80,000 views and led to media coverage about Xochitl’s writing.
She’d shared the spotlight before, as part of Mariachi Mestizo, the youth group her dad started. They recorded an album with Little Village Foundation -- a nonprofit run by musician Jim Pugh. But Pugh was also interested in releasing her poetry.
At first Xochitl was reluctant. She’d started writing poetry early in high school, joined slam poetry group Get Lit and was soon getting commissioned to write poems. It got old after a while.
“It had just become a very formulaic thing, like, I know what you want to hear so I’m gonna write it,” she says. “It got really boring.”
She decided the album would be a chance to write for herself -- and to try something new. As a musician she’d learned that improvisation was a powerful creative force, but as a writer she was a perfectionist, agonizing over every word. With this record, she decided to try writing spontaneously.
"It was just, like, this explosion of improvisation,” she says. In two days she wrote the 11 poems on her album, "Descansos." She also improvised music for the record with her dad.
Her favorite is the first poem on the album, "X.16." It’s about the place she grew up. “It’s the Central Valley talking to me,” she says, “and kinda like telling me, ‘As much as you don’t want to be here, this is home.’ ”
Children of narco refugees and lipstick stains, Chavez boycott babies, cheeks of neighborhood cholos: All of you were made in this valley, in this belly of deadly blossoms, of eyes that saw and left the motherland, born in this body of bloody endings and proud father tears on graduation days. Yes, including you, girl who wishes on my stars for city lights against midnight. You cannot deny that I run through your blood.
Xochitl has come to embrace the Central Valley as part of her artistic identity. She writes a lot about the region’s agriculture industry and its workers. The first poem she ever wrote and performed was about pesticides.
“I went to talk about pesticide poisoning to a bunch of urban kids in L.A.,” she says. “They were like, whoa, this happens?”
As a kid, she remembers being told she couldn’t go out to recess because nearby fields had been crop-dusted. It’s a theme she returns to on her album.
“I know what this means for those that have a choice: no walks for a week, windows closed while we sleep. This means sticky nights and no recess for the schools across the street.”
For Xochitl, art and activism are intertwined. She says what’s most important about her art is that it have impact. She’s going into her senior year of high school and wants to move to New York City for college -- maybe to study art and politics. She knows that could be risky.
“I really want someone to validate that this is what I should be doing,” she says, “because there’s a lot of pressure on second-generation Americans to kind of go into jobs that are guaranteed a stable income.”
Even though her parents, Juan and Leticia, have dedicated themselves to music, they’re conflicted about the path Xochitl wants to pursue.
“We’ve been there done that,” says Leticia. “When we first married, we lived off the music and it was hard. We want them to have something better than our struggles.”
But Xochitl has already started down that road, and her parents helped put her on it.
“I was named after a war goddess: Xochitl, Toltec queen, leading a battalion of women to arms; Xochitl, southern fireball that found breath in sister and mother; Xochitl, a victory laureled in caderas de flores y labios de miel. They say her legacy runs through blood, and it ran through mine. After all, I came into this world kicking and screaming as loud as the women she fought alongside in battle.”
Xochitl is still figuring out who she is as an artist, so the future is uncertain. But she says she won’t put her pen or her instruments down for long.