How three violin-wielding brothers mix their music with immigration politics

The World

The three violin-wielding brothers who gave their name to the band the Villalobos Brothers have already had an impressive career. Though they’re still in their early 30s, they've already performed at Carnegie Hall and recently completed a tour in India.

Now they’re getting political.

Raised in Mexico, Luis, Alberto and Ernesto Villalobos would wake up with violins. “We used to have little rooms next to each other so, probably at 5 a.m., somebody would pick up a violin and play scales,” says Alberto. “That kind of constant, I would say healthy, competition made us wake up and pick up your instrument," he says. "You know, you have to practice, you have to be good."

They started learning Western classical music in Mexico from Carlos Marrufo, and went abroad to continue their studies — Alberto and Luis to Europe, Ernesto to New York City.

But Alberto says they missed the songs their grandmother used to sing when they were kids living in the lush, coastal Mexican state of Veracruz.

“I remember being in Brussels and listening to a couple of folks CDs from Mexico and getting really nostalgic and really touched by the sound that you can only hear from folk players,” Alberto recalls. “Through those CDs, I started listening to them and getting to read more about my history, and in a way getting a little conflicted about the fact that I was studying all these Westerns great composers. But at the same time, I was missing that part.”

So, in 2005, the brothers formed their own group — mixing Western classical music with sounds from back home. You can hear the mix on songs like “San Lorenzo,” a classic of the Son Huasteco muscial style, typical of northeastern Mexico.

But, as Ernesto Villalobos says, the band could only contemplate their roots for so long, before looking at their present: they’re Mexicans in the US. The brothers take up the US immigration debate in their new album. 

“It’s uncomfortable to talk about immigrants — it makes us uncomfortable, somehow. And this is what we are trying to change,” he says. “It’s a concert and you’re going to party with us and you’re probably hopefully going to get drunk and dance. But also, let’s acknowledge what’s happening in the kitchens here in New York. Who’s making your food, who’s cleaning your streets?”

In the song “Casita Blanca,” or “Little White House,” a man in Veracruz sings about his love, who’s north of the border.

“Oh, the truth is so sad,” the song’s Spanish chorus says. “That this land is so forbidden, that the only way out is to become an illegal worker. That my people are soundly asleep, and our lives pass us by, without ever waking up.”

“It’s driving and there is a force, there is a rhythm that is cooking slowly — simmering,” Ernesto says. “And I think that’s really the sentiment of this country, right now. It’s something that is simmering, that is boiling right underneath the surface. And we are trying to capture that energy and we are trying to put into music.”

They’ve had their own immigration struggles.

Alberto and Luis tried for years to get permanent legal status in the US. The wait kept them from traveling to their grandmother’s funeral in Mexico. Eventually, Alberto got his green card. But Luis only succeeded a few months ago. Ernesto announced the news at a show at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge at the end of January. “We are celebrating tonight, because after five years the US Department of State finally decided to give my brother a green card.”

The group’s guitarist, Humberto Flores, who the brothers say is an honorary Villalobos brother, is still waiting to get permanent status. But the brothers are quick to point out that their immigration woes don’t compare to what many other immigrants go through.

Still, they hope their music can add to the debate.

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